The ancient port of Muziris near Kochi, Kerala, might have been obliterated in a flood, but its spirit lives on in these five sites.
Words & Photographs PRIMROSE MONTEIRO-D’SOUZA
In Kerala, stepping into a boat can transport you to another world. When you step gingerly into a wobbly vallam, the ubiquitous wooden canoe, you will be privy to the lives of the locals who live off the backwaters. If you are welcomed onto a kettuvallam (houseboat), you will be handed into hospitality – welcoming but never obsequious – that the state is famous for. And then, there is the hop-off, hop-on boat that works as a time machine into centuries gone by. Gliding down backwaters, flirting with the Arabian Sea, the boat takes you back to a time when an area close to Kochi was a bustling port city that brought traders from all over the world to this corner of the sub-continent.
A SONG OF WATER AND JEWELS
My interest is first piqued by a painting at Port Muziris – a Tribute Portfolio Hotel near Cochin International Airport. A Roman and a Keralite gentleman stand in a boat carried by men across a swathe of land. The painting by Vishnu Nair is part of a series commissioned to bring the many moods of Kochi and Kerala to the property. There is modern Kerala, the hustle and bustle of its metro and malls, but there are also these throwbacks on canvas to a time gone by.
Like the Kochi-Muziris Biennale that has grown to become one of India’s most significant contemporary art exhibitions, the property takes its name from Muziris, an ancient seaport and city dating back from at least 1 BCE. No one is really sure what the modern-day equivalent would be, but, based on Tamil poetry and classical sources (including the Ramayana), and evidenced by a number of excavations in the area, Pattanam on the Malabar Coast, 37km from Kochi, is probably where that once-flourishing gateway was sited.
It was a place to which Arabs, Chinese, Persians, North Africans, Greeks and Romans came to buy spices, precious and semi-precious stones, Chinese silk and tortoise shells, and to sell gold coins, peridots, linens, raw glass and wine to the chiefs of the Chera kingdom.
Arguably, it was a place abustle with trade industry. The Tamil poetic work, Purananuru (the name translates to the Four Hundred Songs of War and Wisdom), has a wonderful description of ‘Muciri’: “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 where 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, where the rumbling ocean roars, is given to me like a marvel, a treasure.”
That marvellous city vanished from the maps of the world in the 14th century. The flood of Periyar in 1341 was cataclysmic – to the extent that it changed forever the geography of the region, opening up the current harbour at Kochi and a network of backwaters, and forming Vypeen Island near Kochi. In time, the mouth of the Periyar River was so silted up that Muziris could no longer function as a port.
Since then, it has lingered only in the minds of antiquarians, archaeologists and festival curators. Seven seasons of excavation by the Kerala Council for Historical Research have uncovered artefacts at Pattanam. Roman coins, as well as other ceramics, gold ornaments, semi-precious stone beads, items related to lapidary, architectural ruins and botanical remains reveal contact with countries around the Mediterranean and Red Sea. The Chinese presence is seen in porcelain shards with typical blue-on-white patterns. In 2007, a brick wharf complex with bollards to harbour nine boats, and a canoe mummified in mud were found. The heritage site stretches across the municipality of North Paravur in Ernakulam District to the municipality of Kodungallur in Thrissur district. Time, then, to step into a boat and sail into the past.
A BOAT AS A PORTAL TO THE PAST
Initiated by the government of Kerala, the Muziris Heritage Project is an initiative to conserve and showcase an ancient culture that the tourism department avers is as significant as that of the Indus Valley. For visitors like me, it translates to a day spent out on the water, riding the backwaters to explore old temples, churches and forts set amid modern coastal life. As we set off in the very comfortable – and, importantly, air-conditioned – boat down the backwaters of the Periyar, Neethu, our guide for the day, points out the Chinese fishing nets that are so much a Kerala signature. The banks are close to us as we motor along, past coconut trees and banana plantations, people walking or cycling on the paths alongside, ducks holding an impromptu conference about whether it’s a good day for swimming. The blue netted fish farms set into the water breed kalanji (Asian sea bass), and vallams carry locals down the river. Overhanging greenery atmospherically obscures the banks at some places, revealing a boat tied up under it here, a set of steps coming down to the water there. We float past a massive river island, and pass a Shri Krishna temple which, Neethu tells us, cocoons a five-foot statue of Shri Krishna in his Narasimha avatar. Echoes of the past seem to mirror the present; Neethu’s own home in this very area was inundated in the 2018 flood; she spent eight days in a camp, she tells me, matter-of-factly. Her guests include locals and visitors from across the world who want to cast themselves back into a time gone by.