Kerala - At the Crossroads of the World (13th BCE - 2nd CE)



My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'

It is said that poet P B Shelley began writing this oft-quoted poem in 1817, soon after the British Museum announced that it had acquired a large fragment of a statue of Pharaoh Ramesses II, who ruled Egypt in the 13th century BCE.

Known as Ozymandias to the Greeks, Ramesses II was a great emperor and builder. But it is only much later, while studying his mummy in his tomb in the Valley of Kings in Thebes, that archaeologists found a tantalising clue that linked Ramesses's world of 3,300 years ago in Egypt, to a sliver of land thousands of kilometres away on the southern coast of India – Kerala.

Ramesses II’s mummy
Ramesses II’s mummy|Wikimedia Commons

In the mummified body of Ramesses II, the nostrils, to be more precise, archaeologists found a handful of peppercorns. They had been placed there to hold the pharaoh’s aquiline nose in position and to ensure, that it was properly embalmed.

Pepper, which was known as ‘black gold’ for its use as a preservative and in medicine throughout history, has its roots in present-day Kerala, and the discovery of the peppercorn in a tomb going back to 1214 BCE indicates that this spice had been making its way as far as Thebes in Egypt even in the 13th century BCE.

Others have also drawn references to the ‘spices’ mentioned in old legends of Solomon and the Queen of Sheeba, suggesting that pepper and ginger from Kerala and cinnamon from Sri Lanka travelled great distances in the ancient world. There is also a reference to Egyptian queen Hatshepsut sending an expedition of five ships down the Red Sea to obtain spices from the East.

Harappa and the other cultures
Harappa and the other cultures|LHI

Actually, the connection makes a lot of sense. After all, the story of human migration tells you that there has always been a close link between Africa and India. We also know that the Harappans had trade connections with the Mesopotamians and the ports along the Red Sea as far back as 3000 BCE-2000 BCE, and that many of the goods exported were from contemporary Chalcolithic communities deep within India.

In fact, there is evidence to show that the Assyrians and the Babylonians, who flourished in the 3rd and 2nd millennia BCE, carried out extensive trade in cardamom and cinnamon that came from Kerala. Did they use the sea route? Or did these spices make their way to these distant lands via the Harappans?

Sadly, we only have these stray references. We know little about the people, probably Iron Age communities in Kerala, who were trading with the outside world.

Edakkal Caves and its petroglyphs
Edakkal Caves and its petroglyphs|Wikimedia Commons

Early Historic Kerala

Like much of the deep south in India, a series of megalithic sites (Iron Age sites, where large stones were used to mark burials) have been found across present-day Kerala, and they represent the earliest known settlements in that region. In his book, the Survey of Kerala History, historian and former editor of the Kerala District Gazetteers, A Sreedhara Menon explains, “The Megaliths of Kerala belong to the megalithic complex common to South India and are associated with the cult of the dead.’ He points out how site after site has shown evidence of ‘fractional burial’, where bone remains were buried in urns, jars, pits or rock-cut caves. Numerous rock-cut caves from this period have also been found and many of these are around present day-Kozhikode (Calicut). These caves are fascinating. In the cave in Chevayur in Kozhikode East, for instance, there is an erect pillar in the middle of the main chamber. Several pots and parts of a sword have been found here. In the Edakkal Caves near Sultan Bathery in South Wayanad, the rock-cut caves have numerous etchings and carvings depicting human and animal figures. One human figure has a peculiar head-dress. There is another carving of a symbol that depicts the ‘swastika’. It is not clear when these carvings were done.

Different historians have given varying dates for the megalithic sites in Kerala. Based on comparisons with other similar sites in the south and in peninsular India, the period for the Kerala megaliths varies between 2000 BCE and even 300 BCE!

Adding a layer of confusion to the timeline is the fact that much of the Kerala coastline was ‘fluid’ till around the 2nd millennium BCE. Historian Prof P J Cherian, who led the excavations at Pattanam, the famous port site near Kodungallur, explains, “Geological indicators suggest that even between 5000 BCE and 3000 BCE, the kind of interface between land and the river systems and the ocean created a long stretch of beach ridges along the entire coast along the Kerala region. There was also a long network of backwaters and estuaries between the land and the sea. The coastline was not so well formed. In fact, it was in the process of stabilising. It was over a period of time that the present 20 km of coastline with a network of water bodies was formed and also the coastline got stabilised.”

