How Periyar's dance of death changed Kerala's landscape

HIGHLIGHTS
  • But did the legendary Muziris seaport of ancient Kerala vanish during the great flood of 677?
  • It was a rainy season like this. But the flow wasn't quite like this.

The clear waters of the Periyar were once cut through by busy oars, the sailors in layers of fancy colourful robes bearing loads of gold cruised up the river. They could get a clear view of Muzuri Pattinam, the town called Muziris. They were the Romans who crossed the Mediterranean to visit the sons of Chera; attracted by the fragrance of pepper, the Black Gold , they brought loads of real gold for exchange. That was the beginning of centuries-long history of commercial contact. Greeks, Portuguese, and Dutch – all the adventurers of the world voyaged to this famous port.

But did the legendary Muziris seaport of ancient Kerala vanish during the great flood of 677?

It was a rainy season like this. But the flow wasn't quite like this. The water was flowing from the east, taking everything that came its way, and emptied into the sea. The renowned Muziris seaport might have disappeared in that floods. It might have rained for weeks together. Mud and muck might have piled up at the port, stopping ships from reaching the port and bringing an end to a great period.

What would have happened?

Rewind 677 years. There is nobody to tell you what they saw and heard. Nothing has been recorded. Everything is pure assumption. Even history says so. The Muziris port vanished in a deluge. Gradually, a port took shape in Kochi. The deluge had given rise to two islands - Kodungallur and Kochi - in torrential rains. We have some information regarding the rain in '99. It had submerged Munnar and nearby areas in water for a few weeks. As per the Malayalam calendar, 99 was 1099. The rain started on July 17, 1924. It rained for three weeks non-stop. We have the same rains now. Since times have changed, the threat posed by the downpour have greatly reduced. But the rain that Kerala experienced seven centuries ago may have been entirely different.

Idukki's nerve centre

The Muziris port was sustained by the trade of spices from Idukki. However, this calls for a rewrite since we believe that people migrated to Idukki in the middle of the last century and started living there. There are enough archaeological indicators pointing to life in Idukki long before the migration. There were realms on both the banks of the Periyar. Beyond them, there were forests. The floods that engulfed the port might have wiped out the realms too. The migration to Idukki is a recent phenomenon. Iron Age remains were found from several parts of Idukki district. Muziris was known as a key seaport due to the spices and forest wealth of Idukki.

Did floods destroy the port?

History doesn't say so. Since nothing else has been recorded as a reason, whatever is known today is considered as history. According to available information, the great floods happened during 1341. The flood water from the eastern hills and the plains diverted the flow of the Periyar somewhere. Otherwise, the Muziris port might have died due to accumulated mud and muck. The port might have "vanished" thus making it impossible for ships to dock. There are no proofs to claim that the port disappeared in the flood and hence it can't be stated as a reason, says director of the Pattanam research project Dr P J Cherian.

The only mention available is from 14th century Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta. He had travelled by avoiding Kochi and Kodungallur. It could be because of a natural disaster that he avoided these two places. Maybe, a tsunami might have destroyed the port. A study had been conducted about this. In the study that covered 3,000 years, evidence of just five centuries on Muziris was unearthed. The soil layers of the town had no indication of a flood. The remains of human life are saved in soil layers for centuries. If there was a flood, some objects could be found vertical in the soil layers. Nothing of those sorts were ever found.

One thing is for sure. The Periyar had changed course during the millennia, which could be because of a flooding, tsunami or an earthquake. Natural ports are unlikely to last longer than five centuries. The river mouth gets filled with mud and they die a natural death. There was no dredging equipment then. This could be the story of Muziris, said Dr Cherian.

After Muziris

The port was located at the place where the Periyar flowed into the sea. It was the port that brought the Phoenicians, the Persians, the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Arabs to Kerala before Christ. After the "disappearance" of Muziris, Kollam became the key port city. Spices could have been taken to Kollam through Kochi. Though trade shifted to Kollam after Muziris, the Kochi port had started taking shape by then. Chinese emperor Yongle's ambassador Cheng Ho's team member Mahuvan talks about Kochi in 1400 itself. During this time, Italian traveller Nicolo Conti too had come to Kochi. But Kochi earned importance as a trade point after the arrival of the Portuguese.

Due to reducing trade or climate vagaries, ships that came to Muziris might have looked for an alternative port and the nearby Kochi might have developed as a port, says historian Dr Rajan Chembadath. Rajan was part of a team led by Dr Vimala Bleggi that carried out the second phase of research into Muziris with the help of Pennsylvania University. Several islands at the port might have given protection to ships from large waves. Dr Rajan too could not find any signs of a flood in the soil layers. Unbroken soil strata are a sign of continuous human life. If there was a great flood, that interval should have been seen in the soil layers, he says.