With China embarking on a multi-billion dollar rebuilding of the ancient Silk Road, India is stirring up the scent of a similar heritage project—the Spice Route, starting from Kochi in Kerala—in an ambitious cultural collaboration of 31 countries
AT THE nearly 2,000-year-old temple in the coastal town of Kodungallur, about 30 km from Kochi in Kerala, a tuft of turmeric is handed down to an open palm of a devotee by the high priest after the morning prayers have been said. Anywhere else in India, the unusual sacrament would have evoked an element of surprise, but not in this region, which is nestled in the memories and remains of three millennia of history. For the past seven years, archaeological excavations carried out at several sites around the nearby Pattanam village have led to the discovery of hundreds of artefacts believed to have been linked to Greek, Egyptian and west Asian civilisations, revealing preliminary evidence of the ancient Spice Route to the outside world from Kerala.
As the excavations enter the ninth season and archaeologists from institutions like the Oxford University join to dig in, a state of frenzy is gripping Kerala, which is beginning to spread as far as the spices once went. Anticipating the potential meaning of the discovery, the central government has already lent its financial and political weight to the state government’s plan to build a heritage project around the Spice Route. With China pouring in billions of dollars to rebuild its own Silk Road, India’s Spice Route projects fit perfectly into Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Mausam project. The excavations have even convinced the Unesco to partner with the state government to protect and preserve the heritage in an ambitious multilateral cooperation involving 31 countries.
With Modi’s blessings and Unesco’s backing, Kerala’s long-cherished dream of reinventing the Spice Route is finally taking wings. Already, four museums with the Spice Route theme have come up in towns around the excavation sites with 17 more in the offing. “The project is the bedrock of Kerala’s connection with the rest of the world based on the Spice Route,” says Suman Billa, secretary of Kerala’s tourism department, which is leading the heritage and infrastructure development of the Spice Route project. “If we were to recreate the Spice Route, Kerala’s primacy as a land of spices that traded with the rest of the world for 3,000 years will be restored,” explains Billa.
The tonnes of material coming out of the trenches in Pattanam, like the remains of a wharf structure and a 2,000-year-old canoe, are pointing at the possibility of the existence of a flourishing port town that drew traders and explorers from far and wide. Modern means of tests and investigations available to researchers today are giving initial hints that the port may well have been Muziris, the hub of India’s spice trade with Europe and the ‘far east’, which mysteriously went off the map sometime in the 14th century after a natural disaster. For the tourism department of Kerala government, the findings have come as a huge treasure trove. Muziris, the ‘city of spices’, could bring pots of gold to Kerala once again in the form of modern-day global travellers in exchange for a scent of history from the Spice Route, the equivalent of pepper in ancient times.
The eagerness of the Kerala government to revive the Spice Route through collaborations with the other 30 countries linked with the ancient trade channel matches the speed of the excavations in Pattanam. In August this year, Kerala Tourism signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Unesco in a mammoth multilateral cultural collaboration to “promote and preserve the heritage” of the Spice Route presented through archaeological excavations.
The Muziris heritage project site is spread over a 300-sq-km area involving two towns, six panchayats and two districts, namely Ernakulam and Thrissur. For Brand Kerala, the top tourist destination blessed with pristine hills, beautiful beaches and a calm countryside, Muziris is the answer to its prayers to take the tourism experience to the next level.
Given China’s promotion of the Silk Route, the Prime Minister’s plans for India’s soft power fit perfectly with the Muziris project. The Kerala government’s project to reinvent the Spice Route has already received R55 crore from the central government, for what is billed as the “biggest tourism-oriented cultural reconstruction” undertaken in the country in recent times. The Kerala government has so far spent another R40 crore on mounting tourism infrastructure in the Muziris region, with another R55 crore investment planned in the area.
As per Billa, a London School of Economics alumnus, if India were to take a leadership role in reinventing the Spice Route, “it is not only India taking the pole position in an international setting, but also conveying the country’s primacy to world civilisation”. That may sound ambitious, but even before the formal inauguration of the Muziris heritage project in December, the region has already started getting new visitors. Israeli IT professional Eyal Harary and wife Meyrav, who arrived in Kerala with their children recently to look for the oldest synagogue in India renovated under the Spice Route project, say it has been an important journey for them. “When we heard about a synagogue built in the 12th century in India, we wanted to come and see it,” says Harary.
Muziris has also captured the imagination of local residents and businesses. Many homes in the region today bear ‘Muziris’ name boards, something shared by grocery shops, cafes and even construction companies. Excited by the potential, foreign cruise liners, too, have joined the bandwagon. The Malta-flagged Azamara Quest luxury liner’s year-end south Asia journey is christened The Spice Route voyage. “There will be another luxury liner arriving by March-end next year with the Spice Route theme from England,” says Lijo Jose, an accredited guide for Muziris, who will be taking travellers on the Azamara Quest to the Spice Route region.
The synagogue in Paravur, 16 km north of Kochi, a town that has its own Jewish place of worship, symbolises the cultural transactions that came with commerce. The Muziris region also houses India’s first mosque, built in 629 AD in Kodungallur, and what was once the first church, from 52 AD, barely a few kilometres away in Azhikode. The idea of Muziris, which historians believe was located in the geographical landscape currently covering the region between Thrissur, the cultural capital of Kerala, and Kochi, the commercial capital, is mouth-watering.
The spice-laden port city is believed to have spawned settlements from far, giving it a cosmopolitan character with a touch of globalisation. While spices like pepper, clove, turmeric and dried ginger were traded for wine, olive and gold from Europe and west Asia, the business also brought people and faiths.
Under the tiled roof of the building of Kerala Council for Historical Research (KCHR), the nodal agency for archaeological excavations on Muziris in Pattanam, huge Greek and Roman wine jars and Spanish olive oil containers are on display, all reconstructed by pottery artists based on excavation findings. There is also a copy of a 2,000-year-old toilet system, a storage jar, part of a well and earthen pots from before the Christian era.
The excavations have even attracted the attention of institutions abroad. For its eighth season of digging, KCHR received a 10-member team from Oxford University, including archaeologists Chris Goslen and Wendy A Morison of its School of Archaeology, who stayed in Pattanam for a month to take part in field work. “There is tremendous interest in our work because we are excavating a site, which could have been Muziris 2,000 years ago,” says PJ Cherian, KCHR director, who heads Pattanam excavations. “Our evidences are very clearly pointing at that possibility, as the findings belong to different parts of the Mediterranean region, Red Sea and Indian Ocean literal (banks and shores),” adds Cherian.
As per Cherian, the implication of the findings so far is that the site had links with all “port sites network” in the early historic period. “What the studies on the evidence may prove is that the earliest trans-oceanic cultural and commercial interfaces were going on in Muziris much before the European geographical discoveries of America and the direct sea route from Europe to India by Vasco da Gama,” he says.
The road ahead
Though it is too early to conclusively put a Muziris stamp on Pattanam, there is excitement among historians in Kerala about attempts to unearth a forgotten city. “We need to extend the excavations to the entire Muziris region to be certain of the existence of the city,” says Jenee Peter, who teaches history and archaeology at the Union Christian College in Aluwa. The college, which is involved in the excavations in Pattanam, invited a historian, Prof Federico de Romanis, from the University of Rome in July last year to talk about the ‘Muziris Papyrus’, a third-century financial document in ancient Greek with reference to goods from Muziris. “It was a contract involving a trader from Alexandria, Egypt, mentioning goods such as ivory and even bay leaf,” says Peter, who believes that the ancient port in Kerala was the hub for trade between India and the West in the early times. “Goods like bay leaf may have been transported to Muziris from north India for transporting to the West,” she adds.
Under Kerala Tourism’s recently signed agreement with Unesco, academic exchanges, inter-cultural dialogue and joint heritage conservation projects have been planned with countries along the Spice Route in the coming years. While Muziris is mentioned in the writings of Marco Polo and Pliny, Kerala’s efforts to collaborate with other Spice Route countries are certain to see new-age travellers treading the path once walked by traders and explorers.
They may also be able to do it on hop-on-hop-off boats and water taxis to be launched soon in the backwaters between Kochi and Thrissur, a waterway that may have earlier transported goods to the Muziris port from inland Kerala through traditional markets like Kottappuram, one of the oldest markets in the country. “We are trying to keep the tradition alive in our own small way,” says KD Kunjappan, a trader who formed a boat club and launched an annual boat race in Kottappuram with the help of friends and fellow traders. Today, new eateries and amphitheatres dot the riverside in the Muziris region, where tourism authorities hope people from all over the world will celebrate a culture that welcomed all races and colours more than 2,000 years ago. After the recent World Heritage tag on the Western Ghats, Kerala could be looking at one for Muziris too, just like the Silk Route.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer