Quilon and its trade links with China

Posted by Maddy Labels: ,

That Quilon was well known to seafarers is not surprising, for it is well situated in the South West of the Indian coast. It was well known not only to Greek and Roman seafarers going back in time before Christ but also to later entrants such as the Arabs, Persians and Chinese into the Indian Ocean. If we dig deep into historic accounts left behind by some of the sailors or visitors, we can come up with a decent silhouette of the entrepot Quilon once was, as well as the preeminent position it held among the trading ports of Malayala, as Kerala was then known. Its name got attached to the Malayalam Calendar Kolla Varsham and for a time was reason enough to associate with a popular proverb in the Malayalam language which meant 'one who has seen Kollam, forgets his house’.

Before we get to the Chinese and their links to Quilon, let us check if the Persian and Greek-Roman seafarers mentioned or stopped by Quilon. Cosmas mention the existence of a bishopric in Calliana (Quilon) on the coast of Malabar, whose bishop is consecrated in Persia. While some believed that Calliana may have been Kalyan near Bombay or Callianpore in the Coromandel, it is now accepted that Quilon was the seat of Nestorian Christians, as mentioned. Quilon was also mentioned by Nestorian friar’s way back and we come across a letter from the Nestorian Patriarch, Jesujabus of Adiabene, who died in 660 A.D. talking about an area “which extends from the coast of the kingdom of Fars to Colon, a distance of 1200 parasangs, where Colon ostensibly means Quilon according to MH Nainar. He mentions of an extract in Land's Anecdota Syriaca that three Syrian missionaries came to Kaulam in 823 A.D. and got permission from the king to build a church and city at Kaulam.  The decline of the Roman empire and the spread of Islam brought to an end these ancient trade links and traders from Middle East and China now began to concentrate on Quilon (Kollam) on the southern part of the Malabar coast.

The real fame for the port came with trade and this was brought about by the merchants and Christian immigrants from Persia, as evidenced by the privileges obtained by Mar Sapor from the local chief. Their connections linked Quilon to Persia while the Jews who arrived linked the city Abbassids of Persia and the Fatimids of Egypt through the Anjuvanam guilds (The local trading groups such as the Manigramam too shifted their activities to Quilon). A robust dhow trade developed what with the great demand for the local produce of pepper, ginger, and other goods like fine cotton, aromatic products and stones/pearls.

When the seaborne trade stretched out to Canton in China, Kulam Male or Quilon became an important stopover, and so we will now focus on the Chinese Quilon links in this article, especially with the port of Kulam Male serving as a fulcrum, as an entrepot facilitating transshipment between the Chinese and the Western buyers.

Eight Arab writers, Suleyman, Ibn Khurdadhbeh, Ibnul Faqih Idrisi, Yaqut, Qazwini, Dimishqi and Abul Fida who preceded Ibn Battuta (1355 A.D.) speak about Kawlam. They mention it differently (Mulay—Ibn Khurdadhbeh, Kulam Mali—Suleyman, Kulu Mali—Ibnul Faqih, Kukam Li, Kulam Mali, Jazirat Mali—Yaqut and Qazwini, Madinat Kulam and Jazirat Mali—Dimishqi, Kawlam—Abul Fida, Kawlam—Ibn Battuta).

Suleyman mentions that Chinese ships had to pay a much higher duty of one thousand dirhams when the other ships pay a sum ranging from one to ten dinars (10-20 dinars according to Ibnul Faqih) and we read also from the other chronicles that Quilon provided safe haven, lots of freshwater, a vibrant local market, support from traders and the ruling kings/queen, trade security etc. We also get to know that they had a separate quarter for Muslims in the city, so also a cathedral. The city is situated on a plain, its earth is sandy and dotted with many gardens here. While pepper and other spices were indigenous, the local potters made their black pottery, ostensibly passed off as Chinese vases.

Yaqut adds that vases are made in Kulam and sold in our countries as Chinese vases, but they are not Chinese, for the Chinese clay is harder than that and it is more fire-resisting. Kulam pottery is black, but that which comes from China is white and of other colors, sometimes translucent.

Qazwini has the vague remark “when their king dies the people of the place choose another from China.” It could of course have alluded to a local Chinese headman for the Chinese village in Quilon, and that this person was selected based on orders from China.

Circumventing India was a bit tricky in those days. The straits were shallow and rocky, while the waters around Ceylon treacherous for sailing boats. Mariners of ancient days had a strong aversion to sailing around capes, perhaps due to sail types, wind aspects and rough seas around capes. Ships plying the eastern seas docked at the Southern or South Eastern ports and the ships from the Arabian ports docked at India’s west coast ports. The connection between the two was the overland trade route through the large Palghat gap across the western ghats as well as some smaller gaps south. While larger ships did sail around Ceylon, especially on the China run, after paying the larger 1000-dirham duties, smaller ships did not.

The Chinese links

Chinese intercourse with Indian ports dates back to ancient times.  As early as 140-86 B.C., we can observe that the Han Emperor Wu Ti had dispatched envoys by sea to Huang Chih, identified to be Kanchipuram near Madras, the capital of the Pallavas. From that time onwards the South China seas had multiple craft belonging to the Malay, Javanese, Champa, Indian and Arab nations, competing for space and resulting not only in sea battles but also many opportune acts of piracy.

It was probably around the period 420-479 AD that China first began to build craft for the sea-going trade, though trade was conducted in Arab dhows.  By about 520 AD the conditions of sea travel had improved and sea-journeys were preferred overland between India and China, thus the seaborne trade to China steadily increased. From the fifth to the twelfth centuries, skippers guided their ships using land-marks and if they did venture away from land, they trusted regular monsoon winds, steering solely by the sun, moon, and stars, taking frequent depth soundings. Carrier-pigeons were used to send and receive messages from land posts.

As we will see, the commercial contacts between Quilon and China continued through the reigns of the four major Chinese dynasties namely Tang (618-907 CE), Song (960-1229 CE) Yuan (1229-1368 CE) and the early part of the Ming period (1368-1644 CE).

Even though there are mentions of Chinese ships, many historians feel that the ships which plied the China route were not always Chinese owned and were usually manned by non-Chinese sailors. Hourani mentions that in the fifth century, Chinese ships probably met those from the western side, whatever they were, in the ports of Ceylon. He concludes it likely that Persian ships were trading with China before the advent of Islam. Once Canton (Khanfu, Quanzhou) was reopened in 792 AD, things started to change. Though not established, one historian clarifies thus - “that the Chinese introduced the Arabs to navigation towards eastern Asia; it was aboard their junks that the merchants from the Persian Gulf first sailed to the southern seas”.

Mahlai mentioned in records of Tang dynasty, ruling through China’s golden era, is possibly Kulam Male and we do have clinching evidence with several Tang period coins in Quilon excavations. The use of Persian Cobalt, Indian cotton printing techniques etc signifies more interactions with the Tang. During that period, Chinese ships rarely ventured into the Indian Ocean or even to Malabar (but there are mentions of Junks going to Ceylon, avoiding the shallow straits).  This was a period when the Sriwijaya’s controlled the trade routes in the South China Sea. Arab and Persian ships were of course sailing to China, probably even before the second half of the seventh century, and we read of a massacre of all the foreign merchants at Canton by rebel forces revolting against the Tang dynasty, in 879 AD. Interestingly even the discovery of the compass, the ‘south-pointing needle’, did not provide the impetus for Chinese ships sailing beyond Quilon, according to Chong Su See (Thesis Foreign trade). But Arab manned Chinese trade ships traversed the whole route.

The Book of Routes and Realms (Kitab al-Masalik wa-l-mamalik) of Ibn Khurdadbeh (d. 885) provides great detail– He explains the ocean part of the voyage thus - The ships cut across the ocean to the port of Kollam Malay on the southwestern coast of India, where large China-bound ships were assessed a toll of 1000 dirhams (in contrast to other ships, which were assessed only 10 or 20 dirhams). From there, the China-bound ship skirted the southern coast of Ceylon, made for the Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal to replenish food and water, stopped at Kalah Bar in Malaya, passed through the Malacca Straits, made additional stops at the island of Tiyumah, Sanf in Champa and the nearby island of Sanf Fulau, and finally headed to Khanfu. The author provided a general timetable for the whole trip: roughly a lunar month (29–30 days) for each of the four legs of the trip, marked by Kollam Malay, Kalah Bar, Sanf and Khanfu. With stops, the whole trip would take around six months. The stop at Quilon allowed them to restock, pick up goods, conduct repairs and get ready for the next legs.

