Voyage into the past
History: A recent presentation by retired marine engineer K.R.A. Narasiah threw light on maritime trade along the Indian coast
Voyages on the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean formed a major part of retired marine engineer K. R. A. Narasiah’s presentation at Vinoba Hall recently. The presentation was part of the Tamil Heritage Trust’s monthly activities, organised on the first Saturday of every month.
Narasiah, who is passionate about maritime history, reads excerpts from a first century travel guide Periplus of the Erythraean Sea by a Greek navigator, translated in 1912 by W. H. Schoff. This book, according to Schoff, was written in 60 CE and has around 66 paragraphs. From paragraph 38, it dwells in detail on trade along the Indian Coast.
“The trade route begins at a port called Mussel Harbour in Africa and goes down and around the coast of India and ends in Bengal. It starts from the Horn of Africa and goes down,” says Narasiah, “The Tamils, on the other hand, did only parallel sailing and didn’t cross the 10 degree North latitude.”
The book clearly classifies India based on the kingdoms present at that time. “The Indo-Scythian kingdom ruled the north; the Sathavahanas, the mid-south; and the Cholas and the Pandya kingdoms, the South,” he says. “Strabo, a Greek geographer and historian, says merchants from Alexandria sailed to India between 64 BCE and 24 BCE. He also states that 120 vessels sailed to India every year. In Mussel Harbour, they even found a Tamil brahmi script on a potsherd dating back to 1 CE, which mentions Panai oRi (a pot suspended in a rope net). ”
Even the names of the ports they frequented and the kings they met are documented in great detail. “Caelobothras was Chera Puthra and Weacyndi and Barace were Kottayam and Vakkarai,” he says. “Trade comprised mostly of muslin, pearls and a very expensive product called spikenard (vetiver) which they shipped by loads. The ports they visited in Damirica (or Tamizhagam) were Camara (Poompuhar), Poduke (Arikamedu) and Sopatma (Marakanam). Of these, Arikamedu is the most important site for the study of Indian sea trade.” The book also mentions that the only Tamil vessel recorded was Colandia.
Narasiah not only tries to demystify the places mentioned in the book but also draws comparisons to them in Tamil literature, where there are references to them.
“While referring to the Cape of Comari, the book says ‘for it is told that a goddess once dwelt here and bathed’. There is a reference to this in a poem in Manimegalai,” he says. “Argari was what is today Uraiyur and in Tamil, was referred to as Urantai (which is mentioned in Sangam literature and the Silapathikaram), Koli, Koliyur and so on.”
As Narasaiah completes his presentation, he mentions the last paragraph of the book, which says how the travellers could not go further than the Himalayas and this is the only paragraph that mentions God. “The regions beyond these places are difficult to access because of their excessive winters and great cold or cannot be sought out because of some divine influence of the gods.”