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‘Arikamedu’ : Only Ancient Port in India to Have Traded with Romans

By Feb. 7, 2015
arikamedu walls The walls of The French Mission house at Arikamedu, built in the 18th century

A Place where the Tamils and Romans had exchanged and trade over 2000 years ago.

Arikamedu, 4 km south of Puducherry, is a small fishing village on the banks of the river Ariyankuppam.

Arikamedu is among the few places in India, where you could find reminiscent of the great Roman Empire. This beautiful fishing village has a 2000 year old story to tell, that reveals the glory of the ancient Chola Empire and their trade relations with the Romans.

Once a fully flourished ancient port city, Arikamedu, was well known for bead manufacturing and was the only place in India to mark trade relations with the Roman empire. Various Roman artifacts like containers bearing the mark of Roman potter schools VIBII, CAMURI and ITTA have been found here, which support the claims that there was trade between Rome and ancient Tamil India.

Arikamedu, which means “eroding mud”, started out as a small port, around 300 BC and soon became a unique bead-making site as it manufactured beads made of both stone and glass.

Various textiles, beads, terracotta artifacts and gold and semi precious jewellery were exported to Greco Roman ports and other countries in the East from Arikamedu. Arikamedu’s glass bead making site was considered as “mother of all bead centers” in the world.

Wine seems to be a major import as suggested by traces of excavated amphora jars from the village. Other major import done by the Tamil of that period, included cups, plates of Terra Sigillata (fine red Roman clay pots) and other various ceramic products. Products like beads, terracotta objects, glass, gems, plants, spices were exported from the place.

Terra Sigillata tableware has been found only in two places outside of Roman Empire, one of them being Arikamedu, which is one of the things that marks the existence of trade between the two regions.

The place was first discovered in 1930′s and since then there have been several excavations conducted by the Archeological survey of India. Among the several excavations, the attempts by Dr Mortimer Wheeler in 1945 is the most remarkable.

Puduchery is often confused with Arikamedu in the early historical works. The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, of the 1st century, mentions a marketplace named Poduke or Poduca, which believed to be the earliest known name of Puduchery. But, G.W.B. Huntingford, lecturer at the University of London, identified this as possibly being Arikamedu.

There exists lots of dispute regarding this among the historians and many believes that Arikamedu is nothing but a glorified fame. Among the many contradictory views most significant is that of Historian JBP More.

In his work ‘From Arikamedu to the Foundation of Modern Pondicherry’, he points out that there was no mention of this town and its trade relations with Rome in ancient works like Sangam. He claims that there could not be a flourished town 2000 years ago, which was not even mentioned in the temple scriptures of that period.

“It is not possible to decide just on the basis of the discoveries of Roman potteries, coins and artifacts, wells and some thick walls in Arikamedu mound that it was once a flourishing town and that town was Poduke or Pondicherry or Puduceri or Puduvai. There is no evidence for such a town in Sangam literature or epigraphy or even in ancient Chinese literature,” More has told Times of India.

However, Suresh Pillai, an interdisciplinary artist and film maker, disagree with this saying the reason there is no mention of this town in classical Tamil literature is because most of it came into existence only after the city of Poduke or Arikamedu achieved its full glory.

Having witnessed many discussions and surveys, this place still stands tall as a majority of the sources proves the existence of the ancient Tamil-Roman relations. Another study by Vimala Begley and her team found out that, “Metal workers, glass blowers, shell cutters, craftsmen in precious and semi-precious stones and ivory workers were grouped in this area, making or assembling the objects which were exported overseas.”

Their study found a good quantity of pottery and various architectural features dated from 3rd century BC to the French times. They also discovered Chola coins, Chinese celadon pottery and other East Asian artifacts at the site.

Arikamedu as on Today:

Apart from the perpendicular walls and the mission house, everything else were being damaged by the cyclone Thane in 2011. The only structure still standing tall are the walls of The French Mission house built in the 18th century.

The place is full of Coconut and Mango trees. It’s almost like they have an intention to remind one to step out of the time machine into the realm of reality. The plantations take your breath away. The mangoes hanging from the lower branches feel like the forbidden fruit and the orchard itself turns into the Garden of Eden.

To experience the aura of Arikamedu you’ll have to do more than just reading this. You have to go there. Let History seep into your bones.


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