Close your eyes and visualise a wooden ship en route from an Egyptian Red Sea port crossing the Bab-el-Mandeb and using the monsoon winds to head towards southern Kerala. The aim of the 14-day journey, through what was not yet a militarised Indian Ocean, was to buy a prized commodity that made its way to every cuisine known to mankind - pepper. It was this commodity that linked the Cheras to an Egypt that was still ruled by the Pharaoh.
The Malabar Coast’s trading links with the Land of the Pharaohs go back to the pre-Christian era. Historians agree that a major trading port that supplied ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome was called Muziris. The port is believed to have been located close to Kodungallur.
It’s widely believed that the word Muziris is derived from the Tamil ‘Muchiri,’ a name given because the Periyar River branched into two and looked like a cleft lip. However, a scholarly work titled ‘Imperial Rome, Indian Ocean Regions and Muziris: New Perspectives on Maritime Trade,’ edited by K S Mathew argues that the name Machiripattanam is connected with the Egyptian month of Machiris, “when ships were to sail back from Kerala to Egypt, taking advantageous use of the monsoon wind for navigation.” There is also a suggestion in the book that the word etymologically originated from the word Mesrene, Misraim or Musri, which geographically stood for Egypt in literature that predates the Hellenisation and Romanisation of the country.
Sangam literature is full of praise for the wealth and grandeur of Muziris. ‘Purananuru,’ a masterpiece of poetry in eight anthologies, describes the ancient port as the city of the “gold-collared” Chera chief. Muziris is called the city “that bestows wealth to its visitors indiscriminately” a “marvel” and “treasure.” There are also vivid descriptions of its streets, houses and riverbank where “sacks of pepper are heaped-up with its gold deliveries.” According to the poem, alcohol flowed freely in the city. It is very likely that the ancestors of those living in southern Kerala were among the first people in India to taste fine wines.
It’s obvious that the ancient Egyptians were ready to pay a handsome fee for pepper from Kerala. An examination of the mummy of Ramesses II, one of ancient Egypt’s greatest rulers, found that there were fragments of pepper in his nostrils. Spices from Kerala were also used in Egyptian perfume oils. An integral part of the mummification process was the stuffing of the body with pleasant-smelling spices.
It’s also known that the Greeks would barter gold for pepper in Muziris, while the Romans sourced camphor, sandalwood and spices from the port. Historical records also indicate that Muziris had a resident expat community consisting of Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Jews, Levantines and Arabs! This may explain why some people from Kerala have physical features that aren’t normally associated with this part of the world.
Muziris was destroyed by a cyclone and massive floods in the 14th century. It also disappeared from older maps by the time Vasco da Gama landed in Calicut in 1498. The arrival of Europeans in India and Southeast Asia changed not only the cultural and political landscapes of the region, but also led to a lot of information about the ancient world being lost.
The Kerala government has made a commendable effort to popularise the legacy of Muziris. While there are disputes among historians over the exact location of the ancient trading port, the setting up of the Muziris Heritage Project by the Kerala Tourism Department will help generate a lot of interest in the ancient city. In addition to excavated heritage sites, there are 21 museums and novel initiatives such as hop-on, hop-off (air-conditioned) boat services.
The project's website (https://www.muzirisheritage.org/muziris-project.php) is available in English, German, Italian, French and Spanish. Of course, it could do with Malayalam, Hindi and Arabic versions as well.
Can there be a more fitting description of Kerala’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious heritage than the following words, that are on the website? “Muziris welcomes you to the cape of trade culture, left behind by its ancestors from around the world, to the waves of Azhikode where Christianity first entered India, to the Cheraman mosque, which gave out the first Muslim call for prayers, to the Bharani festival at the Kodungallur Bhagavathy temple, to the original culture of the Jewish synagogue, to the village where handlooms spin thinks of heritage, to the Palium palace and to the old waterways that led one to Muziris.”
These kinds of initiatives are crucial for Kerala to attract the kind of tourists that visit ancient monuments in Egypt, Turkey and places closer to home such as Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka.