Written by Sebastian R. Prange
Before Europeans found their way to the Indian Ocean, Arab mariners and merchants dominated the all-important pepper trade on India's spice coast. There they established communities characterized by a unique blend of Islamic traditions and South Indian customs.
Alexander the Great is believed to have brought dried black peppercorns back from India. His travels brought back also its Sanskrit name, pippali, from which, via Greek and Latin, we derive both our word for the spice and the plant's scientific name, Piper nigrum.

Today pepper is our single most commonly used spice, routinely offered in fine restaurants and fast food joints alike and universally available in stores and supermarkets. It is therefore hard to imagine just how highly prized pepper was in ancient and medieval times and how it spurred a complex trade that saw peppercorns travel distances so enormous that their origins remained obscure even to their purveyors. Along the way, fortunes were made, lives were lost, and the spice became enriched with its connotations of mystery and exoticism


Since at least the first millennium BC, pepper was regarded as an ultimate luxury, inessential to survival yet highly desired for ritual, medicinal and culinary purposes. The origins of this desire stretch back to ancient Egypt, with the great pharaoh Ramses II being the first known consumer, albeit posthumously: peppercorns were found in the nostrils of his mummified corpse. In ancient Greece, pepper was used medicinally and the Chinese have used it in their cooking since at least the fourth century. The Romans' conquest of Egypt gave them regular access to pepper, and it became a symbol of luxurious cookery. It was traded ounce for ounce with precious metals: When Rome was besieged in the fifth century, the city allegedly paid its ransom in peppercorns, and the spice remained an accepted form of "currency" throughout the Middle Ages.

The period from roughly the first century BC to the first century of our era witnessed a surge in the pepper trade as navigators began to understand the pattern of the Indian Ocean monsoon, and the surge resulted in more detailed knowledge about the lands where the pepper grows.

In 70 AD, the Periplus Maris Erythraei, an anonymous merchant's guide to the Red Sea, recorded information on the spice trade and the now lost Indian port of Muziris. Large ships are sent there, the author reports, "on account of the great quantity and bulk of pepper" that is only grown in that region. Even though archeologists still debate its exact location, it is clear from the Periplus and other references that Muziris was located near the modern city of Kodungallor (formerly known as Cranganore, its colonial name) on India's Malabar Coast, where black pepper is native.

Pepper was once a gift fit for kings; above, a French manuscript illustration from the early 15th century shows both harvesting and royal presentation.

The Malabar Coast comprises a narrow sliver of land on the southwestern tip of peninsular India, hemmed in by the Arabian Sea to the west and the mountain range of the Western Ghats in the east. This region, now largely contained in the northern part of the Indian state of Kerala, is located in the humid equatorial tropics: the annual monsoon rains nourish the fertile soil, feed the extensive network of backwater canals, and support the region's rich biodiversity. In addition to being the source of pepper, Malabar's position at the center of the Indian Ocean made it a natural location for commerce and transshipping. For these reasons, foreign merchants hailing from the different corners of the Indian Ocean trading world established settlements in Malabar's ports and brought with them not only their commercial expertise but also their cultures and creeds.


As the original suppliers of pepper to the Mediterranean world, the Persians had sailed along the coast to Malabar since the earliest days of maritime navigation. Jews are believed to have arrived and established synagogues as early as the sixth century BC. The Christians of modern Kerala trace their ancestry to Thomas the Apostle, who they believe came to Muziris in the year 52; they are known to this day as St. Thomas Christians.

Peppercorns are the dried fruit of the wild climbing vine Piper nigrum, which is native to the rich soil and humid climate of the Malabar Coast. It is unrelated to the American chili fruit, often called "chili pepper."
In the same century, ships from China reached South India and created the long-lasting connection between the Chinese empire and Malabar: This was as evident to medieval visitors, who spoke of Malabari communities known as "sons of the Chinese," as it is to modern tourists who marvel at the peculiar shore-based fishing contraptions known as "Chinese nets." Traders from other parts of India, especially Gujarat to the north and Coromandel on the east coast, also established permanent trading communities on the Malabar Coast, often specializing in particular goods. But what would prove to be the most profound foreign influence on Malabar did not arrive for another five centuries, when a new religion spread across the lands around the Indian Ocean, galvanized their commerce and created immense wealth through the trade in pepper.


Despite their reputation as a desert people, Arabs had long been involved in maritime trade. Yet it was only with the unifying, expansionist and proselytizing energy of early Islam that Arabs were able to develop their traditional dominance over the caravan and Red Sea trade into a network of Muslim settlements that rapidly spread along the Indian Ocean littoral. Under the early caliphates, this Islamic network matured to encompass most of the Indian Ocean world from East Africa to the southern coast of China. It carried with it not only the beliefs of Islam but also the Arabic language, shari'a courts able to enforce common legal standards and shared commercial practices that favored the interaction of these settlements. Merchants residing in foreign ports were able to learn the local language, establish and maintain business contacts, and act as cross-cultural brokers. Muslim trade settlements developed into particularly effective organizations because of the political unity initially created by a burgeoning Islam, the great emphasis on literacy within its culture and the practice of pilgrimage, which kept its heartlands in communication with even the most far-flung settlements. Even though the bulk of Indian Ocean commerce was carried on Indian and Chinese ships, and despite the continued significance of Jewish merchants, Arab Muslims increasingly dominated trade in its most profitable commodity: pepper.


The Piper nigrum vine grows readily and widely, and it reaches several meters in height. Like Indian Ocean navigation, the rhythm of growing and harvesting is set by the monsoon. Black, white and green pepper are all fruits of the same plant, respectively dried, decorticated and brined or freeze-dried. Air-drying black pepper requires frequent turning, and is still most often accomplished simply by spreading the pepper out in the sun.

