Madras Miscellany History & Culture

The ancient ports of India

It was a detail-packed lecture the other morning at the Madras Literary Society when KRA Narasiah, former naval engineer and now history buff, went back to the sea and made the Greek of The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea English and Tamil for his audience. The Guide to the Red Sea, its title in translation, is an anonymous Greek merchant’s tale of his voyage from the Greek port of Piraeus to the ports of the Red Sea, which is the Red Sea itself and all seas beyond it to the mouth of the Ganges. It was a journey by sea to Alexandria, by land to Heliopolis (Cairo), by boat 300 miles up the Nile and then by camel to the ports of Myos Hormos or the much bigger Berenike, then onwards. Written in 60 AD, it is considered the last word on the ports of India of that period.

Listing those ports by their present-day names is what Narasiah did that morning, among other fact-dropping. That listing, done with the help of various translations of The Periplus by British and German historians, Narasiah made come alive locally with their mention in Sangam literature and Tamil classics like the Silappathikaram. Some of these ports/hinterlands are: Barygaza — Bharuch; Syrastrene — Saurashtra; Suppara — Soppara; Muziris — Pattanam; Colchi — Korkai; Camera – Puhar (Poompuhar); Poduca — Puducherry; Sopatama — Marakkanam; Maisolia — Masulipatnam; and Dasarna — Orissa.

Two things emerged from his narration. Firstly, the traders from Rome and Greece monopolised trade with the West coast of India, especially in the Gujarat region with its ports of Bharuch and others in Saurashtra, and Musiris (Pattanam near Cranganore) in Kerala, considered part of Damarica (Tamizhagam). Indian traders did not sail westwards. It was only those from the East coast who went overseas, sailing from the Coromandel and Kalinga coasts. The western trade focused on horses and wine one way; pepper, textiles and ivory the other.

The second statement of Narasiah’s that struck me was that Mamallapuram was not a port as usually claimed; Marakkanam was the port. It’s quite possible that Mamallapuram was not a port in the 1AD, but natural geographies change over the years and Mamallapuram could well have become or developed as a harbour by the 6th Century; after all, Musiris gave way to Cochin centuries later. But then, much of history is debatable in this fashion.

At the end of it all, however, there remained one question with me as usual: What did a Pallava, Pandya or Chola ship look like?

A bridge in between

With a bit of time on my hands these days, one of the things I’m doing is revising a couple of books of mine for new editions, one of them, Madras Rediscovered, getting ready for its eighth. And, while I worked on it, I came across a passage that talked of the Maraimalaiadigal Bridge in Saidapet that was built anew and opened in 1966.

This bridge replaced the Marmalong (Mambalam) Bridge, built through the munificence of Armenian merchant Coja Petrus Uscan in 1726, replacing the causeway that was there, to make access to Little Mount and St Thomas’ Mount easier. Of the causeway, I’ve seen an illustration I’m unable to trace now, but I offer today three paintings of the first bridge done at different times by British artists who were in Madras — William Hodges, the first professional British landscape artist to come to India, did his work in 1783, William Daniell in 1820 and Justinian Gantz in the 1840s. All look remarkably alike, the bridge virtually the same and not a wooden one, as some have claimed it to be.

My question today is did Uscan’s bridge remain unchanged till the new one was built or were changes made to it before the 1966 bridge came up? There must be a PWD engineer somewhere out there old enough to tell me what the bridge looked like before 1966. Or could The Hindu’s archives help with a picture?

When a

coin’s not a coin

Pictures of the obverse and reverse sides of a one anna coin dating to 1839 sent to me by RK Ramanathan are featured here today. He wanted to know more about them and I turned to my numismatist-friend DH Rao for information. His reply is intriguing: “This is not a coin, it’s a token, usually issued by temples. The East India Company, to please the Hindus, minted these tokens usually with Ram, Sita, Lakshman and Hanuman. They are known as Ramtanakas. Many a jeweller too has issued such tokens — especially in North India.” They are bought from the temples to be kept as personal talismans or in pooja rooms.

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Printable version | Jul 27, 2021 10:27:12 PM |

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