History lost...twice? ‘Muziris’ excavations in Kerala’s Pattanam face right wing wrath

Updated on Feb 20, 2017 10:55 AM IST

The excavation work at Pattanam was stalled after ASI suspended KCHR’s license in September 2015, triggered by a complaint by Bharatheeya Vichara Kendram, an RSS affiliate body, who claimed that the project was a “collective conspiracy and propaganda to claim that Pattanam was the ancient Muziris.”

Local potsherds are labeled and stored at the excavation site of Pattanam in Kerala.(GRIST Media)
Local potsherds are labeled and stored at the excavation site of Pattanam in Kerala.(GRIST Media)
ByManas Roshan

A decade ago, Pattanam was a quiet, nondescript village 30km north of Cochin. Even today, its narrow lanes wind past country houses and the sea always feels like it’s just past the next clump of coconut trees. But for many years, local children rummaging in the sand had found old glass beads and pot shards that pointed to ancient encounters. The village’s name, too, gave its secret away: The word has its origins in Prakrit, in which it could mean either a ferry or a port.

In 2007, the Kerala Council for Historical Research (KCHR), an autonomous body supported by the state government, began digging in the village and was immediately struck by the richness of their finds. Over nine years, the team of archaeologists unearthed over 1.29 lakh artefacts, some dating as far back as the Iron Age (years 1000 to 500 Before Common Era), and giving evidence of trade with the Mediterranean and Arabian Peninsula at the peak of the Roman Empire (1st Century Common Era).

But in September 2015, the Archaeological Survey of India suspended KCHR’s license to excavate at Pattanam and launched an inquiry into the work it had done till then. This was in response to a complaint by the Bharatheeya Vichara Kendram, an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, who claimed that the project was a “collective conspiracy and propaganda to claim that Pattanam was the ancient Muziris.”

Last month, the ASI, whose assent is mandatory for any excavation in the country, closed its inquiry and renewed the organisation’s license to dig at the site. But by then, funds had dried up and research had almost ground to a halt. The project now faces an uncertain future after the retirement in 2016 of KCHR’s director, PJ Cherian, who has steered the excavations from the start.

Archaeology is a mine-field in India, where the creation of a national identity has had to contend with the diversity that its people have inherited – a history of mixing, a fear of contamination. Simplistic notions of the past come up against a common problem: too much history.

In one pit researchers found a wharf structure, a wooden dug-out canoe and bollards, all dating back to the Early Historic Period. (GRIST Media)
In one pit researchers found a wharf structure, a wooden dug-out canoe and bollards, all dating back to the Early Historic Period. (GRIST Media)

At the time that excavations began in Pattanam, some historians had a hunch that the village was the site of the fabled Muziris mentioned in classical Roman and Tamil literature. Minor archaeological excavations in the past had turned up foreign pottery from the area. “Anyone familiar with archaeology could tell the difference between local and non-local materials among the finds,” said Cherian.

But the archaeologists weren’t prepared for the volume of material they unearthed: black-and red-ware pottery and iron implements traced back to the Iron Age; non-local ceramics and glassware pointing to trade with the Mediterranean in the Early Historic period (years 300 BCE to 500 CE); turquoise glazed pottery that continues into the medieval period (500 to 1500 CE); and even Chinese ceramics as recent as the 16th Century.

From the start, the team realised it needed to look far and wide for help: Greek and Latin scholars to understand the classical literature on Muziris; geologists to explain sediment deposits and their contexts; laboratory scientists to date the artefacts using radio carbon tests; and paleo-botanists to reconstruct the vegetation and food habits of the time. “Archaeological research has two fundamental aspects: it must be interdisciplinary and collaborative,” said Cherian. KCHR sought experts and training from several institutions in the country, in addition to the British Museum in London, the Palace Museum in Beijing and the Universities of Oxford and Rome. When its license was suspended, the KCHR had just signed an agreement with the Palace Museum to set up a laboratory at the Pattanam site.

Glass beads and decorative stones found at the site (GRTSI Media)
Glass beads and decorative stones found at the site (GRTSI Media)

The assemblage of Roman amphorae — large storage jars for wine, olive oil and fish sauce — were the biggest, found in India, according to Roberta Tomber, an honorary fellow at the British Museum, a specialist in Mediterranean ceramics and one of the first collaborators on the dig. “From the outset, it was clear that the evidence from Pattanam was exceptional and would do much to progress our understanding of Indo-Mediterranean trade,” said Tomber.

