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Chau ju-kua’s Chu fan Chi and Malabar

Posted by Maddy Labels:

One of the earliest written documents referring to the details of Chinese and Arab trade with Malabar and the Malabar ports is the Chu fan Chi written by Chau Ju Kua. Though there is one other document, which is the reference provided by Suleyman the merchant, revised by Zayid Hasan of Siraf and Masaudi between the 9th and 10th centuries respectively, the Chau ju-kua (pronounced Zhao Rugua) book has special importance as this touches on the Chinese trade with Malabar.

The phrase Chu Fan chi means ‘Description of the barbaric (could also mean foreign) people’ and covers the Chinese Arab trade of the 12th and 13th centuries. I have referred to the English translation provided by Friedrich Hirth and WW Rockhill.

First some background - The first mentions of Chinese traders comes from Ceylon which was also a focal point of Arabic Red sea traders. Early mentions of far eastern sailors can also be found in ‘Cosmas Indicopleustes’ which was written around the 6th century and mentions goods from China. It is also known that Canton had Arab & Indian colonies at the port as early as 200AD. Trade existed between India and China as early as 2nd century AD, over Northern Pegu (Burma) but this was mainly overland. Maritime trade with Chinese ships started in the early decades of the 7th century first via Siam (Thailand). Nevertheless there are allusions to extensive trade which Coriander mariners conducted between the shores of Malabar, Coromandel ports, Ceylon, Indonesia and even Indo-China even before that. Documentation though is very difficult to come by.

However Chinese accounts do mention sea trade with India as early as 120BC. Herein lay a strange anomaly. Probably due to errors or confusion with translation, many historic books talk about tribute being paid to Chinese kings. Dr G Banerjee in his book ‘India as known to the ancient world’ is emphatic in pointing out that tribute was actually confused with the word trade and it involved bilateral exchange of produce. So while many books talk of the mighty Chinese empire being paid tribute, the actual situation was a conduct of normal trade without any might attached to it. The main tributary countries to China were India, Arabia and Persia. Prof Hirth believes that port of Canton was in existence since 3 BC. India was known as Tien chu ( from Sanskrit Sindhu – Shindu) in Chinese writing.

Though one of the first Chinese to undertake a sea voyage and write about it was Fa Hien who went from Hoogly in Calcutta to China in the early part of the 5th century, (He went from Hoogly to Ceylon, then to Java and finally Chinese shores, in a wind sailing ship) Documented Arab trade routes came up first in the 8th century from the port of Kia Tan and here one can see that the port of Kulam Mali or Quilon is the main stopping point in Malabar for Arab ships (However these were heresy information and the Chinese still did not have first hand trade with India. The route beyond Quilon, to the Red sea ports is missing or sketchy). At the same time earlier mentions that very large ships (Arab or Indian) were entering Canton harbor and that ladders many tens of feet high were needed to scale those ships for unloading have been found. As trade progressed, the colony in Canton had become Muslim and had numerous Persians and Arabs. Around the 9th century another port became popular, named Zeytoun. But by then the revolt in the area resulted in many of these foreigners fleeing China and settling down in West Malaysia.

Chinese shipping started roughly between the 9th and 12th centuries and touched the Malay, Indonesian and other Far Eastern ports. The lucrative trade was run directly by the Chinese monarchies. By the 12th century Chinese junks (square in shape and built like grain measures) seem to have started calling at Quilon. By the 12th century the Chinese compare themselves to Arab ships stating that while their ships housed several hundred men, the ones from the Arab side were much bigger and housed a thousand.

Chau Jhu-kua, an inspector of foreign trade at the customs department in Quanzhou (Fukien – Fujian) a.k.a Zeytoun, then (Information collected from around 1211 and completed by 1225) documents (together with another man called Chou Ku Fei) for the first time whatever knowledge he has heard in the ports about the seas, the ports of call, the ships and the material traded. The second volume lists all the traded goods and their characteristics.

He states in the second book that Malabar exports cotton and spices in return for silk and Porcelain. While the cotton and other produce was of smaller quantities, pepper was sizeable (if you recall Marco Polo mentions that the amount of pepper that goes to China is 100 times more than what goes to Europe). So the trade with Malabar was robust and continues so until it reached an abrupt end in the 13th century was briefly reignited when Cheng Ho came in the 15th century and stopped again after the Portuguese came. It would be interesting how the pepper reached China after the 15th, it probably got re routed via Far East Asia, but that will be discussed in some later article.