Kerala backwaters
Kerala backwaters|Wikimedia Commons

By the early Iron Age phase, the coastline had become stable and, in fact, ideal for human settlement. There was plenty of food, fresh water and the network of backwaters that still makes the region so famous today, allowed people to navigate. Iron technology also provided them the ability to hack their way through the thick forests.

In fact, there are references to changes in the coastline even after that. Cherian points out that the site of Pattanam was probably an island on the mouth of the Periyar River. Today, it is 4 km inland and the Periyar has moved on.

Historians believe that this ‘watery’ world allowed people to look beyond the shores. In fact, while credit is often given to the Greek sailor Hippalus (1st century BCE) for discovering the use the monsoon winds to sail across the Arabian Sea to the West Coast of India, he probably discovered what the early traders from the Persian Gulf and later the Phoenicians and the Egyptians already knew and used to make their way to the West coast of India, especially the Malabar, with ease. Cherian explains, “The mid ocean monsoon winds acted as a traffic road - from South Arabia to the Malabar coast, because it straight away brought these vessels to the coast. The entire West coast was involved in commerce.”

Indian Ocean trade network
Indian Ocean trade network|Wikimedia Commons

Cherian believes that ‘Paleo-Ayurveda’ – the early knowledge of the use of spices for medicines and preservatives – ( pepper and other spices) were the earliest to be shipped out. He jokes ‘ Who knows it may have been the famous Ayurvedic kashayams ( a generic Malayalam term for herb induced Ayurvedic teas or syrups ) that were the first exports from Kerala!’

Sadly, there has been little work done to dig deeper into how old the trading ties are. Cherian blames this on how we have traditionally viewed history, “Because of the Euro-centric perception and the kind of worldview that the world as a whole internalised, this type of activity (trade links and their history) was never recorded and thought to be serious. That is why it is believed that it all (trade) started from Rome or from the Mediterranean. That was not true. The sea was the closest route and people all across the region (Indian Ocean Trade Route) were trying to cross and engage.”

Cherian stresses that the Euro-centric view – that the entire region of Peninsular and South India began to thrive as Roman ships sailed in during the early historic period – is only a part of a much larger, or let’s say, longer story.

The site of Arikamedu
The site of Arikamedu|Wikimedia Commons

Archaeologist V Selvakumar from the Tamil University at Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu is a specialist in maritime trade history and was part of the excavation teams in Pattanam and Arikamedu, another important Early Historic site on the east coast of Tamil Nadu. Selvakumar makes another pertinent point. He says, “It was all one land. We shouldn’t look at history, keeping in mind present-day boundaries. That restricts our mind. We should look at the entire region of Asia. In fact, we should see it from Japan to Africa. Pattanam has to be seen in that context.”

The ancient world, from China to the Mediterranean, was closely connected through trade routes that acted as a theatre of constant exchange and interaction, and Peninsular India was a crucial transit point, a corridor for cultures, for millennia.

It must, however, be said that it was in the Early Historic period, around 300 BCE, that we see a spurt in material evidence of this exchange. This, Selvakumar says, is easy to understand. “By the 3rd century BCE, there is an increase in material cultural evidence found because we see the emergence of a defined polity. There was an increase in trade, the exchange of ideas, religion and migrations as the great Mahajanapadas rise and new kingdoms are born. If by the 3rd century BCE, you had the Mauryas in India, the early kingdoms had been established in China too.” Organised states create safety and infrastructure and so encourage trade.

Interestingly, archaeological excavations show the next spurt in trade around the 1st BCE / 1st CE, when Roman trade picked up. This is the period when the Roman Empire was at its zenith.

According to Selvakumar, both these trigger points created a major transformation, which can be seen across the Tamilakam area, of which Kerala was a part. He points out that “the Mesolithic (Iron Age) period laid the foundation for the Early Historic culture, and the connections with various parts of the Afro-Eurasian world acted as a trigger for growth and the socio-political and cultural transformation of the region.”

