Muziris: Globalization’s First Port of Call

Muziris, sunlight, pattanam, excavation, amphora
Image: 7MB
A historic dig in Kerala may have unearthed the lost trading port of Muziris. Was this an ancient hub of globalization?

Pattanam is a small village north of the city of Cochin in Kerala. Hugged by the river Periyar on the East and the Arabian sea on the West, for many years it was just another sideshow on the road to Cherai beach.

That is, until 2007, when excavations by the Kerala Council of Historical Research (KCHR) turned the spot into the most exciting dig in recent Indian archeological history. Today, archeologists are almost certain that it is a part of the legendary port town of Muziris – an ancient trade port that connected India to Roman, Mediterranean and African merchants as far back as 1000 BC.

From a set of 60 trenches, covering less than 1% of the mound, they have unearthed “1,29,083 artefacts, 5,16,676 diagnostic potsherds (i.e. rims, necks, handles, bases etc of pots), 1,40,165 non-Indian pottery sherds and 4.5 million local body sherds.”

Sherds, fragments, patanam
Image: Riyaz Shaik/ 7MB

What do these ‘sherds’ (fragments of pots and other vessels) mean to archeologists? For P. Cherian, director of the KCHR, each is a snapshot into a forgotten world.

“Why these beautiful ornaments? For whom did they make it? Why this sophistication, and from where did they get this technology?” he asks, his voice rising in excitement with each question.

Pot, sunlight, old, amphora
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The Pattanam dig is a missing link for historians and archeologists. Several mentions of an ancient port city in the region exist – from Pliny in ancient Rome, Ptolemy in ancient Greece to the Sangam literature of Tamil poets. The history unearthed here reflects 800 years of the early historic period – 300BC to 500AD.

So valuable was pepper to the Roman palate, that it could be exchanged directly for gold, giving it the name ‘black gold’. In Akanāṉūṟu, a sixth century work of Sangam literature, a poet paints the picture.

In Chēran’s prosperous Muciṟi town, the huge
and beautiful Cuḷḷi river flows, muddied with
white foam. The Yavanas come with their
fine ships, bearing gold, and leave with pepper.

– Akanāṉūṟu 149, trans. Vaidehi Herbert

But mention of the trading port began to decline around the fifth century of the common era.  What took Muziris off the global map? The answers, heavily debated, lie in historical interpretations.

wharf, ancient, excavation, muziris
(Image: 7MB) An unearthed wharf

As with all trading ports, the decline of trade in a particular commodity defines the fortune of the port. It is argued that the wane in demand for pepper, triggered by the collapse of the Roman Empire around 300AD, contributed to Muziris’ disappearance from the map of global trade.

Other explanations include the Periyar river’s great flood in 1341 – which destroyed the port town, and created the harbour of Kochi port. In this case, the floods effectively shifted the centre of international trade in the region to Kochi.

There’s no conclusive answer, but as a poem by Meera Alexander laments, in Acqua Alta:

“The lagoon swells at monsoon time and floods the Ghetto.
All the pepper of Muziris cannot buy their freedom or mine,”

A Two-Way Confluence of Culture

Ring, well, remains
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Muziris was an early example of a cosmopolitan port. So many merchants came from the West to India, that a term was coined to describe them all – Yavanas. The West here includes Persian, Arabian and European travellers.

“Muziris is part of the first human experience of the old world coming together – three continents (Europeans, Africans and Asians). It’s an amazing transoceanic interface,” says Cherian.

What he finds fascinating is that this was truly an exchange of ideas. Narratives about ‘discovering’ India often pose India as a place that existed to be discovered by a foreign traveller – like Vasco De Gama or Fa Hien. But what do we know about those Indians who travelled Westwards or Eastwards?

Europeans came [here] 1500 years before Vasco De Game came here. My ancestors went to Europe 1500 years before this celebrated event happened. We have evidence – if you come to Pattanam, you can see it. From Gaul, France, South Italy, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Jordan – these materials came here.

The word globalization hangs in the air, for any discussion of this ancient trading port. Cherian wants to say that we were a part of something larger than national borders, but finds globalization a problematic word. “I use it to say that we/cultures became closer.”

Globalization – the exchange of trade and ideas – is a two-way street. As Cherian says, this was a time without passport or visa requirements. He laughs, and says “and because you and me were colonized you think we didn’t go there, they only came here.”

In fact, in his visit to China, he found first-hand evidence of a South Indian traveller who had been to China.

(Image courtesy: PJC/ KCHR) A depiction of the ancient Indian monk ‘Damodaran’

The work awaiting KCHR at Pattanam was a handful, and they sought academic assistance from across the world – tying up with the universities of Oxford, Georgia and Rome to name a few. The Palace Museum of Beijing, China also expressed their interest in a collaboration, regarding the Chinese ceramics unearthed at Pattanam.

An MoU and some negotiations later, and a team from India packed their bags for an official trip to the Palace Museum in Beijing. Archaeologists on either side traded notes on their techniques and a team of Indian archaeologists conducted a dig within the Forbidden city. After thousands of years, Pattanam had once again connected cultures. Cherian left China with a photo he would cherish, that of an Indian traveller named Damo, who had visited China.

Damo was a Buddhist monk believed to have reached China around 5th century CE from the south-west coast of peninsular India (Kerala) and became an influential thinker in Chinese history. One lore says he hails from the Thalassery region of North Kerala and his original name was Damodaran.

Cherian loved the photo, evocative as it is of an ancient Malayali traveler, and made it the cover of his report.

Globalization and Muziris Today

Pot, sunlight, ancient, archaeology
Image: 7MB

Apart from lending its name to the Kochi-Muziris-Biennale, Muziris today is more an ideal for a society long past. Whether Pattanam really is the ancient port of Muziris or not does not detract from the value of the window to the past it has unearthed.

It’s a peek into a world without border controls, where trade was encouraged and welcome from across the world. The idea of catching a boat from Pattanam, bearing a cargo of ‘black gold’ and exploring the world in the classical period is as romantic as it gets (though, as with recent times, one had to watch out for pirates in the Arabian Sea).

Kerala was already a popular tourist destination, but the arrival of the Biennale in 2010 made the little enclave of Fort Kochi a booming centre of the international art circuit. Pattanam, an hour’s drive from the Biennale, now basks in the renewed cosmopolitan circuit that takes place between December and March every year.

What was global became local and then global again. At Pattanam, it’s almost as if history repeats itself.


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