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All roads here lead to Rome again

IT was once a flourishing port town and perhaps the only historical one on the Indian coast to have had ties with ancient Rome. Amazing evid...

IT was once a flourishing port town and perhaps the only historical one on the Indian coast to have had ties with ancient Rome. Amazing evidences had been dug up to prove the existence of a ‘Yavana (people of Greco Roman origin)’ settlement here.

But, the rich history of the ancient Tamil port town, ‘Arikan-medu or Poduke,’ which literally means, ‘eroding mound,’ about 4 km from Pondicherry, was being systematically chipped away by plunderers, neglected by the Archeological Survey of India and successive governments in the Union Territory. Today, Arikamedu is the story of one man’s struggle to preserve an ancient history and culture.

Journalist and documentary film-maker, Suresh Pillai, 42, had come to the French town, about 170 km from Chennai, with an assignment. His brief: To make a documentary film on Arikamedu. One year later, the film forgotten, Pillai, who leased a bungalow on the edge of Arikamedu in Ayyankuppam village, ended up turning his temporary residence into a veritable treasure house—the Arikamedu Museum Gallery—perhaps the first in India to be privately owned and run. ‘‘The ASI finally acquired 34 acres of the site of ancient Arikamedu last year. But I have already started to recreate the story,’’ Pillai told The Sunday Express.

And it is an incredible story, retold with fragments of history— broken pieces of mediterranean amphoras, iron age black and red ware bowl, black lidded roulette ware and metal tools, medieval terracotta lamps, glazed teracotta bowls, ancient ceramic bits and stone and semi-precious and glass beads.

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‘‘I got much of these exhibits from the local villagers who had been picking up bits and pieces over the years while they grazed their cattle on the site,’’ says Pillai, still shocked that remnants of 2,000-year-old history could be so carelessly strewn around.

EARLIER this year, in a bid to draw in the local people into his effort, Pillai launched the Arikamedu Heritage Society (AHS). ‘‘The AHS objective is to protect, preserve and promote Pondicherry’s most ancient cultural legacy,’’ said Pillai.

‘‘The archaeological site where the ruins of the ancient city Arikamedu exists is fast disappearing. This is the only surviving site in south India which has a rare cultural continuity from 300 BC to 1800 AD,’’ points out Pillai. By craving out a museum from the ancient site, the self-appointed curator hopes to create ‘‘a new museum culture.’’

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Asked if there was anything illegal about Pillai running a private museum of rare and historical artifacts, Dr. T. Sathyamurthy the Superintending Archeologist, Archeological Survey of India, Chennai Circle, said: ‘‘The artifacts have to be registered. Pillai has approached us for registration and our office is examining the them.’’

Sathyamurthy added that the ASI would soon develop Arikamedu into a heritage tourist spot.

THE remains of the ancient city of Arikamedu, ‘‘the only site archaeologically proved to have trade relations with the Roman Empire,’’ is located at the mouth where the picturesque Ariyankuppan river, which runs through Pondicherry and empties into the Bay of Bengal.

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The city had industrial port facilities where textiles, beads, terracotta artifacts and gold and semi precious jewelry were manufactured for exports to Greco Roman ports as well as to countries in the East. Most of the industrial activities were concentrated on the southern side of the city.

In the north was the settlement of Yavanas, who were traders. They used the city as a trans shipment port for ships from the ancient city of Muziris to North India, South East Asia and China for spice trade.

The story goes that in 1741, French astronomer and explorer Guillume Le Gentil (1725- 92) visited Pondicherry and noticed ruined walls and remains of old terracotta ring wells at Arikamedu.

Le Gentil was sure these were the ruins of an ancient village. He was proved right in 1945 when well-known British archaeologist, Mortimer Wheeler, for the first time used scientific methods to excavate the site.

Jean Mari Casal conducted his own excavations between 1947 and 1950 and came up with the theory that much before the advent of the Romans, Arikamedu was a prosperous port dating to 250 BC and the people here were civilised even during Iron Age.

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In 1989, Vimala Begley in a collaborative project of University of Pennsylvania Museum and University of Madras, excavated the site between 1989 and 1992. ‘‘Bagley too went along with Casal that the Arikamedu city existed even before the Romans arrived. But she justified her theory with more findings,’’ says Pillai.

According to P. Ravichandiran, lecturer in History at Ayvvaiyar College for Women at Karaikal, who assisted Vimala Begley in her excavations, Arikamedu traders imported copper, gold, silver, olive oil and wine from west and spices from East. In return their small scale industries were engaged in manufacturing shell bangles and stone bead making.

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At Pillai’s museum you can join the pieces to recreate the past.

First published on: 06-11-2005 at 12:00:00 am
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