On the location of Muziris………..

Posted by Maddy Labels:

Muyiri or Mirjan

Today most people including me accept that the location of Muziris is close to Kodungallur. We accept that the Periyar River changed its course and silted, resulting in the closure of the old port and the move of trading centers elsewhere. But there are still a few people who believe that the real location of Muziris and for that matter Nelcynda are elsewhere, in varied locations such as Mirjan, Karur and Chitambaram. I thought it an interesting task to analyze the information we have, so that the mystery is revisited, if not cleared and also take a second look at the presently accepted conclusions of Pattanam’s discoverer Dr Shajan.

I had consciously stayed away from the subject of Muziris, straying only once to discuss the papyrus, but a persistent reader made me take a relook at the location of Muziris. His contention was that it was surely around Mangalore, as Dr Vincent & Maj Rennell had said many years ago. It raised interest in me for another reason, for I recalled my pet project – the story of the trader Yiju who was located in Mangalore in the 12th -13th century. With that background, I was aware that there was a shipping channel open between the Red Sea ports and Mangalore and I was also reminded of the peculiar anomaly where Yiju himself could not find a Jewish wife nor could be find a Jewish husband for his daughter. So much so that he married a Nair girl and he wandered off later to Cairo in search of a bridegroom for his daughter. Now if there was a big contingent of Jews at nearby Muziris (i.e. if Muziris was close to Mangalore) it may not have been an issue. That there were Jews in Muziris is pretty clear, at least after the start of this century (but then It is said they were at Shingly since 562 BC even though trade started much before, in King Solomon’s times).Anyway Yiju came to Mangalore 11 centuries after the mention of Muziris, so Yiju has no standing here. I was also reminded of the study of the Payyanur Pattu which mentioned much trade with Arabian and Yavana sailors which was located close to Nileshwaram, which again dates to the 12th century. Due to all this in my mind, Muziris surely felt farther away from Mangalore. Am I right? I have to revisit the conclusions by eminent historians to check the reason for ambiguity. And I finally reread my study of the Udyavara.

But the main point to note here is that Muziris, like Prestor John is somewhat mythical. It is important to note that Muziris was first mentioned briefly by just one western writer, in the 1st century AD and repeated by Ptolemy in his copied notes. After a century the port disappeared from texts and historians who have studied this subject in greater detail agree that for all practical purposes, just as Malabar ports and activity shifted in time, the port of Muziris vanished with the fall of Roman trade. Many also state after studies that Muziris was just a frontier town as opposed to a well established port of long standing, so it quickly got disbanded. Other aspects such as the Augustus temple shown in the Tabula Peutingeriana, amphorae of wine and Garum etc have been explained as necessities for the expatriate Yavanas who waited for the next year of the monsoon or for commodities to be delivered from inland locations.

First and foremost, one should realize as I explained in past posts that the Arab or for that matter Greek and Roman traders did not typically venture beyond Malabar. They used Malabar ports or Lymurike ports as transshipment points. From Malabar the stuff went eastwards or inland. Similarly the Chinese & SE Asian goods reached these Malabar ports through Kalingan ships or overland and changed hands with the traders. Why did the traders not venture eastwards? One reason being lack of propulsion, second being lack of knowledge, but the third and more probable reason was a clever use of misinformation by Indians. For example outlandish stories about monsters were spread and the location or source of goods were never divulged. The Adams Bridge finally ensured that only shallow bottomed Malabar boats and not oceangoing yavana ships could go to the other side of India.

Still the question is where is the port of Muziris? Starting with Forbes, followed by Rennel and later, Dr William Vincent conclusions were made that Muziris was in the Mangalore area. Their hypothesis was based on some reasoning as below

The problem started with Forbes in 1783 who said in his Oriental memoirs

Sir James Sibbald, for many years the English resident at Onore, informs me that Mirzee (the Musiris of the ancient Greeks) is situated twenty-two miles to the northward of Onore. At spring tides large ships can sail over the bar, at the entrance of the river, and remain in safety during the monsoon.