The momentous commercial expansion during the early centuries of Islam was driven by the demand for spices in Europe and in the grand capitals of the new Islamic states. Within the lucrative spice trade, pepper was the most important commodity in bulk and value, and so the Malabar Coast remained of central importance to the Indian Ocean trading world. In his description of Malabar, the 14-century Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta recorded his astonishment at seeing pepper, elsewhere valued by the grain, "being poured out for measuring by the bushel, like millet in our country." It is therefore not surprising that Malabar was the first region of India to attract Muslim traders in significant numbers. The Malabar Coast was originally inhabited by the Dravidian people, who were distinct in their languages and culture from the Indo-Aryans of northern India. Organized religions came to Kerala in the form of Jainism, Buddhism and later Hinduism, and expressed themselves in the construction of temples—their profusion in the region has led Kerala to be called "the land of temples." A revived Hinduism developed into the region's predominant religion from about the ninth century onward, when Kerala's royal houses patronized Brahmins from North India.

The origins of Islam on the Malabar Coast began, according to legend, with the last king of the South Indian Chera dynasty, which had ruled Malabar since the beginning of its recorded history. Cheraman Perumal, the tale goes, converted to Islam after having dreamt of a splitting moon and then meeting Arab pilgrims who reported that the Qur'an mentions just such a miracle (54:1–2). The king resolved to join the pilgrims in their journey to Makkah, but not before dividing his kingdom among his princes, a fragmentation that would characterize the region for many centuries.

Having fallen ill on the return journey and unable to make it to his homeland, the king entrusted the same pilgrims with the mission of founding mosques and propagating his new faith in Kerala. Many of the oldest mosques in the region are said to have been founded by these pilgrims, who were dispatched all along the coast to serve as qadis to its fledgling Muslim communities.

The legend of Cheraman Perumal is similar to conversion myths in other parts of Asia and appears to be a confusion of two distinct traditions, one relating the end of unified Chera rule over Kerala and the other the conversion of a king. Its appeal and longevity, however, are testament to the exceptional circumstances that surrounded the introduction of Islam to Kerala and to the unique history of the communities it created. Furthermore, many aspects of this tale can be linked to historical truths. To begin to understand this blend of fact and fiction, therefore, we must look at the intriguing history of the Muslims of Malabar and their unique blend of Islamic traditions and South Indian customs.

Islam was introduced to the Malabar Coast peacefully by Arab traders in search of pepper and by Sufis who traveled within the commercial networks. To this day, most Muslims of Malabar adhere to the Shafi'i school of Islamic law, which was dominant among Muslim merchants across the Indian Ocean world. They are also more closely linked to Arab culture than to the Persian influence that was brought to the rest of India by invaders from the north. Muslim merchants settling in Malabar ports married (often multiple) local women. Their offspring were the first generation of Indian-born Muslims, and their upbringing in both Arabic and the local language, Malayalam (not related to the Malay language of Southeast Asia), was an excellent preparation for future work as brokers. In this manner, the ports of the Malabar Coast became ever more closely woven into the network of Islamic trade spanning the Indian Ocean, and the wealth of the expatriate merchants and their associates increased.

As the legend of Cheraman Perumal already suggests, another significant factor in the introduction of Islam to Malabar was conversion. Aside from rare exceptions, these did not, however, occur in the ruling class but in the lower strata of society. Hinduism in this part of South India had developed a particularly rigid system of caste division, with social intercourse between castes severely restricted to avoid ritual pollution. Conversion to Islam was therefore a chance for low-caste Hindus to break free of such limitations, and also opened new opportunities for economic interaction with the prosperous Arab merchants. This group of new Muslims native to Malabar developed into a distinct community known as Mappilas (or Moplahs). These new converts preserved many of their traditional practices and integrated them into their new Islamic identity. Some Mappilas, for instance, continued the practice of matrilineality in which descent is understood to be of the mother's bloodline. The particular cultural heritage of this community is preserved in the Mappila songs, an indigenous form of devotional folklore in the Malayalam language.

From about the thirteenth century onwards, Kozhikode (anglicized "Calicut") emerged as the coast's dominant port. It was the center of a princely state ruled by hereditary sovereigns known as Zamorins. These were particularly renowned for their tolerance on the one hand—they for instance granted merchant communities independent jurisdiction over their members—and their scrupulousness in upholding property rights on the other, and they built a reputation for honesty that helped to turn Kozhikode into the region's principal port. Ibn Battuta explicitly states that, because of this reputation, Kozhikode had become "a flourishing and much frequented city" and one of the most important ports in the world. Foremost among its cosmopolitan assemblage of foreign merchants were the Muslim traders. These became over time not only the Zamorins' main source of tax revenue but also allies in their ambitions to subjugate other princely states, often through the provision of ships and sailors for naval warfare. Historians such as K. M. Panikkar are of the opinion that the Zamorins were on course towards subjecting and unifying Malabar under their rule, but that "this very process gave rise to jealousies and feuds" that were easily exploited by the Portuguese after their arrival on the coast.

Pliny, writing his Natural History in the first century, was puzzled by the demand for pepper that dictated its high price: "Its fruit or berry are neither acceptable to the tongue nor delectable to the eye: and yet for the biting pungency it has, we are pleased with it and must have it set forth from as far as India." By Pliny's time, pepper had long been part of European commerce and imagination about the East. Alexander the Great is believed to have brought pepper back from his expeditions. He introduced its Sanskrit name, pippali, from which the Greek piperi was derived and passed on to the Semitic languages (Hebrew pilpel and Arabic filfil) as well as to the European languages through the Latin piper.

