India is a land of constant reinvention. Through its history, cities have grown from the ruins of palaces and fortresses have overtaken slums until the patchwork of the subcontinent has become a land of hidden mysteries
Nowhere is this more apparent than the Indian coastline. The coastline of India is a lengthy one, and there have been many ports and industrial hubs throughout history.
Some of these important ports, like Travancore and Madras, have stood the test of time. However, there are some prosperous port cities that have been crushed under the wheel of time.
The coastline of southern India is perhaps its most famous historical aspect. From the southern and southwestern ports, traders and explorers left the Indian shores and explored the Indian Ocean.
The new states of Chennai and Kerala have a vast coastline and were the location of many ancient ports. One of these ports was the Muziris port. This storied and ancient city, once lost to time, has been rediscovered through the excavations of modern Kerala.
The Old Southern Port
According to historians, this port existed in the 1st century BC and took the famed spices of India to other countries and islands of the Indian Ocean. It was a major center for exports and imports as large and prosperous as anywhere at the time.
The biggest exports were that of Indian black pepper, which was even sent to faraway Rome. But this begs the question: if, around 2000 years back, the port of Muziris was such an important trading port of South India, why was it lost, and where are the remains?
It is not just archaeological evidence that provides evidence of the existence of Muziris. The existence and glory of Muziris have been highlighted by poets of South India.
According to a particular set of poetry called the Akananuru, the city of Muziris was flourishing at the mouth of Periyar. The port was so magnificent and popular that there were ships from many different Western kingdoms in its harbor.
These Western ships brought foreign gold to the shores and took high-quality black pepper from India. According to other literary evidence, the city of Muziris was also called Muciris or Muchiripatnam.
The city of Muziris was the epitome of wealth and luxury, where poets and writers saw rivers of liquor and treasures of gold. It is said that you could find anything at this trading port, and traders would earn a lot of wealth in its markets.
The wealth that the trade in spices brought to Muziris meant that the port was also known for its exports and imports of gold, both trasnported by foreign vessels and carried by small local boats that floated on the Periyar. And this fantastic wealth meant that its fame spread far and wide.
It is not just the Indian authors and poets who wrote about Muziris. Muziris is also written about by Pliny, the Roman scholar of Natural history. We know that Pliny had heard of Muziris, but the extensive trade routes between the city and the Roman Empire meant that he would even have been able to travel there himself, and it is possible he did so.
Pliny has called Muziris the first Indian emporium where different goods were sold and bought by people from all around the world. Pliny was a Roman through and through, and it is all but certain that, as another great civilization, Rome also knew about Muziris for centuries.
Certainly, Rome held Muziris in high esteem. According to a map known as the Tabula Peutingeriana drawn by Roman cartographers, the city of Muziris was one of the prime urban hubs of that era.
This map was drawn in the fifth century, and so we know that at least till the fifth or sixth century, Muziris flourished. However, the city is not mentioned significantly in any of the later historical texts of India or the world.
Its location fades out in the following centuries, the great city becoming extinct without a trace. It is as if a river is lost, and we cannot trace its source or confirm its presence once upon a time.
Indeed, the later evidence of the existence of Muziris was so little and so limited that some people thought it was a legendary city that never really existed. There are many legends and myths about the golden land of India, and this could be a possibility.
However, only through the older references to the city of Muziris do we know that it truly existed at one time. And, as it turns out, we now know where this city was.
The Archaeology of Muziris
The archaeological evidence of Muziris has been discovered very recently, as excavations were only started in the year 2004. The archaeology experts did not even know initially that they were discovering the port of Muziris.
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The artifacts and structures that were excavated showed that the place was once a port, so it could be the lost Muziris. Historians and archaeological experts have now collaborated to confirm the once-upon-a-time existence of Muziris.
And what has been discovered certainly fits the description of a city which was the center of trade with middle eastern countries like Greece and Rome. Historians believe that nearly thousands of tons of black pepper were exported to foreign countries from Muziris. Black pepper was the primary export because it was produced mostly in the Southern region, and was a key ingredient and preservative in ancient cultures.
However, there were other exports from the port, like ivory, gold, and other rare spices, that were only found in India. Even semi-precious stones sourced from other parts of India were exported from Muziris.
Silks and perfumes and other luxury products were also sent to different parts of the world from Muziris. It is believed that traders and merchants from the North and Himalayas also came to Muziris to export their produce.
The port was also used for foreign imports of wine, gold, fine glassware, olive oil, and fish sauce, which were popular in India. However, the exports outweighed the imports from Rome, and this pushed Rome into a trade deficit and loans from India.
Much of the archaeology remains still incomplete, but there is more and more coming to light every day. The present-day location of Muziris is the small town of Pattanam which is present near the port city of Kodungallur.
Top Image: The port of Muziris on the Tabula Peutingeriana: the city was so completely lost that many believed it never existed at all. Source: Commons Image / Public Domain.
By Bipin Dimri