Toga Town | History & Culture

Kodumanal: the city that clothed Rome

Two imposing menhirs and three deep cist tombs have been left in situ at Kodumanal for visitors to inspect.   | Photo Credit: Zac O’Yeah

Feeling slightly lost, I get off the train at Tiruppur in Tamil Nadu’s heartland. Pankaj Mishra, the only other travel writer to set foot here (as far as I know), dismissed the town as being “to underwear what Sivakasi was to firecrackers” in a couple of hours and as few pages in his 1990 travelogue Butter Chicken in Ludhiana, before scuttling on to a bus bound for Kerala.

It’s one of those places where no tourists go, there’s virtually no information online, no guidebook recommends it, my trusty TTK road atlas only knows it as ‘famous for hosiery products’ and it never occurs to my bucket-listing friends, who go fashion hunting in New York City, to stop and shop in India’s world-famous ‘Banian City’.

The streets are lined with export surplus showrooms with chic names like Homme & Femme or Tee Totaller, interspersed with low-budget business lodges, which I guess is Tiruppur in a nutshell. At any point of time, garment importers from scores of countries are visiting the thousands of manufacturing units here that employ half a million labourers (practically the entire population of Tiruppur). They produce knitwear, innerwear and sportswear for the likes of iconic American brand Ralph Lauren, trendy Scandinavian H&M, dowdy Marks & Spencer of the U.K., and youthful Italian fashion house Diesel, to the value of a billion dollars per year, which constitutes about half of India’s total knitwear exports.

Harish Damodaran states in India’s New Capitalists (2008), in a chapter analysing this unheralded wonder, that Tiruppur “has displaced traditional knitwear export clusters such as Mumbai, Ludhiana and Delhi to storm into the numero uno position.” Hold that thought. A curious coincidence is that a pristine Roman coin from the reign of Julius Caesar (mid-1st century BCE) was once dug up in Tiruppur, and it has further been concluded that two millennia ago, the village of Kodumanal, 20 km downriver, was a prominent exporter of cotton which clothed Rome, maybe even supplying the fabric for those togas they wore when they partied. This area was numero uno already then.

Some finds from the site.

Some finds from the site.   | Photo Credit: Zac O’Yeah

On the radar

Despite that, few people in Tiruppur know of Kodumanal — neither my hotel manager nor the taxi driver he books for me have heard of it. Luckily, I’ve been in touch with Prof. K. Rajan at Pondicherry University, the eminent archaeologist who excavated the site, and he suggests I seek out Ramachandran who owns the actual farmland where ancient Kodumanal was situated, about one kilometre southeast of the modern village by the same name. Rajan explains in his email: “The entire excavations carried out in several seasons constitute merely 1% of the site. In that sense, our understanding about the site is just 1%. Irrespective of these limited works, the site yielded voluminous data on gemstone technology, textile technology, copper technology, iron and steel technology, conch/ shell technology and many others.”

Although it’s been on the radar since the 60s when test digs by the Archaeological Survey of India established its antiquity, it was only decades later that scholars identified it with the Kodumanam mentioned in the classical Sangam literature of Tamil Nadu. During the excavations that have been going on intermittently since the 80s, after Rajan first visited Kodumanal, his team has reported finds of cotton material, terracotta weaving implements, ornaments of various kinds and, most importantly, evidence of iron manufacturing such as crucibles and furnaces. In historical times, the methods for producing iron were an industrial secret and high-grade Indian steel was sought for its quality, especially to forge swords for the Roman empire.

An ancient pot excavated at the site.

An ancient pot excavated at the site.   | Photo Credit: Zac O’Yeah

Dressed to kill

Simply put, Kodumanal saw to it that the ancients were dressed to kill and armed to the teeth. Hence, every Indian historian worth her salt writes about Kodumanal, from Romila Thapar (“an important inland centre... with excavated evidence of working semi-precious stones” in The Penguin History of Early India) to Upinder Singh (“Kodumanal gives important evidence of the transition to the early historical phase in South India, especially with reference to the beginnings of literacy and the development of centres of craft production” in A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India). The latter also discusses Prof. Rajan’s findings at length.

Eventually, my driver finds his way to Kodumanal, thanks to Google Maps. After half an hour’s driving past ginning mills and curious shrines full of terracotta horses, we’re in the village of about 1,100 people and two small temples. Ramachandran awaits us. He cheerfully tells me that I just missed the excavators who packed up and left two months ago. He hops into the taxi and we drive out to his fields, where he grows maize.

My first observation as I get out of the car is that despite it being inhabited since at least 400 BCE and well known as one of the most important prehistoric industrial sites ever excavated, Kodumanal keeps a curiously low profile. There’s no site museum or even signposting at the spot where one set of three deep cist tombs and two imposing menhirs have been left in situ for visitors to inspect. The granite slabs that make up the underground tombs are colossal. Says Ramachandran, “They’ve been here for 2,500 years.”

A closer view of one of the menhirs.

A closer view of one of the menhirs.   | Photo Credit: Zac O’Yeah

Were there any skeletons, I ask, as I peek down into the pit of death.

“Only bone fragments, coal and pearls,” Ramachandran says.

Hundreds of similar tombs lie hidden under the earth, covering tens of acres, and nearby, on the north bank of the Noyyal river, remains of an equally big town have been excavated. We continue down the road and I stare at an empty field, doing my best to picture the industrial units it housed — the spinners and weavers who perhaps ran clothing stores where Romans picked up togas, jewellers’ shops surrounded by gemstone polishers and artisans who cut bangles out of conch shells that Romans might purchase for their wives, and, of course, the multiple furnaces at which, braving the blazing heat, ironsmiths forged steel known in Tamil as ukku (Anglicised as ‘wootz’), a procedure described in the Purananuru, one of the eight great anthologies of the Sangam age, as “the anvil which combats the hammer brought down on it with great force by a blacksmith with his strong hands trying to mould iron!

