Kerala, as we know it today, is 64 years old, rather young, considering its extensive ancient history. We all love Kerala, and are proud of its unique climate of tolerance, but have you ever wondered where we got it from? Our illustrious ancestors of course. Kerala’s history as a point of amalgamation of cultures has been documented across texts from different civilizations. What facilitated such harmony? What else, trade relations and Roman gold.
It is said that the region that’s currently Kerala has had trade relations with other ancient civilizations since the 3rd millennium BCE. These prominently included the Arabs, the Romans, who traded from Egypt, the Greeks and even the Chinese. Items from the Malabar ports were not just restricted to spices. Ivory, pearls, teak, and rosewood were some of the other products that were traded. Sandalwood was yet another trade good. R. Bosworth Smith, the writer, expressed the view that sandalwood from the Malabar coasts was used to make the gates of the city of Carthage in his book Rome and Carthage, the Punic Wars. The Babylonian king Nebuchadnazer’s 6th century BC palace and the Moon temple at Mughier were two locations in which it is claimed that Malabar teak was used. There are also researchers who link the Biblical King Solomon with extensive trade with the west coast of India, especially Malabar. Note that Malabar here denotes more than the region we know now. Malabar was a word used by most travellers to denote Kerala.
Malabar historically had a clear association with the Arabs. This is known from Greek historian Herodotus’ account of Arab traders at Aden, in Yemen selling goods they procured in Kerala. The Arabs are rumoured to have kept their knowledge of the favourable monsoon trade winds that facilitated passage to Kerala a secret. Yet according to a Roman text, Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, the unnamed author credits a Greek navigator and merchant Hippalus with the discovery of a direct route from the Red Sea to the Malabar coast. Hippalus himself is said to have learnt this from the Arab traders. On this new trade route, Muziris could be reached in 40 days from the Red Sea ports of Egypt. This discovery heavily increased trade between Roman Egypt and Malabar from the 1st century AD.
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Muziris (Pattanam) along with Berkarai (possibly Varkala), and Nelcynda (Neerkunnam) were among the major ports of Malabar. Pliny the Elder once called Muziris ‘the first emporium of India’. He also seemed to believe that the trade with Muziris was causing the Romans a big loss as a huge amount of their gold from conquests were pumped into the pepper trade. His work Natural History also mentions the rulers of the region in that period: the Celebothras. The Celebothras is the Romanized version of the Cheras. Other references to Muziris include poems from the Sangam Era describing huge ships with gold coming to trade for pepper and other spices. One account goes like this: “the city where the beautiful vessels, the masterpieces of the Yavanas [Greeks/Romans], stir white foam on the Periyar, river of Kerala, arriving with gold and departing with pepper.” Another poem calls Muziris “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”. And Periplus of the Erythraean Sea also records that “both Muziris and Nelcynda are now busy places”.
The Romans even had a map, the ‘Tabula Peutingeriana‘ from 226 AD that marked the Roman establishments at the trade ports, two soldier garrisons and a temple to Augustus. It is now believed that Muziris dropped out of the Roman trade map when the Roman economy declined in the 3rd century. Naura near Kannur, Tyndis near Koyilandy, and Bacare near Alappuzha were the other trade ports in the region. The remnants of their coins and tokens like beads and pots from their culture can be seen all across the coasts, especially in the northern areas.
Another noteworthy place that had trade relations with Malabar was China. Chinese king Kublai Khan is said to have had trade and diplomatic relations with the kings of Quilon and Muziris. Quilon was yet another port with a legendary and extensive history. One of the foriegn travellers who have written about Quilon is Benjamin of Tudela, 12th century. Marco Polo, the famed Venetian traveller said about Quilon: “The merchants from Manzi, and from Arabia, and from the Levant come thither with their ships and their merchandise and make great profits both by what they import and by what they export”
Ibn Batuta, the Moroccan traveler has also mentioned about both Quilon, i.e. Kollam and Kozhikode in his writings.
Other foreigners who have written about Kerala include Duarte Barbosa and Italian Niccolao Manucci. The Portuguese, under Vasco da Gama arrived in the 15th century and from here on, the history of colonisation and decline begins.