Remembrance of floods past

In 1341, the ancient port town of Muziris on the Malabar coast was destroyed by a Periyar in spate. This August, the prized archaeological remains of this legendary trading post nearly met with the same fate, report S. Anandan and Shyama Rajagopal

In its long history, the Periyar river, which carves Kerala into its northern and southern halves, has proven itself to be as great a destroyer as it is a nurturer. When it rained incessantly in the State for three days in mid-August this year, triggering a menacing swirl in the Periyar, its waters threatened to wreck not just homes and lives but also a treasured historical legacy.

At the exact point where the Periyar empties into the Arabian Sea lies the area considered to be the location of Muziris, an ancient sea port. The region has yielded invaluable archaeological evidence of Kerala’s culturally indigenous yet commercially networked evolution over millennia.

Pattanam, a village at the heart of the Muziris region in North Paravur, had grabbed the headlines in 2007 when it emerged that it had been the site of ancient trade ties between the Malabar coast and Rome. In 1341, in one apocalyptic swell, the Periyar had erased this urban centre. The floods buried both the inter-continental trade ties as well as all evidence of the very existence of Muziris. The sea port and its glories were but a speck in the collective memory of Malayalis until the morning of August 14. But as the Periyar began to rise menacingly that evening, immediate reality and nebulous legend began to merge into a cataclysmic possibility.

“The whole place was under water,” recalls T.R. Sukumaran, 65, a retired schoolteacher from the locality, as he steps over clumps of overgrown grass at the Pattanam archaeological excavation site. He was one of the locals who had spent those three days worrying about the fate of the archaeological remains, even when their own lives were in danger.

S. Hemachandran, former Director, State Archaeology Department, tell us that Sukumaran’s fears were spot on. “The 1341 floods had caused huge geographical changes in the stretch between Kottappuram Fort and Pattanam,” he points out. “Their impact is evident in Paravur and Kodungalloor, which are just a few square kilometres apart. Muziris, which was located on the banks of the Periyar, near where the river meets the sea, bore the brunt of that flood. The same would have happened this time, but for Idukki dam, built in the 1970s.” Kuriakose is of the view that excavation could go on at Pattanam if the land is taken over on a 90-day lease, especially land that would soon have structures built on it. “It is a model followed in cities like London. It is important to dispel people’s misgivings about the project,” he says. Kerala Finance Minister T.M. Thomas Isaac, who was instrumental in getting the project rolling, believes that the government will have to come up with a protocol for construction activity in the area so that “our precious history is preserved”.
The Children’s Museum itself is a work in progress. Its skeletal structure still stands on stilts, but it came in handy when the local community was displaced from their homes in the August floods. The building, used as a relief camp, accommodated 556 people from 128 families in the Chittattukara panchayat.
The floods this time around did not cause any geographical changes. But they did provide a clear indication of what might have happened in 1341, and what could happen again if the Periyar were to disgorge its waters on an ancient historical site that holds many secret passages to Kerala’s distant past.
With inputs from M.P. Praveen in Kochi

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