The ancient seaports of India which once thirived…

S.Muthiah has a fascinating article which once again shows how India was one of the trading powers till it got lost.

The author points to old names of Indian ports which are a pale shadow of their past:

It was a detail-packed lecture the other morning at the Madras Literary Society when KRA Narasiah, former naval engineer and now history buff, went back to the sea and made the Greek of The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea English and Tamil for his audience. The Guide to the Red Sea, its title in translation, is an anonymous Greek merchant’s tale of his voyage from the Greek port of Piraeus to the ports of the Red Sea, which is the Red Sea itself and all seas beyond it to the mouth of the Ganges. It was a journey by sea to Alexandria, by land to Heliopolis (Cairo), by boat 300 miles up the Nile and then by camel to the ports of Myos Hormos or the much bigger Berenike, then onwards. Written in 60 AD, it is considered the last word on the ports of India of that period.

Listing those ports by their present-day names is what Narasiah did that morning, among other fact-dropping. That listing, done with the help of various translations of The Periplus by British and German historians, Narasiah made come alive locally with their mention in Sangam literature and Tamil classics like the Silappathikaram. Some of these ports/hinterlands are: Barygaza — Bharuch; Syrastrene — Saurashtra; Suppara — Soppara; Muziris — Pattanam; Colchi — Korkai; Camera – Puhar (Poompuhar); Poduca — Puducherry; Sopatama — Marakkanam; Maisolia — Masulipatnam; and Dasarna — Orissa.

Two things emerged from his narration. Firstly, the traders from Rome and Greece monopolised trade with the West coast of India, especially in the Gujarat region with its ports of Bharuch and others in Saurashtra, and Musiris (Pattanam near Cranganore) in Kerala, considered part of Damarica (Tamizhagam). Indian traders did not sail westwards. It was only those from the East coast who went overseas, sailing from the Coromandel and Kalinga coasts. The western trade focused on horses and wine one way; pepper, textiles and ivory the other.

The second statement of Narasiah’s that struck me was that Mamallapuram was not a port as usually claimed; Marakkanam was the port. It’s quite possible that Mamallapuram was not a port in the 1AD, but natural geographies change over the years and Mamallapuram could well have become or developed as a harbour by the 6th Century; after all, Musiris gave way to Cochin centuries later. But then, much of history is debatable in this fashion.



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