The old ports of Lothal, Sopara, Baroach and Muziris, that line the west coast of India are proof of the vibrant trade the Indian subcontinent had with the west as far back as 4500 years ago. While these are well known, we know little of the ports and port towns in the East. Of the many, perhaps the most important was Tamralipti, a great centre of trade and commerce.
Also known as Tamralipta, this port was located in the present day town of Tamluk, in Midnapur, West Bengal. The name 'Tamralipta' comes from tamra or copper, which was mined nearby at Ghatsila in Singbhum district of Bihar and exported through this port. Interestingly, even today, almost 2500 years later, these copper mines are active and copper is mined by Hindustan Copper Limited, a PSU company. Tamralipti or Tamralipta means 'coated with copper'.
Located on the banks of the Rupnarayan River, ships sailed along the coasts of Bengal and Myanmar to the Malaya Peninsula, Indo-China and beyond from here. The port of Tamralipti was the gateway for sailors, traders and missionaries of ancient kingdoms on the east coast. Sailing Vessels laden with Indigo, silk and copper went out from this port in large numbers to distant countries like Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the coast of Africa and the ports on the Arabian Sea.
According to the literary and archaeological evidences the port town of Tamralipti flourished from 3rd century BCE to 8th century CE. Tamralipti was the most prominent port of Kalinga kingdom and later, in the spread of Buddhism to South East Asia. Historians speculate that it was the desire to access the rich ports on Eastern coast like Tamralipti that Asoka invaded Kalinga. This port certainly played a big role in making big urban centres like Sisupalgarh thrive Tamralipti became an important port in the Mauryan empire. There was a direct route, a sort of highway, which connected Mauryan capital Pataliputra to Tamralipti.
Tamralipti also played a very important role in spreading Buddhism to South and South East Asia. The Jatakas tales of Buddhist literature (1 CE – 4CE) make frequent references to the voyages from Tamralipti to Suvarnabhumi (Myanmar/ Thailand) for trade and Buddhist missionary activities. King Asoka sent his son Mahendra and daughter Sanghamitra to transport the Bodhi Tree to Sri Lanka, and introduce Buddhism to Sri Lanka through the Tamralipti port.
Mahavamsa, the epic history of Sri Lanka, written in the 2nd century BCE, records the journey of the Bodhi tree: ‘It was a fourteen days’ journey to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) from Tamralipti, out of which seven days of the journey were spent from Pataliputra to Tamralipta on road.’
Many foreign travelers also mention the port of Tamralipti in their work. Roman philosopher and voyager Pliny talks about Taluctae (Tamralipti) as thriving port in his book Natural History in 2nd century CE. Renowned Chinese pilgrims like Fahien, Hiuen Tsang and Itsing who visited Tamralipti left vivid accounts of the flourishing port city. Tamralipti was not only the trading port but also a Buddhist center of learning.
The Chinese pilgrim Fa Hein visited Tamralipti in the 5th century CE he spoke about 24 Buddhist monasteries and 1000 monks. An inscription found dated to the late sixth century recorded the donations of vast quantities of uncultivated lands by a Gupta administrator to Buddhist monastic teacher Shakyabhikshu Acharya.
We don't know why the great port of Tamralipti went into decline from 7th century CE onwards. Dr Tirthankar Roy, Professor of Economic History at the London School of Economics looks at some possible causes in his book 'India in the World Economy: From Antiquity to the Present'. He believes that it was a combination of geographical and political factors. The silting of the river port and change in the path of the river, combined with de-urbanisation of coastal Bengal during the period could have been the contributing factors.
So great was the decline of Tamralipti, that its very memory had been erased. It was completely forgotten until the late 1880’s when Bengali writer Gour Das Byasack carried out some excavations and published his report in Proceedings of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1889. This was followed by excavations by the Archaeological survey of India in the 1920s and then again in the 1950s and 1970’s. Archaeological excavation at Tamralipti by ASI in 1954 – 55 found many objects from different parts of the world. Roman amphorae and Greco-Roman gold coins were excavated from the port site of Tamralipti indicating the trade contacts of this region with the Roman Empire.
Sadly, much like other Ancient ports in India, there is nothing to see in Tamluk, except few objects found during excavations and kept at the local museum.
Thankfully we have rich literary sources through which we can imagine what Tamralipti was like in its heydays!