The supposition in brackets was used by some to bolster their case.

Major Rennell around 1788 concluded that Nylcanda was Neeleswaram.

Ptolemy's ideas are these: Tyndis (going southward) succeeds Nitria; then Muziris; Becare (which is one of the readings of Barace) Melcynda, or Nelcynda; Cottiara; and then Comaria, or Cape Comorin; whose proper name is Komrin or Komry. And the Periple (my information is from M. D'Anville) enumerates in the same order, Tyndis, Muziris, and Barace: allowing 500 stadia between each, respectively. No three places appear more convenient to this relative disposition, and to the circumstances of the pirate coast and pepper country, than Goa, Meerzaw (vulgarly, Merjee) and Barcelore, or Baflinore. The first, namely, Goa, is just clear of the pirate coast; having Newtya, possibly the Nitrias of Pliny and Ptolemy (near which the pirates cruised on the Roman vessels in their way to Muziris) on the north of it. The second place, Meerzaw, or Merjee, has even some affinity in sound, with Muziris and is situated on a river, and at some distance from the sea. And Baccelore, or Baflinore, which may possibly be Barace, is one of the principal pepper factories, at present: and therefore answers so far to Barace. Nelcynda, I take to be Nelisuram: and do not, with M. D'Anville, suppose Barace to be the port of Nelcynda, but a distinct place. It is said by Pliny, to be situated within the kingdom of Pandion; which is pretty well understood to be Madura: or to be comprised, at least, within the southern part of the peninsula: and therefore, the farther south we go for Nelcynda, the less we are likely to err. But even all this is conjecture as far as relates to particular positions: nor is it of much consequence for we are clear that the ports of merchandise, must be situated, in or near to the country of Canara, the Cottonara, or pepper country of Pliny: that is, between Goa and Tellicherry; as before observed.

Vincent Williams in 1805 added his analysis stating

For the position of Nelkunda, I am obliged to major Rennell, who is the first geographer, as far as I have learnt, who has fixed it at Nelisuram. That he is correct in this, I am persuaded, admits not of presumptive proof only, but demonstration:

For we may first observe, that Nelisuram is not only a mart itself, but gives name to a district. This district is not in Canara, but Malabar: the frontier of Malabar, the boundary wall which runs from the sea to the foot of the Ghauts, is at Dekly, or Dekully, immediately north of Nelisuram. This wall is still visible; and this in a peculiar manner

A second proof may be derived from the name itself, which Orme writes Nelleaseram. Nella, according to Paolino, signifes rice, and Ceram a country; and if Nellaceram be the country of Nella, Nelkunda must be the fort of Nella, resembling Golconda, Inna-conda, or Conda-poor, on this identical coast of Canara.

But the last and best testimony is that of major Rennell himself, who mentions ' a large river, named Cangerecora, whose course is from the N. E. and which falls in about four miles to the north of mount Dilla; previous to which its course is parallel to the sea-coast for about eleven miles, being separated only by a spit of land. The forts of Nelisuram, ifamdilly, and Mattuloy, are situated on this river, which is joined by several others that descend from the Ghaut Mountains, which in this part approach within twenty-two miles of the coast. I cannot help considering this Nelisuram, which is situated twelve miles up the river, as the place meant by Nelcynda or Melcynda, by Pliny, and Ptolemy—a place visited by the Egyptian and Roman ships.'

Let us then observe, that the Nelkunda of the Periplus lies actually the same twelve miles up the river; and after this ask, whether all these circumstances can be accidental? For it the correspondence is evident, it is but reasonable to assume this proof as a demonstration."

Naoora is the first port of Limurike, and Mooziris the last. The Periplus places Mooziris fifty miles to the north of Nelkuda, Tundis fifty miles north of Mooziris, and a third fifty north are assumed to Kaoora.' These positions agree with Mangaloor, Barceloor, and Onoor. These stations are certainly assigned with, much greater probability than those adopted by former geographers.

