Monday, December 20, 2010

Muziris an ancient port city

Muziris – The Little Venice
Sutheesh Hariharan & Srredevi Vimal

The place renowned as Kodungallur today is known as a temple town bearing the remnants of the long lost glory of a royal kingdom that once ruled it. Situated 38 kms away from Kochi in Kerala, Kodungallur is thronged by lakhs of pilgrims who come to seek the all powerful Sree Kurumba, the presiding Goddess of the temple.
Since devotees are more concerned about mythical legends pertaining to the temple, the little town desperately has to keep mum regarding its historical past and heritage. If we could give it an ear, we could hear it call itself Muchiri or Muziris as the Europeans who visited it called it.
Kodungallur is a town and a municipality in the Thrissur district in the Indian state of Kerala. It was known in ancient times as Mahodayapuram, Shinkli, Muchiri and Muyirikkodu. Muchiripattinam was a port at the mouth of the Periyar (also known as Choorni Nadi), a river in the southern Indian state of Kerala.  /  / 10.217; 76.217
Since the name Muchiri is not familiar to the average Indian ear, not many seem to have paid any heed to its mention in the epics Ramayana, Mahabharatha, Akananuru, and Chilappathikaram. The poets Pathanjali and Karthiyayan also have referred to it. Muziris has also been mentioned in the stone writings of Asoka.The port described in the Periplusm of the Erythraean Sea as being situated on Pseudostomos river is Muziris. It would be interesting to note that Pseudostomos in Greek means “false mouth”, the exact translation of the Malayalam word Alimukam, which is the mouth of the Periyar river.

So , that is Muziris. Let us now tune our ears to the ancient splendour of this Indo-Roman port that once lured men from across the oceans to visit it. Arabs, Greeks, Romans and Egyptians came frequently to Muziris between the 2nd century B.C. and 10th century A.D., catching the South West monsoon wind, guided by the current of the Arabian Sea. The little river port echoed with the hub of glory and prosperity and Muziris glowed in the trade maps of the time. Arabs, Jews and Chettis were the main inhabitants of this place. Muziris was then the homeland of spices and the main attraction came from the abundance of pepper, known as “black gold” or the “king of spices”. The Greeks, Egyptians and the Romans imported precious gems, spices and cotton from Muziris. The town also acted as the collecting and clearing point of precious gemstones. Garnets and Quartz came from Arikamedu region on the Eastern coast of South India. The pearls were from the Gulf of Mannar while Lapis Lazuli beads came from Kodumanal in the neighbouring region.

The main traders who came to this port were Romans. Muziris’ trade links with Romans can be traced back to more than 2000 years. Pliny, in his”Naturalis Historia” has noted that if a sailor followed the wind “Hippalus”, he would reach Muziris in forty days. The Romans came with gold and returned with pepper. An 1800 old agreement signed between an Egyptian merchant and a local merchant shows an agreement for exporting pepper, ivory and clothes. During the 2nd century A.D. , ships with GRT 200 tonnes used to trade between Rome and Kerala for spices. From all the available data till date, archaeologists document that a total of 120 ships have crossed the Red Sea and sailed towards India for trade during the first century. Like the Greeks, the Romans were also wild about pepper, which they imported from the East for a high price. Pliny, the Elder, even reprimanded them for exchanging precious gold and silver for a product that grew like weed in its homeland. But they went on paying out their gold and silver for the King of Spices.

Eudoxus of Cyzicus sailed into Muziris during his two voyages undertaken between 118 and 116 BC. Muziris is mentioned in the Periplous of the Erythraean Sea and in Ptolemy's Geography and is prominent on the Peutinger Table. Pliny referred to it several times in his Naturalis Historia. Pliny called this port primum emporium Indiae.There is no doubt Muziris was a major port in its time and was an Emporium, as Pliny called it.