Let us see what he has heard of and how he describes Malabar

Malabar (Nan-pi)

The Nan pi country is in the extreme south west. From San fo tsi, one may reach it with the monsoon in a little more than a month. The capital of the kingdom is styles Mie-a-mo (Malabar) which has the same expression as the Chinese expression Lissi.

The ruler of the country has his body draped, but goes barefooted. He wears a turban and loin cloth, both of white cotton cloth. Sometimes he wears a white cotton shirt with narrow sleeves. When going out he rides an elephant and wears a golden hat ornamented with pearls and gems. On his arm is fastened a band of gold, and around his leg is a golden chain.

Among his regalia is a standard of peacock feathers on a staff of vermillion color, over twenty men guard it round. He is attended by a guard of some five hundred picked foreign women chosen for their fine physiques. Those in front lead the way with dancing, their bodies draped, bare footed and with a cotton loin cloth. Those behind ride horses barebacked, they have a loincloth, their hair is done up and they wear necklaces of pearls and anklets of gold, their bodies are perfumed with camphor and mush and other drugs, and umbrellas of peacock feathers shield them from the sun.

In front of the dancing woman are carried the officers of the king’s train, seated in litters (bags) of white foreign cotton and which are called pu-toi-kiou and are borne on poles plated with gold and silver.

In this kingdom there is much sandy soil, so when the king goes forth, they first send an officer with an hundred soldiers and more to sprinkle the ground so that the gusts of wind may not whirl up the dust.

The people are very dainty in their diet; they have a hundred ways of cooking their food, which varies every day.

There is an officer called Han-Lin who lays the viands and drinks before the king, and sees how much food he eats, regulating his diet so that he may not exceed the proper measure. Should the king fall sick, through excess of eating, then (this officer) must taste his faeces and treat him according as he finds them sweet or bitter.

The people of this country are of a dark brown complexion, the lobes of their ears reach down to their shoulders. They are skilled in archery and dexterous with their swords and lances; they love fighting and ride elephants to battle, when they also wear turbans of colored silks.

They are extremely devout Buddhists.

The climate is warm, there is no cold season, Rice hemp, beans, wheat, millet, tubers and green vegetables supply their food, they are abundant and cheap. They cut an alloyed silver into coins, on these they stamp an official seal. The people use it in trading. The native products include pearls, foreign cotton stuff of all colors (i.e. colored chintzes) and tou-lo mien (cotton cloth).

There is in this country a river called the Tan shui kiang which at a certain point where its different channels meet becomes very broad. At this point its banks are bold cliffs in the face of which sparks (lit stars) can constantly be seen and these by their vital powers fructify and produce small stones like cat’s eyes clear and translucid. These lie buried in holes in these hills until some day they are washed out by the rush of a flood when the officials send men in little boats to pick them up. They are prized by the natives.

The following states are dependent on this country of Nan pi. (City names in brackets provided by Rockhill, and are assumptions)

Ku-Lin (Quilon)
Fong ya Lo (Mangalore)
Hu Cha La (Gujarat)
Ma li mo (Malabar)
Kan Pa i (Cambay)
Tu nu ho (Salsette island - Bombay)
Pi li sha ( Broach)
A li jo ( Eli mala – Cannanore)
Ma lo hua (malwa)
Au lo lo li (Cannanore or Nellore)

The country of Na Pi is very far away and foreign vessels rarely visit it. Shi lo pa chi li kan father and son, belong to this race of people, they are now living in the Southern suburb of the city of tsuan (chou fu)

Its products are taken thence to ki lo tu sung and San fo tai abd the following goods are exchanged in bartering for them: Ho-chi silks, porcelain ware, camphor, rhubarb, cloves, sandalwood, cardamoms and gharu-wood.

Ku-lin may be reached in five days from the monsoon from Nan Pi. It takes a tsuan chou ship over forty days to reach lang Li (Lan wuli) there the winter is spent and the following year, a further voyage of a month will take it to this country.

The customs of the people on the whole are not different from those of the Nan Pi people. The native products comprise cocoanuts and sandalwood, for wine they use a mixture of honey with coconuts and the juice of a flower which they ferment.

They are fond of archery; in battle they wrap their hair in silken turbans.

