On 1st November 1864, a great cyclone swept across the Bay of Bengal and hit the coastal regions of present-day Andhra Pradesh, near the city of Machilipatnam. Hindus were celebrating Diwali and the city’s considerable European population was observing All Saints Day. The residents, quite used to frequent yearly cyclones, hunkered down in their homes, waiting for the storm to pass. But this time it was different. A giant tidal wave, 13 feet high, charged 27 km inland, destroying everything in its path. Around 30,000 residents were killed and the port was destroyed. Machilipatnam would never be the same again.
Drive 70 km east from Andhra Pradesh’s capital Amaravati and you arrive in Machilipatnam. A town like any other in Andhra Pradesh, it is hard to imagine that it was once the most important port on the eastern coast of India for nearly 1700 years, from the days of the Satavahana empire in the 1st century CE till the late 18th century. In fact, in the 1650s, it was believed to be the fourth-largest city in India after Delhi, Agra and Surat, where merchants from all over the world congregated.
The earliest reference to Masulipatnam (as it was called in earlier times) as an important port is in the ancient Greek text Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, composed in the 1st century CE, which talks about the port of ‘Maisolia’. Similarly, the port must have been important enough for Roman traders, for the 2nd-century Greek scholar Ptolemy to mention it in his text Geographia as ‘Maisolos’.
It was the Satavahana rulers, who ruled the Deccan from the 1st century BCE to the 2nd century CE, who actively patronized inland as well as international trade. There existed an ancient trade route connecting India’s two coasts, from the port of Sopara near present-day Mumbai to the Satavahana capital Paithan (near Aurangabad) and down south to Amaravati and then to Masulipatnam. The most important export to Rome were the rich fabrics and textiles from India’s east coast that were highly prized by the Romans. In fact, there is a theory that the word ‘muslin’ is derived from ‘Maisolia’.
Since Indian muslin was sold in Roman cities for an ounce of gold, vast wealth poured into Machilipatnam. It was these local, wealthy merchants who patronized the great Buddhist establishments in the region, such as the great stupas at Amaravathi, Jaggayyapeta, Bhattiprolu, Ghantasala, and the cave complex at Undavalli.
In the 5th century CE, Maisolia became the most important port for the Vishnukundin kings of Andhra. The splendid monuments in their capital Nagarjunakonda were financed through Maisola’s Roman trade as can be seen from the Roman coins and artefacts found there. It also served as a hub for Buddhist monks and travellers to South East Asia. There are references found in South East Asian Buddhist texts, to the port of ‘Manjarika’ as Machilipatnam was known there.
Surprisingly, while other great ports of ancient India such as Sopara, Tampralipti and Kalingapatnam declined over time, Machilipatnam retained its importance even in the medieval period. It is not known when the name ‘Machilipatnam’ became common usage, although one theory attributes it to Arab merchants who settled here in the 14th century.
The golden phase of Machilipatnam’s history began under Sultan Quli Qutub Shah
By the late 15th century, Masulipatnam and its surrounding region became a battleground between the Bahamani empire, Vijayanagara empire and the kings of Odisha. A new and golden phase of Machilipatnam’s history would begin under Sultan Quli Qutub Shah (r. 1512-1543), who captured and then developed the port. Under the Qutub Shahi rulers, apart from textiles, Machilipatnam would emerge as the hub of international diamond trade. The fabled Golconda diamonds found in the Krishna river valley would be exported to Europe through here. While travelling from Golconda to the ports of Goa and Dabhol took 14 days, it took half that time to reach Machilipatnam.
It was the diamonds, muslin and Kalamkari textile that attracted Europeans to Machilipatnam. From the 1570s onwards, the Portuguese, who dominated India's west coast, looked upon Machilipatnam as a port inimical to its interests and sent pirates to attack ships going to and fro, but without much success.
The Dutch established their ‘factory’, or trading post, here in 1605 CE, under a charter from the Qutub Shahi Sultan, exempting them from the 2.5 percent disembarkation fee. By 1620, the Dutch had established thriving and highly profitable trade between Machilipatnam and the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). For example, we know that the port of Masulipatnam exported 96,000 pounds of iron and 20,000 pieces of steel to Jakarta in 1629 CE. Interestingly, the first English ‘factory’ in India was also established here in 1611 CE, two years before the one at Surat.
The first English ‘factory’ in India was also established here in 1611 CE.
Apart from the Europeans, there were Armenians who dominated the trade in Burmese rubies and Persian merchants with contacts at the Qutub Shahi Court. During this time, Machilipatnam was also known for its cabal of 10-12 wealthy Persian merchant princes, who completely dominated India’s trade with Persia. The international trade made local port administrators very rich and powerful, one of whom was Mir Jumla, who would later go on to play a very important role in the Qutub Shahi and Mughal history.
However, the conquest of Golconda by the Mughals in 1687 disrupted Machilipatnam trade. It broke the power of the Persians merchants who had enjoyed Qutub Shahi patronage, and put power firmly in the hands of the Europeans. Also, the Hyderabad-Machilipatnam trade route became extremely unsafe because of bandits.
In 1724, the Viceroy of the Deccan and the first Nizam of Hyderabad, Asaf Jah I, took the region under his control and Machilipatnam became the most important port in the Nizam’s dominions. However, in 1768, his son and successor Asaf Jah II signed the Treaty of Machilipatnam, ceding the entire coastal Andhra region to the British.
By then, trade in two of its most valuable exports – Golconda diamonds and Indian textiles like muslin and Kalamkari – had collapsed. Also, the Machilipatnam port was not suited to large, modern ships, and vessels had to anchor 5 miles in the sea. As a result, international trade shifted to places like Madras and Vishakhapatnam. Adding to its decline was the fact that the city is located in India’s ‘Cyclone Belt’, with cyclones hitting it almost every year. The great cyclone of 1864 was a further and decisive blow to its fading glory.
In 1947, when the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad had hoped to declare Hyderabad as an independent country, he made a desperate claim to the British for handing back Machilipatnam. The only thing that Hyderabad lacked was a seaport and the Nizam hoped that Machilipatnam would be his outlet to the sea and independence.
Today, Machilipatnam is a medium-sized city in Andhra Pradesh, with few remnants of its former glory, such as the ruins of a Dutch fort and a memorial to those who died in the 1864 cyclone. Will its glory days return? Only time will tell.