A Note on Muziris

01 Sep



1. Muziris, as the ancient Greeks called it, was an important port on the Malabar Coast in Southern India . It was frequented by the ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Romans.  Eudoxus of Cyzicus sailed into Muziris during his two voyages undertaken between 118 and 116 BC. Muzris,  is mentioned in the Periplous of the Erythraean Sea and in Ptolemy’s Geography and is prominent on the Peutinger Table. Pliny referred to it several times in his Naturalis Historia. Pliny called this port primum emporium Indiae.

There is no doubt Muziris was a major port in its time and was an Emporium, as Pliny called it.

Regarding Muziris , Maddy in his webpage  writes:

Muchiri pattanam, a location close to today’s Kodungallur, was not really a sea port as some believed. It was a city on the banks of the Periyar somewhat inland and accessed through the maze of canals. Roman Ships anchored out in the sea and transported their goods in small boats guided by local pilots through the canals to Pattanam. From centuries in the past until the 14th, the city was well known to the Arab and especially the Roman sailors who conducted trade with Malabar. Sometimes the ships went to Barygaza or Baruch, sometimes to Nelycinda (will be covered in a separate blog) other times, they landed up in Muziris. They came in with Western luxury goods and gold and took away spices and Eastern goods. Sometimes the ships went around the Cape Comorin and docked at Kaveri Poompattinam close to Pondicherry.

The Romans had expatriate settlements or colonies in both places as I mentioned before and much information about them can be found in Sangam Era writings like the Silappadhikaram and Manimekhalai. The Peutinger table shows Muziris on the Roman map and even alludes to an Agustus temple (later studies assume it was an Agasthya temple) in Muziris. Writers like Ptolemy, Pliny and so on had written much about the trade, so also the Tamil poets. So let us conclude that robust trade took place, until the floods of the Periyar wherein the riverbed got silted in the 13th Century. Since that event and due to other issues at the Roman and Arab areas, the trade petered off and veered off to other places like the Cochin and Calicut. But by then the Arab traders had a stronghold on the route and they staved off any competition until the next aggressive bunch – the Portuguese came in – followed by the Dutch and finally the English who eventually settled down and colonized the lands they came to trade with. But we will not talk about all the events that took place in the process, we will instead focus on the Muziris papyrus, something that you do not see often mentioned in mainstream media. And so we go to the rather active Roman Colony or river port called Pattanam well before the advent of Christ

Tabula PeutingerianaIndo-Scythia.jpg

Image taken from De Tabula Peutingeriana de kaart, Museumstukken II (edited by A.M. Gerhartl-Witteveen and P. Stuart) 1993 Museum Kam, Nijmegan, the Netherlands

2. In what is called a third century map (perhaps a copy of an earlier map) Muziris is shown  prominently by drawing a circle round it. (Taprobane , indicated at the bottom of the map refers to Sri Lanka ). Pliny in his Natural History(6.26) mentioned that if one followed the wind Hippalus , one would reach Muziris in about forty days ( he was referring to the South West monsoon) . He also mentioned that the roadstead for shipping was at a considerable distance from the shore and that the cargoes are to be conveyed in boats, for either loading or discharging. He was indicating that Muziris was not along the coast but situated inland , reachable by a creek or a river. This was confirmed by the later Roman sources according to which “Muziris is located on a river, distant from Tindis – by river and sea, 500 stadia; and by river from the shore, 20 stadia”. Incidentally , Pliny did not recommended alighting at Muziris, as it was infested by pirates .

3. Since the days of Eudoxus, the Greeks and Egyptians established a flourishing trade with Southern India by taking advantage of what they called the Hippalus wind , meaning the South West monsoon winds. (Please see my post” Other Ancient Greeks in India ” for further details).The commodities the Greeks/Egyptians and Romans imported from India were precious gems, aromatics , spices – specially the pepper , besides cotton.

roman trade

4. As regards the Gemstones , Muzris acted as the collecting and clearing point . The garnets and quartz came from Arikamedu region (on the East coast of south India), the pearls were from Gulf of Mannar , while lapis lazuli beads were from Kodumanal in the neighboring region. The other stones included diamonds, agate, beryls, citrines etc. Please check the following links that carry abundant details on the Gem trade:

Ptolomy's Geographia. Muziris empo-rium

A section of the map of India drawn after Ptolomy’s Geographia, showing Muziris emporium

5. An indication of the importance of Muziris as a place for finalizing business deals by Roman traders was brought to light by L. Casson , a scholar, in his paper” New light on marine loans” .He mentioned about a papyrus (called P. Vindob. G 40822 -for identification purposes ), discovered during the year 1985 in  Vienna , which sets out the details of a maritime loan agreement between a ship owner – possibly of the Hermapollon mentioned on the verso of the papyrus and a merchant using the ship as security. The document  suggests that the loan arrangement was agreed to while the parties were in Muziris (though possibly signed on arrival at the Red Sea), indicating a rather active Roman merchant colony on the Kerala coast


6. The heightened trade between Greece/Egypt and India came as a culmination of the trade relations that existed between India and the West even centuries earlier to Christian era.