Today pepper is still considered the "king of spices" and added to almost any kind of recipe. Pepper was already the most frequently used oriental spice in medieval Europe, and descriptions of lavish banquets often refer to the luxuriously large quantities of pepper used in their preparation. Aside from its culinary function of spicing up foods, pepper was also valued for its supposed medicinal properties, in particular as an antidote to poisoning and as a cure for impotency. Its high price relative to volume also made it a useful currency: The Roman emperors stored great amounts of it in their treasury. As information about the East increased in late antiquity, so did the knowledge about the plants and regions that produced this most sought-after commodity.

Peppercorns are the dried fruit of the wild climbing vine Piper nigrum, which is native to Kerala. The vine grows readily and widely in the rich soil and humid climate of southern India and reaches several meters in height by climbing trees or trellises. Medieval travellers to Malabar were amazed at how widely the pepper vine was cultivated, with even the smallest gardens including at least a few plants. Black, white and green pepper are all fruits of Piper nigrum. The peppercorns are usually picked unripe. If they are then brined or freeze-dried, they remain green and keep a fresh, vegetal flavor and a mild tang. If they are sun-dried, the flesh of the fruit blackens and shrivels to a thin coating and the spice develops a richer flavor as well as more heat. To produce white pepper, with heat but little flavor, the peppercorns are soaked in water and the flesh is then rubbed off the seeds. Rarely, peppercorns may be allowed to ripen to red before being picked. The name "pepper" has been profitably applied to many other plants—Malaguetta pepper, long pepper and all the New World capsicums (chili peppers)—but true pepper is only Piper nigrum, and the connoisseur's choice is Malabar pepper, preferably the deep-flavored grade the trade calls Tellicherry Extra Bold.

Pepper's high profits helped propel European colonialism, and this engraving depicts the port of Bombay (now Mumbai) in the mid-18th century, when much of Malabar's pepper exports passed through that entrept into the holds of ships of the British East India Company.

When Vasco da Gama's fleet reached Kozhikode in May 1498, he came "in search of Christians and spices." He was initially content to imagine having found the former: He believed the Hindus to be an aberrant Christian sect and even offered prayers at a Hindu temple, albeit somewhat puzzled by the

depiction of "Our Lady" with multiple arms. The desire for a monopoly of the pepper trade, however, was more difficult to quench: The Portuguese soon realized the prominence of Arab traders in the town and their control over the pepper trade. Laden with a profound antagonism toward Muslims born of the Reconquista, the Portuguese were not content to trade alongside other merchant communities. When the second fleet reached Malabar in 1500, its commander, Cabral, demanded that the Zamorin expel all Muslim merchants from the port. This stood in marked contrast to the long tradition of free trade that had been the source of Kozhikode's prosperity, and the ruler responded (in the words of the Portuguese chronicler) that he could not comply "for it was unthinkable that he expel 4000 households of them, who lived in Calicut as natives, not foreigners, and who had contributed great profits to his Kingdom."
Already during the second European expedition to India, confrontation became inevitable: While the Europeans were no match for the economic strength of Muslim merchants, their ship-mounted artillery and military expertise proved to be the force majeure. The Portuguese seized and destroyed Muslim merchant vessels, regularly bombarded Kozhikode and other ports, and exploited rivalries among the coast's princely states to establish fortified factories.

They used their advantage in maritime violence to enforce a royal monopoly on the spice trade and to sell permits to other ships that wished to trade on the coast, and the Portuguese "pepper empire" was born.

The initial returns on the expeditions were staggering, and Lisbon soon replaced Venice as the main importer of pepper to Europe. But the Portuguese violence in India also galvanized resistance. The Zamorins together with the Muslim merchants repeatedly assembled fleets, but despite some small victories they could not break the Portuguese domination of the sea. The ruler of Kochi (formerly Cochin) to the south of Kozhikode, who had long been a resentful subject of the Zamorins, allowed the Portuguese to build a factory as their base on the Malabar Coast. A long period of warfare at sea and on land ensued, and repeated attempts were made to incite other Islamic states to assist the Mappilas' struggle. Egyptian merchants were able to rouse the Mamluk sultan to send a fleet, but after inconclusive engagements his ships retreated. As Portugal's power in the Indian Ocean expanded over the following decades, Malabar developed into a major test case of their imperial ambitions. Foreign Muslims were able to move to safer ports and conduct their business from there. That they did so successfully is evident by the great quantities of pepper that again became available in the markets of Alexandria and Venice by the mid-16th century, often undercutting the prices at which the Portuguese could sell it at Lisbon. The local Mappila Muslims, on the other hand, had no choice but to stay and to resist or evade the Portuguese monopoly system.

Excluded from the opportunities of regular commerce, the Mappila communities became increasingly militarized. While some resorted to smuggling and indiscriminate piracy, others turned to forms of guerrilla warfare to harass Portuguese shipping. The Portuguese, claiming ownership of all of the sea, soon described all Mappilas as pirates and treated them as such. The Mappilas used small ports in northern Malabar as bases, and by the mid-16th century a Muslim called Kunjali Marakkar was granted the hereditary admiralty of the Zamorin's fleet. He and his successors inflicted several defeats on Portuguese armadas, but when, toward the end of the century, Kunjali iv asserted his independence of the Zamorin, the ruler allied with the Portuguese and together they eventually defeated the Mappila strongholds.