We now know that the Chinese vessels were of three kinds; large ships called chunks/junks, and middle ones called zaws (dhows), and small ones called kakams. The heavily planked, multi-decked Chinese ships known as junks began to sail towards South East Asia only from the later Tang period and could not reach the commercial emporia of the Malabar coast until the accession of the Sung dynasty. With the turmoil in China as well as the South East Asian empires, trading declined till the Sung (North and South 960-1297 AD) Dynasty emerged. Under the Southern Sung Dynasty (1127-1279) the Chinese began to get sea-minded and established control over the sea-routes to South East Asia and India. But it is clear from all studies that Quilon, visited by Cantonese junks in the twelfth century, was still the furthest point west reached by Chinese ships until the ascent of the Ming dynasty.

This was the period when private trade and shipping networks were formed and the Chinese opened out extensively towards Malabar ports which were already robustly connected to Arabia and the Gulf. We get much information from the Chu-fan Chi penned by Cauh Ju Kua, as well as the annals of the Cholas, recording their rise and fall and interventions in the South China seas. The Venad dynasty gets established in Quilon, and interestingly silk which was one of the most important imports from China, and very important for the Buddhist and Arab consumers, gets replaced with Porcelain, coinciding with the establishment of Brahmanism in Malabar and the displacement of the Buddhists. At the same time, horses, Sulphur, gharu wood, frankincense, sandalwood, sapan wood, spices, camphor, ivory, putchuck, and cinnabar, became the main exports to the Chinese market, besides of course the staple – cotton fabrics, pepper and other local spices. Frankincense from Arabia was perhaps most important during the Song period.

China ships would sail down the Persian Gulf with the monsoon winds, cross from Masqat to Malabar and they would spend the last two weeks, typically in December, trading at Kulam Mali (Quilon). By January they would head through the Malacca Strait, in time to use the southern monsoon through the Sea of China. After a summer at Canton, the ship would return with the northeast monsoon to the Malacca Strait between October and December, cross the Bay of Bengal in January, head out from Kulam Mali to the gulf early next year. Thus, the round trip took a year and a half, leaving a summer at home before the next trip. So now you can imagine why the goods, especially pepper became so pricy at the consumer end. Traders also transshipped at Quilon to access Kaveripattanam, on the Eastern coast.

According to Zhou Qufei’s statements, the critical point of transshipment for the Sino-Islamic trade was Quilon on India’s southwest coast, where seafarers transferred goods to ships that traveled either east to China or west to the Arabian Peninsula across the “Eastern Sea of the Muslims” or the Arabian Sea. Chinese maritime trade with the countries of the Indian Ocean now reached its zenith and Chinese navigation improved with the adoption of the mariner's compass, which the Chinese first used at the end of the eleventh century, though records state sailors still depended on winds and reckoning with the sun and stars.

With the arrival of the Mongols and Kublai Khan of the Yuan dynasty during the 13th CE, things changed and the Chinese upped the ante as Kublai Khan attempted to create a Chinese hegemony over the countries in the South. Kings were summoned to come or send envoys to the Chinese Court to show their allegiance and they were then regarded as vassals. As Mills explains - The foreign commerce of China was still maintained about its highest peak: and in the thirteenth century, the Chinese junks threatened the trade of the Arabs in the Indian Ocean. In 1284 the Chinese Government attempted to increase its profit from foreign trade: it built boats, chose men, provided them with capital, and sent them abroad to trade, taking 70% of the profits for itself: private trading was prohibited with heavy penalties, but the oft-repeated prohibition was far from successful.

There was an uninterrupted stream of voyagers from Quilon (Kulam) and Zaytun, and of Chinese merchandise moving from Zaytun to Quilon (for Ormuz). We also see Chinese now going North to Calicut and beyond and Mills explains - Chinese junks called regularly Kaveripattanam, Cail, Quilon, and Ceylon with many kinds of silks. On the west coast of India, Chinese ships traded only ports of Calicut, Quilon, and " Hili " as they passed " winter" at Fandarayna (Pantalayani Kollam). Most of the Chinese merchants went to Quilon, which was the nearest of the Malabar towns to China, and had from very early times been the trans-shipment port for the Chinese trade. In the China Sea traveling was done solely in Chinese ships. The largest Chinese ships were built only at Ch'uanchow Canton: they had four decks, were divided into water-tight compartments, and had a complement of 1,000 men, of whom 400 be men-at-arms: they had four to six masts and might carry many as twelve sails. The Chinese type of sail was superior Arab types.

During the thirteenth century, when the Mongols ruled over China, it appears that Quanzhou was being administered as an almost independent polity, funded through its trade with Southeast Asia and beyond while the trading ports and mercantile guilds of the Chola kingdom according to Tansen Sen, played a significant role in linking the markets of China to the rest of the world.  We can also see that Chinese ships were armed heavily by now far beyond the Naphtha flame throwers they earlier carried due to the acts of piracy in the South China seas.