At the archaeological site of Pattanam, you can see evidence of this. These excavations have revealed material from the period between 1000 BCE to 300 BCE i.e. the Iron Age to the Early Historic period and a further extension all the way to the 5th century CE. Here, the real trigger for growth, as Selvakumar suggests, was evidently trade.

Pattanam excavation

The Site of Pattanam

A thriving port city with traders from far-off lands – Egyptians, Arabs, Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Malay, Ceylonese and Persians – all rubbing shoulders with each other. Cellars piled with amphorae, filled to the brim with special wines from the Mediterranean coast – from Naples, France and Spain. Warehouses packed with strong-smelling spices. Workshops where jewellers chipped away at precious gemstones,  goldsmiths beating down bullion to make necklaces and anklets, long canoes waiting to make their way up river… this is the world that is gradually being dug up from deep within the earth in the archaeological site of Pattanam, around 38 km from present-day Kochi in Kerala.

The Muziris Papyrus
The Muziris Papyrus|Wikimedia Commons

One of the most exciting archaeological discoveries of the recent past (albeit with its share of controversy), Pattanam helps us paint a picture of a fabulous ancient metropolis, most likely the ‘Muziris’ (or at least part of it), of Roman accounts. We first hear of this famed place through Graeco-Roman records and even a papyrus called the Muziris Papyrus (2nd century CE), which was a business agreement between a merchant and a financier/moneylender in Alexandria on a trade venture 'to Muziris'.

While there is some dispute over whether Pattanam is in fact the Muziris of the old records, there is no doubt that it was part of the larger port city. Built on the back of a vast network of trans-oceanic trade sites, Pattanam along with a series of other archaeological sites strewn across the southern bend of India – Arikamedu near Puducherry, Adichaunallur and Korkai near Madurai, Karur further inland and Naura (Kannur) and Tyndus (we still don’t know where this was) – mentioned in Roman accounts, help build a story of an exciting world of seafarers, merchants and poet princes, along the southern tip of India.

Artefacts unearthed from Pattanam
Artefacts unearthed from Pattanam|https://www.muzirisheritage.org/

Excavations at Pattanam began in 2007 and continued for eight seasons under the aegis of the Kerala Council for Historical Research (KCHR). While the actual site of Pattanam is large, spread over 70 hectares (172 acres), the excavation seasons covered barely 1 percent of that area – 5 acres. Yet, over this period, a staggering amount of material was unearthed here.

Among the finds were thousands of coins, pottery sherds, Roman amphorae and beads, much of it coming from the period between the 3rd century BCE to 5th century CE, indicating continued occupation (till even much later). One of the important discoveries from the site was a brick-lined wharf, made of laterite. A Greek amphorae was stuck to its wall and a 6-foot-long canoe was found close to it.

The many discoveries made here underline the fact that this site and region was a ‘crossing’ for trans-oceanic trade networks that connected this area to the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, Mediterranean world and the South China Sea. There is ample reference to this network in Graeco-Roman accounts between the 1st century BCE and 2nd century CE, when trade with the Roman world was at its height.

Tabula Peutingeriana, with Muziris  on bottom-right corner (marked in the circle)
Tabula Peutingeriana, with Muziris on bottom-right corner (marked in the circle)|Wikimedia Commons

In his book Naturalis Historia, Pliny the Elder (23 CE-79 CE) calls Muziris “the first emporium of India” - a primary trading port of India. The city appears prominently on the Tabula Peutingeriana, a 5th century CE set of maps of the world as seen from Rome, copied from a fresco painting in Rome around 226 CE. This even suggests that there was a temple of Augustus near Muziris, indicating a permanent Roman settlement, probably of soldiers protecting Roman trade stationed here.

Tamil Sangam texts refer to Muziris, known to them as Muciripattanam or Muciri, as “the city where liquor abounds (and which) bestows wealth to its visitors indiscriminately” with “gold deliveries, carried by the ocean-going ships and brought to the river bank by local boats”.

But Pattanam is only half the story.

Ancient ports in South India
Ancient ports in South India|LHI

The Port & City Network

There is nothing like a map to give you context. When you look at the important archaeological sites at the southern-most tip of India, you will understand how during this period, commerce, culture and cities evolved.

