This was published in Mint on 28th August 2010.
The people of Pattanam have always known their village had a rich heritage: Every time they dug up a patch to plant a coconut tree, they would discover an ancient artefact. And now, four trenches dug deep in the backyard of the vacant Padamathil house, next to the Neeleswaram temple pond, bear them out. Evidence unearthed in this small village on the Kerala coast suggests that this was the site of the lost port of Muziris.
Around 2,000 years ago, traders from across the world docked at Muziris to buy gemstones, pepper and other spices. For exchange, they brought gold, olive oil and wine. However, this centre of Indo-Roman trade, which thrived between 1st century BC and 5th century AD, vanished without a trace sometime in the 14th century, after floods in the Periyar choked the entrance to the harbour and changed the geography of the region.
Till recently, Kodungallur, a town 7km north of Pattanam, was thought to be the site of Muziris. Though artefacts from the 13th to 16th centuries were recovered during excavation in Cheraman Parambu, Kodungallur, in 1945 and 1969, they were not considered conclusive. And now, the fourth season of the Pattanam excavations—an ongoing project of the Kerala Council for Historical Research—has revealed far deeper connections between this spot and the Roman Empire.
With campsite in-charge Preeta Nayar’s permission, I climb down the ladder into one of the trenches and am instantly transported 2,300 years back in time. The clinching finds here are shards of various kinds of pottery, from the Campanian pottery of south Italian origin (irregular black volcanic elements in red clay) to the Mesopotamian turquoise-glazed pottery.
The Padamathil site has also thrown up many shards of Mesopotamian torpedo jars, which were lined with bitumen to prevent their liquid contents—possibly date syrup and sesame oil—from evaporating. Amphora shards and terra sigillata (a red sintered surfaced tableware) have also been found at the site. Ancient Romans were known to use amphoras for wine, olive oil and fish sauce. I wondered why the residents of Muziris would have imported olive oil.
It’s not, however, just the recovered artefacts that have a story to tell—the trench walls do too. Since this region was inhabited continuously from before the Roman period and possibly even during the Iron Age (10th-5th century BC), the walls are chronological records in themselves. Different-coloured soil indicates various time periods—the oldest being the late BCs—with the lowest layers indicating the earliest periods of inhabitation and human activity.
A basic knowledge of the origin of artefacts yielded by the trench walls can help date the cultural and commercial exchanges. Apart from the “foreign” pottery—from Mesopotamia, Rome, China and north India—the area has thrown up shards of local pottery as well, besides beads, thickly corroded iron nails and lead spirals with lead carbonate coating.
Large quantities of shards of rouletted ware (pottery produced by a roulette, a toothed wheel) point towards a connection with the Bengal-Gangetic region. It helps historians conclude that Muziris’ trade network extended to the interiors of India, as well as Europe and West Asia.
The trenches also contain bricks, whole and in pieces. According to the archaeologists, no structure could have existed in the trench I stood in. So was this place a dumping ground for unused bricks? During an earlier excavation, a brick structure was found in a compound nearby. Were these fragmented bricks leftovers from that construction?
I am also surprised to learn that a terracotta ring well—basically, large rings placed one on top of the other to create a circular well, a practice dating back to the first centuries of the millennium—had been discovered in one of the trenches. Kerala still builds wells in this manner, only substituting concrete for terracotta.
The glass and gemstone beads found in Pattanam hint at flourishing commerce, and also at local gemstone bead-manufacturing activity. Digging here has unearthed stones at various stages of production, from the raw to the finished product. However, all the glass beads are finished products, triggering the idea that Muziris could have been an export base.
What tools did the ancient Muzirians use? Were the corroded iron nails found here part of their toolkit? Did this compound house a bead-manufacturing factory at one time? What did they use lead spirals for? These are questions only archaeologists can answer.
Sieving the earth some moments later, I find a chalcedony stone. It probably came here from north India to be processed and exported. And never made it out. Was this a discarded piece? Or did calamity strike while the craftsman was working on this stone? Some answers are beyond even the archaeologist.
