Muziris (in Greco-Roman sources, Muciri in native Tamil) was an ancient seaport and urban center in south-western India that existed from around 1st century AD. Muziris has found mention in the bardic Tamil literature and a number of classical European historical sources.
The port was a key to the trade between southern India and the Phoenicians, the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Roman Empire. The important known commodities exported from Muziris were spices (such as black pepper and malabathron), semi-precious stones (such as beryl), pearls, diamonds, sapphires, ivory, Chinese silk, Gangetic spikenard and tortoise shells. The Romans brought money (in gold coins), peridots, thin clothing, figured linens, multicoloured textiles, sulfide of antimony, copper, tin, lead, coral, raw glass, wine, realgar and orpiment. Location of coin hoards unearthed suggest an inland trade link from Muziris via the Palghat Gap and along the Kaveri Valley to the east coast of India. Though the Roman trade declined from the 5th century AD the former Muziris attracted the attention of other nationalities, particularly the Chinese, till the great floods of Periyar in the 14th century.
The exact location of Muziris is still not known to historians and archaeologists. It is generally speculated to be situated around present day Cranganore, 18 miles north of Cochin. Cranganore in central Kerala figures prominently in the ancient history of southern India as a vibrant urban hub of the Chera rulers.
A series of excavations were conducted at the village of Pattanam (near Cranganore) by the autonomous institution Kerala Council for Historical Research (outsourced by Kerala State Department of Archaeology) in 2006-07 and it was immediately announced that the lost port of Muziris was found. The rapid conclusion invited criticism from historians and archaeologists.
The derivation of the name "Muziris" is said to be from the native Tamil name to the port, "muciri". In the region, Periyar river perhaps branched into two like a cleft palate (an abnormal facial development) and thus gave it the name "Muciri." It is referred to as Muciri in Tamil Sangams poems, Muracippattanam in Sanskrit epic Ramayana, and as Muyirikkodu in a copper plate of a 11th-century Chera ruler.
"the city where the beautiful vessels, the masterpieces of the Yavanas [Westerners], stir white foam on the Culli [Periyar], river of the Chera, arriving with gold and departing with pepper-when that Muciri, brimming with prosperity, was besieged by the din of war."
The Purananuru described Muziris as a bustling port city where interior goods were exchanged for imported gold. It seems the Chera chiefs regarded their contacts with the Roman traders as a form of gift exchange rather than straightforward commercial dealings.
"With its streets, its houses, its covered fishing boats, where they sell fish, where they pile up rice-with the shifting and mingling crowd of a boisterous river-bank were the sacks of pepper are heaped up-with its gold deliveries, carried by the ocean-going ships and brought to the river bank by local boats, the city of the gold-collared Kuttuvan (Chera chief), the city that bestows wealth to its visitors indiscriminately, and the merchants of the mountains, and the merchants of the sea, the city where liquor abounds, yes, this Muciri, were the rumbling ocean roars, is give to me like a marvel, a treasure. ."
Akananuru describes Pandya attacks on the Chera port of Muciri. This episode is impossible to date, but the attack seems to have succeeded in diverting Roman trade from Muziris.
"It is suffering like that experienced by the warriors who were mortally wounded and slain by the war elephants. Suffering that was seen when the Pandya prince came to besiege the port of Muciri on his flag-bearing chariot with decorated horses."
"Riding on his great and superior war elephant the Pandya prince has conquered in battle. He has seized the sacred images after winning the battle for rich Muciri."
"...then come Naura and Tyndis, the first markets of Lymrike, and then Muziris and Nelkynda, which are now of leading importance. Tyndis is of the kingdom of Keprobotes; it is a village in plain sight by the sea. Muziris, in the same kingdom, abounds in ships sent there with cargoes from Arabia, and by the Greeks; it is located on a river, distant from Tyndis by river and sea 500 stadia, and up the river from the shore 20 stadia...
"There is exported pepper, which is produced in only one region near these markets, a district called Cottonara"
The Periplus reveals how Muziris became the main trade port for the Chera chiefdom. The author explains that this large settlement owed its prosperity to foreign commerce, including shipping arriving from northern India and the Roman empire. Black pepper from the hills was brought to the port by the local producers and stacked high in warehouses to await the arrival of Roman merchants. As the shallows at Muziris prevented deep-hulled vessels from sailing upriver to the port, Roman freighters were forced to shelter at the edge of the lagoon while their cargoes were transferred upstream on smaller craft.
The Periplus records that special consignments of grain were sent to places like Muziris and scholars suggest that these deliveries were intended for resident Romans who needed something to supplement the local diet of rice.
Pliny the Elder
Pliny the Elder gives a description of voyages to India in the 1st century AD. He refers to many Indian ports in his The Natural History . However, by the time of Pliny, Muziris was no longer a favored location in Roman trade dealing with the Tamils.
"To those who are bound for India, Ocelis (on the Red Sea) is the best place for embarkation. If the wind, called Hippalus (south-west Monsoon), happens to be blowing it is possible to arrive in forty days at the nearest market in India, Muziris by name. This, however, is not a very desirable place for disembarkation, on account of the pirates which frequent its vicinity, where they occupy a place called Nitrias; nor, in fact, is it very rich in articles of merchandise. Besides, the road stead for shipping is a considerable distance from the shore, and the cargoes have to be conveyed in boats, either for loading or discharging. At the moment that I am writing these pages, the name of the chief of this place is Caelobothras.