Jean Baptiste Bourguignon d' Anville opines that Calicut or nearby Chaul was Muziris and nelcynda somewhere near Goa, but I could not quite understand or follow his train or thought and any interested reader may peruse his conclusions by checking page 43 and 44 of the book.

But Burnell, Caldwell and Yule after further studies fixed Muziris close to Cranganore. Casson strongly agreed with it, just like Schoff and Warmington and the only dissenter, with a (?) mark against the Muziris location in her studies was Vimala Begely. Many others followed convention since then. The primary reasoning was based on the situations of the Tamil kingdoms of the Cheras and Pandians in the old days. The only way Muziris could be Chera held and Nelcynda to be Pandyan held was if they were located near Cranganore and Porakad. The rivers are also seen as stated and things fit though there are some inconsistencies possibly created by passage of time and the changing geography of the cpoastal towns and rivers. A detailed analysis can be read in Kanakasabhai’s book with some older place names in Kerala.

So what does the Periplus state actually? Let me quote the paragraphs from Schoff’s book

53. Beyond Calliena there are other market-towns of this region; Semylla, Mandagora, Pala-patmae, Melizigara, Byzantium, Togarum and Aurannoboas. Then there are the islands called Sesecrienae and that of the Aegidii, and that of the Caenitae, opposite the place called Chersonesus (and in these places there are pirates), and after this the White Island. Then come Naura and Tyndis, the first markets of Damirica, and then Muziris and Nelcynda, which are now of leading importance.

54. Tyndis is of the Kingdom of Cerobothra; it is a village in plain sight by the sea. Muziris, of the same Kingdom, abounds in ships sent there with cargoes from Arabia, and by the Greeks; it is located on a river, distant from Tyndis by river and sea five hundred stadia, and up the river from the shore twenty stadia. Nelcynda is distant from Muziris by river and sea about five hundred stadia, and is of another Kingdom, the Pandian. This place also is situated on a river, about one hundred and twenty stadia from the sea.

55. There is another place at the mouth of this river, the village of Bacare; to which ships drop down on the outward voyage from Nelcynda, and anchor in the roadstead to take on their cargoes; because the river is full of shoals and the channels are not clear. The kings of both these market-towns live in the interior. And as a sign to those approaching these places from the sea there are serpents coming forth to meet you, black in color, but shorter, like snakes in the head, and with blood-red eyes.

Following the analysis of Edward Hurbert Bunbury in his History of ancient geography, we note

The territory of Limyrice was subject to an independent sovereign of its own, who resided in the interior, and whom our author calls Ceprobotras, evidently the same name with the Coelebothras or Celobothras of Pliny. The first ports in this district were Naoura and Tyndis, and beyond these to the south Muziris and Nelkynda, which were become the chief places of trade at the time our author wrote. Nelkynda however was not properly speaking included in Limyrice, but was subject to another king named Pandion, whose dominions appear to have comprised the whole southern extremity of the peninsula of India. The writer of the Periplus tells us that it was 500 stadia from Tyndis to Muziris, and again 500 stadia from thence to Nelkynda.

Nelkynda was situated on a river, about 120 stadia from the sea, and there was another port at its mouth, which was called Bacare: evidently the same with the Barace of Pliny, which he places in the territory of the Neacyndi, probably also a false reading for Nelcyndi. It is clear therefore that the ports referred to by both authors are the same: but there is much difficulty in determining their precise position on the western coast of India. Nelkynda was placed by Major Rennell at a place called Nelisseram, at the head of an estuary, the mouth of which is a few miles to the north of Mount Delli, in latitude 12° 10': and this identification was adopted by Dr. Vincent, as well as by the most recent editor of the Periplus.

