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Sutradhara’s tales: Pune’s Roman connection… bangles offer the clue!

Reading about my claims of Stonehenges in Pune and now Pune’s Roman’s connections would leave many of you in disbelief… Is the Sutradhara of Pune’s story bluffing to keep up the interest in mundane finds from pits, you may wonder? Certainly not! But, do indulge me for a while as we contextualise the humble findings from the salvage excavations that we talked about in the last column
By Saili K Palande-Datar
PUBLISHED ON FEB 17, 2021 03:01 PM IST

Reading about my claims of Stonehenges in Pune and now Pune’s Roman’s connections would leave many of you in disbelief… Is the Sutradhara of Pune’s story bluffing to keep up the interest in mundane finds from pits, you may wonder?

Certainly not!

But, do indulge me for a while as we contextualise the humble findings from the salvage excavations that we talked about in the last column. Last week’s column told us that the settlement of Pune has been here for around 2000 years, atleast.

So, what did the historical scene of those times look like?

Satavahana, the first empire of Maharashtra, did not rise to be an empire as a result of accident. As we observe frequently in history, political power rises to control the economic resources that the land has to offer. And in case of Satavahana it was not just the land, but the sea played a major role.

The western coast of India was abuzz with flourishing trade with Rome and middle-eastern countries under the western Shaka Kshatrapa, or Indo Scythian kings who were contemporaries of the local Satavahana dynasty and the Kushanas in the north.

The political conflict between the Kshatrapas and Satavahanas made other associated clans such as Mahabhojas and Maharathis side with either Satavahanas or Kshatrapas, to take control of the flourishing trade, ports and trade routes.

The anonymous work of first century CE, “Periplus of Erythrian Sea” and Roman texts such as Ptolemy’s “Geography” and geographer Pliny offer us a plethora of evidence of Indo Roman connections and ancient routes prevalent during those times.

Hippalus, a greek navigator discovered the monsoon winds and the route across the Arabian Sea to India around 45 CE. Roman trade in India began with overland caravans and later, by direct maritime trade following the conquest of Egypt by Augustus in 30 BCE.

This flourishing trade came to complete stop by the third century CE due to the collapse of the Roman economy and siltation of western Indian ports, but let us understand its nature.

Roman traders preferred trade in silk, pearls, cotton, cotton cloth, indigo, ivory, spices, sesame, medicines and animals like tigers, monkeys, cheetah, peacock, and rhinoceros, from India to Europe; in exchange, Indians profited greatly by dealing in gold and silver. European markets were full with Indian goods. Wealthy roman citizens were in love with Indian silk and pearls. Roman wine, and slave women were coveted and one comes across evidence of wine carrying Roman amphorae in many archaeology excavations in western India.

Romans took a circuitous sea route around Africa to reach the Persian Gulf and further touch the western Indian shores. Main Ports on western coast of India were Barygaza (Bharuch), Shurparak (Sopara), Kalyan and Chaul.

Kalyan was a major loading and offloading centre from where traders would proceed by roads either by wagons/carts or loading the goods on animals to various parts of India. The principle route of Kalyan travelled to the important town of Junnar which was a trade centre and capital via the great Nanghat pass.

It is on this pass the famous inscriptions of Satavahana queen Naganika are located in a rock-cut cave.

Further important destinations were Satavahana towns of Paithan, Nevasa, Tagar (Ter) and Amaravati in Andhra Pradesh. One important route went south from Junnar travelling though Pune onwards to Karad, Kolhapur and Karnataka.

The Roman texts are not the only sources which tell us about this ancient trade. The spread of Buddhism in the Deccan coincides with the Indo-Roman trade and the large scale of evidence is found in the form of western Indian rock-cut caves and inscriptions there in.

Along with main cave groups of Kanheri (Mumbai) and hundreds of caves in and around Junnar, the trade routes along the Sahyadris are marked by scattered rock-cut caves mainly affiliated to Buddhism. The traders who travelled on these routes were known to take shelter in many of the Buddhist cave monasteries on the way and numerous inscriptions in the cave stand testimony to their association and patronage.

Even today, as you travel via the Pune-Mumbai highway along the Bor ghat, and further down south towards Bengaluru, important cave groups with water tanks such as Bhaje Bedse, Karle, Agashiv, are located on both the side mountains along the way.

Near home, the cave group of Shelarwadi, Buddhist vihar at Man near Hinjewadi and Vruddheshwar/Pandav caves (Hanuman Tekdi, Wadarwadi) are of ancient origin dating to early centuries of the Common Era. (We shall learn more about caves of Pune in future articles).

Thus, Pune falls right on the ancient Indo Roman trade route. However, till recently we were unaware of any settlement from Pune which has any connection to this trade route.

Amongst various objects reported in Pune’s urban excavations of Pune old town, Archaeo-zoologist, Dr Arati Deshpande-Mukherjee of Deccan College studied 95 fragments of shell bangles to find a clue to their origin. These particular fragments were made into circular shape by cutting sections of Turbinella pyrum shell by a sharp saw-like cutting tool. The decorations on the bangles consist of slight incisions, circles, rope-like patterns, embossed knobs and channelled grooves. However, most of them were plain.

Adding to the interest, the debitage or discarded shell material after making the bangles was found along with these fragments suggesting a bangle-making industry. Though it is not possible to determine the extent of the activity, evidence certainly establishes a working industry in the heart of Pune.

Further enquiry into the particular shell used as raw material took the search to Gujarat coast near Saurashtra from where the original Turbinella pyrum shell can be procured. Similar bangle making industry operates even today in Bengal.

These types of bangles were earlier reported from various Satavahana trade centres such as Paithan, Bhokardan, Ter and Nevasa thus underlining the significance as relevant trade goods.

Thus, one can reasonably surmise that the market for such crafted bangles was definitely not local in small settlement of Pune and operated across western India and along the international Indo-Roman trade route.

So don’t be surprised if handcrafted bangles manufactured in Pune with shell procured from the Gujarat coast are found in any excavated graves in Rome or Middle East!

It is quite intriguing that the legends which mention the early beginnings of Pune as a settlements mention Kasari as one settlements where Kasars (Bangdi Kasar) are engaged in bangle making. Though it is difficult to trace a direct connection of the ancient shell bangle makers of Pune to medieval localised Kasar communities of old Pune, it definitely marks the similarity in the occupation.

As they say all the roads lead to Rome, we can be sure that in the past, the one from Pune definitely did.

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