Claudius Ptolemy placed Muziris emporium north of the mouth of the Pseudostomus river in his Geographia. Pseudostomus (literally "false mouth") is generally identified with modern day Periyar river.
This Greek papyrus of the 2nd century AD documents a contract involving an Alexandrian merchant importer and a financier that concerns cargoes, especially of pepper and spices from Muziris. The fragmentary papyrus records details about a cargo consignment (valued at around nine million sesterces) brought back from Muziris on board a Roman merchant ship called the Hermapollon. The discovery opened a strong base to ancient international and trade laws in particular and has been studied at length by economists, lawyers as well as historians.
Peutinger Map, an odd-sized medieval copy of an ancient Roman road map, “with information which could date back to 2nd century AD”, in which both Muziris and Tondis are well marked, “with a large lake indicated behind Muziris, and beside which is an icon marked Templ(um) Augusti, widely taken to mean a “Temple of Augustus”. A large number of Roman subjects must have spent months in this region awaiting favourable conditions for return sailings to the Empire. This could explain why the Map records the existence of an Augustan temple.
A series of excavations conducted at Kodungallur starting from 1945, yielded nothing that went back to before the 13th century. Another excavation was carried out in 1969 by the Archaeological Survey of India at Ceraman Parambu, 2 km north of Kodungallur. Only antiquities of the 13th and 16th century were recovered.
In 1983, a large hoard of Roman coins was found at Pattanam, a site about 6 miles south of Kodungallur. The excavations carried out at Pattanam from 2007 by Kerala Council for Historical Research again uncovered a large number of artefacts. So far, seven seasons of excavations were conducted by Kerala Council for Historical Research at Pattanam. In the 7th excavation season, only one trench was excavated by archaeologists.
The excavations at Pattanam are not run by Kerala State Department of Archaeology, but by the "Kerala Council for Historical Research", an autonomous institution that conducts research on history. As for the archaeological excavation at Pattanam, eminent historian MGS Narayanan said it had not yet received the required licence from the Archaeological Survey of India.
When KCHR announced the possible finding of the famous lost city based on these finds, it invited criticism from historians and archaeologists. Renowned historians such as R. Nagaswamy, K. N. Panikkar and M. G. S. Narayanan disagreed with the identification of Pattanam with Muziris before further analysis. "There is nothing to prove that modern Pattanam and Muziris were the same place. Yet, there is a wide-spread belief that they are," says MGS Narayanan. According to MGS, there is a deliberate move by the "vested interests" to keep away the Archeological Survey of India from the developments taking place at Pattanam. He also criticized attempts to commercialise the Pattanam excavations in the name of Muziris conservation projects. He points out the need for collecting sufficient evidence before proclaiming the site as Muziris. He says excavations made at Pattanam so far only indicate that it was a "bead-making centre" where there was plenty of trade. Only more detailed excavations can establish beyond dispute that Pattanam and Muziris were the same place. "Only a small compound has been excavated at Pattanam. Sites like Mohenjo-daro and Arikamedu stretch across acres. There should be proper exploration by trained archaeologists of the Archeological Survey of India," says Prof. MGS Narayanan.
"Historians still had a great deal to do with Pattanam. The nature of the settlement there, for instance, was one to be explored. Whether it was just a warehouse, or where goods were produced for trade, or whether it was a port or a site that had sequential historical development – were all matters of intrigue," historian Romila Thapar remarked in 2013. The effort made by "some interested quarters" to link the Muziris excavations with the visit of Thomas the Apostle was criticized by eminent archaeologist R. Nagaswamy. Stating that it was too early to conclude that Pattanam is Muziris, he said that there was need for more excavations and concrete evidence. "Whether Pattanam was Muziris is not of immediate concern to us," the chief of the Kerala Council for Historical Research recently stated to the media.
Discoveries from Pattanam
The major discoveries from Pattanam include thousands of beads (made of semi-precious stones) and Roman amphora sherds, copper-alloy and lead Cera coins, fragments of Roman glass pillar bowls, terra sigillata, remains of a long wooden boat, bollards made of teak and a wharf made of fired brick and fragments of frankincense.
The most remarkable find at Pattanam excavations in 2007 was a brick structural wharf complex, with nine bollards to harbour boats and in the midst of this, a highly decayed canoe, all perfectly mummified in mud. The canoe (6 meters long) was made of Artocarpus hirsutus, a tree common in Malabar Coast, out of which boats are made off. The bollards some of which are still in satisfactory condition was made of teak.
Three Tamil-Brahmi scripts were also found in the Pattanam excavations. The last Tamil-Brahmi script (dated to c. 2nd century AD, probably reading "a-ma-na", meaning "a Jaina" in Tamil) was found on a pot-rim at Pattanam. If the rendering and the meaning is not mistaken, it establishes that Jainism was prevalent on the Malabar Coast at least from the 2nd century. This is for the first time the excavators are getting direct evidence relating to a religious system in ancient Kerala.
Muziris Heritage Project
Muziris Heritage Project is a tourism venture by Tourism Department of Kerala to "reinstate the historical and cultural significance Muziris". The idea of the project came after the extensive excavations and discoveries at Pattanam by Kerala Council for Historical Research.
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