7. Historians say Muziris, might be of significance in another way too. They say Christianity may have been introduced to the sub-continent through Muziris.

8. The successful run of the Greek/Egyptian trade with India suffered a  temporary setback due to the rise of a new Parthian Empire that formed a sort of barrier between the Greeks and the Indians. However, when Rome  started to absorb the remnants of the Empire of Alexander , Egypt came under the control of Romans. Egypt became a Roman province in 30 B.C. Thereafter, Augustus settled down and took charge of Egypt , as his personal property.

Interestingly , According to Pliny , writing in about 51AD , the use of monsoon winds to shorten the passage to /from India was made known to the Romans only in the days of Claudius .( Pliny, N. H., 8, 101, 86). This development, therefore, must have come around 51 AD.  There was, therefore, a long period of lull in the Egypt-India trade after 34BC.

9. The Roman trade with India, through Egypt, began in earnestness in the first century AD. Muziris then became an important Romans’ trading centre. The Rome/Egypt/India trade lasted famously until about sixth century.

10. Then suddenly and mysteriously, Muziris went off the radar. It was not mentioned again for a very long time. Dr  Roberta Tomber of British Museum said.

“What is interesting is that in the 6th Century, a Greek writer, writing about the Indian Ocean , wrote that the Malabar coast was still a thriving centre for the export of pepper – but he doesn’t mention Muziris”.

No one has  a clue how Muziris disappeared so completely.


1.BBC News in its edition of 11 June 2006 , reported an archaeological investigation by two archaeologists – KP Shajan and V Selvakumar – has placed the ancient port as having existed where the small town of Pattanam now stands, on India’s south-west Malabar coast. The team believes Pattanam as the place where Muziris once stood. Until recently, the best guesses for the location of Muziris centred on the mouth of the Periyar  River , at a place called Kodungallor – but now the evidence suggests that Pattanam is the real location of Muziris.



2. Pattanam is a small town some 12 km south of the Periyar river mouth (present day Kodungallur) , in Kerala state. The artefacts recovered from the excavation site include amphora (holding vessels) of Roman make and Yemenis, Mesopotamian, and West Asian ones too, indicating that Pattanam had trade not only with Rome but also with places in the Persian Gulf . The other artefacts recovered include pottery shards, beads, Roman copper coins and ancient wine bottles.

3.There is no doubt that Pattanam was a major port and was important to the Indo-Roman trade But more collaborative evidence is needed to support the view that Pattanam was indeed Muziris.

4. The remote sensing data revealed that a river close to Pattanam had changed its course .The port may have been buried due to earthquakes or floods. This may perhaps explain the disappearance of the Muziris port. However, there are no definite answers yet.

5. Interestingly, while the excavations at Muziris are on, another set of archaeologists from UCLA and University of Delaware have excavated Berenike, a long-abandoned Egyptian port on the Red Sea near the border with Sudan . The team has uncovered the largest array of ancient Indian goods ever found along the Red Sea , including the largest single cache of black pepper from antiquity – 16 pounds – ever excavated in the former Roman Empire .

Dr. Willeke Wendrich, an archaeologist at the University of California at Los Angeles, said the research showed that themaritime trade route between India and Egypt in antiquity appeared to be even more productive and lasted longer than scholars had thought.

In addition, it was not an overwhelmingly Roman enterprise, as had been generally assumed. The researchers said artefacts at the site indicated that the ships might have been built in India and were probably crewed by Indians.

These again confirm the trade relations that existed between ancient Egypt and India





Posted by on September 1, 2012 in History


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7 responses to “A Note on Muziris

  1. sreenivasaraos

    March 21, 2015 at 5:51 pm

    tamil sangam poems dating back to the early christian era are a source of information on the commerce and trade between foreign traders and south india.there is a town called musiri and another called thondi but not on the malabar coast.both exist now with these names in tamilnadu.
    i will see if i can collect the wife, dr.r.vijayalakshmy, had written in the courier some years ago about the maritime trade in south india.

    thank you for your interesting and exhaustive blog on this and related topics.