During the period of the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), the Chinese traveler, Wang Dayuan, sailed twice to India and other countries and returned with pepper. Ma’abar had already accepted the status as a nominal Yuan vassal, but Kollam and some other ports were still outside of Kublai’s reach. Hence, in early 1280, Yang Tingbi, one of the more frequently referred to Yuan diplomats traveling to maritime Asian countries, was sent to Kollam to induce its lord to follow the example to Ma’abar and submit tribute as well. Sastri explains -  "In the 2nd moon of the 19th year (1282) he arrived in the kingdom of Kulam where the king and his minister Mohammed and others received the Imperial letter with the Privy Seal with deep prostrations. In the third moon he ordered his minister Chu-a-lisha-mang-li-pa-ti to depart with present to Court. At the same time (the head of the) Yeh-li-k'o-wen, Wu-tsa-erh-sa-li-ma, and Mohammed, the head of the Mussulmans, and others of the country, having heard of the coming of the Imperial envoy, all came and requested that they be allowed to send yearly presents to Court. They therefore sent a representative to be received at the audience. In the autumn of 1282 the envoys from Kulam, Na-wang, Su-mu-ta and Su-mu-tu-la arrived at Kublai's court. The ruler of Ku-lan sent a mission with a memorial, and presented valuable articles and one black ape. The chief of the Yeh-li-k'o-wen (Thomas Christians) resident in the kingdom of Ku-lan, sent also a messenger with a memorial who presented a gorget set with different kinds of jewels, and two flacons of drugs. Furthermore Mohammed, the head official of the Mussulmans, also sent a messenger and a memorial. After this, thirty years appear to have elapsed before another mission was sent to Southern India, for it is only in the year 1344 that mention is made of an envoy being sent to Kulam, when, as in 1283, he carried the king, or Wa-ni, a tiger-badge and the title of imperial son-in-law or fu-ma.

Marco Polo on his return voyage from China (C.1293 CE.) touched the Kerala ports in the kingdoms of ‘Comari’ (Cape Comorin), ‘Coilum’ (Quilon) and ‘Eli’ (Elimala) and ‘Melibar. He gives us fuller details of the country, its people, its products, etc. “When you quit Malabar and go 500 miles towards the southwest, you come to the kingdom of Coilum. The people are idolators, but there are also some Christians and some Jews. The merchants from Manzi (China) and from Arabia, and from the Levant come thither with their ships and their merchandise, and make great profits both by what they import and by what they export”.

Wang Dayuan reports on the horse trade and the transshipping of horses. “[Sometimes these merchant vessels] arrive late [due to] the direction of winds – [i.e.], after the departure of the horse ships [from Hormuz] – and cannot take on a full cargo.”

The indigenous Malayalam literature of the 13th to the 16th century also refer to the Chinese contacts with the Malabar Coast. A mid-fourteenth-century poem called Unnunili Sandesam mentions the Chinese junks (chunks) which came to the shore of Kollam.

After the decline resulting from the Yuan naval expeditions at the end of the thirteenth century, noted above, Quanzhou went on to become a great port again in the fourteenth century. Ibn Battuta visiting Quilon says - On the tenth day we came to the town of Kulam (Quilon), one of the most beautiful towns in Malabar. Its bazaars are splendid and its merchants are known as Soils. They are very rich; any one of them will buy a vessel with its tackle and load it with merchandise from his own house. There are in Kulam many Muhammadan merchants; their chief is Ala-ud-din Alavji, native of Avah in Iraq. He is a rafizi (or partizan of 'All) and has friends who openly follow the same doctrine. The Qazi of Kulam is a distinguished man from Qazwin; the head of all the Muslims in this town is Muhammad Shah Bandar, the chief of the port, who has an excellent and generous brother, Taqi-ud-din, the principal mosque there is admirable; it was built by the merchant KHwaja Muhazzab. Kulam is, of all the towns of Malabar, the nearest to China, and most of the Chinese merchants come there. Mussulmans are honoured and respected there. The Sultan of Kulam is an idolater, Tirwari (Tiruvadi) by he respects Muslims and severely punishes thieves and malefactors. He then details a macabre incident where a murderer is killed and left to rot and after further travels returns to Quilon to spend three months there before the return voyage. Ibn Battuta recorded seeing a big Chinese cock for the first time in Quilon.

