How the lost city of Muziris in Kerala found itself

Once an ancient trading port with connections across the world, Muziris is again a hub today, but this time, it attracts global patrons of art, heritage and culture.

The heavy monsoon rains on the Malabar coast are legendary. But what the rain-washed earth of a little village on the banks of the River Periyar near Kochi in Kerala revealed every year, seemed to be the stuff of legend itself. Village kids collected brightly coloured beads, bits of clay pots, and strange-looking coins that came up in the town of Pattanam, close to Kodungallur, every rainy season. In 2004, archaeologists made the connection between these finds and the possibility of unearthing something quite spectacular — the lost city of Muziris!

The seafaring phoenicians (above) were the first to arrive at the ancient port of muziris in kerala.
The seafaring Phoenicians (above) were the first to arrive at the ancient port of Muziris in Kerala. Image: Courtesy North Wind Prints.

This ancient port city, whose memories are lost in the mists of time, flourished on the southwestern coast of India more than 2500 years ago. It first had international trade ties with the Phoenicians, traders from what is modern-day Lebanon, who exchanged their fine linens and gem stones for black pepper and other spices. After them, came the Arabs, and then the Romans, who decided to reach this port themselves so that they wouldn’t have to pay the exorbitant rates charged by the Arabs.

Kerala black pepper, the precious commodity that brought the world's attention to muziris!
Kerala black pepper, the precious commodity that brought the world’s attention to Muziris! Image: Courtesy Kerala Tourism.

The bustling seaport of Muziris (sometimes known as Muchiri or Vanchi locally) where Roman ships laden with gold regularly docked, has been immortalised in poems from the earliest known collection of Tamil writings dating back to BCE 400-300 BCE that are collectively termed ‘Sangam literature’. Muziris even features in a text called ‘The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea’ written by a Greek Egyptian in the first century BCE, as well as in the encyclopaedic writings of Roman author and naval commander Pliny, the Elder, who is said to have died during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius at Pompeii in Italy in AD 79. Kodungallur is also famous as the place where St Thomas the Apostle first landed on Indian shores in AD 52!

St thomas church stands sentinel at kodungallur, the spot where the apostle is said to have first landed in india in ad 52.
St Thomas Church stands sentinel at Kodungallur, the spot where the Apostle is said to have first landed in India in AD 52. Image: Courtesy Kerala Tourism.

Over time, various trading communities encamped along the coast, from the Portuguese and the Dutch to the Jewish, taking advantage of the Palghat gap to reach into India’s interiors for further trade. Historical research has found records of ancient Kerala’s business with 31 different countries, including Afghanistan, Burma, China, Denmark, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Mozambique, Netherlands, Oman, Portugal and Spain. Various communities of traders camped on the outskirts, forming settlements that can still be seen today, such as the many Jewish synagogues in the area.

The cheraman juma masjid in kodungallur, built-in ad 629, is india's oldest mosque and the second one in the world to have started friday prayers!
The Cheraman Juma Masjid in Kodungallur, built in AD 629, is India’s oldest mosque and the second one in the world to have started Friday prayers! Image: Courtesy Kerala Tourism.

With so much going for it, no one really knows why the port, which was such an important player on the world stage, sank into oblivion. Some say its decline started after the fall of the Roman empire, even though it still had dealings with every nation from Persia to China at the time. Others believe it was due to a massive flood in AD 1341, which buried it under mounds of mud, obliterating it from existence. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that this once-booming port lay forgotten until it almost became a mythical place, existing only in the deepest corners of common memory and crumbling trading documents.

On the trail of Muziris today

Even now, archaeologists aren’t quite sure that the excavations at Kodungallur prove a 100 per cent that this is where the actual Muziris was located. But they were the first ever multi-disciplinary excavations undertaken in Kerala with the objective of searching for archaeological evidence that would help to locate/identify an early historic urban settlement and the ancient Indo-Roman port of Muziris. The Kerala Council for Historical Research (KCHR) has found everything from human bones to a gold ornament, storage jars, glass and stone beads, everyday objects made out of stone, copper and iron, pottery, early Chera coins, and bricks.

Amphorae indicate the region had contact with the romans.
Amphorae indicate the region had contact with the Romans. Image: Courtesy Muziris Heritage Project.

Reportedly, there’s even a ring well, a wharf, and a six-metre-long wooden canoe about 2.5 metres below the surface. All of these suggest that the site has been occupied at least from the second century BC to the tenth century AD. The presence of potsherds that are parts of Roman amphora as well as pottery belonging to Sassanian, Yemenite and other West Asian regions, signify that Pattanam definitely had protracted contact with foreign traders. In fact, the name Pattanam itself is an oddity and perhaps even a clue, as the word literally means ‘market’!

The dig at pattanam in kodangallur
The dig at Pattanam in Kodangallur. Image: Courtesy Muziris Heritage Project.

While the remnants of the erstwhile port wait to be fully unearthed for proof of it actually being Muziris, its mystique as a site is undeniable. The Government of Kerala has initiated the Muziris Heritage Project (MHP) with the goal of reinstating the historical and cultural significance of this region. The first green project by the Kerala government, it is said to be the largest heritage conservation project in India. They plan more than 25 museums where travellers can appreciate the Muziris heritage, a research and academic institution to support the project, major improvements in infrastructure, which will all be integrated with local communities through native resource persons for data collection, survey, etc.

A section of the tabula peutingeriana (latin for ‘the peutinger map’) which shows ancient muziris. The original illustrated itinerarium (ancient roman road map) showing the layout of the road network of the roman empire is lost, but a 13th-century parchment copy is conserved at the austrian national library in vienna.
A section of The Tabula Peutingeriana (Latin for ‘The Peutinger Map’) which shows ancient Muziris. The original illustrated itinerarium (ancient Roman road map) showing the layout of the road network of the Roman Empire is lost, but a 13th century parchment copy is conserved at the Austrian National Library in Vienna. Image: WikiCommons.

Even more than the prosaic details, it’s the poetry in the history of the place that they capture beautifully on their project website — ‘Muziris welcomes you to the cape of trade culture, left behind by its ancestors from around the world, to the waves of Azhikode where Christianity first entered India, to the Cheraman mosque, which gave out the first Muslim call for prayers, to the Bharani festival at the Kodungallur Bhagavathy temple, to the original culture of the Jewish synagogue, to the village where handlooms spin thinks of heritage, to the Paliam Palace and to the old waterways that led one to Muziris.’

Inside the paliam kovilakam home, which is one of the many fascinating places of interest in the muziris heritage region.
Inside the Paliam Kovilakam home, which is one of the many fascinating places of interest in the Muziris heritage region. Image: Courtesy Kerala Tourism.

You can visit the Muziris Heritage Site (MHS), which is spread across two municipalities — North Paravur in the Ernakulam district and Kodungallur in Thrissur District — as well as the larger surrounding area which has some protected monuments. There are a few buildings dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries as well as streets, bridges, markets, and cemeteries, which you can explore. There is a Hop-on Hop-off waterways tour by boat, which also gives you access to all the principal sites and museums en route. The service boasts three air-conditioned boats that can carry 25 passengers each. With a day ticket, you can explore Muziris and its surroundings at your own pace. Start at the visitor centre at Paravur Synagogue and continue from here, either by this boat tour or water taxi on the River Periyar, or on a bicycle tour, or in your own vehicle. Don’t forget to visit the markets, forts, temples, churches, mosques, and synagogues as well as the popular Cherai Beach nearby.

The kottapuram boat jetty near what was once known as the cranganore fort.
The Kottapuram boat jetty near what was once known as the Cranganore Fort. Image: Courtesy Kerala Tourism.

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Our pick of the most interesting museums to visit

Kerala Jews History Museum:

Located in the Paravur Synagogue that was built in 1615, this offers glimpses into early Jewish life in Kerala.

Paliam Palace Museum:

The traditional home of Paliathu Achans, this two-storey building will give you insights on Kerala history.

Sahodaran Ayyapan Musuem:

Interactive and traditional exhibits that present a unique perspective.

Islamic History Museum:

Inside the Cheraman Juma Masjid complex, it has some interesting exhibits.

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The paravur synagogue where the kerala jews history museum is housed.
The Paravur Synagogue where the Kerala Jews History Museum is housed. Image: Courtesy Muziris Heritage Project.

Some upcoming museums include the Site Museum in Pattanam, Museum on Christian Religious Art & Traditional in North Paravur, Syrian Christian History Museum in Kodungallur, Museum on Handlooms at Chendamangalam, the Traditional Art Forms Performance Centre, Paliam Oottupura and the Kerala Maritime Museum.

Finding art in the historic heart

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale, an international exhibition of contemporary art, has been wowing attendees since it was first established in 2012. The largest art exhibition in India and the biggest contemporary art festival in Asia, it has succeeded in putting Kochi on the world’s culture map. It attracts scores of artists and thousands of art aficionados from across the globe, who come there for the cutting-edge creativity but also for a taste of that ancient allure. The mission statement for the Biennale reads: ‘The Kochi-Muziris Biennale seeks to invoke the latent cosmopolitan spirit of the modern metropolis of Kochi and its mythical past, Muziris, and create a platform that will introduce contemporary international visual art theory and practice to India, showcase and debate new Indian and international aesthetics and art experiences and enable a dialogue among artists, curators, and the public. It seeks to create a new language of cosmopolitanism and modernity that is rooted in the lived and living experience of this old trading port, which, for more than six centuries, has been a crucible of numerous communal identities.’

Visitors at the kochi-muziris biennale in 2019.
Visitors at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2019. Image: Shutterstock/AJP.

From the Dutch warehouses of Pepper House to the British premises of Aspinwall House to the Portuguese-built Kottapuram Fort, which saw everyone from Tipu Sultan to Ramavarma Dharmaraja under its battlements, the Biennale is beautifully ensconced in these historic venues around Fort Kochi-Mattancherry and Ernakulam. The next time you’re there, perhaps you’ll allow the gentle breeze coming in off the sea from foreign shores to envelop you in the magic of ancient Muziris for a few moments.

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