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Trade through the Palghat gap

Posted by Maddy Labels: , ,

A number of historians have written over the years about the trade systems that flourished in the Indian Ocean. These days I am happily immersed in the perusal of some fascinating books covering this subject in much detail.

But then, so many hours and days studying traders and reading about ships in the Indian Ocean was making me seasick, so I decided to spend a little time researching another interesting part of the Malabar world that made it all possible. All this trade or at least a major part outside the spice business happened only because of a natural formation in the Western Ghats or Sahyadri mountain range called the Palghat gap, which was the pass permitting the land route for trade. Some eminent historians have focused on the role the gap played in enhancing the trade in the past, but there were hardly any documentation in the public domain, and all this made me curious enough to divert my thoughts for a while to my mater land – Palakkad (Palghat).

Many of you would have driven through the Kuthiran Churam between Palakkad and Trichur, It was quite adventurous in old days, not anymore. As child I still remember how the transport buses labored climbing the steep slopes and stopped to change the water in the radiator. I remember how cars also stopped at the cool summit and drivers scurried up to break a coconut for luck at the Ayappan temple. And I remembered the famous story of how a man escaped robbers by making them get off the car to push it at the steep Kuthiran slope.

The Western ghats stretches between north of Kerala and the very south. These ghats isolated and protected Kerala over the years. While the Tamil Kongu regions were conquered by many dynasties and kings from the north, Kerala remained aloof and was not inaccessible from the North and the East; in fact the first and only major invasion of Malabar occurred when the Mysore Sultans came in through the pass.

The gap is the lowest pass through the Western Ghats. It is also the only break in that stretch of the Ghats that otherwise runs along the entire western edge of Kerala isolating the State from neighbouring Tamil Nadu. It acts as a corridor between the two States by linking Palakkad District of Kerala with Coimbatore District of Tamil Nadu and has served as the vital part of the important trade route between the east and west coasts of peninsular India since ancient times. The Palakkad Fort, stands as a reminder of the strategic importance the gap once had as a gateway to Kerala for would be invaders from the other side of the Ghats. North side of the gap is hills with a height of 1100m and south side the same with 2000m height. The average height of the gap is 144m. There are various theories about the origin of Palakkad gap. One among them is that it is caused by the landslide due to rivers flowing in opposite directions. The Bharatha Puzha river originates in the Palakkad Gap from rivulets and tributaries feeding from steep escarpment slopes along the flanks of the Ghats.

Modern day geologists call the present Palghat Gap topography as the product of shearing and erosion over times. Some scientists like TNC Vaidya believe that a huge lake existed in the Palghat gap and came to this conclusion studying elephant herds and their genetic constituency. It appears that while the Anamalai elephants south of the gap shared genetic traits with African elephants whose forbearers came over some 200,000 years ago, the Nilgiris elephants were local!!

Having looked at some geography, let us get back to the historic trade aspects. Roughly between 3000BC to about 40AD, Arab traders monopolized the Indian Ocean trade zone together with their Indian counterparts. It was finally Hippalus that helped Romans break the iron grip (though according to some Indo Roman trade existed many hundreds of years before that). The Romans continued independent trade until the 4th century, after which the Arabs wrested back the ascendancy. The first recorded use of Palakkad gap as a conduit for trade takes us to these periods, the turn of the century to the 4th.

Palghat gap - a great photo showing the gap - contributed by Premnath Murkoth
The trade over the Indian Ocean blossomed in the first and second century CE. The sailors made use of the monsoon to cross the ocean from the ports of Berenice, Leulos Limen and Myos Hormos on the Red Sea coast of Roman Egypt to the ports of Muziris and Nelkynda in Malabar coast. The main trading partners in southern India were the Tamil dynasties of the Pandyas, Cholas and Cheras. Many Roman artifacts have been found in India, for example at the archaeological site of Arikamedu near present day Pondicherry. Meticulous descriptions of the ports and items of trade around the Indian Ocean can be found in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. The main articles of trade with India were spices such as pepper, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, sandal wood and gems such as pearls, rubies, diamonds, emeralds and ivory. In exchange the Romans traded silver and gold with India.
So as you can see, the Palakkad gap or mountain pass is the only gap between Kerala on one side and Tamil Nadu on the other. But did the Romans and Greeks conduct direct trade with the East coast? No, and the reason was the tricky area south of Cape Comorin, a place well known to ancient mariners. The area was difficult to circumvent due to rock formations (probably the Ramn Sethu Bridge existed then), lack of wind support for sailing and possibly nuisance from the pirates and the such. Even the Arabs did not venture past Tuticorin, maybe there were some loose agreements not to or the risks outweighed the opportunities. Nevertheless, the trade existed between Malabar ports and Red sea ports. While the early mariners kept close to the land shores to reach Gujarat and Malabar, the discovery of the monsoon winds brought both Arab and Greek - Roman mariners to Malabar sailing with the winds, reaching faster and safely.

