Civilizations in Contact

Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

Research topics - Robert Harding

Trade and Pilgrimage to South Asia before 1000 CE

Excavations at Vizhinjam 2011

Several reasons exist for an excavation along the South Kerala coast. One is the lack of a good ceramic chronology for the area; it still needs a type-site. Two others relate to Kerala's trading connections in the first millennium CE.

Roman Ports in India

Since the early nineteenth century physical evidence for the interaction between Rome and India has been growing. Much of that evidence has been in the form of coinage; indeed, from Sri Lanka alone have come nearly 300,000 coins of Roman or Byzantine date. More recently, archaeological sites have played a role. Those in India (most famously Arikamedu on the Andhra Pradesh coast) have been explored along with ancient Berenike and Myos Hormos on the Red Sea coast. They, and the literary evidence from texts such as the Periplus Maris Erythraei (first century CE), show that from the incorporation of Egypt into the Roman Empire, until the imperial crisis of the third century, ships left Egyptian harbours in great numbers. They sailed down the East African coast, and then took the monsoon winds to western India, returning when the winds reversed direction. They shipped products such as Italian wine for the Indian market and (above all) pepper for the Mediterranean.

From the fourth century, and into the Byzantine era, ships returned again to South Asia; though Sri Lanka became the fulcrum of trade and Persians and Axumites competed for the trade.

The Indian section of the Peutinger Table.

The Indian section of the Peutinger Table showing Muziris and
"Blinca" (probably identical to Balita) with a significant bay
nearby. Public domain. From Wikimedia Commons.

Although there has been steady interest in Rome-India relations, and sites such as Arikamedu were excavated over half a century ago, the pace of work has recently increased. One of the most prominent ports mentioned in the Periplus, Muziris, was tentatively identified only a few years ago. However, much work remains still to be done. Many sites have only been explored with single trenches; while others, listed in the Periplus and elsewhere, have yet to be identified.

Thus the structure of the trade has still to be properly articulated; and even the question of how many Romans stayed in India and in what locations has not been properly addressed (the same holds for Indians in Egypt).

In the case of Central and South Kerala, there are two sites that serve as (probable) fixed points; Muziris/Pattanam and Komar/Cape Comorin. Between them come Nelkynda and Balita and these have yet to be identified. Balita has been identified with various modern sites and Vizhinjam is one of them. In the Peutinger Table (a medieval copy of a 4th-century map) Muziris and "Blinca" are mentioned; Blinca is probably identical to Balita.

Middle Eastern Contacts - Iraq, Iran and the Gulf

The Sassanian Empire had an important presence in the Indian Ocean in the mid-first millennium CE and sources such as the 6th-century Kosmas Indikopleustes indicate the existence of Persian merchants in India and Sri Lanka. Following the fall of the Sassanians to the forces of Islam in 642 merchant communities continued to thrive. The Chinese started exporting high quality ceramics during the Tang Dynasty and in response Islamic merchants started voyages to China in 807. All this had an effect on the west coast of India and by 849 a grant to a church in the Kerala town of Quilon/Kollam was witnessed with Arabic, Pahlavi and Hebrew signatures. The presence of Judaism and Christianity in Kerala is itself witness to the trade. By tradition it was re-founded there by a merchant in 345 and was under the control of the Patriarch of Babylon until 1599. Jews may have been there even earlier and by the tenth century were participating in a network of Jewish merchants that stretched to North Africa. Islam first came to Gujarat in the eighth century and similarities in mosque architecture right down the west and southeast Indian coasts show that Islamic trading communities were spreading downwards.

As archaeologists have focused on Mediterranean contacts, material traces of this trade have not been properly pursued and much more needs to be done in the identification of both structures and ceramic types.

Photo of Middle Eastern Turquoise Glazed Ware from Vizhinjam.

Middle Eastern Turquoise Glazed
Ware from Vizhinjam. Later First
Millennium CE.

Vizhinjam lies 16 kms to the south of Kerala's capital Trivandrum, and is close to the state boundary with Kanyakumari. Inhabited by Muslim and Christian fishermen it is on a sheltered bay that at its deepest is 27 metres - deeper than the harbours of Bombay or Sydney.

Its foundation date is still a mystery; it first appears in inscriptional records of around the eighth century, when it is mentioned as the capital of the Ay Dynasty (presumed to have shifted from Tiruvatturu about that time). It was described as possessing a fort with walls that reached to the sky and to be surrounded by the sea. It was also reputed to be a storehouse of fabulous wealth. In 2006, Dr. Ajit Kumar of the University of Kerala identified these walls, made of stone and running in a broken sequence around a hillock to the north of the modern fishing harbour. Three ancient temples are also known; one is Chola, but a small cave temple and a structural shrine both date to the 8th-9th century. The Ays' kingdom was invaded several times by the Cholas and Pandyas, with the kingdom eventually merging with Venad to the north. Vizhinjam declined as a trading centre with the rise of Kolachel in the 14th century and its modern role was defined with the founding of the fishing harbour in the 18th century. The Portuguese had a presence and left behind a Catholic church and another set of fort walls; the Dutch built a factory, but this has left little trace. Around 1808 Travancore launched a scheme to run a canal from a newly-built commercial town to Vizhinjam, but the scheme was abandoned. Its commercial potential has now led to a planned container terminal, which is on the verge of construction. This will change forever the nature of the town and may do much damage to the archaeology.