In what is called a third century map , Muziris is shown prominently by drawing a circle round it. Pliny in his Natural History mentioned that the roadstead for shipping was at a considerable distance from the shore and that the cargoes are to be conveyed in boats, for either loading or discharging. He was indicating that Muziris was not along the coast, but situated inland, reachable by a creek or a river. This was confirmed by the later Roman sources according to which “Muziris is located on a river, distant from Tindis - by river and sea, 500 stadia; and by river from the shore, 20 stadia”.
The maritime contacts of this region during the Early Historic period seem to have been extensive as evidenced by the large number of Roman amphora sherds, a few terra sigillata sherds, Sassanian, Yemenite and other West Asian potteries. Earlier the most important find was the rim and handle of a classic Italian wine amphora, which came from Naples and belonged to the late first century B.C. The amphora, which was used to transport wine and olive oil, had been identified from a number of Roman sites in India, including Arikamedu and Alagankulam in Tamil Nadu.
Many important finds were obtained like human bones, urns, gold ornaments, glass beads, stone beads, utilitarian objects made of stone, copper and iron, typical pottery, early Chera coins, brick wall, brick platform, ring well, wharf with bollards, and a six meter long wooden canoe parallel to the wharf structure . The excavations on this surface level indicate a vast ‘urban’ settlement. The excavations suggest that the site was first occupied by the indigenous “Megalithic” (Iron Age) people, followed by the Roman contact in the Early Historic Period.
Muziris has also been the gateway for the entry of Christianity and Islam to India. St.Thomas, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ, is believed to have set foot in Kerala through the Muziris port and so did the Islamic missionaries. It is here that India’s first church, Mar Thoma Church and the first mosque, Cheraman Juma Masjid, are located.
St. Thomas arrived here on November 21 in AD 52. One of the seven churches built by St. Thomas is in Kodungallur. This made Muziris the Cradle of Indian Christianity. Here, St. Thomas preached to a Jewish community, who accepted mesia and their synagogue became a Christian church.

An interesting story goes that when the Apostle St. Thomas landed at Maliankara near Moothakunnam village in Paravoor Thaluk, located five kilometers from Kodungallur, some of his followers as well as other sailors and merchants were suffering from a severe form of scurvy. St. Thomas himself suffered from a sore throat which he chose to ignore, and which grew steadily worse, until no voice emanated from his lips for many days. A local Jew named Matan took the weary travellers to a local Nair Tharavad (locally known as Kambiam Vallapil), in the province of Kolathunaad, a territory comprising the present Cannanore District and Badagara Taluk of Kerala. It is said that at the time of St. Thomas’s arrival at the tharavad, the Nair Karnavar (landlord or head of the family), lay injured from a grievous wound that had been inflicted upon him in a feudal duel. Upon seeing this, St. Thomas sat beside the injured man and meditated, laying his hands on the man’s head, his throat, his chest and his groin. Immediately, the karnavar felt relieved from pain and his healing was hastened. Within a day, he was up and about, his wounds having nearly healed. In return, the Nair household offered shelter to the strangers and called upon their family physician to cure the scurvy that the travelers suffered from, as well as St. Thomas’s severely infected throat. Nellikaya (Emblic Myrobalan or Indian Gooseberry) based potions prepared by the tharavad was used to cure the sea-worn voyagers. In an act of gratitude, St. Thomas is said to have blessed them and gave them four silver coins saying, "May these coins bestow my Guru’s blessings upon you and your household, for take heed when I tell you that the money I pay you today is anointed with His blood’.

It is believed that in around 600 A.D., the Chera king named Cheraman Perumal who ruled most parts of Kerala from Kodungallore (Muziris) left for Makkah, embraced Islam, and accepted the name Thajudeen. He married the sister of King of Jeddah and came back in a ship with many Islamic leaders to spread the faith. But unfortunately, he died enroute. But he had already written a letter to the reigning king of Muziris to treat the guests positively. Thus, the reigning King made all arrangements for the Muslim team and allowed them to propagate their religion in Kerala. He gave them the Hindu Arathali temple to be converted in to a Juma Masjid (Mosque). We can still see the Hindu temple architecture design in the Mosque. It is considered to be the second mosque in the world after the mosque in Medina in Saudi Arabia.

Thus, Muziris was a major point of liaison between the East and the West for rampant trading and for spreading different religions like Christianity and Islam. Between A.D. 10th century and A.D. 18th century, it is assumed that there was not much life found in this geographical area. It is believed that by flood or earthquake, the port was displaced from the current location to an inner area. Some say that it is the devastating invasion of Tipusultan that destroyed Muziris. Yet another perspective holds that it was the port developed in the Kochi region and the British invasion of India that had forced Muziris to be dumped into the history of time.

Though the eloquence of Muzuri is still somewhat shrouded in mystery, it does not negate the historical importance enjoyed by the port, which served as the cultural and pecuniary pillar of a time. It opened new vistas of knowledge, trade and commerce, connecting the Orient with the Occident, letting in ideologies , wealth and new streams of thought. The ancient Muziris is no more. But the temple town Kodungalloor still glows in the grace of Sree Kurumba, hiding in its mysterious smile, the Indian hospitality that accommodated anything new and the ancient splendour of India that made sailors swarm to her bosom.


  1. Sutheesh Email

  2. Please read the name on the by line as Sreedevi Vimal. Thanks, Sutheesh