So what was going on in the Kaveri valley and how did the trade guilds of Malabar access it? To understand that one must take a look at the periplus, the ancient manual of the sea. It explains all the sea ports of Malabar upto the Arikamedu port or Padouke. Here was where they made earthen ware to Roman specifications (first examples of outsourcing - And you may also recall my notes on the Pompeii Lakshmi).While many people studying the pottery and jewelry designs conclude that there was a Roman expatriate population living there, the story is still not complete and excavations continue.

Now how did the trade partners in the East coast get their goods across to the west coast? Land caravans took the goods to Coimbatore and from there it passed over land through the Palghat gap. Ships & boats did sail between Arikamedu and Muziris, but they were indigenous, possibly Marakkayar sailors.

The Romans knew of these South Asian ports and had been trading with them for ages. To a certain extent they integrated into the minds and psyche of the Tamil communities as Yavanas, contributing rich folklore in the process. Somewhere in the past this ceased, probably due to the strengthening of the control of waters on the east side. Muziris was one of the key ports and what the Greeks and Romans wanted were beads and gemstones like garnets and diamonds from the Kaveri basin. Indians though needed the gold and silver and were happy to exchange stones for gold. This healthy trade drained all gold reserves in Rome and you may recall the famous cribbing by Ptolemy. Peter Francis a bead specialist states that Bernike and Egypt traded beads with South India, stretching between 2AD and 3BC. Garnets, Emeralds (Beryl) glass and quartz beads, handicraft work originated from Arikamedu, Kodumanal, passing through the Palakkad gap and reaching Muziris for sea transport to the West. Sangam literature was first to mention this gem industry carried out by the ‘Pandukal’ and all this basically came to light with the discovery of Arikamedu. The Pandukal were metal smiths & gem smiths. Kodumanal another manufacturing location, now being excavated, also called as Kodumanam was key. Kodumanal curiously had all the raw material for the gemstone business though Arikamedu had not.

The bead traders were called ‘manivanakkan’. The raw material according to Peter Francis apparently went to Kodumanal, were crafted and then sent through the Palakkad pass to Ponanani. From there it went by boat to Muziris and by ship to red sea ports. Some went by sea from Arikamedu to Muziris and thence to red sea ports. Many present day historians and archeologists like S Suresh are of the opinion that the actual transshipment center before the material moved to Muziris was Kovai or Coimbatore.

As Dr. Suresh says, "Evidence of trade, diplomatic and cultural relations between India and Rome are found especially in southern India. And within South India, a large percentage of this evidence has been unearthed in the Kongu region, which today forms a large portion of the district known as Coimbatore". Vast amounts of Roman coins and other artefacts have been discovered around Coimbatore. Take the coin that is engraved with an image of Julius Caesar, found near the city. A one of a kind coin, it is the only one found in all of Asia. An overwhelming majority of such artefacts have been discovered in places that include Pollachi and Vellalore. Pollachi is in fact the place where the first recorded find of a Roman coin anywhere in Asia was discovered!

The Romans were drawn to India, and not just for her spices. Gem stones, textiles, ivory, ebony, iron and steel, and even peacocks were all sought after by the Romans from the Indian sub-continent. Pepper and other Indian spices, were largely found in southern India. In exchange for her merchandise, the country chose to receive gold coins and fine Roman wine. As Dr.Suresh puts it, "There was a scarcity of gold and silver in Southern India even way back then. And these were heavily in demand by South Indians. This aspect of history has changed very little even in present times!"

Going back to those days, Kongu country had vazhi’s and peruvazhi’s. These valis or vazhi’s were part of the huge roads and highway network. The most important was the Rajakesari Peruvazhi. See here for the roads. It was this road route that brought to Malabar diverse people like the Palghat Brahmins (Scribes, cooks and scholars), Chettairs and Mudaliar traders from the Coromandel, to name a few. The Konganpada came down this route and fought the people of Palakkad and lost, even today we have the annual Kongan Pada festival at Chittur- palghat.

Now you can imagine why the very location of the Palakkad fort was of prime importance to Hyder Ali and Tippu Sultan (note here that the Zamorin had cleverly used the Palakkad gap earlier to get his goods across to other ports in the East to circumvent the VOC blockade and surely Hyder saw that). The major road entry to Kerala from the East in the medieval times was through the Palakkad gap. Control of this access point to Kerala was critical and it was for this reason that a fort was needed. Remember that in the past many forts were built for sea entry protection. The Portuguese, the Dutch and the English built the first sea forts, but the later ports were all for land trade control. For a detailed story on the Palakkad fort refer my earlier article on this subject.

While many people mention that the Palakkad gap is the only gap in the Western Ghats or Sahyadri Mountains, there is a smaller gap (1500ft) called the Shenkottai gap.

I have loosely used the words Palghat & Palakkad. Both mean the same and Palghat is the earlier English term.


The archeology of seafaring in ancient South Asia - Himanshu Prabha Ray
The Bead site – Peter Francis
Roman Karur – R Nagaswamy
Kodumanal today
Archeological sites Tamil Nadu
Map of the Western Ghats - Google


  1. Vijay


    Fascinating post. Little did I know while traveling frequently between Coimbatore and Palakkad as a boy that I was traversing a great peruvazhi used by many including perhaps Romans!

    Quick question- you say early trade was controlled by the Arabs, then the Romans, and the Arabs again. Who were these pre-Islamic, and pre Christian era "Arabs"? Your dates go as far back as 3000BC- were they part of Pharoanic or Ptolemic Egypt? Subjects of King Solomon? Nubians? Yemenite tribals?


  1. Maddy

    Thanks Vijay - The Participants of Pre Islamic trade with Malabar is a subject by itself (though somewhat vague & hazy), which I will cover in another blog. We had Greeks and Arabs comprising (over different periods) Egyptians, Phoenicians, Nabataeans, Midianites, Eritreans to name a few. You may also recall that from a maritime perspective the earliest boats from the Indus valley date back some 5000 years and they were not the oldest.

  1. Calicut Heritage Forum

    A scholarly post. The role of Chettis in this inland trade needs to be studied in detail. You find on this trade route several places named Chettikulam, Chettiankandi etc. Invariably, there will be a tank and an attached Subrahmania Temple in these places. These must have been the resting/camping sites of the Paradesi Chetties who once supplied essential commodities like oil, urad dal, silk and even jaggery to Malayalees.
    Look forward to several sequels!

  1. P.N. Subramanian

    Started reading yesterday. Some questions cropped up and I was in hibernation. Today I finished reading and got answers for my doubts which included Shenkotta pass. I did't know about the coin find at Pollachi. Very interesting and educating post indeed. Salutations.

  1. Maddy

    Thanks CKR I am working on the Chettiar roles these days, hopefully will become clear soon. It is a bit difficult though since these traders never publicized their accounts of the time.

    Thanks PNS - The Tamil Nadu excavations are providing much information of the times. In kerala the people added layers &layers above the same place over the years, so it is virtually impossible to dig. In Tamil Nadu they left the places probably due to drought or something and you can now excavate & find answers...

  1. Raghu Menon

    Arikamedu (present day Pondicherry or Puducherry) was not only a bead specializing area but also on textiles. There were large tanks in Arikamedu which were used for textile dying. Unfortunately, Arikamedu remains are not protected well. The legend is that Agasthya passed through Puducherry on his route to Tamilnadu.Some of Puducherry's history can be retrieved from the diaries of Ananda Ranga Pillai.

  1. Maddy

    yes, raghu - you are right. The Arikamedu & poompuhar sites are very interesting for they provide a great window into the yavana periods...

  1. Naveen

    Dear Maddy,

    It was lovely reading your post about the gap in ghats :). Western ghats 've fascinated me ever since I was a kid. I would like to read and understand more about them. Could you please suggest good buks((3-4)) on western ghats (archeology, geology et al). Would be a great help. Thank you.