If you were a Roman trader in the 1st century CE, chances were you travelled east towards India to do business. You would have gotten onto a ship at Alexandria on the northern coast of Africa, sailed along the eastern coast of Africa, through the Red Sea, then crossed the Arabian sea and headed towards India’s western coast. There were a lot of port cities along that coast, but your first stop would have been Muziris. Why?
‘With its streets, its houses, its covered boats, where they sell fish, where they pile up rice- with the shifting and mingling of a boisterous river bank, […] the city of the gold-collared Chera king that bestows to its visitors indiscriminately, and the merchants of the mountains, and the merchants of the sea, the city where liquor abounds, yes, this Muziris, where the rumbling ocean roars, given to me like a marvel, a treasure’
From ‘The Purananuru’, dated between the 1st century BCE and the 5th century CE, translation taken from ‘Asia’s Maritime Bead Trade: 300 BC to the Present’ by Peter Francis
Muziris sat at the mouth of the Periyar river, in what is today the state of Kerala. The Periyar flowed deep into the South Indian peninsula and connected Muziris to many cities in central and eastern India. Exotic goods flowed into Muziris from across the country: aromatic spices, camphor, sandalwood, rare jewels and precious ivory to name a few. And near Muziris itself was the source of India’s most prized spice: black pepper. Traders from across the world- the Romans, Greeks, Chinese, Jews, Phoenecians, Levantines, Egyptians- came to Muziris bringing everything from fish sauce, to ceramics, and horses. Many of them also brought gold. The Romans, in particular, treasured black pepper. The Roman author and philosopher, Pliny the Elder, wrote that the Romans spent between 50 and 100 million sesterces on trade with the east. A sizable portion of that gold was spent on black pepper.
“[Muziris] where the beautiful vessels, the masterpieces of the Yavanas [Westerners], stir white foam on the Periyar, river of Kerala, arriving with gold and departing with pepper.”
(From the Akananuru, Tamil poetry dating between the 1st and 3rd century CE)
The Romans were so obsessed with pepper they took it with them when they were off conquering Europe and Northern Egypt. They even built special warehouses called horrea piperataria, where they stored pepper and other spices. Why were they so obsessed with this pepper? They believed it was a cure-all that could help with everything from a bad stomach to a snake bite. So the Romans loved cooking with it. One of the oldest known cookbooks in the world comes from 1st century Rome. It is called the Apicius and almost every recipe in it uses pepper.
All of this trade made Muziris a rich port city. Everyone was talking about it in those days: Greek and Roman scholars like Pliny and Strabo mentioned it in their famous histories, and some medieval Italians even put it on a map. So famous was Muziris that Pliny called it ‘the first emporium of India’. But that popularity wasn’t meant to last. By the end of the 5th century CE, the Roman empire went into decline. With it went the demand for black pepper. Muziris continued to be a busy port city, but never again saw the kind of wealth the Romans brought to it. The port stayed open to trade till 1341 CE. That was the year that a terrible storm flooded the Periyar river, made the waters rise and drowned the city. For the next 600 odd years, that stretch of the coast saw no great ships, no trade and certainly no gold.
However today, Muziris is once again gaining prominence. Several archaeological digs have been conducted along the Kerala coast looking for the remains of this once great port city. Muziris has been ‘found’ twice. First, the area of Kodungallur, north of Kochi was determined to be Muziris, and then after that, Pattanam which is north of Kodungallur, was declared the correct site. While both sites have their share of artefacts, Pattanam has the largest collection of Roman artefacts in India- numbering over 4,500- and that is enough for many archaeologists. There is still no definite consensus though, and it might still be a while before Muziris- city of pepper, land of wine and wealth, ‘first emporium of India’ is truly found.
We’ve got more stories about Kerala’s history, culture and people on our Kingdom of the Gods trail in Trivandrum. You can also hear more about Kerala on the Storytrails AudioTour of the DakshinaChitra Heritage Museum in Chennai. The tour is available on the Google Play Store and the App Store.