The hunt for the lost ports of India

A team is carrying out a coastal survey of Tamil Nadu,seeking to find the ancient ports mentioned in the accounts of Greco-Roman geographer Ptolemy

Written by Gopu Mohan | Published:September 29, 2013 12:24 am

In search of concrete proof to establish the antiquity of the Tamil civilisation,historians in Chennai have again turned to the familiar guiding figure from Alexandria — Claudius Ptolemy.

A team of professors and students from the Centre of Underwater Archeology of Tamil University,Thanjavur,is combing the coastal villages of Tamil Nadu in search of the ancient ports mentioned by Ptolemy in Geographia,a compilation of the known world —based on the chronicles of explorers and mathematical calculations. It was Ptolemy who first used latitudes and longitudes to mark a place—placing the grid system on a map and using it for the entire planet.

In his tome,believed to have been compiled around 140 CE,the geographer-astronomer-mathematician mentions ports in south India,of which only a few have been discovered. Researchers believe that some of these ports could be the same as the ones mentioned in Sangam literature,an anthology of ancient classical Tamil poems believed to have been written between 600 BCE and 300 CE.

The text Akananuru of the Sangam era suggests that some 20 to 25 ports had existed in the region. Ptolemy’s geographical accounts mention some 15 ports.

“Ptolemy mentions many ports,including about eight on the east coast. Some,like Poompuhar (now known as Puhar) were found after finding similar references in Sangam literature. Our survey aims to find some indicators about the other lost ports. If there are significant reasons to believe that a particular site could be one among them,we will conduct deep marine intensive search,” said N Athiyaman,one of the two faculty members leading the survey.

The first step is a simple land-based survey where the researchers are visiting coastal villages looking for pot shreds and other remains. They will also be carrying samples of ancient pottery in order to make it easier to ask villagers about similar objects.

“Ceramics vary according to culture. If they identify any,we will be able to put an approximate date. Experienced fishermen can also tell us about sunken vessels or strange structures at the bottom of the sea,” Athiyaman said.

The survey is being done in two sectors. Athiyaman is leading the team in the Kanyakumari-Rameswaram stretch,while his colleague Rajavelu is looking after the Rameswaram-Poompuhar leg.

It is not only Ptolemy who mentioned the once buzzing port towns of south India of which little history remains. The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea,believed to be written sometime in the first century CE,reportedly has references to Tamil kingdoms.

“However,the names of the coastal towns mentioned by Ptolemy and Periplus are often in their own language,which differ from what they were known as locally. So we have to check the references for similar places in Sangam literature,” said S Rajavelu.

The investigations,if successful,could add a great deal of information about culture,trade,aesthetics,science and technology of both the inhabitants and their visitors. But for an ardent Tamilian,this could mean a lot more than that.

Tamil ideologues argue that the civilisation is one of the oldest in the world (the original culture and language of India before the Aryans arrived),and Sangam literature is the strongest evidence that backs the claim. The set of over 2,000 poems,many of them said to be over two millennia old,contains references to kings and palaces,but these are often shrouded in metaphors and allegories.

Thus,if Ptolemy’s references could be verified though archaeological evidence,it could thereby corroborate the accounts found in Sangam literature as well,which in turn could lead to more research into the texts.

As Rajavelu puts it,“we should understand our own history”.

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