EP Unny, the indefatigable cartoonist of The Indian Express, has published an easy-reading history of Fort Kochi, Santa and the Scribes: The Making of Fort Kochi, (Niyogi Books), based on secondary sources dating back to 1341, accompanied by his own sketches from the present: “For close to four centuries and a half in this stamp-sized town, the sword was drawn, the gunpowder was dry and the quill was in full flow. The swordsmen and musketeers are gone. Chronicles remain.”
Kochi became the fulcrum that would launch European sea power and commerce across Asia. From here, Vasco da Gama took home a cargo that earned 6,000 per cent profit in Lisbon, perhaps the most lucrative business venture ever, barring Peter Minuit’s fabulous purchase of Manhattan for $24. Vasco died and was buried here, in St Francis Church. Portuguese, Dutch, English, they all came to this coast, moneybags, powder horns, quills and cutlasses ever at the ready. Unny uses their chronicles as guidebooks to a city he knows well, and finds almost everything he sees tragically droll. It’s a thinking, feeling man’s history.
But 1,200 years before Kochi, there was another port, and European chronicle. It was a periplus, a document describing seaports and coastlines, part of a Mediterranean tradition dating back to Hanno the Navigator of Carthage. Kochi became a major port only after 1341, when the Periyar river flooded and silted up nearby Muziris, which had controlled the trade between Europe, Arabia and the Indian Ocean in antiquity. Pliny wrote of Muziris as an unpleasant, pirate-infested landing, but the port is more favourably described in the Periplus Maris Erythrei (The Shore of the Red Sea) believed to be the account of an unknown Greek pilot.
For us, the Periplus gets interesting after the author’s ship has left the Red Sea behind, crossed the Straits of Hormuz and reached modern-day Pakistan, anchoring off Barbaricum — which literally meant “foreign, non-Greek parts”, and was in the region of Karachi. What did Minnagara, the ancient port near Karachi, crave from Europe 2000 years ago? “Thin clothing, and a little spurious; figured linens, topaz, coral, storax, frankincense, vessels of glass, silver and gold plate, and a little wine,” the Periplus tells us.
The alleged Greek pilot traces the coast past ‘Barygaza’ (Bharuch), ‘Calliena’ (Kalyan, near Mumbai) down to ‘Cape Comari (Kanyakumari)’ and up the Coromandel coast to Bengal. But the further he ventures beyond the Red Sea, the more inaccurate the distances between ports become, suggesting that he did not travel to South Asia himself, but depended on hearsay.
Finally, in Bengal, even the description of trade goods becomes incomprehensible: “Every year, there comes together a tribe of men with short bodies and broad, flat faces, and by nature peaceable; they are called Besatae, and are almost entirely uncivilised. They come with their wives and children, carrying great packs and plaited baskets of what looks like green grape-leaves. They hold a feast for several days, spreading out the baskets under themselves as mats, and then return to their own places in the interior. And then the natives watching them come and gather up their mats. They lay the leaves closely together in several layers and make them into balls, which they pierce with the fibres from the mats.” This mystifying procedure created malabathron, prized in Europe for making an aromatic oil. Hardly exotic for us, though. It’s just tej patta, or a biologically close cousin.
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