The Indian city of Coimbatore, in Tamil Nadu, is one of the biggest centers of textile manufacturing in India. A fast growing metropolis today, it is home to over 25,000 textile and manufacturing companies and has spawned many new centers of textiles around it. What is amazing is that the whirring hosiery mills supplying material to the largest brands in the world, are probably housed on land that once produced priceless cotton that the Senators in ancient Rome wore!
Coimbatore is one of the biggest centers of textile manufacturing in India
At the centre of the ancient trade route between Rome and peninsular India, Coimbatore in the Kongunaadu area of Western Tamil Nadu was home to the cotton textiles that made India famous through the ancient world. Surrounded by the western ghats and blessed with rich black soil, ideal for growing cotton, this region emerged as a textile center in those ancient times. In fact, Coimbatore region, was so important that the Romans even had a settlement in the outskirts of the old town 2000 years ago. Unfortunately, even traces of it have disappeared due to the vagaries of time.
Romans had a settlement in the outskirts of Coimbatore 2000 years ago
For the traders landing in the ancient port of Muziris, further south on the coast of Kerala, the road would have wound through the Palakkad gap into Coimbatore making it an important point as they moved through land to the east coast. The goods were moved with the aid of elephants,bullocks,horses and manual labour through a highway that later became the Chola era Rajakesari Peruvazhi. Peruvazhi is what highways were called in ancient times. This road was constructed by Chola king Adhithan in the year 10 CE. The reference to this important trade highway is found in a rock found at Aiyyaswamy Hills around 20 kms from Coimbatore.
Excavations in the area have unearthed hordes of Roman coins here. The earliest dates back to 27 BCE - 14 CE during the reign of Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar. There are also coins with the image of Constantine dating to 306 CE - 337 CE. One can also find a lot of coins belonging to the reign of Tiberious.
So significant was the trade from India that there are numerous references to how this created a crisis in Rome. For the first few hundred years of the Common Era, India drained the Roman empire of its precious metal resources forcing them to resort to desperate measures in order to maintain the balance of trade. R. Krishnamoorthy of the leading Tamil daily Dinamalar, has published a number of books in connection with the Roman coins discovered in western Tamil Nadu. Eminent archaeologist Dr. R. Nagaswamy has also given us a lot of details on this subject in his book “Roman Karur”.
For the first few hundred years of the Common Era, India drained the Roman empire of its precious metal resources
Records and excavations in Perur, Kodumanal and the river beds which concealed old coins offer details of trade with ancient Rome. The items traders bought from this region included agricultural implements, cornelian jewellery and cotton textiles. In fact, the Togas worn by the Roman senators were fashioned out of the fabric acquired from the Coimbatore region. In order to support their commercial activities, the Romans created a settlement at Vellalore on the outskirts of Coimbatore.
The lucrative Roman trade brought with it economic and cultural exchanges between the people of this region and the rest of the world. A number of traders and seafarers got an opportunity to travel into the precincts of the Roman empire.
This period of Roman trade corresponded with the Sangam era in the east in large parts of Tamil Nadu. The period corresponds to the early centuries of the Common Era and it was a time when intelligent bards acted as ambassadors of goodwill while also identifying and classifying various parts of the Tamil country. Divided into four regions Thondainaadu, Cholanaadu, Pandyanaadu and Kongunaadu (where present day Coimbatore is) this period was one of a great cultural outpouring, driven by affluence and access.
In fact it was a combination of rain-fed and fertile lands of Western Tamilnadu - Kongunaadu , blessed with the waters of the Cauvery and its three tributaries; Bhavani in the north, Noyyal in the centre and Amaravathi in the south, that remained the place to be in across time.
There was a great cultural outpouring, driven by affluence and access
Over the centuries, several dynasties including the Cheras, Cholas, Pandyas, Pallavas, Ganga Pallavas, Nulamba Pallavas, Banas, Chalukyas, Rashtrikutas, Kongu Cheras, Kongu Cholas, Kongu Pandyas, Hoysalas, Rulers of Vijayanagar, Nayaks of Madurai, Wodeyars of Mysore, Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan and the East India Company ruled over Coimbatore and its neighbourhood. The vast diversity of rulers enabled this region to stay competent, over the centuries.
The 9th century saw the advent of the medieval Chola empire (850 CE – 1279 CE) and the second Chola emperor Aditya (875 CE – 907 CE) took over Kongunaadu. The gold which was added to the wealth of the Chola treasury, thanks to this acquisition was later used to gild the roof of the Nataraja temple at Chidambaram by Parantaka Chola I (907 CE – 955 CE). It goes without saying that this gold was earned by exporting cotton textiles to the western world. The fabulously gilded temple tower at Chidambaram continues to draw thousands of visitors everyday and it also happened to be the sacred place for coronation during the Chola times.
The invasion of the area by the Delhi Sultan, Alauddin Khilji's general Malik Kafur in the year 1311 AD caused a massive political upheaval across peninsular India. The Vijayanagar empire rose from the dust of this conquest from the north. The soldiers, farmers, weavers and traders who formed part of the retinue from Vijayanagar settled all over Tamil Nadu. Kongunaadu’s fertile, black cotton soil also attracted farmers from far and wide and with every new wave of settlers , new changes were brought in.
