In 1985, a papyrus from the 2nd century CE was published. Known to us today as the Muziris papyrus, it was a trade agreement for the transport of goods on the Red Sea to Alexandria; goods that came from a port called Muziris (Muciri) in India.
We know from Sangam literature that Kerala had a port called Muziris. The Greeks and Romans talk about it in their historical accounts too. Both these accounts talked of a city at the mouth of the Periyar where foreigners came on ships laden with gold and went back with goods from the subcontinent. But the full extent of this trade came to light through the Muziris papyrus.
The Muziris papyrus talks of goods brought on board by a Roman vessel called Hermapollon. The goods on board included aromatic herbs, elephant tusks, turtle shells, and spices. The value of these goods is assumed to be around 7 million Sesterces (for the sake of comparison, 1 million Sesterces would make you eligible to be a Senator of Rome). Now that’s just one ship. The Roman historian Strabo tells us that 120 Roman merchant ships sailed to India. We do not know how many of these ships set sail for Muziris, but Muziris is said to have been the largest of the ports on the Western coast of India.
What made Muziris the largest? Like all cities that generated wealth in trade, it was its strategic location. Being located at the tip of the subcontinent meant that it had easy access to goods produced in the subcontinent, and also kept it relatively safe from foreign invaders. And the predictable nature of the monsoon winds made it easy for ancient navigators to make their way to Muziris. The Romans called the monsoon winds Hippalus, after the Greek navigator who is said to have discovered it, and exploited the predictable nature of these winds to make their journey to Muziris in the summer and back to the Red Sea in winter.
At the height of its prosperity, Muziris is said to have had trading relations with 31 countries in Europe, Asia, and the Far East. And its trade with Rome was so well established that archaeologists believe that there was a Roman temple dedicated to Augustus Caesar in Muziris, hinting at Roman settlements.
But then it falls off the historical radar. It is widely believed that a tsunami destroyed the city in 1341. Others believe that the fall of the Roman Empire in the 3rd century AD led to a decrease in commerce which gradually led to the fall of Muziris as the city was heavily dependant on Roman demand for pepper. The Tamil poems Akananuru talk of Pandya attacks on Muziris. Suffice to say, we don’t know for sure what caused to the fall of Muziris. And worse, we don’t really know where the exact location of Muziris!
We have a vague idea of where Muziris was located – somewhere in Kodungallur, at the mouth of the Periyar. But a series of excavations in 1945 did not yield anything dated before the 13th century. However, in 1983, Roman coins were discovered at a town called Pattanam, 9kms south of Kodungallur. And we have been digging up ceramics, lapidary-related objects, metal objects, coins, architectural ruins, geological, zoological and botanical remains since; hinting at extensive trade with foreign civilisations as hinted by historical texts.
But experts are not in agreement about the location of the ancient utopia. Some even suggest that the city could’ve been a yearly congregation, like the Kumbh Mela, where people came to settle down temporarily every year. Be city or congregation, one cannot deny the critical part that Muziris played in history – it was the heart of the Spice Route and played a key role in the global economy of the time.