Around the same time, the Muslim historian Zain al-Din, whose family had come to Malabar from Yemen in the 15th century, wrote his famous Tuhfat al-Mujahidin (Gift to the Holy Warriors) describing the cruelty of the "Franks" in an attempt to persuade the Muslim states of northern India to assist the Mappilas in their struggle. The historian Stephen Dale argues that the Mappila Muslims developed a particular idiom of holy warfare that, instead of reflecting the conquest of new territories by Muslim powers, expressed a religious struggle born of individual desperation. This found expression in popular festivals (the nerccas), at which folk ballads celebrating the Mappila victims of the anti-colonial struggle are recited.

The profits of the pepper trade eventually motivated other European powers to join the fray, and in time the Portuguese were eclipsed first by the Dutch and later by the British. Throughout the centuries, economic and political circumstances continued to conspire against the Mappilas and led to recurrent riots and attacks. However, the Mappilas also preserved their link to the sea, mostly as fishermen in Kerala's rich waters, and strengthened their involvement in riverine trade and agriculture. Today, Muslims constitute about a quarter of Kerala's population and remain concentrated in the north of the state on the historic Malabar Coast; in contrast to other regions of India, Kerala experiences very little of the problems of sectarianism. In recent years, many Mappilas have found work in the Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and so continue the long-standing ties that bind the regions and societies. While historically pepper may have been as much of a blight as a blessing for the Malabar Coast, there can be no doubt that, because of it, the region served as a nexus where the dynamics of world history were played out —a point for reflection on the next turn of the pepper mill.

High roofs and slatted clerestories helped traditional Mappila mosques, such as this one photographed in 1936 in Ponnani, maintain comfort for worshipers in the hot coastal climate.


The Nakhuda Mithqal Mosque (or Mithqalpalli) in Kozhikode is named for a 14th-century Arab merchant and dates to 1578, when it was rebuilt following destruction of the original by the Portuguese.


Malabar Mosques

Kerala is known as "the land of temples" for its multitude of Hindu places of worship, but its little-known mosques are no less fascinating in their style and history. The Malabar Coast is believed to have been the site of the first mosques on the Indian subcontinent, but because of the destruction brought by Portuguese bombardments and subsequent invasions, there are no mosques that date before the 12th century. The earliest extant mosques are located in the old Muslim quarters of Kozhikode and Kochi and bear inscriptions noting donations from Arab merchants and shipmasters. These traditional mosques (palli in the local language, Malayalam) are remarkably different from the styles of Islamic architecture found in Arabia or elsewhere in India: For example, they do not feature domes or minarets. Rather, they show clear similarities to the design of vernacular houses and local Hindu temples. This is partly a result of the region's particular conditions (for instance, the steeply sloped roofs to cope with the large amounts of rainfall) and the available materials and skills. Yet the similarities were not only dictated by necessity but may also reflect the desire to find a place in the prevailing ritual landscape: New converts to Islam would have already had clear ideas about what constitutes a sacred space from the region's existing temples.

The archetypal Malabar mosque is a covered structure on a rectangular ground plan, often with verandas running around the prayer hall. Especially characteristic is the intriguing tiered roof structure, sometimes covered with copper sheets, with the upper stories often used as a madrasa and as offices for the imam. Mehrdad Shokoohy, a historian and architect, has recently studied the mosques of Malabar and describes in detail the amalgamation of local designs with specific features from the Arabian lands and Southeast Asia. In this view, Malabar's mosques are a fitting manifestation of the remarkable extent of the medieval Muslim trading world and its spirit of cross-cultural stimulation and exchange

Left: A mosque in an unrecorded location, circa 1939. Right: A mosque near Chirakkal, circa 1855.


By Sebastian R. Prange
Acknowledgement: This article appeared on pages 10-17 of the January/February 2008 print edition of Saudi Aramco World. Refer the book Kodungallur Cradle of Christianity in India, by Prof. George Menachery (1987) at www.indianchristianity.com.on BOOKS page. Also article "Roads to India" by Maggy G. Menachery, in the St. Tomas Christian Encyclopaedia of india, 1973, Ed. Prof. George Menachery.

Rome-India Sea Route rivaled Silk Road

Spices, gems and other exotic cargo excavated from an ancient port on Egypt's Red Sea show that the sea trade 2,000 years ago between the Roman Empire and India was more extensive than previously thought and even rivaled the legendary Silk Road, archaeologists say.
"We talk today about globalism as if it were the latest thing, but trade was going on in antiquity at a scale and scope that is truly impressive," said the co-director of the dig, Willeke Wendrich of the University of California at Los Angeles.
Wendrich and Steven Sidebotham of the University of Delaware report their findings in the July issue of the journal Sahara. Historians have long known that Egypt and India traded by land and sea during the Roman era, in part because of texts detailing the commercial exchange of luxury goods, including fabrics, spices and wine.
Now, archaeologists who have spent the last nine years excavating the town of Berenike say they have recovered artifacts that are the best physical evidence yet of the extent of sea trade between the Roman Empire and India.
They say the evidence indicates that trade between the Roman Empire and India was as extensive as that of the Silk Road, the trade route that stretched from Venice to Japan. Silk, spices, perfume, glass and other goods moved along the Silk Road between about 100 B.C. and the 15th century.
"The Silk Road gets a lot of attention as a trade route, but we've found a wealth of evidence indicating that sea trade between Egypt and India was also important for transporting exotic cargo, and it may have even served as a link with the Far East," Sidebotham said.

Among their finds at the site near Egypt's border with Sudan included more than 16 pounds (7 kilograms0 of black peppercorns, the largest stash of the prized Indian spice ever recovered from a Roman archaeological site. Bernike lies at what was the southeastern extreme of the Roman Empire and probably functioned as a transfer port for goods shipped through the Red Sea. Trade activity at the port peaked twice, in the first century and again around 500, before it ceased altogether, possibly after a plague.
Ships would sail between Berenike and India during the summer, when monsoon winds were strongest, Wendrich said. From Berenike, camel caravans probably carried the goods 240 miles (386 kilometers) west to the Nile, where they were shipped by boat to the Mediterranean port of Alexandria, she said. From there, they could have moved by ship through the rest of the Roman world.

www.mikalina.com/images/silk_road.jpg (Los Angeles AP Also cf. Kodungallur by Prof. George Menachery, 1987 & Roads to India, Maggy Menachery, St. Thomas Christian Encyclopaedia of India, ed G Menachery, 1973. www.indianchristianity.com BOOKS page.

Refer the book Kodungallur Cradle of Christianity in India, by Prof. George Menachery (1987) at www.indianchristianity.com.on BOOKS page. Also article "Roads to India" by Maggy G. Menachery, in the St. Tomas Christian Encyclopaedia of india, 1973, Ed. Prof. George Menachery.


As Vasco da Gama forced his way up the East African coast, he sought a pilot who could guide his ships to India. But da Gama was not the most patient or forgiving of Portuguese explorers and his quick, violent temper made the task more difficult; a minor incident in Mozambique prompted da Gama to bombard the city. It would only be at Kilwa that a suitable pilot could be found. Ibn Majid, the most distinguished Asian navigator of his time, was retained by the Portuguese captain. Under Majid's expert guidance, the Portuguese ships quickly made their way to western India. "On Friday, 18th May," wrote da Gama in his Journal, "after having seen no land for twenty-three days, we sighted lofty mountains, and having all this time sailed before the wind we could not have made less than 600 leagues. The land, when first sighted, was at a distance of eight leagues, and our lead reached bottom at forty-five fathoms." After finally landing in Calicut, da Gama's journal records that the Portuguese sailor was greeted with the words "May the devil take thee! What brought you hither?" When asked what he sought so far away from home, da Gama replied that he came in search of Christians and of spices.

This was not, however, the Orient that the European captain thought he would encounter. Instead of finding a single opulent realm, da Gama found innumerable states with a vast and complex commercial network. Perhaps more surprising was that in the Indian Ocean ports that it had taken the Portuguese nearly a century to find by sea, da Gama found merchants who for centuries had been trading European metals and gold bullion for Indian and imported spices through the Venetians. In addition to European goods, da Gama also saw items from North Africa and Malaya, and gold and ivory from East Africa. The distances involved astounded da Gama.

As an example of how vast these trading routes were, we have only to look at the trade in the Indian Ocean, where the prevailing monsoons determined the course of trade. Between November and April, the monsoons blow from the north-east and from May to October, the monsoons blow from the south-west. In southern Malay, where the north-east winds of the Indian Ocean meet the south-west winds of the China seas, Malacca emerged as the "richest place in the world". In Malacca, the Portuguese found the business of the city was conducted by all manner of merchants and seamen. Merchants gathered from the furthest reaches of the known world, Tunis and China, bringing with them Chinese silks, Indian textiles, East Indian spices, and European goods that arrived via Cairo and Aden. The merchants were Christians, many more were Hindu, but all managed to co-exist peacefully in this environment, and the Portuguese soon discovered that most seamen and traders in the Indian Ocean and beyond were Muslims, a forbidding development for da Gama who when asked what had brought him across such a great distance replied "Christians and spices".

In India, da Gama encountered the same difficulties he had when his ships were in Indian Ocean ports. Without suitable goods to trade, Portuguese attempts to enter the lucrative commerce of the region were unsuccessful. Furthermore, Portuguese arrogance and disregard for local custom soon eroded the initial goodwill displayed by the Hindu raja. In certain instances, the Portuguese improperly worshiped at Hindu shrines, and da Gama kidnapped some of the local inhabitants to serve as interpreters for subsequent voyages, all of which served to antagonise the local population. Perhaps more importantly, local merchants, who learned of Portuguese behaviour in Africa and who were seeing it displayed in their own country, had no desire to see their livelihood destroyed and refused to trade with the Europeans.

Approximately half the fleet with which da Gama departed Lisbon two years before survived to make the return voyage home. As a feat of nautical endurance and skill, da Gama's voyage was a superb testament to the raw maritime skills of the Portuguese - nearly 300 days were spent at sea. But it must be remembered that the sea route to India was found only with the expert guidance of Ibn Majid who knew how to properly use the wind system of the Indian Ocean.

Da Gama was amply rewarded for his services despite the fact that he did not return with the desired alliances, nor was he able to secure any commercial concessions. Still, while in Calicut, the Portuguese captain took into his service a Tunisian Muslim and a Spanish Jew from whom he learned some of the intricacies of the Asian economy and how it might be manipulated to serve Portuguese interests. Armed with this important information, King Manuel I was determined to establish a monopoly on the spice trade of the Indian Ocean by "cruel war with fire and sword".


After Vasco da Gama reached India in 1498, the Portuguese Crown moved to secure the safety of the sea route and sent da Gama to accomplish this task. During his voyage, da Gama encountered stiff Muslim opposition to Portuguese attempts to enter the trade of the Indian Ocean, and consequently the Portuguese captain believed he would have to force his way into the market. Fortunately for the Portuguese, the empires of Egypt, Persia and Vijayanagar did not arm their vessels, if they had ships at all. Malay vessels, primarily known as lanchara, were small, single square-rigged vessels steered by two oars mounted in the stern. By and large, most Muslim merchants had large ocean-faring ships, complemented by smaller coastal ships, but even these were not outfitted to carry artillery and no iron was used in their hull construction. Consequently, the merchants' vessels were much more susceptible to damage than were the Portuguese ships and this meant that the Portuguese were able to gain control of the Indian Ocean with relative ease.

Prior to the emergence of the Portuguese, control of maritime trade in the Indian Ocean was established peacefully. Over the centuries, a mutually beneficial relationship developed between Muslim traders and Hindu merchants and the Portuguese could offer little in the way of goods or services to supplant the established network. Moreover, the Portuguese believed that Venetian merchants were monopolising trade of European goods and preventing them from gaining access to the lucrative markets in the Indian Ocean. The Portuguese quickly surmised that they could only change the status quo by resorting to brute force.

Refer the book Kodungallur Cradle of Christianity in India, by Prof. George Menachery (1987) at www.indianchristianity.com.on BOOKS page. Also article "Roads to India" by Maggy G. Menachery, in the St. Tomas Christian Encyclopaedia of india, 1973, Ed. Prof. George Menachery. Also the 15 books and 22 extracts from books in The Indian Church History Classics, Vol. I: The Nazranies, 1998 ed.Prof. George Menachery.

The Red Sea Trade Route
250 BC - 250 AD

During the period between 250 BC and 250 AD, a maritime sea route existed between Alexandra in Northern Africa and China. As trade took place along this route, a number of kingdoms rose to power, flush with finances from trade. These kingdoms all came into being around the same time, and all waned around the same time.
Trade on the Red Sea was in the hands of merchants based out of Alexandria. Nabataeans moved trade from Southern Arabia to their port of Leuce Come by boat, and then overland to Alexandria. "Arab" merchants also brought Indian and Asian goods to the ports on the Egyptian side of the Red Sea. For a time it may have been Indian ships that brought the good to Southern Arabia, as Diodorus tells us of the 'prosperous islands near Eudaemon Arabia which were visited by sailors from every port of the world, and especially from Potana, the city which Alexander the Great founded on the Indus river.' (Diodorus. 3.47.9.)

Another description of this situation is found in a text known as 'The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea' by an unknown author. Many have assumed he was a Greek living in Alexandria, but he may have just as well have been an Arab merchant with a Greek name living in Alexandria. In it we read that 'Eudaemon Arabia (Aden) was once a fully-fledged city, when vessels from India did not go to Egypt and those of Egypt did not dare sail to places further on, but came only this far.' (L. Casson, ed. The Periplus Maris Erythraei (Princeton 1989) 26., lines 26-32) Any attempts by Alexandrian ships to sail beyond Aden were strongly discouraged; if they did sail, it was by laboriously hugging the coasts and in the words of Periplus, 'sailing round the bays'.

This was the situation until Roman financiers entered the Alexandrian money market towards the middle of the 2nd century BC. The ensuing rise of demand for oriental and southern goods in the Mediterranean markets whetted the appetite of Arab merchants based in Alexandria to increase their share in the north-south trade. They realized that they needed to sail directly across the Indian Ocean to the rich Indian market and bring good back to Egypt, without the involvement of Indian merchants. Ptolemy VIII, friend of Rome, as was his wife after him, demonstrated personal interest and involvement in the project which indicated the great hopes all parties in Alexandria attached to the success of the venture. While it is not known who made the first direct voyage to India, very soon a new important office was created for the first time in the Egyptian administration. It was know as the 'commander of the Red and Indian Seas,' and came into being under Ptolemy XII, nicknamed Auletes (80-51 BC). (Sammelbuch, 8036, Coptos (variously dated 110/109 BC or 74/3 BC; and no. 2264 (78 BC); Inscriptions Philae, 52 (62 BC) The creation of such an office implies that the perhaps at this time there was a marked increase in the regular commercial transactions with India.

It is also perhaps not entirely irrelevant that in 55 BC, the Senate decided to send Gabinius at the head of a Roman army to restore Auletes (Ptolemy XII) to his throne and to remain in Alexandria for the protection of the king against possible future revolts. (Caesar, BC. 3. 110). We can easily detect behind this drastic step, considerable Roman assets at risk in the case of sudden undesirable internal changes in Alexandria.

This should warn us against accepting at face value Strabo's often quoted remark that it was only under 'the diligent Roman administration that Egypt's commerce with India and Troglodyte was increased to so great an extent. In earlier times, not so many as twenty vessels would have dared to traverse the Red Sea far enough to get a peep outside the straits (Bab-el-Mandab), but at the present time, even large fleets are dispatched as far as India and the extremities of Aethiopia, from which the most valuable cargoes are brought to Egypt and thence sent forth again to other regions.' (Strabo, 17.1.13.) This is clearly an overstatement, intended as a compliment to the new Roman administration, considering that Aelius Gallus, the prefect of Egypt, was Strabo's personal friend at whose house he stayed as a guest for five years (25-20 BC). Strabo's statement stands in sharp contrast to the earlier data of the above mentioned inscriptions and to the more matter-of-fact statement of the later author of the Periplus (c. 40 AD), who rightly perceived that the great change in the modes of navigation and the vast expansion of trade were the direct result of the discovery of the Monsoon winds, at least half a century before Augustus conquered Egypt. Strabo himself witnessed the flourishing state of Alexandria only five years after the Roman conquest, and very shrewdly observed the active trade that went through its several harbors. He says, 'Among the happy advantages of the city, the greatest is the fact that this is the only place in all Egypt which is by nature well situated with reference to both things, both to commerce by sea, on account of the good harbors, and to commerce by land, because the river easily conveys and brings together everything into a place so situated, the greatest emporium in the inhabited world.'

 Soon after the annexation of Egypt, Emperor Augustus (Rome 63 BC - Nole 14 AD) in 26 BC commissioned his prefect in Egypt, Aelius Gallus, to invade southern Arabia by land. (Strabo, 16.4.23-4.) This land onslaught caused considerable damage to the Sabaeans as far as Marib, and allowed the Himyarites, close friends of the Nabataeans to soon take control of most of Southern Arabia. Some writers have thought that around AD 1 Augustus launched another devastating attack - this time by sea - which resulted, in the words of Periplus,'in sacking Eudaemon Arabia' which declined into, 'a mere village after having been a fully fledged city (polis)'. (Periplus, 26; Pliny, H.N. 6.32, 160 & 12.30,55; Also cf. H. MacAdam, 'Strabo, Pliny and Ptolemy of Alexandria', in: Arabie Pre-Islamique (Strasbourg 1989) 289-320.) Now that Eudaemon Arabia (Aden) was out of action, merchants from Alexandria experienced unrivalled dominance of the sea route to India.

Pattanam dated to 1st millennium BCE

The radiocarbon analysis at the Institute of Physics, Bhubaneswar, has put the antiquity of Pattanam (Kerala, India) to the first millennium BCE. What is more, the studies suggest that the canoe found in a water-logged trench at Pattanam canoe could be the earliest known canoe in India.
The five samples that were analysed include charcoal samples and parts of the wooden canoe and bollards recovered from trenches. The mean calendar dates of these five samples place the antiquity of ancient maritime activity of Pattanam at about 500 BCE. The artefacts have revealed that the site had links with the Mediterranean, Red Sea, Arabian Sea and South China Sea rims since the Early Historic Period of South India.

"Pattanam is the first habitation site of the Iron Age ever unearthed in Kerala. Since previous enquiries were confined to megalithic burials, no firm dates were available for the Iron Age, except a few like Mangadu (circa 1000 BCE) and unnoni," said P.J. Cherian, project director of Pattanam excavations. The radiocarbon dates from Pattanam is therefore expected to help in understanding the Iron Age chronology of Kerala.
"The indigenous people seems to have settled on the site during the Iron Age when this area was covered by beach sand. The occupation has been sparse and the sand deposit has mostly black-and-red ware and other typical `megalithic' pottery," added P.J. Cherian.
The Archaeological Survey of India has granted licence to Project Director P.J. Cherian for a second consecutive season and the work is scheduled to begin in February 2008. Besides the excavation activities at Pattanam, the licences are for archaeological exploration within 50 km around Kodungallur and underwater explorations in the water-bodies within 20 km radius.


Gondaphares Coins Discovered in NW India

ROYAUME INDO-PARTHE, Gondophars (30-55), AE trichalque de poids rduit, Droit : Nik debout gauche, couronnant le roi cheval gauche. Revers : Symbole du roi Gondophars. Ref.: Mitch., Indo-Greek, 1115; Mitch., ACW, 2576. 6,00g. Rare. Sur flan large. Beau Trs Beau F -...

Lots antiker Mnzen LOT ANTIKER MNZEN Lots antiker Mnzen Lot (17 Stk.) Restsammlung XI: Orientalische und indische antiken AR- und AE-Mnzen, u.a. AR-Drachme der Parther, der Sasaniden, der Indo-Skythen und der westlichen Satrapen, weiters AE-Mnzen der Elymaier, der Kushan, des...

Indo-Scythian, Azilises (c.60-45/35 BC), AR Tetradrachm, 9.56g, king on horseback riding right, wearing cataphractus and carrying a whip and lowered spear, rev. City goddess standing left holding brazier in extended hand left, and garlanded palm leaf over shoulder, various symbols around...

x Indo-Parthian, Gondophares (late 1st century BC), billon Tetradrachm, king riding right holding whip aloft, rev. standing figure (Siva) facing holding trident (Senior 217.33), good very fine; Abdagases (c.5 B.C. - A.D.19), billon Tetradrachm, king riding left, rev. Zeus standing right holding...
Lot of 40 Indo-Scythian bronze tetradrachms. Posthumous issues in name of Azes. Aspavarma (ca. AD 19–45/6?), king on horseback right / Pallas right (19, as Senior 183). Gondophares-Sases (ca. AD 10–40?), king on horseback right / Zeus right (18, as Senior 242.601–620 and 242.622–647);...

Indo-Parthian, Gondophares I (late 1st century B.C.), Gandhara, AR Tetradrachm, 9.37g., king on horseback riding left, wearing Parthian dress and holding whip aloft, Nike flies behind bearing wreath, Gondopharan Tamgha before horse, small letter between hind legs, baciewc baciewn meaoy...

Indo-Parthian, Gondophares I (late 1st century B.C.), Gandhara, AR Tetradrachm, 9.37g., king on horseback riding left, wearing Parthian dress and holding whip aloft, Nike flies behind bearing wreath, Gondopharan Tamgha before horse, small letter between hind legs, baciewc baciewn meaoy...

Indo-Parthian, Gondophares I (late 1st century B.C.), Gandhara, AR Tetradrachm, 8.96g., king on horseback riding left, wearing Parthian dress and holding whip aloft, Nike flies behind bearing wreath, Gondopharan Tamgha before horse, small letter between hind legs, baciewc baciewn meaoy...

Indo-Parthian, Gondophares I, Arachosia & Kabul, AE Tetradrachms (2), bearded and diademed bust of king right, corrupt Greek legend around, rev. winged Nike standing right holding palm and wreath, Kharoshti script around; Abdagases, AE Tetradrachm, similar to above but with cruder designs...

Lot of seven eastern AR drachms and AE tetradrachms. Includes: Macedonian Kingdom. Alexander III. Drachm // Baktrian Kingdom. Antimachos. Drachm // Menander I. Drachm // Antialkidas. Drachm // India. Gondophares. Tetradrachm (3). Average Fair to VF. Estimate: 100-200...

ROYAUME INDO-PARTHE, Gondophars (30-55), AE trichalque de poids rduit, Droit : Le roi cheval gauche. Revers : Symbole du roi Gondophars. Ref.: Mitch., Indo-Greek, 1115; Mitch., ACW, 2576. 6,81g. Rare. Beau/Beau Trs Beau F/F - VF Estimate: EUR...

Indo-Parthian, Abdagases (c. A.D. 55-65), Base AR Tetradrachm, mounted figure right, before Gondopharan tamgha, baIevonto baien abaacoy, rev. Kharosthi legend around Zeus standing right holding long sceptre, control mark left and Kharosti letters sam pra right (Mitch.1121c;...

ANCIENT. INDO-PARTHIAN. Seistan. Gondophares-Sases. Early-mid 1st century AD. AR Drachm (3.24 gm, 1h gm). Estimate $300 ANCIENT. INDO-PARTHIAN. Seistan. Gondophares-Sases. Early-mid 1st century AD. AR Drachm (3.24 gm, 1h gm). Diademed bust left wearing Parthian-style tiara / BACILEYC...

Indo-Scythian, Indo-Greek & Kushan, silver (9) and copper (13), including Philoxenos, Drachm; Maues, Hemi-Obol, and Indo-Parthian coin of Orthagnes citing Gondophares (MAC.1949, 2196, 2556), and unidentified Greek silver unit, fair to fine (22) Estimate 60-80...

INDO-PARTHIAN. Seistan. Gondophares. Circa mid-late 1st century BC. AR Drachm (3.34 gm). Estimate $200 INDO-PARTHIAN. Seistan. Gondophares. Circa mid-late 1st century BC. AR Drachm (3.34 gm). Diademed bust right / Gondophares seated right on low throne, holding flower or cup; behind,...

INDO-PARTHIAN KINGS. Kings of Seistan. Gondophares-Sases. Early-mid 1st century AD. AR Drachm (3.12 gm). Estimate $300 INDO-PARTHIAN KINGS. Kings of Seistan. Gondophares-Sases. Early-mid 1st century AD. AR Drachm (3.12 gm). Diademed bust right wearing Parthian-style tiara / BACILEYC...

GRIECHEN INDO-SKYTHEN INDO-PARTHER Objekt-Nr.: 1557 Gondophares, 20 - 55 n. Chr. AE (5,83 g.), Arachosien. Vs.: Bste mit Diadem n. r. Rs.: Nike mit Kranz n. r. Mitchiner, ACW 2526f. Rotbraune Patina, ss Estimation: €...



First Century BC-3rd C. A.D.Harbour Settlement Discovered in Kerala India at Pattanam (Muziris?)

Archaeologists in Kerala have discovered a 2000-year-old port settlement probably dating back to the first BC to third AD, in Pattanam about 50 km from the modern day port city of Kochi.[For details on Muziris in Ancient Roman/Greek Literature cf. http://www.indianchristianity.com    (> Books   >   Kodungallur...)]

The Kerala Council for Historical Research (KCHR) in its findings suggests that this could be the lost town of Muzires (Muziris) mentioned in early Roman manuscripts when ancient Rome had trade links with South India.

''Periplus mentions that the Roman ship came only up to the coast and they could not directly come up to Muzires. Then smaller boats brought goods from the ships to the site,'' said K Selvakumar, archaeologist. (For Psudosthomos or False Mouth : See Kodungallur... book by Prof. G. Menachery, 1987, reprint 2000.)

''This is a Roman amphora piece, the bottom bit amphora was the jar that was meant for transporting wine, olive oil, fish sauce etc. We have found 160 pieces of amphora here,'' said P J Cherian, Director, KCHR.

Research on the site spreading across nearly 24 hectares has just begun and it might take another 10-15 years for the full extent of the settlement to be revealed. But there's evidence that the port settlement was highly developed.

''At the higher level, you find a township, a kind of urban culture evolving brick structures and a pottery that is not local,'' Cherian added.

A two thousand year old sea port, its culture and its people all shrouded in a mystery waiting to be unveiled by the slow and painstaking efforts of the archaeologists. (
Vide  story below:
The MUZIRIS Heritage)
(for details cf. NDTV site)

The MUZIRIS Heritage


Excavations have again been planned at PATTANAM and environs in the search for the treasures of Muzirss – primum emporium Indiae of the first centuries BCE/ACE. Read more about Muziris and Kodungallur / Cranganore on the Books page

The ancient navigation route from Rome to the Malabar coast in India in Apostolic times.

In the first and second centuries, the most important Indian port was perhaps Muziris, on the Malabar Coast. Muziris was mentioned in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, in Ptolemy's Geography, and is prominent on the Peutinger Table. It is also celebrated in the Tamil-language Sangam poetry.
A section of the map of India drawn after Ptolomy's Geographia. Muziris empo-rium is clearly more important than neighboring towns. As it was an "emporium," Roman merchants lived there perhaps for some time.

The Sangam poems though they never describe large buildings at Muziris, has glorious accounts of its role as a port. Neither Muziris nor Westerners are mentioned after the first centuries.
section of the Peutinger Table, perhaps a fifth century copy of an earlier map. Map of South India. It appears that raw materials for stone and glass beadmakers beads passed through the Palghat Gap and down river to Muziris for export to the Roman West


The case of the mysterious Muziris is an example of what we can learn when we incorporate bead evidence into our understanding of trading networks. Many other things can be learned as well.