Unearthing an ancient kingdom in Kerala

PATTANAM is a small sleepy village in Kerala's Ernakulam district. After the end of the rainy monsoon season, little children in this village often used to pick up beads that surface in their courtyards.

Some even chance upon shards of pottery, bricks and other artefacts. These discoveries attracted the attention of archaeologists, historians, scholars and researchers and drew them to the village which is about 4km from the Arabian Sea coast.

The Centre for Heritage Studies in Thripunithura, Kerala, conducted trial excavations in 2004 giving stratigraphic evidence of the archaeological importance of the village. And in 2007, the Kerala Council for Historical Research (KCHR), headed by archaeologist Dr P.J. Cherian, began excavations at Pattanam.

Dr Cherian, who was in Singapore on his way home from China, made a presentation at the Singapore Malayalee Association (SMA).

He said: "One important aspect about archaeological research here is that it is multi-disciplinary and collaborative. Collaborative in the sense that whenever we recover artefacts that are from Europe, Africa, China and other places, we seek the help of experts from the British Museum, Oxford University, Pisa University or The Palace Museum in China in order to understand their context in a wider perspective. China has also lent technical support to create a database for Pattanam pottery. And they are training our researchers in petrographic analysis. So the research project has now evolved into an international project in material culture studies."

Dr Cherian, who has been doing field work in south China looking for Indian maritime connections, attended the Shanghai Archaeological Forum (SAF) 2015 to present the research before a global archaeology community at the Shanghai University. Pattanam was selected by SAF as one of the top 20 archaeology research projects of the world.

His presentation on Dec 24 at the SMA was titled East Met West 2,000 Years Ago In Kerala.

Pattanam means port city in the Prakrit language and even in current usage, like Valapattanam in Malabar or Nagapattanam in Tamil Nadu. Most of Kerala was part of the Chera kingdom of the ancient Tamilakam (ancient Tamil country, 3BC to 5AD).

Excavations at Pattanam have unearthed artefacts like a 6m-long wooden canoe, a wharf, Chera coins and pottery belonging to various parts of the world. Their chronology established by stratigraphy, radiocarbon and Accelerator Mass Spectrometry dating have revealed that Pattanam was an urbanised and flourishing port. Studies continue to reveal new information on the critical role Pattanam played in the maritime trade network that involved 40 other contemporary sites extending from Rome in the west to Guangzhou on the Chinese Coast.

The ancient seaport Muziris or Muchiri Pattinam is prominently mentioned in the Tamil Sangam and Greco-Roman literature, especially in the ancient Tamil epics of Silapathikaram and Manimekalai. Pattanam could have been an integral part of Muziris or probably Muziris itself.

In answer to a question from Mr Dinesh Kumar, the cultural secretary of the SMA, about the relevance of these studies in the present day context,

Dr Cherian replied: "The past is a treasure house that can answer 'Who am I?' 'Where did I start my journey?' 'Where am I heading to?' Otherwise, we will be permanently locked in the present. It is a subversive knowledge domain with the strength to redefine us."

During his time here, Dr Cherian visited the National Museum of Singapore and the Asian Civilisations Museum.

"The best attraction for me was the Tang Shipwreck in the Asian Civilisations Museum. I think they are the oldest exhibits (9th century AD) in the museum. Many artefacts look similar to those found at the Kollam port site in Kerala. KCHR had done some salvage archaeology at Kollam in 2014 and is planning experimental digs.

"I also liked the way the religions were portrayed in the Singapore museums as thought systems rather than those with rigid rules, gods and goddesses. The galleries on Hinduism and Buddhism were unique - as streams of thought that, unlike institutionalised religions, may help us to act from inside rather than being walking exhibits of overt symbols, dress codes, dietary restrictions etc."


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