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Long before the novel coronavirus, it was Malabar pepper and Maharashtrian ivory that connected Italy to India

The Ganges is one of four river gods carved on Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi or ‘Fountain of Four Rivers’ in Rome, sculpted by Bernini between 1648 and 1651. Ganges is depicted with an oar, to indicate the river’s navigability.   | Photo Credit: Paul Hermans

Naples in Italy has a history stretching back almost three millennia, and lots to show for it. Hellenic pottery left behind by its Greek founders who named it Neapolis — ‘new city’ in Greek — followed by a multicultural Roman epoch when locals continued speaking Greek while contributing to Italian culture by, for example, inventing makaria, which we recognise as the origin of macaroni. It also has unmatched historical continuity.

Its archaeological museum holds Europe’s finest collection, not merely because this is where Pompeiian finds are stored: there are Greek and Egyptian antiques too, and a gemstone hall where I spot finely engraved carnelians — an Indian-made product since Harappan times, still produced in Gujarat. The mezzanine gallery has mosaic portraits of folks once living in Pompeii who presumably perished when their homes were buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. At the rear of the gallery, I notice steel gates that earlier barred entry to the Gabinetto Segreto, “secret cabinet”, but today they’re open.

Indian Aphrodite

Shut two centuries ago, in 1819, with three padlocks (the keys safeguarded by different officials), it’s been accessible only since 2000. This is where all the cheeky artworks — fertility symbols, brothel frescoes — were hidden by Victorian-era archaeologists to prevent the corruption of women and children. There, I stop short before an ivory carving, its sign stating ‘dea Laksmi, Afrodite indu’, identifying it as an Indian equivalent of the Greek goddess of fertility.

The ivory statuette of the Indian ‘Aphrodite’.

The ivory statuette of the Indian ‘Aphrodite’.   | Photo Credit: Zac O’Yeah

It’s an exquisite piece, displaying the classic Indian craftsman’s virtuosity — a 24-cm tall, sumptuously bejewelled but otherwise scantily garbed, boldly voluptuous lady with two dwarf attendants carrying cosmetic items.

The museum declares that this is “an important testimony of the commercial relationships that already existed in the first century AD between the countries of the western Mediterranean and the East through the port of Puteoli,” tracing it back from Pompeii to the transhipment harbour 8 km west of Naples, constructed during the Augustan era (27 BCE-14 CE) to facilitate Rome’s snowballing long-distance trade. It even had a dedicated warehouse for Indian spices.

The Romans loved ivory knick-knacks like fancy combs and papyrus scroll winders. So, there’s really nothing strange about an Indian artwork finding its way here. Mortimer Wheeler, director-general of archaeology in the last years of the Raj in India, observed, in Rome Beyond the Imperial Frontiers (1954), that material relics of Indian trade in the West are “very few, for the good and obvious reason that most of them were of an impermanent kind” before arguing that this “ivory statuette of Lakshmi” is one of the best extant samples and “may well have found its way out of India through Barygaza,” present-day Bharuch in Gujarat.

But it’s strange that both the Naples museum and Wheeler insist the statuette depicts Lakshmi, considering that already in 1940 archaeologist J.Ph. Vogel had cast doubt on it. “There is no indication whatever that the central personage is meant for Lakshmi or for any other goddess,” he said in Annual Bibliography of Indian Archaeology. Even I, an amateur, recall photographing in Sanchi’s second stupa a similar-looking 1st century BCE relief, labelled as a yakshi in the ASI guidebook. To cut a long story short, the statuette might rather be a Satavahana-era depiction of a yakshi, a nature spirit.

The emperors of this great South Indian dynasty were patrons of the arts and, as primary trading partners of the Romans, the Satavahana rule ushered in what historians have described as the Golden Age of the Konkan. Many Roman artefacts have been unearthed at Satavahana cities such as Kolhapur, where a bronze statuette of the sea god Poseidon was found along with fragments of a Pompeiian-style wine drinking set; at Ter — known to Mediterranean merchants as Tagara — an ivory statuette resembling the one from Pompeii was discovered.