The vast diversity of rulers enabled this region to stay competent, over the centuries
For instance the seeds brought in by the farmers from Andhra added to the cotton crop diversity in a big way and the region renewed its position as the premier cotton cum textile centre thereafter. It is interesting to note that Coimbatore has always had a very cosmopolitan air. The settlers from far and wide, which included places like the coastal districts of Andhra and the area around Hampi in Karnataka, who made this land their home spoke a variety of Indian languages. Having the big Vijayanagar Empire as the suzerain added even more prosperity to this region.
The black cotton farmers and weavers from the Telugu and Kannada speaking parts of the Vijayanagar empire who had begun to troop in, became permanent residents of Kongunaadu.
Around this time, there was a re-organisation of sorts as well. The weavers of Coimbatore began living in the Pettai area (town) and eventually this became the hub for textile trade. The tax collector of this region was ensconced on the Oppanakara street which owes its origin to the term Oppanavaruveedhi, meaning the street housing his office.
The prosperity brought in due to the spurt in commercial activities necessitated the establishment of a military garrison and the construction of a fort in Coimbatore during the times of the Vijayanagar empire, Coimbatore became the headquarters for the 30 Polygars who were under the yoke of Hampi. The Renuka Devi, Vishnu, Vasavi Kannikaparameswari and Ramalinga Sowdeshwari temples of this region are but a legacy of this migration.
The black cotton farmers and weavers from the Telugu and Kannada speaking parts of the Vijayanagar empire became permanent residents of Kongunaadu
Between the 16th and 18th CE the Nayak rulers of Madurai, feudatories of the Vijayanagar empire, controlled Kongunaadu. Later they were defeated and Coimbatore came under the control of the Wodeyars of Mysore after the fall of the empire. Eventually, this region came under the grasp of the East India Company with the fall of Tipu Sultan (the son of Hyder Ali) during the year 1799 AD. Cotton textiles continued to flourish under the Nayaks and the Wodeyars, however the rule of Hyder Ali and Tipu caused a lot of unrest and therefore commerce came to a standstill during the four Mysore Wars ( 1767 - 1799 CE ). Infact, it was Tipu Sultan who destroyed the Coimbatore Fort, during the third Anglo-Mysore war in 1793.
Understanding the strategic importance of Coimbatore, the Europeans made it their district headquarters on the 24th of November, 1804 AD; now being celebrated as the ‘Coimbatore Day’. The English rulers gave great importance to Coimbatore due to its proximity to the western ghats. They fell in love with the weather on the hills and decided to establish tea and coffee plantations over the course of time. Meanwhile, the Europeans also introduced newer varieties of cotton and processing facilities in this region.
A number of Europeans began to sense opportunity and this resulted in their migration to Coimbatore. The famous Sir Robert Stanes (1841 AD – 1936 AD) was one among them and it was he who ushered in the industrial revolution in Coimbatore through the founding of the Coimbatore Spinning and Weaving Mills Limited (CS & W Mills) in the year 1888 with the help of S.P. Narasimhalu Naidu, who was known as the Raja Ram Mohan Roy of South India. It is interesting to note that Naidu, a social reformer, had visited Bombay in order to participate in the inaugural session of the Indian National Congress in 1885 .
The English rulers gave great importance to Coimbatore due to its proximity to the western ghats
The advent of Europeans into Coimbatore brought in technology and trade in a big way. The local cotton farmers and weavers did their best to cash in on these developments. The increased spinning capacity lead to a greater supply of good quality yarn, to cater to the increasing demand. A number of modern ginning factories and mills came up in Coimbatore over the next six decades. The cotton farmers of this region took advantage of the rail connectivity and the cycle, introduced by William Frazer (Secretary to Sir Robert Stanes) during the year 1895. The cotton traders found the cycle to be very convenient to access remote markets, compared to the horses and bullock carts they used earlier. The entrepreneurs who cycled their way to success included the PSG brothers, V. Gopal Naidu (who later acquired CS & W Mills) and V. Rangaswamy Naidu of Radhakrishna mills. Another inspired entrepreneur G. Kuppuswamy Naidu visited CS & W Mills as an industrial tourist by paying one anna, and went on to establish the Lakshmi Mills.
The trade and manufacture of textiles has been at the heart of the story of Coimbatore and it has determined its very nature. It is a testimony to the entrepreneurs who have embraced the opportunities the city offered through time, that new centres have emerged alongside Coimbatore - Tirupur, Karur, Erode and Bhavani continue to expand on the great textile history of this land.
Today the biggest mills in Coimbatore owe their origins to the old days and this fast growing city has kept its entrepreneurial spirit alive. It has survived many ups and downs and it continues to do what it has always done best - produce great textiles to send across the world.
Rajesh Govindarajulu is a noted writer and columnist who writes on the history and heritage of Western Tamil Nadu for some of India’s leading publications. He is also a former Member of the Governing Council for Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH)