Muziris is a pale shadow of its former self. What was once among the largest cities in the world, and certainly one of the busiest world ports, is now just another speck of urbanisation in a state that struggles to find a rural calling. But Kodungallur, as Muziris or Muracippattanam is known now, is all set to rise from the ashes and maybe try to be a fraction of bustling port city it once was.
Conceived at a cost of Rs 94 crore, Kerala’s Muziris Heritage Project is billed as India’s largest heritage conservation plan. Kodungallur, just over an hour’s drive from Kochi in central Kerala, stands at the very spot where an ancient port city by the name of Muziris stood, which many say dates back as early as 3000 BC.
Tourists will have the opportunity to explore the ruins and remnants of a bygone period that was amazingly opulent according to several historical accounts. A Tamil poem from the Sangam period describes the port, “Here lies the thriving town of Muchiri, where the beautiful large ships of the Yavana come, bringing gold, splashing the white foam on the waters of the Periyar, and then return laden with pepper. Here the music of the surging sea never ceases, and the great king presents to visitors the rare products of sea and mountain.”
As the quality of the spices from Muziris spread far and beyond the Indian Ocean, a stream of merchants kept flowing into Kerala and the port gradually became an unavoidable juncture in the ‘Spice Route.’ While spices were the major commodity traded, semi-precious stones were bartered as well.
“Such was the importance attached to spices and the spice trade, that Arabs in later periods kept the route to Muziris a secret and it was only in 40 AD that the Greek mariner Hippalus found a direct route to Kerala, after whom came the Romans,” said Manu Pillai, author of ‘The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore’, a book that explores the life and work of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, the last queen of Travancore in southern Kerala.
Another hallmark of the Muziris region was its warmth and hospitality towards people of all cultures and religions. The fact that a tourist would find an ancient Hindu temple dedicated to Goddess Mahakali, in the same vicinity as the Cheraman Juma Masjid, India’s first Muslim mosque, a Jewish synagogue and the Marthoma Church in Azhikode village is evidence that Muziris encompassed glorious religious harmony and peace during those days.
“After the destruction of their second Temple in AD 70, Jews escaping persecution in Jerusalem sought refuge in Muziris– in fact the story goes that when St Thomas the Apostle came to Kerala (bringing Christianity with him) he was stunned to find on shore a flute-playing Jewish girl,” said Pillai.
The demise of Muziris as a developed urban center is believed to have occurred when a flood in the main Periyar River in the 14th century blocked water access to the port and changed the demographics to a great extent. This alternatively allowed for the rise of Calicut and Cochin as twin port cities, but Pillai says neither of them could match the opulence and wealth of Muziris, which struck a few notches higher.
The tourism project floated by the Kerala government in conjunction with the Centre aims to showcase the cultural significance of the region and more importantly boost tourist footfalls in a state that has been flagged for stagnating growth. Kerala figures almost nowhere in the top destinations for both domestic and foreign tourists in spite of being home to some of the most beautiful and culturally oriented destinations in the country. The first phase of the tourism project was inaugurated by President Pranab Mukherjee on February 27 in the presence of Chief Minister Oommen Chandy.
The project has been six years in the making, roiled by archaeological excavations that took time. The Kerala Council of Historical Research (KCHR) has conducted extensive digs at nearby Pattanam village in north Paravur, which also pointed to having a history of trade links.
Within the Muziris project, there are several monuments and religious sites that carry a thread back to the early historic period.
“Tourists can avail the special hop-on, hop-off boat service to move between the different sites. We have three air-conditioned boats that can carry 25 passengers each. There are also specific circuit tours that tourists can take depending on their choice,” said Shine KS, Special Officer in charge of the project.
The Kottapuram Fort, Cheraman Juma Masjid, Kodungallur temple and the Paliam Kovilakom, where the prime ministers of the king of Kochi used to live, are some of the sites listed in the project. The Kottappuram Fort was built by the Portuguese in 1523 and has been witness to several wars between the Zamorins of Calicut and the kings of Kochi.
There are a number of museums as well which have been encompassed under the project for those yearning to turn the pages of history.