If the trigger for the rise of the great cities in the Gangetic plains in the north was agricultural surpluses and trade along the riverine networks, in the deep south, it was trade across oceans. The wealth that poured in through this exchange helped build great cities, which became cultural centres.

In a paper presented at a session of the Tamil Nadu Historical Congress held in 2017, Dr Selvakumar explains how many of the Early Historic urban centres in India’s deep south evolved from old Iron Age sites, thanks to their proximity to trade routes. So “Settlements at the junction of the trade routes and near the mouth of the rivers adjacent to the seas became markets and ports. This includes the sites of Arikamedu, Kaveripoompattinam in Andhra Pradesh, Azhagankulam and Korkai in Tamil Nadu, and Muciri or Pattanam” in Kerala.

Selvakumar points out that these settlements were main nodes of contact with the Afro-Eurasian and Indian Ocean worlds. And, in the hinterland, Madurai, Keeladi, Uraiyur, Kodumanal and Kanchipuram were industrial centres that supplied goods to the ports cities. Each was dependent on the other.

This also shaped the early polity. He writes, “Perhaps the settlements that were located in the crossroads of trade routes, the boundaries of the eco-cultural zones, and those which served as the headquarters of the clan chiefs of the Iron Age emerged as the urban centres in the Early Historic period. Probably, these centres developed into loci of political powers in the Early Historic period. The settlements of Uraiyur, Madurai, Karur and Kanchipuram emerged out of internal social and political organizations.”

All these cities later grew into large capitals – Uraiyur, the capital of the early Cholas, Madurai of the Pandyas, Karur or the Cheras and Kanchipuram of the Pallavas, much later.

Indo-Roman trading ports
Indo-Roman trading ports|Wikimedia Commons

The Roman Trade

The southern stretch of Peninsular India is geographically well placed and by the 1st century BCE, it was a global transit point, a corridor connecting continents and kingdoms from the West to the East. It was at the centre of two great trade networks of the period – the Indian Ocean trade and the Bay of Bengal trade. And there is ample evidence of this strewn across the region, in the form of old Roman coins. These coins also tell us the story of the highs and lows of trade, and the expansion from the west coast to the east.

Discovered in the early 19th century, the bulk of the thousands of Roman coins found in South India come from the Coimbatore region of Tamil Nadu, just north of the Palakkad gap, through which traders reached the hinterland from ports like Muziris, and the Krishna Valley in Andhra Pradesh.

Archaeologist S Suresh, who has worked extensively on the Roman trade network and written a book Symbols of Trade - Roman and Pseudo-Roman Objects Found in India, points out that the earliest coins from the Mediterranean region are Roman coins from the period of the Roman Republics in the 2nd century BCE. He writes, “Republican denarii have been found in Karur and Tiruppur in Tamil Nadu, Nedumkandam in Kerala and the Lakshadweep islands as well”.

However, other historians have questioned the assumption that this indicates early contacts with the Mediterranean world. They point out that, in history, coins ‘have legs’. They could have been older coins given as offerings or they may have been in continuous usage. Suresh, however, also cites archaeological evidence to substantiate his theory. In the important site of Arikamedu near Puducherry, Suresh points to the evidence of material from the Mediterranean from the 2nd century BCE found here.

Roman gold coins excavated in Pudukottai, Tamil Nadu, India. One coin of Caligula (37–41 CE), and two coins of Nero (54–68).
Roman gold coins excavated in Pudukottai, Tamil Nadu, India. One coin of Caligula (37–41 CE), and two coins of Nero (54–68).|Wikimedia Commons

The turning point for Roman trade with the Indian subcontinent seems to have been around 31 BCE, when Rome conquered Egypt. This gave the Romans direct control over the very lucrative eastern trade and this is evident from the coins found.

In fact, one of the largest hoards of Roman coins was found in Kottayam in Kerala in 1847. It consisted of almost 8,000 gold aurei held in a large brass jar. The latest coins in this hoard came from the era of Roman Emperor Nero, indicating how active trade was during this period.