It appears that the civil war affected Fujian, causing the flight of many Muslims to Southeast Asia. As warfare broke out in and around Quanzhou in 1357 where most Muslims resided on the southern Chinese coast. This escalated into mass killings and as revolts against Yuan rule expanded, a rebel leader known as Zhu Yuanzhang was gradually able to secure control over increasingly large areas and establish a new Chinese state in 1368, which he named Great Ming. The Ming dynasty had arrived.

It is not only from foreign notices that we establish Kulam or Quilon as an important link in the seaborne Chinese trade.  Further proof of the patronage is obtained from the discovery of several coins belonging to the Tang dynasties as early as 621-718AD, the Zhou dynasties, the Northern and Southern Song dynasties, the Jin dynasty and through to the Yuan dynasties until the 13th century. More details of these coins can be obtained from Beena Sarasan’s work on the subject.

As the Caliphate empire began to decline during the mid-11th centuries, its collapse paved the way for the Turks and was the reason for a commercial decline in West Asia.  Quilon was naturally affected as it depended much on those trade patrons and its trade with the Persian Gulf declined rapidly. At this juncture two changes took place, the first being the restriction of trade due to the drain of coin currency in China and the displacement of Chinese, Jewish and Syrian Christian traders and guilds by the Pardesi Karimi and Mamluk Arabs. Meanwhile, important changes were occurring in Malabar and Quilon. The Persians, the Iraqi – Baghdadi’s were getting sidelined by the Karimi’s and Mamluk merchants who wanting no great friendship with the Christians and Jews at Quilon and nearby environs, perhaps affected by the crusades, and the Zamorin’s support, simply moved to Calicut. As a result, Calicut’s fortunes surged. We also start to see mentions in Chinese records that Kulin or Quilon had in their eyes, become a dependency of Calicut (Nan-pi country). Thus, by the time the Ming Voyages and with Zheng He started in the 15th century, the port of Quilon though still in use, had fallen out of favor and the main trade stops were at Calicut.

The Chinese were not forgotten by Quilon for they left behind small communities, and we hear of the remnants at Thangassery and Neendakara. At Quilon, the present small Bazaar (Chinnakada) was once a predominant Chinese pocket in the town bearing appropriately the name Cheenakada, viz., Chinese Bazaar. Even today you can see the influence of the Chinese in some old buildings with curved roofs, we can see the snake boats, the floating Chinese nets, so also the Chinese names of several items and produce used in day-to-day life such as chinacatti, chinavala, cheenimulaku, china odam, china bharani, and china vedi just to name a few.


Arab Seafaring – George F. Hourani

Chinese cash in Ku-Lin – Beena Sarasan

Quilon, An Indian port of Former days – Calcutta Review April 1901, K Padmanabhan Thampi

Kollam – Dr SMH Nainar (Studies in Indology, In Honour Of Dr. Radha Kumud Mookerji)

Historical contacts between Quilon and China – Haraprasad Ray

Notes on Early Chinese Voyages – JV Mills (The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, Apr.,1951)

Allusions and Artefacts of Chinese Trade from Kollam, South Kerala, India — Ajit Kumar, Vinuraj.B, Rajesh S. V, Abhayan G. S and H.Sasaki

Foreign notices of South India from Megasthenes to Ma Huan – K A Nilakanta Sastri



The full proverb goes thus - "kollam kandal illam venda, kochi kandal achiyum venda". i.e., the person who has seen Kollam forgets his house and the person who has seen Kochi forgets his wife. This is also featured in an evergreen song 


  1. mohsin

    Interesting read!

    Along with the movement of the Persians and Iraqis to Calicut, are there any other proposed causes for the rise of Calicut in Kollam's place?

  1. Renjith Leen

    Interestingly, there are oral traditions of Chinese vessels, namely junks and sampans (chongu and champan in Malayalam), sailing through the Neendakara bar in Kollam into the Ashtamudi Lake. In fact, there is even a place named Chambranikodi by the shores of the lake near Prakkulam, which is one of the stops for the Kollam-Guhanandapuram boat service. The name points to its connection with ancient Chinese sampans anchoring there. Even today, one can find people with Mongoloid facial features in Neendakara and its neighbouring areas as well as certain hamlets along the Ashtamudi lake.

  1. Maddy

    hi mohshin,
    yes, of course, and are connected with the ambitions of the Zamorin, I have covered those over many articles in the past.

  1. Maddy

    thanks, Renjith,
    makes me think a bit. sampan as in rowboat I presume, but those are for local transportation, not long distance. I am wondering if it was connected to frankincense trade which was super important for China. Sambrani as you know is frankincense.