In accordance with this view Muziris was placed at Mangalore, Tyndis probably at Cundapoor, and Naoura at Honauer in 14° 16', at the opening of a considerable estuary formed by the river Sherramutter. But the most recent writer who has investigated the subject, Colonel Yule, has transferred the whole group of ports, and with them of course the district called Limyrice, nearly three degrees farther south: identifying Muziris with Cranganore, which was a port much frequented in the middle ages, though now decayed, situated in about 10° 12" N. latitude. This change has the advantage of being in accordance with the 7000 stadia given as the distance from Barygaza to Limyrice—an estimate greatly in excess of the truth, if that district be supposed to coincide with the modern Canara: and of affording an explanation of some expressions very obscurely worded in the description of the coast from Tyndis to Muziris and Nelkynda. But on the other hand no site can be found on this part of the coast that corresponds nearly as well with the description of Nelkynda and its port of Bacare as that selected by Major Rennell. The difficulties attending the identification of the ports in question are certainly not altogether surmounted by either theory.

So many opinions can thus be found, but the one conclusive follows the identification of the name Muyiri with Cranganore in a Hebrew translation of a Tamil document dated 774AD which became one of Dr Burnell’s bases for establishing that Muziris is near Cranaganore. The Copper scrolls state -

I Erveh Barmen . . . sitting this day in Canganur. ..." {Madras Journal, xiii. pt. ii. p. 12). This is from an old Hebrew translation of the 8th century copper-grant to the Jews, in which the Tamil has "The king ... Sri Bhaakara Ravi Varman . . . on the day when he was pleased to sit in Muyiri-kodu. . . ."thus identifying Muyiri or Muziris with Cranganore, an identification afterwards verified by tradition ascertained on the spot by Dr. Burnell.

Gundert however makes a cryptic comment about the part concerning Muyiri kotta (Moderi oota or Muyeri oodu) which I have not been able to understand. Ellis another expert who studied the copper plates agrees it is Muyiri kotta.

To this if you add some inputs from some ancient Sangam Tamil literature; leads one to concur with Yule & Burnell. The Akananuru (5th century BC?) by Erukkadur Thyankannanar mentions how the Pandyan king attacked the Muziris port belonging to the Chera king and mentions the plunder of the (Augustus) temple and explains the subsequent shift of trade to Nelcynda. There are additional inputs from Silappadikaram and the distances travelled by Kannagi to establish Vanchi, but I will not complicate this more than it already is.

As Peter Francis puts it ‘There may be another reason why Muziris is difficult to locate today, it may not have functioned as a port for very long..The admittedly scant descriptions of it suggest that it was more of a frontier town than a city with substantial architecture.’ And probably that is the reason why not so many Roman antiquities have not been found as yet. Muziris traded for a short time during 1AD and quickly gave way to Mantai in Ceylon. Was it perhaps set up quickly by a clever king, then based in inland Karur for this trading purpose? Could be.

But let us go back to Udyavara in Udupi for a moment, for here appears a little twist. As we know, the Oxyrynchus Papyri from 2AD show the intercourse between the Greek Nile river town of Oxyrunchus and Odora (not mentioned in the Periplus). Some scholars determined the mime to be a Kannada form (Tamil + Tulu) language. You can also see an ancient temple purported to be from those times where a goddess was worshipped. Does it have anything to do with our Augustus temple? Did the Yavana sailors stop at those northerly points due to the fear of pirates in the southerly areas? Was that the mythical Muziris? Or was Odora somewhere else? One thing is for sure, the answers still lie on the Malabar Coast, the Lymurike of Ptolemy…..

Summarizing again the Periplus - Tyndis is of the Kingdom of Cerobothra; it is a village in plain sight by the sea. Muziris, of the same Kingdom, abounds in ships sent there with cargoes from Arabia, and by the Greeks; it is located on a river, distant from Tyndis by river and sea five hundred stadia, and up the river from the shore twenty stadia...Nelcynda is distant from Muziris by river and sea about five hundred stadia, and is of another Kingdom, the Pandian.