For the purpose of trade they use coins of gold and silver, twelve silver coins are worth one gold coin. The country is warm and has no cold season.

Every year ships come to this country from San fo Tsi, Kien-pi and Ki-to and the articles they trade are the same as in Nan pi.

Great numbers of Ta-shi live in this country. Whenever they have taken a bath they anoint their bodies with yu-kin as they like to have their bodies gilt like that of the Buddha.

Preliminary comments

Strangely little is written about Ku Lin (just the last two paragraphs), the place where they docked, but much is written about Ku Li or Calicut. This probably signifies the might of Calicut and the Zamorin’s control in the pre 12th century period.

The Nair family that settled in China is very interesting – Shi lo pa and Chi li kan. Though many historians refer to them as Nair’s it is very difficult to infer so from the sounds of the names. I do recall an ambassador Narayana from the Zamorin in the 15th century. It is noted from the translator’s comments that after the arrival of the two Malabar people in China, the trade increased drastically.

Tanshuikiang River – Which could that be with the mountains and hills behind it? Was it the Chaliyam River, Korappuzha or perhaps something bigger from the past? It could very well be. Maybe it is the river mentioned by CKR in his comments as flowing through the middle of today’s Calicut.

The golden amulet is noticed by many visitors. Vasco DeGama (Correa) mentioned that it was so heavy that it needed a person to support his arm.

It is unlikely that the Zamorin had a retinue of female guards. So were the women guards some sort of fanciful thinking? The first woman warrior mentioned in Malabar history was Unniarcha, to my understanding, but of course there were others before that.

The mention of silver coinage is a little strange. I do recall from Ma Huan’s book that 12 silver coins is equal to one gold coin in the 15th century. But until then Silver seems to have held up as main monetary token. This somehow contradicts mentions of that period that barter was the main method used by Coromandel traders. Probably large volume trade was bartered, and coins were used for smaller trade.

Officers carried in palanquins or riding on horses? That is indeed strange for there are hardly any other mentions of Malabar kings and officers on horses which were only popular and suitable in hard soil as found in neighboring Vijayanagar and Chola regions. Elephants of course are quite often mentioned in other accounts.

Cats eyes from the waterfall? Waterfalls were not unique to Malabar for such an impression to be made and documented. As Rockhill states, much of what Chau Ju Kua heard was from Arab traders who mentioned only what they wanted the Chinese to know, not necessarily the whole truth.

Han lian – officer seems to be some kind of Moosad vaidyar who was the personal physician. They existed well until the 19th century as personal Ayurvedic physicians. However the sampling of faeces is pretty new and totally unlikely (the rules of pollution would never allow that), it must have been imagination. The Zamorin wearing a white turban is also a new observation.

The great numbers of Ta-shi living in Quilon is again a very interesting observation for Ta-shi are Arabs. But Arabs anointing their bodies with oil is pretty rare but quite possible.

In another part of the book, it is mentioned that the Quilon people did not tie their hair up on top, wearing them loose compared to Malabar people and wore red leather slippers.

Salsette Island incidentally is today’s Greater Bombay. See the wikipedia article for details.

Nan pi is Nampi (as testified by Ma Huan in his book about Cheng Ho’s visit) – or land of the Nampoothiris? It is interestingly stated here in this book that the supremacy of the Nair country extended to Sri Lanka (Si Lan) and the other places listed thouygh it is very doubtful from a factual viewpoint.

About the people being Buddhists one should note that Chinese writers according to Rockhill use the word Fo which is transliterated to Buddha, but may just mean ‘God’.

A clarification about Zeytoun and Canton is needed here. Some historians mentioned that they are the same place, i.e. Quanzhou or Guangzhou, but others confirm that Zeytoun (Xiamen or Amoy now) came about only in the 10th century. Note that they had other names too, Canton was Chin or Sin-kalan or Khanfu and Zaytoun was Ts'iian-chow or Chinchu in Fukien. Hangchow or Hangzhou was a third port, close to Shanghai. Canton is to the south, Hangzhou up North and Xiamen between them.

The word Satin comes apparently from Zaytoun as it originated there.


