It is well documented that Tamils of the Pandyan Kingdom traded with the empires of the Mediteranean seas. But how did they travel between those destinations in such distant parts of the world?
- Suez Canal
- Goods were shipped towards the Red Sea, unloaded and taken by land to North African ports
- Around Africa, unlikely due to the long distance
HISTORY OF SUEZ CANAL
2nd millennium BC
Perhaps as early as the 12th Dynasty, Pharaoh Senusret III (1878 BC 1839 BC) may have had a west-east river dug through the Wadi Tumilat, joining the Nile with the Red Sea (which in ancient times reached north to the Bitter Lakes). This allowed direct naval trade with Punt, and, indirectly, linked the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.
The reliefs of the Punt expedition under Hatshepsut depict sea-going vessels carrying the expeditionary force returning from Punt. This has given rise to the theory that, at the time, a navigable link existed between the Red Sea and the Nile.
Evidence indicates its existence by the 13th century BC during the time of Ramesses II.
Repair by Necho, Darius I and Ptolemy
The waterway fell into disrepair, and according to the Histories of the Greek historian Herodotus, about 600 BC, Necho II undertook re-excavation but did not complete it. Herodotus was told that 120,000 men perished in this undertaking. With Necho`s death work was discontinued.
The canal was finally completed by Darius I of Persia, who conquered Egypt. According to Herodotus, the completed canal was wide enough that two triremes could pass each other with oars extended, and required four days to traverse. Darius commemorated his achievement with a number of granite stelae that he set up on the Nile bank, including one near Kabret, 130 miles (209 km) from Pie. The Darius Inscriptions read:
Saith King Darius: I am a Persian. Setting out from Persia, I conquered Egypt. I ordered this canal dug from the river called the Nile that flows in Egypt, to the sea that begins in Persia. When the canal had been dug as I ordered, ships went from Egypt through this canal to Persia, even as I intended.
The canal left the Nile at Bubastis. An inscription on a pillar at the canal`s Red Sea end at Pithom records that in 270/69 it was again reopened, by Ptolemy II Philadelphus. Over the next 1000 years it was successively modified, destroyed and rebuilt, until finally it was put out of commission in the eighth century by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur.
PANDYAN KINGDOM LINKS WITH EGYPTIANS, GREEKS AND ROMANS
The Roman emperor Julian received an embassy from a Pandya about 361. A Roman trading centre was located on the Pandyan coast (Alagankulam - at the mouth of the Vaigai river, southeast of Madurai).
Pandyas also had trade contacts with Ptolemaic Egypt and, through Egypt, with Rome by the first century, and with China by the 3rd century. The 1st century Greek historian Nicolaus of Damascus met, at Damascus, the ambassador sent by an Indian King `named Pandion or, according to others, Porus` to Caesar Augustus around 13 CE (Strabo XV.1-4, and Strabo XV.1-73).
A Roman coin was found in Pudukottai, Tamil Nadu (see pic).
A broken storage jar with inscriptions in Tamil Brahmi script has been excavated at Quseir-al-Qadim, an ancient port with a Roman settlement on the Red Sea coast of Egypt. This Tamil Brahmi script has been dated to first century B.C. One expert described this as an exciting discovery.
The same inscription is incised twice on the opposite sides of the jar. The inscription reads paanai oRi, that is, pot (suspended) in a rope net.
An archaeological team belonging to the University of Southampton in the U.K., comprising Prof. D. Peacock and Dr. L. Blue, who recently re-opened excavations at Quseir-al-Qadim in Egypt, discovered a fragmentary pottery vessel with inscriptions.
Dr. Roberta Tomber, a pottery specialist at the British Museum, London, identified the fragmentary vessel as a storage jar made in India.
Iravatham Mahadevan, a specialist in Tamil epigraphy, has confirmed that the inscription on the jar is in Tamil written in the Tamil Brahmi script of about first century B.C.
Madurai is one of the most holy ancient towns in India, a Benares of the South, and long before its existence was first noted in the West in the 4th century B.C, it was already an important centre of Hindu civilisation. For from the very earliest period, Madurai appears to have been a major terminus of the Spice Route, linking the pepper groves of India with the groaning tables of the Mediterranean. Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador who visited India in 302 B.C, recorded its legendary riches, while the town is given pride of place in the earliest document detailing the Spice Trade, the Periplus Maris Erythraei, written by an anonymous Alexandrian Greek in the first century A.D.
The Periplus gives a wonderful picture of the courtly lifestyle of the time when it records that the area around Madurai imported Mediterranean eye-shadow, perfume, silverware, fine Italian wine and beautiful slave girl musicians for concubinage in turn the town exported silk, ivory, pearls and, crucially, pepper. Both Strabo and Ptolemy mention the town, the former in the same breath as complaining about the drain of Roman silver from the Imperial Treasury that the trade with India was causing- an image graphically confirmed by the recent find of several huge Roman coin hoards around Madurai and the discovery of a Roman coastal trading post near Pondicherry, where the goods destined for the town were unloaded. At the peak of the trade, during the reign of Nero, a Pandyan Embassy from Madurai was received in Rome and there is even a reference to a Temple of Augustus being erected on the Indian coast, presumably for the use of Roman traders permanently settled in the Carnatic. Even today, the English `pepper` and `ginger` are loan words from Tamil- from `pippali` and `singabera` respectively- which entered our language via Byzantine Greek.
This picture of Madurai`s cosmopolitan connections is also backed-up by Tamil sources which records that the Pandyan Kings of Madurai used to keep Yavana [Greek or Roman] mercenaries, alongside a regiment of Tamil Amazons, as their personal bodyguards. We know this for around the temple at Madurai there grew up a flourishing literary culture based, according to tradition, at the Sangam or Academy of Tamil Poets.