Some say that the famously incorruptible Iron Pillar in Delhi must have originated here, although that’s mere speculation, but it is known that swords of South Indian steel were coveted in the West already in 400 BCE, as related by E.H. Warmington in The Commerce Between the Roman Empire and India.

It’s curious how one of Asia’s foremost industrial sites can vanish with so few traces; a humbling thought, but as Ramachandran explains, the houses in those days were very basic. So there are hardly any ruins to speak of.

Back to the present

When the archaeologists first came to the village, there was nothing in Kodumanal, says Ramachandran, not even a tea stall, but now after over three decades of what may possibly be one of the most important and extensive archaeological excavation projects in the history of independent India, there are multiple daily bus services to the outside world, a telephone exchange and a small shop: one might say that archaeology brought the village from the past to the present.

So many visit, declares Ramachandran in his modest manner: government officials, scholars, students from as far away as Japan — and he has met them all, shown them around, served them tea in his home. “Free service,” he quips.

Back at Ramachandran’s house in the village, he shows me an album with pictures from the excavations — images of necklaces, terracotta spindles for weaving, a toy tiger with inlaid gemstones, a skeleton seated in a meditation posture, pottery shards full of Brahmi graffiti giving a wealth of information about who lived here (several were North Indians judging by their names) and, most remarkably, what he calls the head of a Roman soldier. I later track it down to a private museum in Erode, the Kalaimagal Kalvi Nilayam’s archaeological collection.

Ramachandran with his excavation album.

Ramachandran with his excavation album.   | Photo Credit: Zac O’Yeah

The staff tells me that students found the head many years ago during a field trip to Kodumanal, where they saw a boy using it as a football. Some scholars identify it as the head of Greek god Apollo, patron of music and literature, but as I examine the 17-cm-tall head, I can’t quite perceive any similarities between it and statues I’ve admired in museums in Italy and Greece, where the god is usually depicted as a young, beardless man. This dude has a punk hairdo and beard. However, its presumed antiquity is swiftly debunked by Prof. Rajan, who says in an email, “The terracotta figurine collected from the surface at this site is presumed to be a Roman soldier. However, the thermo-luminescence analysis carried out by Michael Vickers of British Museum suggests that it is only 200 years old.”

When my taxi ferries me around the countryside, I realise that the seemingly nondescript Kodumanal had a remarkably strategic location, surrounded by exceptional geological wealth: one hillside 15 km downriver was so rich in iron it could virtually be skimmed off its surface, another neighbouring place called Padiyur was full of high-quality beryls that foreigners coveted (the mines were active until the 1810s), unusually pure quartz deposits were found at a hill only 5 km away, and a fourth hill, Sivanmalai, which I ascend from the southern side of the Noyyal, yielded masses of sapphires.

I don’t spot any glimmering gems on the surface of the hillock, but from the peak that is crowned by a Murugan temple, I get a splendid overview of the area, which is largely flat and seems easy to traverse. By contrast, I make out the prohibiting shapes of the ghat mountains in the northwest. The landscape looks dreary and parched, which is probably why the locals have always been industrious rather than merely relying on agriculture.

The controversial terracotta head (‘Apollo’) found at Kodumanal.

The controversial terracotta head (‘Apollo’) found at Kodumanal.   | Photo Credit: Zac O’Yeah

Easy access

Besides, Kodumanal sits on a riverbank that connected it with South India’s great Cauvery and the Bay of Bengal, and was easily accessible from the west coast too via the Palakkad Gap. The low mountain pass, only 100 km away, was the route of the historical highway maintained by the erstwhile Chera and Chola rulers to connect Muziris, the recently excavated harbour near Kodungallur in Kerala, to the antique inland capital Karur (known as Karoura to the classical Alexandria-based geographer, Ptolemy), and that same highway passed through Kodumanal. It’s perhaps no wonder that most of the Roman coin hoards have been found in places along that road, marking out a virtual trail of commerce.

I may be the only tourist to visit this area since Mishra and the Romans, but with a museum to showcase select finds, and the right information for visitors to interpret the site, Kodumanal could easily become an important site. One thinks Tiruppur’s textile barons ought to find it in their interest to sponsor a heritage centre to highlight Tamil Nadu’s early textile industry and other contributions to the world. For example, it is a remarkable but little-known fact that their old links left a lasting mark on the European food lexicon: the word for rice (riso in Latin) is from Old Tamil arici, and iñciver became ginger (gingiber), while the word pepper (piper) of course has its roots in pippali.

On my last evening in Tiruppur, I browse the surplus shops. Not unexpectedly do they not sell togas, but I pick, after dismissing the ₹5 stuff, something from the ‘fancy’ selection: a Star Wars branded T-shirt. I presume it must be a leftover from the Reagan presidency when America planned to start wars in outer space. Anyway, it’s only ₹140 and I am assured it is pure cotton. I wear my new tee to dinner, but quickly realise that it’s made of a kinky latex-vinyl mixture that doesn’t let the skin breathe. I’m sweating like a fountain, virtually showering other diners with perspiration and, for social reasons, have to beat a hasty retreat. Maybe, I think to myself, some things were better in the olden days.

The travel writer lives to eat strange things and poke his nose in antique potholes.

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2021 5:52:32 PM |

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