The ruins of Pompeii with Mt. Vesuvius in the background.

The ruins of Pompeii with Mt. Vesuvius in the background.   | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ iStock

Hence, the goddess statuette was most probably manufactured at a Satavahana ivory workshop in the village of Bhokardan in Maharashtra, where many ivory pieces, both finished and unfinished, attest to its craftsmen’s past glory. Of special interest is the discovery of the lower half of a statuette nearly identical to the one at Pompeii, which could in fact have been carved by the same artist.

Roman holiday

Only a few days earlier, I had seen another Indian connection when I walked through Piazza Navona in Rome and saw the grand Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi or ‘Fountain of Four Rivers’ featuring the Ganges. Designed by Bernini in 1648-51, it attests to the Roman fascination with India.

That same afternoon, in a museum, I noticed a mosaic which according to the Italian-only sign depicts ‘Dioniso e gli Indiani’ — Dionysus with Indians. It has been dated to the first half of the 4th century, and refers to an even older Greek legend about how Dionysus was believed to once have been the king of India, from whence he brought religion to the West! Were these just coincidental sightings or are they clues to a matter to look deeper into? Deciding to visit Pompeii and discover more, I hop on the Circumvesuviana, a tramline that circumambulates the volcano. Pompeii’s only some 23 km away but it takes nearly an hour, and should Vesuvius erupt again, I’d be a roasted poppadum.

The last major eruption was in the 1940s, and the average eruption rate has been once every 20 years, so the next is highly overdue. The quietude is seen as the build-up to an explosion that’s expected to kill half a million people in this densely populated area.

Getting off at the Pompei Scavi station, I know the Indian deity was found somewhere nearby, but when I ask at the information office, they have never heard of it. I refer to the site map, which reveals a warren of streets, well-organised in a Greek-style grid. It’s a huge area — alongside Hampi in India, probably the world’s largest open-air museum — and I confusedly poke around the forum square. This is Pompeii’s municipal, spiritual and commercial hub where, in stalls under its colonnades, goods from India and elsewhere were once sold: 13g of Malabar pepper was worth 1g of silver in those days. They also sold Spanish olive oil (sometimes scented with Indian spices like cinnamon), and other luxurious things such as ivory artefacts.

Tourists walk along Via dell’Abbondanza in the Pompeii ruins.

Tourists walk along Via dell’Abbondanza in the Pompeii ruins.   | Photo Credit: Zac O’Yeah

From the forum, I follow the Via dell’Abbondanza, named by archaeologists as the ‘street of abundance’ due to a statue holding a cornucopia — presumably indicating the wealth of goods for sale along it — which served as main thoroughfare from the forum to the palaestra, or sports complex with its grand arena seating well over 10,000 spectators. More or less the entire population could watch gladiators butcher innocent wildlife here.

Leaving the forum, I see the bath houses with their indoor waterfalls and bawdy frescoes and an attached brothel which — according to the guidebook — was manned by Oriental slave girls. Here, it seems, pepper was used as a precursor to Viagra, mixed with honey and rubbed onto the relevant male body part, which explains perhaps why pepper was so important to Romans.

House hunting

I pass homes with painted walls and mosaic floors, glimpsing pre-catastrophe lives — prominent Romans had holiday homes in and around Pompeii. One Pompeiian was evidently a theatre-lover: his house has a fresco of the Greek playwright Menander, whose comedies were performed at the town’s 5,000-seater theatre. Perhaps he invited actors home for fancy dinners, for from this house were recovered two silver pepper pots attesting to spicy cravings.

Today, the street reminds me more of the middle-class Bengaluru area where I live, with its low, two-storied homes, cafés and shops. I have my eyes peeled and am reasonably sure there’s no signage whatsoever for the Indian house, but eventually I google and find an online index of all Pompeiian houses and this enumerates the ‘house of the Indian statuette’ as I.8.5. In technical terminology, Regio I is one of the eight divisions of the site as determined by archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli in the late 19th century and it is further subdivided into insulae or blocks. Its 8th insula has several medium-sized homes — and one of these must be No.5, the one I’m searching for.