    • sreenivasaraos

      March 21, 2015 at 5:51 pm

      thank you vijaya
      now , you mentioned thondi , i recall a reference to it in the periplus of the erathraen sea.talking about muziris it says:

      54. tyndis is of the kingdom of cerobothra; it is a village in plain sight by the sea. muziris, of the same kingdom, abounds in ships sent there with cargoes from arabia, and by the greeks; it is located on a river, distant from tyndis by river and sea five hundred stadia, and up the river from the shore twenty stadia. nelcynda is distant from muziris by river and sea about five hundred stadia, and is of another kingdom, the pandian. this place also is situated on a river, about one hundred and twenty stadia from the sea.

      please check this link

      the book mentions a pandyan king and refers to chera-land(?).

      there are speculations about the location of muziris. the pattanam excavation can be conclusive only in case it comes up with credible proof.
      kindly let me know of mrs.vijayalakshmi’s work.

      thank you pl keep in touch


  2. sreenivasaraos

    March 21, 2015 at 5:53 pm

    other reference material available in kodungallur city of st. thomas, g. menachery, 1987
    st. thomas christian encyclopaedia of india ed. g. menachery, 1973

    for more on this topic


    • sreenivasaraos

      March 21, 2015 at 5:56 pm

      dear ollurian,

      thanks for digging out an old and a forgotten post.

      thanks also for sending me the link.

      after i posted about muziris (may 2007), i had always at the back of my mind the developments in pattanam excavations. i occasionally check up anything new on that front.

      i wrote about pattanam in connection with greek/ roman/egyptian trade with the west coast of india during the period first century to the sixth century ad. when i last checked up early in july 2008, i learnt that recent excavations on malabar coast brought up the remains of an ancient ship. i was startled to find that kchr took that as the proof of links between the malabar coast and the west that went as far back as 5th century bce.

      the kchr director, dr. p j cheriyan, described the findings as evidence for the maritime activities in these parts as early as the fifth century bc. “the artifacts received from the excavation site suggest that pattanam, a hinterland port and a multicultural settlement, may have had links with the mediterranean, the red sea, the arabian sea and the south china sea rims since the early historical period of south india”.

      i think, it is rather too early to speculate on that. it needs more proof.

      as far as i know and according to the “known” history, the greek/egyptian trade with india which started with eudoxus of cyzicus when he sailed into muziris between 118 and 116 bc ran successfully for about a century. it then suffered a setback due to the rise of a new parthian empire that formed a sort of barrier between the greeks and the indians. however, as rome started absorbing the remnants of the alexander’ empire , egypt came under the control of romans. egypt became a roman province in 30 b.c. thereafter, augustus settled down and took charge of egypt , as his personal property.

      the roman trade with india, through egypt, began in earnestness in the first century ad. muziris then became an important romans’ trading centre. the rome/egypt/india trade lasted famously until about sixth century.

      then suddenly and mysteriously, muziris went off the radar. it was not mentioned again for a very long time.

      kchr statement needs further support to be conclusive.


      again, dr. m g s narayanan, former chairman of the indian council for historical research (ichr), has said that the port town of makotai mentioned in sangam literature was known as muciri in tamil and muziris in greek

      that may be so, if proved. there is no doubt that muziris was a major port and was important to the indo-roman trade .but , more collaborative evidence is needed to support the view that pattanam was indeed muziris of the greeks and romans.

      dr. narayanan went further and said the findings “take the history of makotai to even before the roman age, much deeper into the iron age.”

      that is a huge statement. i am not sure if the present findings can adequately support such declarations.

      i believe, it is necessary that kchr takes up further digging in the area, more under-water explorations before it comes up with clues leading to pre-greek links between india and the west.

      [please check: makotai, ancient jews, and a 2500-year-old ship: globalization in an ancient world]

      please also read my:

      greeks in india before alexander


      some other ancient greeks in india

      have a nice time.

      please keep talking.


      • sreenivasaraos

        March 21, 2015 at 5:57 pm

        dear sreenivasa rao,

        thanks for the interesting and instructive and knowledgeable comments. i have been myself interested in muziris (at cranganore / kodungallur or elsewhere) for more than four decades. may i draw your attention to the chapter on muziris in the book kodungallur…(1987) reprited in 2000 which may be browsed at there i have come across three direct references to muchiri in the samgham literature – akanaanooru and purananooru. many scholars are telling me there are many more such references there. could you kindly provide/collect more of these if possible. i shall be much obliged.

        you may perhaps find some of the comments of prof. george menachery pertinent vis a vis muziris and other neighbouring places from antiquity.



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