Kolhapur's Poseidon: An Ancient Roman Connection

Poseidon, the God of the Seas, conjures up images of ancient Rome and the Mediterranean; the last thing you think of is Kolhapur, in Maharashtra. And yet, in a hillock overlooking the banks of the Panchganga River in Kolhapur, archaeologists found a beautifully crafted, bronze statuette of Poseidon, during excavations in the 1940s.

The statuette, one of the finest examples of Roman art found in Asia, was uncovered 3 metres below the earth, in the remains of an ancient house. It was a remarkable link to the thriving trade between ancient Maharashtra and the Roman Empire going back more than 2,000 years.

The ‘Kolhapur Poseidon’ was discovered along with an array of artefacts stored in two large bronze pots that came to be known as the Brahmapuri Hoard. The find was named after the hillock on which they were discovered.

Retrieved from what is believed to be the house of a local seafaring trader, the statuette was dated to the 1st century CE and it made waves among historians and archaeologists. Standing just 13 cm tall, this small bronze Poseidon deepened our understanding of India’s connection with ancient Rome, more specifically, the flourishing maritime trade between Roman ports and those on the Konkan coast in Western Maharashtra.

And the link between these two worlds were the Satavahanas, a dynasty that ruled from the Deccan from the 1st century BCE to the 2nd century CE.

Indian Ocean trade and India’s maritime link to Rome in the 1st century CE

Masters of Maritime Trade

At the turn of the Common Era, the Satavahanas controlled the North Deccan and most of Western India. These kings ruled first from Paithan (in Aurangabad district, Maharashtra) and then from Amaravathi (in Guntur district, Andhra Pradesh), and were great patrons of trade and commerce, art and architecture. By 78 CE, most of what is now Southern Maharashtra, including Kolhapur, came under the rule of the Satavahanas, who expanded the Roman trade network wherever they went.

What made the Satavahanas masters of trade and commerce who left their stamp on distant lands?

Reflecting the Satavahanas’ naval might is this coin depicting a ship with a double mast issued by the King Vasishthiputra Pulumavi (1st to 2nd CE) | British Museum

The Satavahanas not only controlled important trade routes on the country’s west coast as well as in the hinterland, you could say they were also blessed by Poseidon himself, the Roman God of the Sea, for in 20 CE, a Greek sailor named Hippalus discovered that ships could sail directly from Egypt to India with the help of strong monsoon winds. This further powered trade between the Satavahanas and the Roman Empire, strengthening their dominance over maritime trade in the region and boosting the wealth of the territories they controlled.

Roman ships would regularly dock at ports such as Chaul in the Konkanand Sopara (in the North Konkan, north of Mumbai), laden with commodities such as wine, metals, ivory and precious stones. They would return with goods such as grain, salt, spices, bangles and textiles.

Brahmapuri in Kolhapur lay on the trade route that connected Konkan’s ports with cities in the Deccan. The Roman sailors carried with them statues of Poseidon, who protected them on their perilous journeys across the ocean. The Poseidon of Kolhapur was likely brought here by a Roman trader or was acquired by an Indian trader who brought it home.

The Brahmapuri Hoard

Discovered in 1945-46 during excavations by archaeologist H D Sankalia, the Brahmapuri Hoard contained both imported Roman bronzes and Indian artefacts. Stored in two large bronze pots in what appeared to be a house next to a well were around 100 objects, including 55 Satavahana lead coins.

Apart from being excellent seafarers ad traders, the Satavahanas were also great patrons of art, which is reflected in the contents of the hoard. Among its most remarkable Indian antiquities were a kneeling elephant with four riders, two toy carts, a hanging lamp with an ornamental elephant-head hook, and an applique figure of a lion with an eagle’s head bearing two holes so that it could be attached to a base.

The Roman bronzes were even more fascinating. These included the now famous Poseidon statue, an emblema (a raised panel bearing figures), depicting the legend of Perseus and Andromeda, a jug and the handle of a jug.

Pompeii Lakshmi In Naples

On the other side of the world, in the lost city of Pompeii in present-day Italy, excavators found a statuette of Goddess Lakshmi in a wooden chest in the house of a trader, in 1938. Nicknamed ‘Pompeii Lakshmi’, the statuette is believed to have been crafted in Bokardan in Jalna district in Maharashtra, and dates to the same period as the Kolhapur Poseidon.

Pompeii Lakshmi | Wikimedia Commons

Carved from ivory and standing 25 cm tall, Pompeii Lakshmi is on display in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. She appears to have made the journey across the Indian Ocean and beyond in the same way as Poseidon did, but in the reverse direction. Both statues are a testament to the sturdy trade links between Rome and India during the Satavahana period.

By 200 CE, political changes in India and in Rome brought an end to Indo-Roman trade. It would take one of India’s pioneering archaeologists to uncover this vibrant chapter in Maharashtra’s history, 2,000 years later. As for the Poseidon of Kolhapur, he stands proud on his pedestal in the Kolhapur Town Hall Museum, that is, when he’s not journeying across oceans, to participate in exhibitions around the world.