By comparing the numbering on signposted tourist sights, I arrive at an unlabelled house approximately 600 metres from the forum square, near the corner of Vicolo dell’Efebo. And I recognise from online photos the atrium courtyard with a white stone bench by a shallow travertine pool or impluvium. It’s fronted by small shops, akin to kirana stores, and apparently some neighbouring house was dealing in textiles and dyeing — wealthy Pompeiians dressed in Chinese silks, Egyptian linen and Indian cottons, rather than cheap Italian sheep’s wool. Indigo dye, of course, was a costly product from India, perhaps imported by the merchant who owned the Indian house. Incidentally, another house a few streets away is known as the ‘house of the Europa ship’ due to the graffiti drawing of a cargo ship named thus. Might it have carried the Indian statuette here?

According to a report, a crude graffiti sketch of a ship was found in this Indian house too, scratched into a wall in the small bedroom, cubiculum, in the southwest corner — though I can’t see it today however much I peer. Possibly the family owned their own ship; indeed, many of Pompeii’s inhabitants had business interests abroad.

The courtyard of the Indian house.

The courtyard of the Indian house.   | Photo Credit: Zac O’Yeah

Rectangular in shape, this possibly Indian house sprawls over much of its block, about 40 metres from street-front to back wall, way bigger than any 3 BHK in Bengaluru — something like 8,000 sq. ft. carpet area on the ground floor alone. Built in the mid-50s CE, it is a fairly typical example of how a reasonably prosperous family enjoyed Pompeiian living. The tiny back garden, viridarium, has a flowering tree and is enclosed by a colonnaded courtyard, peristylum, where the inhabitants would dine, semi-al fresco. Rather unusually, they had a proper stove, hinting at an interest in home cooking, while most Pompeiians ate out or took home delivery, and this block too has a small cook-shop and boozer right next door for takeaways.

Who lived here?

To the right of the viridarium is a ruined portico that seems to have been turned into auxiliary sleeping chambers of a crude kind, maybe for visitors who overstayed their welcome. This is where archaeologists dug up a wooden chest containing the ivory statuette, along with 39 glass items, many bronze utensils and one glazed ceramic vase from Alexandria.

Although Italian scholars thought the statuette was a broken-off mirror handle or a toiletry article, “probabilmente per un oggetto da toletta”, modern researchers feel it would make for a very impractical handle, and have found indications — such as small drill holes that may have served to fix it to another object — that it was possibly one leg of a low three-legged table.

Inside the house where the Indian statuette was found.

Inside the house where the Indian statuette was found.  

But who lived in this house in the shopping street of Pompeii? We don’t even know his exact title, though epigraphists have deciphered a scribbled list of names from a wall: Daphnus, Felix, Agele and Attice. The last name has a distinctly Greek ring to it, hinting at a person with Athenian manners and a certain refined elegance. Was the homeowner one of those Greeks who had sailed to India? He was most probably a trader in foreign products — considering clues like the ship graffiti and the Indian statuette. Popular Indian imports in those days ranged from rice, sesame oil, cane sugar and spices to iron, gemstones, eunuchs (importing them attracted a special luxury tax), and, of course, ivory.

I would like to imagine that one of the cornershops out front was an Indian-style spice emporium. And instead of wine by the amphora, maybe they sold arrack? Arrack that originated in Kerala is, as research shows, one of the world’s oldest hard drinks.

And after a few pegs, as guests were getting increasingly plastered, maybe a Satyricon-like scene played out. The sketch known as Cena Trimalchionis (Trimalchio’s Dinner) is set about the same time, in 60s CE, in Pompeii’s vicinity. The evocative text fills in the gaps in my imagination: the host flaunts his wealth as he tries to impress guests with cooked storks, honey-dipped dormice, eggs stuffed with live birds, bees from Athens to make Greek honey, and even “mushroom-spawn” from India. Likewise, might this homeowner have pulled out his beautiful oriental Aphrodite and told wild stories about how he got it during his adventures in Asia?

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

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Printable version | Apr 21, 2021 4:32:38 AM |

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