Muziris is mentioned multiple times in Tamil Sangam literature and classical Graeco-Roman accounts such as Periplus of the Erythraean Sea and Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. Pliny describes Muziris thus: “The shipping station is a long way from the land, and cargoes are brought in and carried out by light boats.” The remnants of canoes and bollards recovered from earlier excavations let us connect these dots.
The Periyar changed its course. The water table went down—a hypothesis corroborated by the peat formations at the bottom of the trench—and a whole town disappeared. Yet, thanks to the things they left behind, it’s easy to construct a shimmering sepia image of a buzzing port, bustling traders, and barter that transcended all barriers.
This was published in Mint on 28th August 2010.
The e-paper version has some photos. Click here
September 6, 2010 3 Comments
[Photography was not allowed in many parts of Srirangam Temple and the Thayumunaswamy temple in the MalaiKottai complex,Trichy]
I was not done with praising the Cholas. The Big Temple hangover lingered somewhere inside my head. After sleeping over the Shaivite era, I headed to Srirangam, the temple town situated about 7km from Trichy. Enough of Shaivite thoughts,over to Vaishnavites.
I knew I was moving towards the largest functioning Hindu temple in the world, spanning over 156 acres;yes! you read those digits right.
I stood in front of the first Gopura.A sense of deja vu; that sight took me to Padmanabha Swamy Temple, Trivandrum.
I was slowly being ushered in by huge wooden gates not just in to a temple, but to a different era, a different civilization. A civilization where everything revolves around one person, the Lord Sri Ranganathaswamy himself.
When inside the temple, it takes time to hit you that you are inside one and you are there to pray. You are inside a complex with a multitude of granite structures and enough space for a town to assemble in. You get a feel of what innumerable is when you attempt counting the myriad of gods and goddesses inside the complex.
7 rectangular enclosures/Prakarams(courtyards),the towering Gopurams for each of these Prakarams,those streets with shops and houses,many Mandapams and many many gods. That’s Srirangam Temple for you. Slowly the fact sunk in ; it is not easy for me to cover every nook and corner in a day. I walked inside the complex with my eyes popping out in surprise, mouth agape in astonishment, mind traveling to another era, body trudging from one structure to another.
The temple looked ancient and majestic. The finest examples of South Indian stone sculptures could be seen in the 1000 pillar Mandapam,the Shesharaya Mandapam and the Thirumamani Mandapam. It was here that I saw war/hunting scenes sculpted on pillars with the King,elephants,tiger warriors along. I did notice some Chinese figures in some of the scenes; not sure if they were enemies or they worked for any of the kings’ armies.
The giant enclosure housing the Garuda(inside the 4th parakram) was one of the many structures that would leave your eyes riveted on.
One should appreciate the effort that has gone in maintaining these structures. The scars of time make them look old; they are mute spectators: of the vagaries of nature, of a tumultuous past, of conquerors and wars. This structure witnessed the vicissitudes of time and enjoyed the munificence of the Pallavas,Cholas,Pandyas,Nayaks,Vijayanagara,Hoysala and Marathas. That makes these buildings easily over 1100 years old,at least.
Every pillar,every stone, every sculpture effused so much energy. So much that they had a tale to narrate, not that I could understand what they spoke. After about two hours of waiting in a queue that meandered, I had my 4 seconds of darshan. Unlike the 3 door-ed Ananthashayanam at Trivandrum, here a single door was all that was needed to have a glimpse of the lord, in entirety.
I did not like the fact that some parts of the complex were painted; equally loathed the idea of having a white gopuram, that looks white washed. Why would someone clad a beautiful gopuram with white paint?
I could find parts of the temple wall in ruins in one of the corners. Some parts were repaired many more times than I could imagine. I should not be complaining. When it was built, no one would have thought about a structure to stay for eternity.
I am not writing much about the architecture, since there is way too much to cover.Though the earliest inscriptions talk of Parantaka Chola’s grant to buy camphor for the temple,the antiquity could be much dated; to the Pallavas, and much much beyond that.
The Namam symbol was left indelible in my mind for many days. Happens, if you see hundreds of them in a few hours’ span.
Did I say I had heavenly curd rice inside the temple complex? Don’t miss that counter.
