Mike Aquilina

Friends, Romans, Christians … in Ancient India?

Tuesday August 22nd 2006, 3:51 am

Back in July, I posted on the traditions of St. Thomas the Apostle’s work in India, suggesting a strong case for their plausibility, given the state of Roman trade with India in the mid-first century. Recent archeological excavations confirm what we read in the ancient geographers and naturalists: Rome was dependent on India’s spices, textiles, gems, dyes, and perfumes. Moreover, there were already well established Jewish settlements in India, and the synagogues would have been natural starting points for Thomas, as the synagogues of Europe were for other apostles.

Now come further hints that the evidence for Roman commerce has been plentiful all along, but suppressed. Pottery, coins, and other artifacts turn up regularly, but people in the villages would rather not have archeologists disrupt their lives (certainly a difficult situation). Rumor has it, too, that nationalist movements do not welcome evidence of ancient Indian Christianity or contact with the Roman West. It’s un-PC. Thus, the best policy is often to sweep the shards under the porch.

IOL carried a story yesterday, “Ancient Indian Port Faces Extinction,” by Jeemon Jacob. It concerns a village in Kerala, a region traditionally associated with St. Thomas’s apostolate. In fact, it concerns a port that might have been St. Thomas’s landing in India. Excerpts follow:

Pattanam, India — Pottery shards, beads, Roman copper coins and ancient wine bottles litter the strata beneath this small seaside village in India’s southern Kerala state.

The 250 families, mostly agricultural labourers, who live in Pattanam, 260km north of Kerala’s capital Thiruvananthapuram, find the objects pretty, but would rather dig up the ground and build larger homes.

But according to archaeologists KP Shajan and V Selvakumar, they may be destroying the remnants of Muziris, a well-documented trading port where Rome and India met almost 3 000 years ago.

Muziris mysteriously dropped off the map.

They say that, based on remote sensing data, a river close to Pattanam had changed its course and the ancient port may have been buried due to earthquakes or floods.

The two are worried construction activity in the village will destroy evidence about the existence of the port before they get the chance to examine it scientifically.

“There is no doubt that Pattanam was a major port that is linked to Indo-Roman trade,” Shajan said. “But we can’t confirm whether it was Muziris. We need more collaborative evidence to support our findings.”

A majority of the families that live in Pattanam are demolishing old tiled-roof structures and replacing them with concrete buildings right in the middle of the 1,5km zone where Shajan and Selvakumar say Muziris was possibly located.

Muziris was a port city mentioned in several ancient travelogues and scholarly texts as a major centre of trade between India and Rome, especially in pepper and other spices around the second century BC to probably as late as the sixth century AD.

Christianity may have been introduced to the sub-continent through Muziris, historians say. But Muziris mysteriously dropped off the map – maybe to war, plague, or disaster.

The two archaeologists say they want to find out for sure and have asked local preservation groups to help.

Kerala’s Historical Research Council, an independent body that promotes research in history, says it has written to the Archaeological Survey of India, which is in charge of protecting monuments and historical places, to take steps to protect Pattanam.

But KV Kunjikrishnan, a professor of history, says neither the government nor the Archaeological Survey of India has responded.

“The construction activity in the area may destroy vital evidence of historical importance,” says Kunjikrishnan.

Pattanam housewife Sheeba Murali says ancient beads pop out from the ground after heavy rains and the 30-year-old history graduate, like some other villagers, collects them and hands them over to the archaeologists.

Villagers say they used to get gold coins from the site, but kept the finds quiet.

“Nobody admits whatever things they get. We are scared that the government may take over our land for archaeological survey,” says villager Arun Rajagopal.

It was from Rajagopal’s land that the two archaeologists discovered beads, layer of bricks, wine bottles, jars, pendants and copper coins.

Selvakumar says the ancient bricks, which the villagers used to build their homes, bore a close resemblance to those used 2 500 years ago.

“During my excavations I collected a wide range of pottery which goes back to the historic date. Amphorae, roulette ware, beads, nails and several other artefacts such as copper coins were also recovered,” he says.

But Sheeba says villagers will continue building new homes.

“My children need a decent place to stay when they grow up. But I am thrilled to live in a place where history sleeps,” she says.

I’d quibble with the estimate of 2,500-3,000 years ago. Roman trade with India seems to have begun to boom right around the middle of the first century, with the discovery of the trade winds that made open-sea sailing possible. Other than that, the story — like so much of the painstaking Indian research I mentioned in my July post — gives us a clearer vision of a certain world, a lost world — a world where, I believe, St. Thomas walked.

UPDATE: Bread and Circuses posts links to useful background material on the port of Muziris.