Muchiripattanam, or Muchiri or Muziris was, “The city where the beautiful vessels, the masterpieces of the Yavanas [Westerners], stir white foam on the Periyar, river of Kerala, arriving with gold and departing with pepper”(from Akananooru, a collection of Sangam Age Tamil poems). It was, “The city where liquor abounds”, which “bestows wealth to its visitors indiscriminately” with “gold deliveries carried by the ocean-going ships and brought to the river bank by local boats”. It was, according to Pliny the Elder, “The first emporium of India”. The city appeared on the Tabula Peutingeriana, a fifth-century map of the world as seen from Rome. But, after that, this port disappeared from the maps into the mists of legend and folklore.1

In 1341, a great flood on the Periyar led not only to widespread submergence, but also to the shifting of the river’s course leading to the end of a glorious era of trade, and of a by-and-large benign political rule in the region.

Today, if one travelled to North Paravur, and slightly further north, along one of the many channels of the Periyar delta, one would come to Pattanam, a small village, like any other that one would come across in Kerala. An interesting thing that would happen, however, was that after the monsoons, children would find beautiful beads that were brought up through the soil. After a preliminary dig in 2003–4, followed by several attempts to discover what lay beneath Pattanam, the stories of surfacing beads and pottery took a few archaeologists to the village. In 2007, Pattanam yielded its secrets. The Kerala Council for Historical Research (KCHR) along with the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India), and other independent bodies have by now unearthed nearly 129,083 artefacts and about 516,676 pot shards from over sixty trenches that cover just over one per cent of the mound. Now many archaeologists and historians agree that this was probably the site of the ancient port of Muziris.

From this fascinating tale of a port lost and then recovered, came the idea for a history trip to Kerala for the students of class 8. Unlike the other two history trips to Hampi or Thanjavur, which we had undertaken in previous years, this area has very little by way of dramatic remains. There are no huge fort walls, temples, or other evidence on which to build this trip. Instead, over five days, we visit different destinations and through observation, questioning and conversations attempt to understand the varied themes that are interlaced and waiting for further exploration.

So many religions, so many people

The first theme that begins to emerge is the theme of multiplicity of religions, in a cosmopolitan and friendly co-existence. This is perhaps in sharp contrast to the rising trend of strident reiterations of homogeneity of an imagined cultural past in the country. On the day we usually reach our destination Kottapuram, in Kodungallur, we begin with a visit to a small village in Chendamangalam and the Kottayil Kovilakam (literally, a palace within a fort). Here, one can walk from a Jewish Synagogue (a museum, now) on a Jewish street, to an old church, certainly among the oldest in India, the broken down ruins of a seminary within the church compound, and then to a little temple on a hillock. On two slopes of the hillock, there is a Jewish cemetery with tombstones filled with Hebrew characters, and a modernised mosque. All this lies within a square kilometre. Just a walk to each of these places is a lesson in heterogeneity and plurality. For, if one were to go by the village’s name, one understands that all that land belonged to the local ruler, who was magnanimous towards all religions. There are also Konkani settlers from Goa and Gujarat whose ancestors had come seeking refuge from the Catholic Christianity of the Portuguese. We usually speak about them when we visit the papadam makers, for we learn that this art of papad-making along with weaving was brought here by the asylum-seeking Konkanis.

Last year, the students sat on the hillock working on their study sheets and we listened to the ‘Om namo narayanayah’ droning in a loop from the temple. Interestingly, when the muezzin of the mosque gave the call for evening prayers, the young priest switched off the chant. It resumed later. When we had the evening conversation with students, my sense was that this modern courtesy touched them as much as the older wisdom.

Many such cross-cultural practices can be garnered through the trip, if you look closely. For instance, Kerala’s stone vilakkus (lamps) are part of its temple’s culture. Yet, studying the well-written treatises on Jewry in Kerala, one understands that each Jewish house also had, at its entrance, a stone vilakku that was lit in the evening. As we walk towards the river jetty, it is usually late evening, and we see the lamps lit on the portico and thresholds of the houses even today.

The remains of an age

We spend an entire day at Pattanam. Pattanam is, unlike other archaeological digs, welcoming of children. There is a Children’s Museum, and the staff help children understand what is happening here. The students are introduced to archaeology, the specific ways in which trenches are dug and artefacts sorted out there. We walk towards the various sites to see the wharf, the canoe that is still in situ and then in groups of three, go around the museum. The Pattanam team have created a workbook for children to use and make sense of what they have seen in the aesthetically created and well-maintained museum.

Re-creation, restoration and protection

We stay at a missionary run hostel called Vikas Albertine Animation Centre in Kottapuram. It is a peaceful place and we are looked after by the nuns and fathers of that centre. At Kottapuram is the ‘Muziris Market’. It is the site of the local market that happens twice a week. This was not the landing place for goods at the time of ancient Muziris, but an effort has been made to bring back the market place and restore or re-create the buildings around the bazaar according to the style that used to be there. Going through the hustle and bustle of the wholesale market, students see the large quantities of perishables: fruits, vegetables, fish and herbs. They get a glimpse of other goods that are brought by tempos and trucks and sold: jaggery, oil, chunna, nets, and baskets as well.

Black gold

Pliny the Elder complained about Rome’s annual deficit caused by trade imbalance with India at 50m sesterces (500,000 gold coins of a little less than eight grams), with, “Muziris representing the lion’s share of it”. And all this could be attributed to the demand for pepper, which could be seen as the ancient equivalent of ‘black gold’. When this demand died due to various reasons, the trade also declined. This could have been one of the many reasons for the disappearance of the Muziris. The final death knell was the fourteenth-century flood that made the port disappear, the river shift south and created the harbour that is now Kochi.

We visit the Spice Market in Mattanchery, Kochi, on the final day of the trip. By this time the students have visited two Jewish synagogues; a temple important to the Cheras at their ancient capital at Thiruvanchikulam, the Cheramun Mosque—the oldest mosque in India; the traditional naalukettu, the Dutch Palace museum, besides spending an entire day at Pattanam. In Kochi, the students look at the wide variety of spices, and try to understand how even a single spice can make and break a trade.

The trip from Kottapuram to Kochi is in itself a lesson in changes that have taken place over the ages. It is a shock to the senses that have by now become used to the quiet backwaters of an ancient river, and small towns with small houses, to arrive back into a modern-day city with skyscrapers, traffic of immense proportions, huge container trucks, a vast port with ships of varying sizes, cranes and so on. In the Jew Town at Mattanchery we look at old abandoned houses of the Jews who have migrated to Israel, whose doorways still have the Mezuzah, a framed parchment with specific verses from the Jewish Torah inscribed on it. One of the houses has been bought by a Roman Catholic who believes that it must not be modified or changed. Every two years, when the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is held, this building exhibits paintings and installations.

Each year, we have had slightly different experiences. For two years, we were able to look at another syncretic performing art, the Chavittunatakam. This dance form involves a lot of complex stamping of the feet on the ground. The artistes dress elaborately, and the stories are from the gospel or from Christian lore. It incorporates elements of Kalarippayattu, opera, Tamil folklore music and biblical themes to create a distinctive style of its own. On the island of Gothuruthu, sometimes thought of as the birthplace of this dance form, we were able see the performance of local artistes.

On another occasion, we were lucky enough to interact with the last Jewish resident of Kottayil Kovilakkam, Eliahu Bezallel who is 84 years old. Though a citizen of Israel, he bought the plot where his ancestral home had been and built a house there. He spoke of the times when there was a flourishing Jewish community there and of his strong attachment to the land of his birth. The questions of nationhood, land of birth, the Jews need for a place to call their own after the Second World War, were implicit in the conversation and the students had a modest glimpse of a difficult chapter in history.

The Muziris Trip to Kerala is seen as a quest, as an enquiry into the past and its relation to the present. A key idea has been to show students that the past is not a separate entity, with a present an absolute break from this, but that two could co-exist; one could inform and change the other; and that the exigencies of time are ever present.


  1. Source: ancient-port-black-pepper. Please see this article for a more detailed account of the historical antecedents of Muziris and the archaeological findings at Pattanam.