The artefacts confirmed several details that were only hinted at in textual sources for Greco-Roman trade with the region. In the classical literature of the Sangam age (300 BCE to 300 CE), the prized port of Tamilakam (of which present day Kerala was a part) was Muciri Pattinam. The poet Tayankannaanar, in Akananuru, described it as a “prosperous town” on the banks of the “beautiful Culli river [Periyar]”, where the “Yavanas [Westerners] come with their fine ships, bearing gold, and leave with pepper.”

Black pepper, a precious commodity for preserving meat and enlivening tastes in the West, was bought in large sums from India’s south-western coast and Muziris was the hub of this trade. The Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder, described it as the “first emporium of India” (77 CE).

Historians had long debated the location of the port. “Kodungallur, which was earlier believed to be the site of Muziris, hadn’t turned up any artefacts from before the medieval period. Pattanam is only 12 km away,” said Cherian.

The Periplus Maris Erythraei, a 1st Century CE navigational document says: “Muziris, in the kingdom of Keprobotos, owes its prosperity to the ships that come from Ariake and Greece. It lies on a river 20 stades [about three kilometres] from its mouth.” Ships would anchor on the coast and the cargo would have to be fetched on smaller boats that plied up and down the Periyar River. Today, a tributary of the river flows a short distance from the site, where in one pit researchers also found a wharf structure, a wooden dug-out canoe and bollards, all dating back to the Early Historic Period.

The excavation site in Pattanam (GRIST Media)
The excavation site in Pattanam (GRIST Media)

The allegations from Hindutva groups weren’t new — since the early years of excavations, there were claims in the press and in Hindutva blogs that the equation of Pattanam with the ancient port gave credence to Syrian Catholic legend that the apostle Thomas had sailed to Muziris from the Red Sea in the 1st Century CE, bringing Christianity to the state before it even reached the West. A credence that they didn’t welcome — Dr KN Madhusudan Pillai, director of BVK told the Times of India in September 2015, that the “only motive of these excavations is to establish that there was no Brahmanical heritage of Kerala and that it was only after St Thomas arrived that culture came here”.

The KCHR’s research hasn’t examined the religious practices of the time and moreover, according to Cherian, the name is immaterial. “The story starts around 1000 BCE, when there was no Muziris. There are also finds from post-Muziris.”

The researchers, for their part, have been cautious in declaring that Pattanam is Muziris but they don’t hide their enthusiasm at what the evidence suggests. “The quantity of Mediterranean material that has been excavated from Pattanam, in conjunction with ancient Tamil and classical written sources, strongly supports the equation between Pattanam and ancient Muziris,” said Tomber.

The brick structures and the toilet arrangements (GRIST Media)
The brick structures and the toilet arrangements (GRIST Media)

In one of the later seasons of the excavations, the team hit upon Cherian’s favourite pieces of the Pattanam puzzle: Architectural remnants in the form of brick flooring, drainage networks, ring wells and toilet structures — suggesting that it was a planned urban settlement. “There’s evidence of the trade, with luxury goods like pepper and frankincense. But who were these people? The bricks and toilet structures humanise these findings,” said Cherian.

The only written clue found at the site, which perhaps points to its religious life, is a potsherd inscribed with five letters in Tamil-Brahmi script, which dates back to the 2nd Century CE. The letters read as amana, possibly linking to sramana, meaning a senior Buddhist or Jain monk.

Contentions over identity aren’t the only problems that such projects face. In India, as in other developing countries, archaeology is controlled and funded by the government, which is often insensitive about the people inhabiting a historical site. In Pattanam, where over 3,000 people live on every square kilometre, unused land is scarce. “People thought their land would be forcibly taken away. The colonial practice was to evict people from their land in order to conserve a site. We wanted to move away from that approach.” said Cherian. According to Cherian, KCHR paid market rates for the land and launched a ‘Green Archaeology’ initiative. It provided bicycles and employment to the locals, built a children’s museum at the site and also started a one-year post-graduate course in archaeology in Pattanam.

As Rachel A Varghese, a researcher on public archaeology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University writes in her 2015 essay, Archaeology and the New Imaginations of the Past, the Hindu Right’s grievances, though directed at the excavations, were actually a reaction to the Muziris Heritage Project (MHP), launched by the state government around the same time as the start of the excavations. The Rs 200 crore project, meant to conserve Kerala’s heritage and repackage its charms for tourism, covers 150 sq km spread across five panchayats in Ernakulam and Thrissur districts. The area includes Pattanam and 16 other historical sites, for example, the Paravur Jewish Synagogue, Cheraman Juma Masjid, Mar Thoma Church, Paliam Dutch Palace, Kodangaloor Bhagavathi Temple, etc. Visitors can combine these on theme-based tours conducted as part of the MHP.