Analysing all the coins found in the southern region, experts like Suresh have also helped chart out how trade would have evolved. As he says, “ ‘Julio- Claudian’ coins (minted under the first five Emperors of Rome: Augustus to  Nero, 27 BC - 68 AD) account for 80 percent of the total early Roman coin finds and much of these are heavily concentrated in the west – in Coimbatore. Erode and Salem of Tamil Nadu.”

Map showing Palakkad Gap between the Western Ghats
Map showing Palakkad Gap between the Western Ghats|Google

Suresh believes that this was because this area was close to the Palakkad gap, a corridor used by traders to slice through the Western Ghats and make their way across to the hinterland. In the later period, more coins began to find their way to the Coromandel Coast, as direct trade links with the east coast were established.

The growing demand for eastern luxury also had a devastating impact on the Roman economy. Pliny the Elder, for instance, lamented publically about this and also put a number to this ‘Drain of Wealth’. He writes, “By the smallest computation, India, China and the Arabian peninsula take 100 million sesterces from the Romans each year. This is what our women and luxuries cost us.” Half this bullion came to India.

There was also a gradual change in the nature of the trade as the Roman economy went through a decline. The death of Nero in 68 CE was followed by a civil war (driven to a large extent by an economic crisis) and his successor put numerous curbs on luxurious excesses. So if the trade in the pre-Nero period was mainly in luxurious ivory, silks and beryl paid for, in precious gold coins, the period after that saw a focus on simpler, day-to-day commodities like cotton. Pepper, of course, remained a constant.

Suresh also cites another reason for the rise of the east coast ports like Kaveripatanam and Arikamedu. “During the 1st BCE, the northern silk route between China and the West became increasingly difficult to ply because of the hostile attitude of Parthians in Central Asia. The Chinese were compelled to move some of the trade through the sea route, creating a ‘Maritime Silk Route.”

By the 3rd century CE, as Rome declined, so did the fortunes of some of the ports on the west coast of India, including Muziris. Although it continued to be a thriving port city, it never got back the position it had once enjoyed in the 1st century BCE- 1st century CE.

A palm-leaf manuscript from the Sangam era
A palm-leaf manuscript from the Sangam era|Wikimedia Commons

Wealth & Empire

While the cities and empires of the northern Gangetic plains grew on the back of riverine trade and ambitious expansion, in the deep south the trigger was an outward-focused trade. It helped that the tip of Peninsular India was so well placed on the global trade highway – connecting the West and the East and acting as a crossroads of sorts.

The tons of bullion coming into the vibrant and cosmopolitan port cities and grand capitals of South India undoubtedly created the right background for the cultural exuberance that was exemplified by the Sangam period - 3rd century BCE to 3rd century CE, when great works of literature – epics and poems – were written and culture thrived.

The earliest of the works, the Patittupattu (Ten Decades), an anthology of 100 poems divided into 10 sections, each dedicated to a Chera king, tells us a lot about the Kerala of that period. The Sangam era epic Silappatikaram, written by Ilango Adigal, alleged to be the younger brother of Senkuttuvan, the Chera king who figures in the work, is also a great source of the region’s history. The Manimekalai talks of the great cities of Madurai and Uraiyur, and the untold jewels and wealth there.

But this cultural renaissance of the South, the period of the Sangam Age, deserves a separate chapter in our journey through Indian history.

Go to the small town of Kodungallur in Kerala, where the Pattanam archaeological site is today, and you will find a sleepy backwater. But within a radius of 5 km, you will also find India’s oldest mosque, oldest church, oldest synagogue and some of India’s oldest temples.

Built all the way till the 12th century CE, these places of worship show how different people, ideas and faiths mingled in this stretch of land for over a thousand years.

Today, it is in these places of worship, that the legacy of the very cosmopolitan ancient metropolis of Muziris, and the trade networks that it was at the heart of, live on.

This article is part of our 'The History of India’ series, where we focus on bringing alive the many interesting events, ideas, people and pivots that shaped us and the Indian subcontinent. Dipping into a vast array of material - archaeological data, historical research and contemporary literary records, we seek to understand the many layers that make us.

This series is brought to you with the support of Mr K K Nohria, former Chairman of Crompton Greaves, who shares our passion for history and joins us on our quest to understand India and how the subcontinent evolved, in the context of a changing world.

Find all the stories from this series here.

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