India as known to the ancient world – Dr Gauranganath Banerjee
Chu Fan Chi - Chau Ju Kua - F Hirth and WW Rockhill
China in Word history – S A M Adshead

Pics - from the net, google images - thanks to the uploaders

Changatham and its origins

Posted by Maddy Labels:

Most Malayalees today would naturally assume that the word Changatham is the base for the term Changathi or friend. One thing I am not too sure is if the word Changathi evolved from Changatham though it may very well have. While the natives of Travancore usually stick to words like Snehithan or loved one, the term loosely used for friend in Malabar is Changathi or its Moplah version Changayee. In reality, the word Changatham has meanings far beyond friendship. Let us take a look, and this will takes you many centuries back, to the martial days of Nairs, the fighting clan of Malabar (I must also mention here that there are some historians who believe that there were even Changathams comprising Thiyya caste warriors in North Malabar).

Experts opine that the word Changatham itself came from the Sanskrit word Sanghatta. The term in Malayalam means a moral binding or union between persons, to start with. So as you can see, there is sense in assuming that the word Changathi evolved from Changatham. However the term Changatham signified a special martial group of Nair’s (hopefully you recall my article on Chavers) well before the 13th century. I state this upon the basis that the terms Changatham and Chaver can be seen in the Payyannur pattu (that will follow in another blog) and hence existed in those ancient days. Now what did they do? Various writers and historians account for the fact that Changathams took the roles of body guards, guides and mercenaries.

Some historians account that Changathams actually provided protection for money; otherwise termed kaval panam (Logan calls it Kaval Phalam – associated with Convoy guarding). This ‘kaval panam’ was provided by wealthy individuals, traders & caravans, and curiously even single women (such as wealthy but excommunicated Namboothiri women – I was a bit mystified by this, but the Malappuarm gazetteer documents so). According to historians Raghava Warrier & Rajan Gurukkal, the systems of hundreds and thousands that supported each chieftain gave way to Changathams after the Cheraman Perumal’s time.

Now a general explanation on various militias around Calicut - Each Swarupam had its own fighting force and Kalari. The Venad force was known as Janam or a risippiti Janam. The Sammotiri or zamorin, the ruler of Kozhikode, had constituted the fighting forces under different categories- Grama Janam, Lokar, Chaver, Akampati and Changatham. The Grama Janam could have been the militia of Desavazhies and there are references to a number of 'Grama Janams' in the list of invitees to the investiture ceremony of the Samootiri. The Lokar seems to be the military or paramilitary force in and around the capital, available to the ruler at short notice. The regulars of the Samootiri were constituted into Chaver and Changatham. The 'Changatham' served as the 'Akampati Janam' or retinue of Samootiri. The special force of Chaver served as the suicide squad or 'companions of honour'. These soldiers were always ready to lay their lives for the sake of the king.

The term Changatham apparently originated from Sanghatta in Sanskrit and this was used by the Portuguese in their chronicles – Jangada, Sanguada or Jancada as used by the Franks was a traditional arrangement in Kerala concerning the terms of service of certain persons. Readers would be surprised to note that the Portuguese also started employing the Jangada and they had similar Jangada mercenaries in their forts. Whiteway (The rise of Portuguese power in India, 1497-1550 - By Richard Stephen Whiteway Pg 12) confirms that the Portuguese had a Jangada for each of their Malabar forts and it was their duty to defend anything entrusted to their with their life and that it was a serious matter to kill them as it involved in a blood feud with all their relatives (Koodi paka). Once the Koodipaka situation erupted, the affected Nair males shaved their heads and entered into a revenge fight unto death. Whiteway also writes about De Souza’s attack on the Telicherry temple (Pg 284) where the two Jangada groups that were guarding the temple were drawn away by another fight and how one of these groups returns the next day, with the chief dressed ornamentally and accompanied buy 10-12 Jangada Nair’s.

Hobson Jobson & Yule’s dictionaries state –

JANCADA, s. This name was given to certain responsible guides in the Nair country who escorted travellers from one inhabited place to another, guaranteeing their security with their own lives, like the Bhats of Guzerat. The word is Malayal. channddam (i.e. changngddam, [the Madras Gloss, writes channdtam, and derives it from Skt. sanghdta, ' union ']), with the same spelling as that of the word given as the origin of jangar or jangada, ' a raft.' These jancadas or jangadas seem also to have been placed in other confidential and dangerous charges.

