The Saga of Muziris is a fascinating tale of the glory and decline of a major port, a hub of maritime trade in Kerala, in South India, which had mysteriously disappeared from the face of earth during the fourteenth century. Historians, archaeologists and academics, from the world over, had been looking for the lost Muziris, ever since.
Some interesting leads, at the excavations at Pattanam, prompts Aravindan, the narrator, to pay a visit to his homeland. What follows is a magical journey, enticing Aravindan to sail into the dark annals of history.
In an effort to document his findings, Aravindan unravels the evolution of the area over several thousands of years-through political turmoils, social struggles, emigrations and more- unfolding an alluring history through powerfully and indelibly etched characters.
The result is a gripping mix of history, myth, legend, fiction and magic reality. It takes the reader on a journey through antiquity, moving back and forth to reflect on the socio-economic ferment of varying periods, also, interestingly, establishing an organic link to the most recent times.
A. Sethumadhavan (Sethu), born in a small village in Kerala, has been writing stories and novels in Malayalam for the past five decades. He belongs to a highly innovative generation of fiction writers in Malayalam, who pioneered a radical transformation of sensibility during that period. Widely travelled abroad and having worked in different parts of India, many of his writings have a global flavour and a pan-Indian canvas. A winner of the Sahitya Akademi and other major awards in Malayalam, he has 18 novels and 20 collection of stories to his credit. Many of his works have been translated into English and other Indian languages. He is known for his magical rendition, weaving in 'a sense of the impossible' in a haunting manner, remarkable for the way it attracts a subtext of profound psychological, anthropological and, at times, mystical significance. A banker by profession, Sethu was also the Chairman of the National Book Trust, Delhi, for three years. The Saga of Muziris is the translation of Sethu's well- known novel, Marupiravi (Rebirth).
Prema Jayakumar, born in Kerala, studied in Kochi and Bangalore. A columnist and a translator, she enjoys being the link between two important languages, Malayalam and English. She has translated a number-of important novels, published by some of the most eminent publishing houses and also the Sahitya Akademi. She loves telling stories and finds the myths and folklores of Kerala an infinite source of interest. She has retold the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and other stories from the Puranas for overseas publishers. She also has to her name a work of historical investigation in Malayalam.
The trail of Muziris, an ancient port that had mysteriously disappeared from the face of earth centuries back, had remained elusive for generations together, and for one born in the nearby area, any shred of evidence throwing light on it was exciting. Muziris or Muchiripatinam was a major international trade emporium on the western coast with strong trade links with Alexandria on the Mediterranean.
As the West had to depend heavily on the imported spices of the East, particularly pepper, the Greek sailors engaged by Roman emperors were perpetually on the trail of the precious 'black gold', grown in a mysterious far-away land.
After the historic discovery of the Hippalus Wind, a spice route was established between Bemike, a port in the Red Sea to our coast and according to the records of the travellers, around 120 ships used to land on the Indian coast during that period for transportation of spices.
This was the golden era of Muziris and the classic Sangam literature in Tamil carries useful references to this glorious period. It appears the glory of Muziris ended with the decline of Roman Empire and the destruction of the port was complete during the deluge of the fourteenth century when river Periyar submerged the entire area.
Although there were exciting stories aplenty during my school days about big ships landing in Kodungallur and nearby areas, close to my village there was little evidence to validate these claims. These stories remained as folklores in our youthful minds. Indication of communal amity, however, was more easily evident.
My village Chendamangalam has been a rare example of communal harmony for generations. The historic Kottayil Kovilakam hillock is known for its Vishnu temple on the top, with a Jewish synagogue, Muslim mosque, and Christian church down below, all located within the radius of one kilometre, donated by the then Maharajah.
Incidentally, our village was one of the earliest settlements of Jews on our western coast and we had many Jewish friends in our class. Later, when the state of Israel was formed in 1948 and these friends departed to the 'Promised Land', it was an emotional moment for us. Their departure remained an enigma in my mind, and I was left to wonder how these people had landed in our corner of earth and chose to return to an unknown land centuries later. It took me decades to pursue the matter in all seriousness as a writer. It was then that I could connect the mysterious Muziris with the Jewish migration and some of the finds at Pattanam excavations initiated by the Kerala Council for Historical Research with the support of the Tamil University of Thanjavur provided the much needed trigger for my pursuit. Thus started the arduous process of data collection, including protracted interviews with historians and researchers and wading through books and papers.
Apart from tracking the history of Muziris, I wanted to cover the subsequent period also, to document the evolution of the area, including that of my village. Although the task was onerous, consuming a few years of my writing life, I found it quite exciting and rewarding.
Not being a historian or even a student of history, I had decided that this would not be a historical novel. It would rather be a mix of history, fiction, myths, and legends. Since authentic historic evidences were not available on the life and times of people during the Muziris period, other than the florid poetic narratives in the Sangam literature and the writings of travellers, I had to take some liberty with the text by fictionalising history with the available leads.
Thus was born Marupiravi (Re-birth) in Malayalam which has now been translated as The Saga if Muziris.
Flowing waters have their own truths and untruths. Rivers are destined to change their flow during the floods of time. In the great flow of waters, new shores are formed. Old ones vanish. Old river mouths close. New ones open. That is the rhythm of nature. The tribute that man has to pay. The equations created by time.
When maps are dampened by water, new shores break out of the ties of latitudes and longitudes. New pieces of land, new contours and new settlements are born.
That was what happened in the great flood of 1341. River Choorni, otherwise known as Periyar, flowed unchecked during the endless monsoon rains and split into tributaries. She changed her course. She must have roared with laughter when she broke out of the grip of the sandy shores that had held her for eons and found new paths.
This is how I settle my scores. This is how you pay for your sins.
Water should not be held by 'commands, guidelines and shores. Sandy shores are meant to melt ...
Huge trees were uprooted in the laughter that frothed her. Bushes and grasslands moved away. Water that flowed down, covering everything, spread everywhere. There was only water to be seen, just water. A great flood that covered generations. And the water stayed on for many days. Finally, when the water left the shores, which had accepted defeat in the battle, the profligate Choorni, displayed her new shores. And her new tributaries.
When the old sandbars gave away, new ones came up. They became isthmuses, endless expanses of sand. A whole settlement was crushed beneath the new layer of sand. A city that had lived extravagantly, forgetful of time's speed, vanished. When the wealth brought by the sea was taken away by the river, there was no one left to mourn. The grains of sand did not give anyone time to even groan as they covered everything.
A whole landscape had vanished.
Muziris, which had been the largest port in the western shore of India, found its river-mouth blocked by sand, its face covered. The inlet was completely covered by mud. Cranganore, otherwise known as Mahodayapuram, froze in time. A little further to the west, a new port opened up. That small port of Kochazhi later became Kochi, the port of Kochi.
When the wind blew towards Kochi, the sailing boats turned there. New waterways opened. As the warehouses of Mahodayapuram became quiet, the merchants of Muziris moved towards Kochi. Soon, new warehouses opened in Mattancherry. The ruling elite, the descendants of the Perumals, also shifted to Kochi. The fall of Muziris was complete.
And then one day the land that had been buried under the sand woke from its slumber and tried to count the breaths of rebirth. Folded fingers counted in some language, but without losing track of the count-One, two, three ...
She would not have known that centuries had passed on the surface and that new settlements had formed. She had been lying quietly, waiting for the fresh green sprouts, for the tangled veins of life, for the blood that flowed through them, carrying the warmth and smell of the new times.
Murchiri, otherwise known as Muziris was taking birth again. Two or three centuries must have passed. The man with the grey beard, who alighted from a ship at noon one day at Kochazhi, must have been the descendant of some Greek sailor of old. The streets of Kochi did not recognise the lonely historian, who had perhaps crossed the seas in search of the dulled memories of his ancestors. The locals and the Portuguese soldiers crowded around him, unable to recognise his complexion or the language he spoke.
The people who crowded round him did not understand that he had come in search of the land called Muziris. When his gestures shaped ships in the air, seeking the place called Muziris, where ships used to land, the Portuguese became suspicious. Could he have been sent by the Dutch? Was he trying to signal that Dutch ships were following him? The Portuguese did not have the capacity to face the Dutch, who were good at sea-battles. Even as they supported the ruler of Kochi and the Zamorin in turn, they had to take care of their own land.
The historian, who wandered one whole day and one whole night through the streets of Kochi, was not able to find out where Muziris was. Muziris could not find him either. As time passed, generations had forgotten Muziris. As he lay on the cold sand of the winter month, gazing at the night sky, he was unable to read the message conveyed by the eyes of the Orion. The stars who had guided generations of sailors were trying very hard to tell him something too.
Finally, when the rheumy eyes of an old man, who lay taking in the sun on the veranda of the synagogue, glinted--a man whose mind retained the remnants of the Greek tongue-that became a signal to him. The old man's dry stick of an index finger became a pointer.
And so the traveller crossed the backwaters and the river and the streams, measured the land in seven strides and reached Muchiri one dawn when the mist had come down over the expanse of sand. It was a desert of sand with a few sparse shrubs and no sign of any man. He could not accept it. The Muziris that he had heard of, the stories that had floated around in the breeze of Greece, were so full of colour and life. He did not know that rivers had the capacity to redraw contours and the flow of sand, which crushed settlements under it.
The traveller, who had lost even his sense of direction, wandered through the winter mist that had refused to depart even after the sun came up. After a while, when the day brightened and started getting warmer, the open spaces beyond the thickets started coming alive. The heads that rose above the leaves of the thickets became dark forms as they came out. People surrounded him. They did not know who he was. He too did not know who they were.
Was this the Muziris that had been buried in the stories? The traveller felt as though he had wandered into a small port in a dark continent. This was definitely not the land he had come in search of. Though he had heard some of the stories, scratched out by the voyages of the sturdy Greek sailors, the historian could not accept a change like this to the world of colours and sounds that had so tempted the West.
He was very tired and thirsty. It was day now. When the sun became stronger, oases appeared from nowhere, making the traveller thirstier. When the descendant of the ones who had scattered gold and pearls in this land wandered in search of water, the forms that followed him, held him with suspicion in their eyes. His gaze was slowly losing its focus in the visions of the oases.
When his legs started growing numb, he saw a small pool of water between two mounds of sand. Clear water that reflected the sky. As he bent down greedily and poured a handful of water into his parched throat, he shivered, shuddered.
The familiarity of those drops of water shocked him. Memories of generations seemed to have merged into it, making it sweet. Clear water that had cooled the throats of a number of Greeks.
He felt slightly better when his insides cooled down. The good deeds of the previous generations had perhaps poured this water into the sand dunes for the sake of the traveller who came across the seas. Or was it the mercy of the Goddess Anankh, the one who ruled from the hill top?
He pressed his ear gently to the sand that was still moist. He felt as though familiar sounds came from the layers of sand into his moist ear-a continuation of the conversation he had left behind in the Greek land. People were trying to speak to him in an old language, in the old manner.
He pressed each ear in turn and lay there for a while. A peculiar coolness was entering his being through his ears. Muziris was telling her story in the language of the Greeks-the stories narrated by the elders of Muziris; the stories of generations.
As he lay there, forgetful of everything, his head burrowing to catch the layers of the past, something fell on his back. A fruit that looked like a green stone. As he tried to turn, another fell on his neck. As wild fruits and nuts fell on him, one by one, the bushes moved again. New forms came out from the hidden depths. People came rushing up, shouting loudly. By the time he struggled up on his knees, he was surrounded by a fairly large crowd.
As he looked round, bewildered, the blows fell. The first one was on his neck, the next on the back of his head. As his eyes saw shooting stars, as his ears felt the wind blowing, as he shook his head to haul back the gaze that had slipped somewhere, he saw sticks rising all around him. Thick stems of cactus, coconut fronds, fronds from the palm, thorny sticks ...
Memories were seeping into him as deathless germs in the scabs that would never dry up.
There was no one to listen, as he cried out aloud. They were all searching for thorny sticks. As his voice dried up in the parched throat, he tried once more to struggle up.
Finally, as he fell bleeding, swollen from the beating, the last blow of ingratitude fell right on his head. None of those who had gathered round could understand the meaning of the sounds that came out of the skull that was reluctant to split apart.
May the shore that will not remain the shore, fill with pearls and herbs.
Fill with pearls and herbs.
Fill with pearls and herbs.
This was not the curse of the traveller who had followed the memories that had been preserved by time. Nor was it a blessing. But from the earth, on which his blood and sweat and dreams had fallen, medicinal plants with small white flowers grew first. Then, other plants, bushes, trees grew. As the sandy grounds flowered in the abundance of medicinal plants, the rare herbs spread the smell of healing. It was the birth of a new settlement.
Ten-year-old Athira knew that when it rained after a break of some days, pearls would come up like moths from the soil. Soon, she found that there were other compounds near her house where pearls grew when it rained. When the sky cleared suddenly at dusk on a wet, rainy day, Athira and her friends ran to the compound next door. She had been collecting such pearls and stones for a while now from these places. Places that would later become the excavation site.
When she separated the different pearls-into those that came from tears, from sweat and from blood-she did not know that the mildew that covered them was the history of a place. The history, which historians all over the world had been following for centuries, slept in the small metal box with its broken edges, in the house with its bare stone walls.
The place had buried itself in the mud to evade all searches. The land spoke of relationships that had developed across the seas. The story of Muziris was opening up through the pearls in Athira's metal box. Muchiripatinam was the city of Muziris to which Romans and Greeks and West Asians had come centuries back.
When the land where pears and corals grew woke from a deep sleep, it gave these new pearls to history. The shore that remained not a shore, filled again with pearls and herbs. And stones of memories, spilled from time past into time future.
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