Our next stop was the Uchi Pillayar(Ganesha) temple or the Rock Fort(Malai Kottai), Trichy. An inconspicuous entrance from a busy street takes you through a lane buzzing with street vendors to ManickaVinayagar temple. From here begins the climb up; 420 steps. After a few minutes of brisk climbing, we reached a landing. On the left was the Thayumanaswamy temple and on the right the way to the Uchi Pillayar temple.
Thayumunaswamy temple is inside a hillock, 83 m high and 3800 Million years old. What? That makes it older than Himalayas! (Oh, ya Himalayas are relatively new. Tethys Ocean , remember school geography?). The dark alleys of the Thayumunaswamy temple refreshes you and gives an out of the world experience. The inscriptions here seemed to be written in a strange convoluted melange of the South Indian languages. The oldest of these inscriptions date back to 3rd C BC; some of them are from the relatively recent 7th C AD Pallava era. The minimal lighting brings in a surreal feeling but does not much help in enjoying the impressive painting of Parvathy on the ceiling. The massive Linga and the wondrous rock architecture is enough to leave you awestruck.
Climbing towards the Uchai Pillayar temple, a nondescript Mandapa like structure on your left, the Kudaivarai Koil has Siva,Parvathi and river Kaveri personified. For a moment I wished I could decipher the inscriptions from the Pallava era (9th C AD). Further up, a panoramic view of Trichy beckons you. The gushing wind caressing your face, swaying your hair. The town lighting up to welcome the twilight. The beautiful Kaveri flowing with her full might. A few steps uphill from here is the Uchai Pillayar temple.
November 15, 2009 14 Comments
[Part 1 of the Tanjore/Thanjavur-Srirangam-Trichy travelogue] Part 2 can be read here
Having overloaded myself with information on Tanjore/Thanjavur, I reached the Tanjore Palace in search of all the glory of the old Chola capital.
The 16th century palace complex was built by the Nayaks and later renovated by the Marathas. With very unimpressive looks, the ill maintained complex has parts that unfortunately look more like ruins. The grandeur that the Cholas, Pallavas and Tanjore were synonymous with, was missing here (at least from outside).
Situated close to the Old Bus Stand, the first of the museums I visited here was the Royal Museum. Is this the might and valor of the Cholas I heard of? What am I seeing here, I wondered? A scantily lit room with drums, urns, perfume bottles, wooden boxes, manuscripts, gifts, jewelry, weapons and other belongings of the Marathas. At least once, I felt pity for the exhibits with years of accumulated dirt, that tried to utter words from a glorious past. A 17th century printed Ramayana was one of the exhibits I found worth mentioning.
Exiting and moving on, a painting of a Maratha King welcomes you to the Durbar Hall. The area in front has a canon and a bull. The smell of pigeon excreta near the portrait makes you run into the interiors of the palace, only to take you into empty dark rooms with even worse stench. On the other side of the painting, an array of of Pallava and Chola statues throws light into the craftsmanship of the Pallava and Chola era. Immense amount of solace here.
The Art Gallery has an impressive line up of granite (7th to 17th centuries| Pallava, Chola ,Pandya) and bronze statues(10-18th centuries, Chola, Nayaks,also 7-8th century Natarajas).With details of excavation and century of origin clearly displayed, the Gods, Goddesses and other statues take you to a different era. The magnificent monolithic statues evince energy and life; the aura in their eyes beamed a story of fine craftsmanship and effort. Vishnu, Ganesha or a Nataraja look exactly the same as they look in today’s images and statues. Gods haven’t changed much. I also did notice a Buddha statue from the Pallava era here.
Climbing up the Bell Tower was an interesting exercise, but the multitude of I Love you graffiti throughout the narrow stairs and the storeys were very depressing. A lot can be improved in this palace complex.
After existing the main entrance, further down the road towards the bus stand, stands a the pink colored building on your left. Sharajah Madi, a six storied building built in the Sarcenic style by Raja Serfoji houses the belongings of the Maratha kings. With its spacious halls and grandeur, this palace will remind you nose of the Durbar Hall. The paintings and the embellishments on the roof are sparingly visible in the dark interiors. You may wonder if you mistakenly entered the Maratha kings’ dungeon.
With due respect to the rulers, one could easily conclude that Marathas’ and Nayaks’ efforts here seems very anachronistic in front of the Pallava and Chola splendor.