Various people are involved in these studies today, some study sails, some study beads, some study boats and others study topography. Some concentrate on the red sea ports, some look for clues in Inda. The compilation Migration, trades and peoples summarizes much of it. As times went by, the coast lines changed, it went inland and then stretched out and back again. Not necessarily global warming, but the changes in global sea levels were due to many reasons. Roman remains were found in Pattanam to clinch the location spotted by KP Shajan showing that it was a port of call. But was it Muziris? It has been established so. KP Shajan came to his conclusions by following satellite imagery of the course of the river, finding Chera coins, Roman pottery and believes that Muziris a.k.a Muciripatannam existed since 500BC. Once cannot say it is totally conclusive but evidence suggests so. Major archeologists and many historians seem to accept it. With Muziris hopefully out of the way, we will study Nelcynda or Niranam another rday.

So we determine that trade existed, ports existed, some were famous at a time and declined quickly as the ports moved to the next one for various reasons. While Muziris was one of the oldest, the Calicut area ports remained popular for a long time till it went back to Cochin. In between I am sure there was a time when Mangalore and Mirjan ports were popular for one or the other reason.

Let us now try and check some questions

Why should Pattanam be Muziris? Why not Karur in Coimbatore? The answer lies in the fact that according Periplus, the distance between Musiris and the sea was only some 120 stadia (31 km).Why is Nelcynda not Neeleswaram? If it is, then it follows that Muziris is North of Neeleswaram and close to Mangalore. Neeleswaram was never ruled by Pandian kings. Also see the analysis provided by Edward Hurbert Bunbury, as above and the conclusions of Shajan.

Sagam writings mention Vanji and Periyar. All rivers were Periyars and Cheras at Cranganore were not established by 1st century. So why is Cranganore associated with Cheras? This argument hinges on the fact that Karur on Amravati was the Vanji or Chera capital. This questions the fact that the Cheras were located at Mahodayapuram or Tiruvanjikulam or Cranganore area earlier than they actually were. Now such an argument will of course mean that the known borders of the Cheras cannot be used to displace Rennel’s argument. To get to the answers one must read the analysis by Prof A Sreedhara Menon in his ‘A survey of Kerala History’ pages 70-75. In addition we do have records of Chera trade with Yavanas (though dated 155AD, we know of the king Iamaiavaramban Nedunjeral Adan who poured oil on their heads & imprisoned some Yavanas who upset him). And the Valmiki Ramayana mentions Mucaripatannam.

The present arguments supporting the Cranganore area fit in reasonably with later studies and stands up to most tests if not all. So I tend to go along with the present conclusions, but for the Udyavara angle. But it is a continuing study…..

This is in no way any kind of formal analysis but just my way of trying to understand and tabulate the diverse opinions. We all agree that much trade took place between the western shores and the red sea ports as well as kingdoms beyond. Many of the traces have been washed away by the sea, so it is an ongoing attempt at trying to compare what was in the mind of that unknown sailor to what we see today. Whether there is sense in it or not, I cannot say, but it is a life’s work for some, and a passage of time wasted for others, just like study of history is. And the whole exercise may just turn out to be flexing the grey cells for a few hours, farfetched from reality. As for me, I am happy I got a chance to read relevant parts of most of these books below in the past few weeks, and can only marvel at the availability of these at the nearby NC State university library.


A geographical illustration of the map of India - Jean Baptiste Bourguignon d' Anville
Cathay and the way thither – Henry Yule
The Tamils 1800 years ago – Kanakasabhai
Oriental memoirs - Forbes
Map of Hindoostan – Rennell
The periplus – William Vincent
The periplus – Casson
The periplus – Schoff
Proposed identification of two south Indian place names – Schoff
Rome and the distance East – Raoul Mc Laughlin
History of ancient geography among Greeks and Romans., Edward Herbert Bunbury
A survey of Kerala History – A Sreedhara Menon
Madras journal or literature & science – Vol 13
The Periplus – McCrindle
Asia’s maritime bead trade – Peter Francis
Rome & India – Begley & De Puma
Commerce between the Roman empoira & India – Warmington
Migration, trade and peoples – Ed Michale Willis
Maddys Ramblings – The Chariton mime & Udyavara

Pattanam image from KP Shajan’s paper. Roman trade - Wikipedia