The choice of monuments, writes Varghese, perfectly captures Kerala’s cultural syncretism, although it does this by stretching the historical sweep of Muziris. All of these were built centuries after the port ceased to be active. “The fall of the Roman empire seems to have led to the slow decline of the Muziris port,” said Cherian. The quantity and richness of artefacts begins to shrink after the 5th Century CE.

Potsherd withTamil-Brahmi script (GRIST Media )
Potsherd withTamil-Brahmi script (GRIST Media )

“One has to be very careful when identifying historical sites, but hypotheses are fine,” feels Cherian, adding, “On the other hand, if artists or the public want to re-imagine that history, isn’t that a good thing?”

In that spirit, Cherian and the state government have supported art projects that have reclaimed the cosmopolitanism of Muziris. In 2009, the state’s departments of education, culture and tourism joined hands with the celebrated Malayali artists, Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, to plan the Kochi Muziris Biennale — a three-month-long arts festival, bringing together artists, galleries and cultural institutions from across the country and the world. Now, in its third edition, curated by contemporary artist Sudarshan Shetty, the Kochi Biennale has turned into one of the most important arts events in India. Previous editions of the biennale have had artists reflecting on the port’s history, most notably Vivan Sundaram’s installation using 8 lakh potsherds to reflect on the pepper trade, titled ‘Black Gold’.

Seated on the Aspinwall House terrace overlooking the Kochi harbour, Krishnamachari told me how the choice of Kochi was a natural one. “In the 14th Century, when a flood destroyed the site, the port shifted to Kochi. More than 30 countries used to have trade relations with Muziris. That’s a huge number when you consider it was 2,000 years ago,” said Krishnamachari, wearing his trademark printed shirt and fluorescent glasses. Aspinwall House, a sprawling property in the Fort Kochi area, once housed an English trading company and is now owned by the DLF group. It’s now the main venue of the Biennale. (Simultaneous exhibitions take place in at least 10 other locations spread across the rapidly gentrifying neighbourhoods of Fort Kochi and Mattancherry, in the historic old quarters of the city.)

Krishnamachari described the Biennale as a collaborative effort, which brought together not just diverse arts and artists, but planners, architects, historians and intellectuals within Kerala. “That cosmopolitanism, that kind of global acceptance existed and still exists here. Kochi has accepted everybody as they are: The first mosque, the first church and synagogue in India, they were built here. I would say it’s almost like a mirror and for me a mirror is not a reflector; it’s a receiver.”


The ASI’s approval in December also includes a license to survey another site to the south, in Kollam (Quilon in the ancient trade routes). “We are also interested in the Kollam site to understand the continuation of the Muziris story, after it disappeared. We don’t think it really stopped entirely. It might have moved,” said Cherian.

The 22-foot-long Peutinger scroll on the table (GRIST Media)
The 22-foot-long Peutinger scroll on the table (GRIST Media)

The Tabula Peutingeriana, a 22-foot-long scroll that sits in Vienna, is the only surviving map of the trade routes of the Roman Empire. It depicts towns, seas, rivers, and roads. The scroll in Vienna is a late medieval era copy of a map dated to the 5th Century. At the centre of that world is Rome — on its Western edge are the British islands and in the opposite end is Muziris.

Cherian believes that the Indian subcontinent was blessed by nothing more than geography for its place in the trans-oceanic trade routes. “The land mass juts out like a jetty in the Indian Ocean. It also had a network of 44 rivers, so there was contact with the hinterland,” he said. Its connections to other ports were thus spread wide — to Guangzhou (China), Khao Sam Kaeo (Upper Thai-Malay Peninsula), Ormara (Pakistan), Khor Rori (Sumhuram, Oman), Berenike (Berenice, Egypt), and Cilicia (Turkey), to name just a few.

“There was exchange, of technology, people, ideas and goods. I’m not comfortable with the term “globalisation” because of its modern connotations, but it is the first time that cultures far and near came closer,” said Cherian. But to his team, Pattanam was no end of the earth. It played a presiding role in that history.

(In arrangement with GRIST MEDIA)

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