Thus :

1543. — " This man who so resolutely died was one of the jangadas of the Pagode. They are called jangades because the kings and lords of those lands, according to a custom of theirs, send as guardians of the houses of the Pagodes in their territories, two men as captains, who are men of honour and good cavaliers. Such guardians are called jangadas, and have soldiers of guard under them, and are as it were the Counsellors and Ministers of the affairs of the pagodes, and they receive their maintenance from the establishment and its revenues. And sometimes the king changes them and appoints others." — Correa, iv. 328.

c. 1610. — "I travelled with another Captain . . . who had with him these Jangai. who are the Nair guides, and who are found at the gates of towns to act as escort to those who require them. . . . Every one takes them, the weak for safety and protection, those who are stronger, and travel in great companies and well armed, take them only as witnesses that they are not aggressors in case of any dispute with the Nairs." — Pyrard de Laval, ch. xxv. ; [Hak. Soc. i. 339,and see Mr. Gray's note in loco].

1672. — "The safest of all journeyings in India are those through the Kingdom of the Nairs and the Samorin, if you travel with Giancadas, the most perilous if you go alone. These Giancadas are certain heathen men, who venture their own life and the lives of their kinsfolk for small remuneration, to guarantee the safety of travellers." — P. Vincenzo Maria, 127.

If you have read my blog on the Kuri systems of Kerala., you would have come across Changathi Kuris’ obviously this was meant for a group of Changathis from an erstwhile Changatham.

The Kerala government text book says - The Yogams (councils) of the Namboothiri trustees of temples and temple lands and their privileges were together called Sanketam. In the absence of sovereign authority of the government the Sanketams became real rulers. They administered law and justice in their jurisdiction. The Changatham was a group of warriors who ensured protection and safety to a Desam and to the Sanketam property. Like the Chavers, Changathams were also suicide squads. They were rewarded with a share from the offerings that were received at the temple. The share was called "Kaaval Panam" (remuneration for guarding) or Rakshabhogam. It was with the military backing of these Changathams that the Brahmins established social and political hegemony.

In the 13th century ballad “Payyannur pattu”, you see a mention of these groups, Chavalari pole Niyakaippuram, Changatham venam Perikayippol. More on this and the ballad later. So these local militia with some of their old features continued to exist in the subsequent medieval period of the principalities in the name of 'Changatham', 'Chaver', 'Lokar' and 'Akampati Janam'. It is believed that these bands of soldiers belonging to different communities in the middle ages must have risen out of such companions of honour, originally conceived as body guards of the rulers and local authorities and developed into a landed aristocracy supporting the established order with military power.

Herman Gundert in his Malayalam English dictionary from 1872, defines Sangatham as – Responsible Nayar guide through foreign territories. He lists Changathi as an unrelated entry to Changatham and explains it as companion with a feminine gender as well - Changayichi. Interestingly when used as Changathamakuvan (Gundert gives an example Kamsane konna Goplane kamsanu Changathamakkuvan) it means to ‘send one along, to kill likewise’.

So that is the Nair definition – Companion of honour, closely bonded with a dissoluble bond. Typically this companionship was between males. So when somebody says or sings ‘Changatham koodan vaa’ it means much more than passing friendship…As I explained earlier, ‘koodipaka’ goes past many generations..

Changadam – These famous Malabar rafts (paired longboats) called Changadam are different from Cangatham, but here again, looking at Barbosa’s account translated in English by ML Dames provides an interesting aside. It states that Changadam is two boats joined or lashed together and this bond is synonymous with the moral bond between two Changatham members (Pgs 48, 49). Dalgado’s Glossario ( pg 181) further gives examples of Vasco Da Gama’s sailing on Changatham’s to the Calicut shores, and states that Yule considers this one of the rare preserved Dravidian words, preserved from classical antiquity even though it is admitted that it may have evolved from the Sanskrit Sanghatta. The Portuguese introduced the Jangada boats later in Brazil, though they used the same term for the Malayali Kattamaram or roped up log rafts.


Herman Gundert – English Malayalam Dictionary
Hobson – Jobson Dictionary
Malabar – William Logan
The rise of Portuguese power in India, 1497-1550 - By Richard Stephen Whiteway
Glossario - Dalgado’s
Duarte Barbosa Chronicles – ML Dames translation
Kerala history – Raghava Warrier, Rajan Gurukkal

Pics - Thanks to

Mammotty & his warriors – Pazhassi Raja an upcoming film
Boats of the World - By Sean McGrail Pg 268

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