The Lost Port of Muziris

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08 Feb 2021 by Treesa Binny

The lore of the ancient port of Muziris can be referenced with 3000 years of world history. From housing the first Syrian Christians of the east to welcoming the foreign Muslim settlers, trading in spices to precious stones, the lost port of Muziris has many stories to narrate.  Sangam literature refers to Muziris as a bustling port city enriched by Roman "trade". Periplus of Erthraean Sea, the popular travel guide of the Greek, Ptolemy's Geographia, Pliny the Elder's -The Natural History all found space to include the fabled Muziris. It is believed that years of floods and earthquakes in the Periyar is what finally wiped this port from the face of the earth.

The search for Muziris was a long and tedious affair, till 2006 when it was finally found. Scaling from Kodungalloor to North Paravoor in Ernakulam, Kerala, the Pattanam excavations finally gave leeway to understanding Indian Subcontinents interactions with the ancient world. Historical records reveal that 31 countries in Europe, Asia and Far East had spice trade with ancient Kerala, including Afghanistan, Burma, China, Denmark, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Mozambique, Netherlands, Oman, Portugal and Spain.

The pattanam excavations which paved way to the Muziris, is believed to have indigenous population from 1000 BC and the iron age samples dating it to first mil. BC. Though there are reservations about the bonding  of Muziris with relation to Pattanm, it is agreed that this discovery is 'a turning point of Indian Maritime studies'.

Paravur Jewish Synagogue Museum  Photocredit

The existence of a Jewish diaspora in Kerala was recognised even prior to the discovery of the Muziris trading community. The Jewish town and Paradesi synagogue built around 1615 is evidence of the assimilation of the well-defined Jewish culture with that of the local traditions. This can be identified in the structure of the Paradesi synagogue, which has a space that is exclusively accorded for women’s seating, a unique feature, unseen in any other Jewish culture of the world. Though the last of the Cochin Jews has left for their promised land, recognising the prominent role of Kerala, their splendour is protected and showcased through the Jewish lifestyle museum of Chedamangalam.

Palium Palace Museum   Photo credit

The heritage of the famous Palaithachans, the prime ministers of the Cochin Raja is another attraction of the conserved Muziris heritage project. In an architectural hybridization of Kerala and Dutch styles, the Kovilakam which protected the king during Portugese attacks, was supposed to be the abode of Veliachan. The Paliam Nalukettu, which is located nearby was supposed to house the women of the matrilenial Paliam family. It is believed to be the epitome of Kerala architectural style of the 18th CE, as every nook and corner served a purpose in the cycle of life and death. Both the houses were exclusive to the other gender.

The degree of religious acceptance that ancient Kerala, through muziris, practiced serves as an example to the world today. The first mosque in India - Cheraman Juma Masjid, situated in the Ernakulam -Guruvayoor highway and 2 km south of Kodungallur, is said to have been built in 629 AD by Malik bin Dinar, during the lifetime of Muhammad. The Muziris project has converted this into a museum of Islamic history. The museum is close to the earliest Brahmin temple Thiruvanchikkulam Siva Temple (10th CE) in the east and Kizhthali Siva Temple in the south. It is located 3 km northwest of archaeological excavation sites like Kottappuram Fort and cheramanparambu, which is believed to be the palace of the great Chera dynasty. The excavations here have unearthed pottery that dates to the Song dynasty period.

This area holds relevance in the modern Indian history as well as it is home to Sahodaran Ayyappan, a revolutionary social reformer who strived to break the caste barriers through his initiatives like Sahodara Sangam (brotherhood) and misra-bhojanam (inter dining); Kesari Balakrishna Pillai, founder of the newspaper Kesari and an eccentric journalist and Abdul Rahman Sahib, the Indian freedom fighter. The trails of Muziris are not limited to the few heritage sites I have mentioned here. Kottappuram fort, market, Azhikode beach, Marthoma Church, Gothuruth Chavitt Nadakam (a type of street play introduced by the Portugese), Jewish cemetery to name a few. The area is also very close to Angamaly, a cornerstone to Christianity in India.

The Pattanam excavations have also recovered many broken and mutilated Buddhists statues and have acknowledged few old Jain temples around the area. Aluva, a nearby town based ascribed its etymology to the ancient presence of strong Buddhist culture. These discoveries can be explained as evidences of the bhakti movements that violently Hinduised the dominant Buddhist culture influenced by Ashoka.  The Kodungalloor Bharani paatu, an exceptional cultural practice where goddess of the temple is abused in the obscenest language while throwing sticks and stones at the temple, has an interesting story. One of the myths draw parallels of this practice with Kali- Darika, in remembrance of when the devotees of goddess Kali had to calm her down after her war with Mahishasura, while another interesting myth points to Buddhist connections- the unfair judgement on Kannaki or the driving out of the Buddhists from the area.  Either ways the Meena Bharani festival breaks all notions of sacred and profane.

The vibrancy of diversity in the area, previously unexplained has been identified to having emerged from a history spanning centuries. One which the Muziris project attempts to retrace.  Though there is still a long way to go, the journey has been revealing as well as commendable.

References and photo credits:

Muziris Kerala Patanam India