Think of Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Khmer, Champa and Eastern Indian dynasties. What connects them? Not just the fact that they were colossal empires, but ones that specialised in maritime trade. The secrets to unlocking the history behind any region is often linked to its description in ancient literature and based on accounts of sea faring traders and merchants.
Tamil Nadu has numerous entries for ports of commercial trade dating back centuries ago mentioned frequently in Sangam literature as well as that famous book for seafarers, Periplus of Erythrean Sea. Mylapore, Mamalla/Poonjeri, Kaveripumpattinam, Nagapattinam, Korkai and Kumari were important maritime trade centres.
Arikamedu on the Eastern bank of river Ariyankuppam, and Veerampattinam-the adjacent village-were well known as trading ports and were associated with as Poduke for ancient mariners. Poduke finds mention in Ptolemy’s Gegographia in the 1st century CE and the Periplus. Poduke is the Roman term for Podikai or Puduvai which meant new village or meeting place in Tamil. Arikamedu in Tamil is translated to mound on a river bank. From all pointers, this would have been a port where exotic and luxury goods were traded between the locals and foreigners (Greeks and Romans) including wine, olive oil, cotton, sandalwood, gem stones, spices. While the Romans, specially the ladies, loved the essential commodities of life from India, the local chieftains enjoyed the sweet scented wine from Rome. This finds mention in the ancient text: Purananuru.
Let your mind wander at Arikamedu and you may see this place come alive.
The first mention of Arikamedu as an archaeological site was by a French astronomer in 1760’s, Guillaume Joseph Hyacinthe Jean-Baptiste Le Gentil de la Galaisière, who was assigned by the French Academy of Sciences to witness the Transit of Venus in Pondicherry. It was then that he came across a complex with huge brick walls, remains of a well. He also noticed villagers picking up bricks from the site confirming a report in French Indo Consul of 1730’s. When the locals were questioned, they pointed to the Old fort during the glorious times of Podikai (Poduke). Le Gentil immediately recognized this to be remains of an ancient trading outpost. However excavations were not going to happen for another 200 years.
The archeological excavations in the early 20th century brought out fascinating evidence to confirm trade links with Rome in the first century and also helped construct a proper chronology for South Indian history. Although credit is attributed to British archaeologist, Sir Mortimer Wheeler, the earliest excavations were carried out by an Indo-French pair.
Jouveau Dubreuil, the french archaeologist who had written about Pallava history long acknowledged the significance of Arikamedu through artefacts discovered on the sands. However it was not till 1941 that Arikamedu achieved historic importance. J Dubreuil shared the artefacts discovered by him with Dr. Aiyappan, Superintendent of Government Museum, Madras. Convinced about their antiquity and importance, the trial excavations began. On March 23, 1941, days after completing the excavations, the findings were documented by Dr Aiyappan via an article in The Hindu. The findings uncovered included Arretine ware, Roman lamps, Red Table ware, Mediterranean pottery sherds such as Amphora fragments, gems, beads, and metallic objects. This firmly established that the city of Poduke or Arikamedu was a Yavana (Foreigners – mostly Greeks, Romans, Central Asians) post and had maintained trade relations with Rome, which peaked between 100 BC to 100AD. However, subsequent excavations by a later team led by Vimala Begley extended the date till 8th century AD. The most interesting discovery was the layout of an ancient port city. Many of the artefacts including beads and pottery are still available in the Pondicherry Museum.
Arikamedu was completely destroyed in the tsunami of 2004 and all that’s left of this once great town are an entrance, brick walls of a former French mission house built during the Christian missions to convert the local population.
Poduke fell into the hands of different dynasties as the battle for power in Tamil Nadu raged on. From the 4th Century A.D, it was under the control of the Pallavas of Kanchi followed by the Cholas of Tanjore in the 10th Century A.D. The Pandyas seized the seat of power in the 13th century. However, through the centuries, with importance given to maritime trade by all South Indian kingdoms, trade flourished and sea ports were centres bustling with cultural and commercial activity. The antiquities discovered during these ages point to links with Southeast Asian empires and China. It fell into the hands of the Vijayanagara empire when they took almost complete control of South India till mid 17th century. After the downfall of Vijayanagara, the Deccan Sultanate from Bijapur controlled the region, remnants of which can be found in Gingee Fort.
Where trade and natural resources were plenty, the Europeans would follow. In the next part, we will see how a pursuit of commercial trade turned into a fistfight for European supremacy in India and Pondicherry’s key role in the freedom movement.