In 2011 a joint team from the University of Cambridge and the University of Kerala (Prof. Ajit Kumar, Director; Dr. Robert Harding Co-Director) began what is hoped to be a multi-season excavation programme. The aims of the excavation are:

  1. To discover the date of Vizhinjam's foundation and to see whether it could have been the Balita/Blinca of Mediterranean records.
  2. To find out whether the establishment of the town as a royal capital created the port, or whether the port's established trading role brought the Ays there.
  3. To establish a firm medieval ceramic chronology for Kerala.

In the first season two trenches were laid out in an empty allotment that lies between the modern beach and the 9th century structural temple. A theory (confirmed by digging) was that the current beach line is comparatively modern, that the temple was once closer to the shore than it now is and that activity may have taken place in front of it.

Photo showing part of the northern section of Trench 1.

Part of the northern section of Trench 1 showing the modern debris and older layers

In Trench 1 the old beach level was found to be about four metres below the surface; the top half-metre was a densely packed layer representing the shops and houses that had been in the allotment until 1995; and in between lay a series of layers and pits from the past 1200 years or so. Various specimens of local pottery were found, often grey or buff surfaces. Incised decoration around the shoulder was the most common feature and buff was the most common fabric colour. Some Chinese porcelain, mostly from the period of European contact, were found but easily the most common fabrics of foreign origin are Turquoise Glazed Pottery (TGP) and torpedo jars from the Middle East. These are largely from the 8th-10th centuries and are thus contemporary with both the Ay Dynasty and the nearby temples. They speak of strong contact with the Gulf and suggest either direct contact with Arab and/or Persian merchants or a tapping into more local networks that distributed these goods.

Photo showing Turquoise Glazed Ware and examples of local wares.

Turquoise Glazed Ware from Trench 1; and examples of local wares.

TGP has a long history in Mesopotamia, Iran and the Gulf; the specimens identified so far can all be bracketed within the 8th-10th centuries. The fabrics range from coarse to finer examples with under-glaze decoration. Local connections are also registered. A number of Tamil wares have been noticed, Kollam is just up the coast and connections with Sri Lanka have been an historical constant of the area.

Photo showing large sherd in Trench 2, and a complete jar.

Trench 2 contained many large sherds, plus a complete jar. The jar on the right was
obtained through section scraping of an adjacent ditch.

Beads, including a number of Indo-Pacific microbeads, were discovered as well as evidence of bead making. Given the occurrence of chank in the area there was less evidence than expected of shell working, but this remains to be explored. In both Trench 1 and 2 was found the detritus of metalworking, including crucibles and pieces of slag.

Photo showing beads found at the site and a crucible and nail.

Beads found at the site included microbeads; beads of semi-precious stone including
carnelian; and glass. Some of them at least were locally manufactured. Evidence for
metalworking includes this crucible and a nail.

Intriguingly, some sherds in Trench 2 have been tentatively identified as amphorae. This has yet to be confirmed and the oldest layers of Vizhinjam are likely to be elsewhere; however, the Balita connection remains a possibility.

Trench 2 is located about five metres below Trench 1, with the area around it taken away by JCB some years ago. However, the mound seems to have sloped towards the beach and thus the surface of Trench 2 is not as old as the bottom of Trench 1. The actual date has yet to be determined; however the presence of charcoal, the metal-working evidence and a large number and variety of pottery sherds make it an important area. A number of thin glass fragments have been found and their position makes it impossible for them to be modern; they also need further investigation.

Photo showing glass bead and glass fragments.

An intriguing glass bead on the left; and a number of glass fragments on the right.

Finally, three coins were found, all in Trench 1. One is a small round coin and is possibly not very old, but a square coin has also been found and could date to the early first millennium CE. A third coin, bent in unusual fashion, is made of potin and could well be from the Satavahana Empire further north.

Photo showing the "Travancore" and "Chera" coins.

The "Travancore" and "Chera" Coins.

If Vizhinjam is to be identified with Balita, described as a village by the Periplus, then its centre is likely to be at the top of the mound that continues past the allotment to the north and up to the temple. Alternatively, it could be some distance away on the hillock that that has the Ay walls. Further work in these areas is needed.

What is beyond doubt is that by the 8th/9th century Vizhinjam was a participant in the Arabian Sea network bringing merchants from the Gulf to India, Sri Lanka and China. It is in the 8th century that the west coast of India begins to register this trade, for instance at Sanjan (in Gujarat). Vizhinjam may have acted as a conduit for luxury goods into South Kerala and inspired the move of the Ays to the source of these products, so as to better control the trade. It can be speculated that traders were able to offer forest products such as timber in return. It is hoped further work will clarify these issues.

Photo showing Torpedo Jar Amphora Fragments.

Torpedo Jar Amphora Fragments from
Trench 2.