Muziris and the Spices trade.

Muziris was an active port in the 1st century BC, though it is still not known when the city-port was established. The merchants of Muziris had instituted Indo-Greek and Indo-Roman-Egyptian trade with Jews, Arabs, Portuguese, Dutch, Chinese, British, and many other travelers.

Muziris on the lower Periyar basin is located not far from the Arabian Sea. Its was based at the banks of Periyar river opening out into the Sea. It was also noted that cargo for export especially black pepper, nutmeg etc was loaded on to smaller vessels for transport to ocean going larger ships anchored in the sea. Items of import like gold and exotic items from Rome were also unloaded to smaller vessels and carried through the river to the town of Muziris and upstream. It is to be believed that a devastating flood in the Periyar valley in 1341 CE destroyed the important position of Muziris of the Roman times.

Coastal south India functioned as a hub between the Roman Empire in the west and the south-east Asian countries in the East.

Many important trading centres developed, the most famous of which was Muziris, a bustling port city under the Chera rulers. The Peutinger map, an ancient illustrated road map showing the road network of the Roman Empire dating from the 3rd century CE, records a city called Muziris in South India, where the Romans had built a temple of Augustus and even maintained two army garrisons to protect their trade. Not just the Romans, but also the Greek, Phoenician and Egyptian traders actually maintained physical settlements in various ports in southern India.

Before the 1st century BC, ships would travel between Egypt and Asia hugging the coast, stopping at Arabia and Iran on the way. Then a Greek sailor discovered that by using the summer monsoon to blow the sailing ships across the open sea, they could do the journey in 40 days instead of the months it used to take. They could return using the winter monsoon winds. Trade exploded, especially after Augustus conquered Egypt, defeating Cleopatra; hundreds of ships now started coming to India every year from Roman Egypt. Ships bringing in gold and wine, and sailing away with black pepper. The Romans were crazy about black pepper, and the rich would put it in every dish. They also loved the exquisitely fine Indian muslins, which was even more expensive than Chinese silk. India was particularly the source for much of their exotica, especially ivory, apes and peacocks, as mentioned in the bible.


Spices tradeRoman gold coins (Source: Uploadalt/Wikimedia Commons)

Roman gold coins were what the jewellery loving Indians really wanted, to string in coin necklaces, as no local kings issued gold coins. Much of the gold the Romans gathered from their conquests found its way to India, much to the despair of Roman senators like Pliny. Hoards of gold and silver Roman coins are still being found all over South India! Roman wine was such a popular export item to India that Latin authors often made fun of the Indians for it. Roman amphorae have been found in Indian warehouses, with traces of ancient Roman wine. We also loved art; Roman pottery and statues of gods like Poseidon have been found in India.

 Spices trade

Amphorae (Source: Ad Meskens/Wikimedia Commons)

The exact location of Muziris is still not known to historians and archaeologists, but it is generally thought to be at Pattanam near Munambam Beach, an archaeological site north of Cochin in Kerala, on the banks of River Periyar. Though Roman trade declined from the 5th century AD, this famous city had caught the attention of other nationalities by then, such as the Chinese, and trade continued from its ports until the 14th century CE.

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