From the Palace,I headed to Brihadiswara Temple (Built in 1010 AD, 25 years and 275 days after Rajaraja Chola’s ascension to the throne in AD985).Whenever I saw this temple on Discovery and such, I always believed it is the firang’s knee jerk WOWs that created the hype around this place. Alas, I was wrong, terribly wrong. This structure looks majestic and looks way better that how it looks on TV.
Inside a walled fortress, this temple will take your breath away. I stood in awe, astonishment and reverence. A standing testimony of the Chola’s opulence and vision, their architectural excellence can be seen in this structure built during the 11th century by Rajaraja Chola-I. The scale and the enormity of the deities reflect the staunch reverence of the king to lord Shiva.
Rajaraja, his sister Kundavai and queens donated their gold and silver to this temple. The gold Rajaraja donated came from his treasury and the booty from his Chera(Kerala) and Karnataka campaigns.
The intricate carvings on the pillars and walls, and the inscriptions on the walls make the temple a delight for a historian’s senses. The script used in the inscriptions resemble Tamil, Thai or some of the South East Asian languages. The huge(8.7m height) Shiva Linga in the sanctum sanctorum and Nandi statue reflect the magnificent munificence of the Cholas. The shrines of the goddess and Subrahmanya date back to 13th (Pandyas) and 15th century respectively. A legend says that the Nandi statue was growing and the growth was curbed after a nail was drove inside its back. So now, this monolithic Nandi is 3.7m high, 6m wide and 2.5 m broad. Get an idea how big that is?
The pillared cloisters beside the main structure has a series of deities and Shiva Lingas which includes a few of them excavated in recent past; which makes one think when does an statue excavated end up as a god and when as a Art Gallery piece. The murals narrate the story of Shiva’s might. Among the things visible were the interlocks of the granite stones. The rocks so perfectly fitted into one another at a height of tens of metres seemed to share a harmonious bonding , unnerved by the rains, winds and heat. Very well maintained, this structure will leave you with thoughts like, was it actually built in the 11th century.
Interestingly, I could spot that only the doors were made of wood and not surprisingly, even they were intact. Not sure if they were replaced during the course of time, once or even more.
Unlike in most other temples, here the towering Vimana(roof of the sanctum sanctorum) (58m tall) makes the Gopura( Pyramidal tower at the entrance of the temple) look diminutive. The inscriptions of the Vimana talk about the Rajaraja Chola’s gifts to the temple. The 13 storied Vimana is ornate with several stucco figures. Water for the temple would have(still) come(s) from the Kaveri river(should be a distributory of the river Kaveri as Thanjavur falls in the river’s delta region) flowing adjacent to the fortified walls of the temple complex.
It would be the greatest show of disrespect to the Cholas, if I even think of comparing them to the Marathas. Frankly, even a Taj Mahal is nothing in front of this temple. You would not argue with me, if you have been to both the places.
The magnanimous idea, the grandiose vision, the Herculean effort, the glorious past of the Chola regime, their patronage for arts and culture, this temple stands testimony for all of these.
Some questions remain unanswered to me. Where did Raja Raja Chola rule from? Where was his palace? Since the Lord was more or less like the ruler, was the temple a center of governance too? But, where did the king and his family stay? How were the rocks brought into the site? How were they erected to such heights? Elephants, humans, inclined planes? I am yet to find some answers. The copious admiration lives on.
PS: I won’t rant about the school history text books that irreverently cut short the Chola kings. Cholas were just worthy of 5 or 10 marks while history was all about the series of kings who ruled Delhi, the Mughals included.
Cholas ruled not just South India and Ceylon. They had almost the whole of SE Asia under their control.Their system of governance and administration was so advanced and systematic that it can match the best of such systems that ever existed around the world. He was indeed king of kings, Rajaraja Chola.I am not getting into that, this post will go on for pages if I do. Read this by Charukesi if you still don’t believe the Chola might.
- [For more on the architecture] Temples of South India, Ambujam Anantharaman
- The Illustrated History of South India,K A Nilakantha Sastri
Photo credits Bharat Narayanan
October 25, 2009 15 Comments