Cities through Time- Rethinking Muziris

To be able to look at, think and talk about history is no easy task. There are different ways of looking at it, indeed, and for too long we seemed to have focused on ways which suit our own convenience and through our present day lenses.

Cities have formed the backbone of our historical narratives for a long time. Whether mythical (Atlantis) or lost to time (Mohenjodaro) or continuously inhabited ones like Madurai or Varanasi or even our very own Chennai, the idea of a city in history is not just about its physicality. The rush you feel when you pass through the historical Central Station and become one with the spirit of countless millions for whom its sight meant hope. Walking along the ghats of Varanasi as many have done before, when this city meant life, and death, and rebirth. Visiting the ruins of an old palace or fort, and pondering on the lives of thousands who would’ve built and lived and even laid down their lives defending it. Or reading about mythological cities and getting lost in the humdrum of their daily lives, of battles won and lost, with blissful abandon.

One could try to explain this fascination with our history with nostalgia, or a passion for heritage, and so on. But it is never just that, is it? Cities, especially old cities, fascinate us not just because they’re about architecture. They’re about people, and ideas.

Graphic showing how cities have grown over time. [Source: UNICEF]

Because cities are incredibly complex creations. It fills me with amazement that the city as a model (both big and small) has been extremely successful around the world. A network of various complex systems, each running smoothly (or sometimes not so) to form the wonderful beast that is the city. And to think this is entirely a creation of us humans. The environment? Hardly so, and it would be arrogant to suggest so (Not to mention such arrogance of man’s ‘mastery’ over nature had partly led to the December 2015 in Chennai). But it’s other intangible systems? Yes, and we’ve done it so well that some even consider cities to be the most complex entities created by humans. And to imagine the wheels for this started turning when humankind shifted from foraging to agriculture, which led to an agricultural surplus and division of labour, and establishment of ‘state’ to control this, and so on and so forth..

Cities fill us with purpose because they’ve evolved, and are evolving. They are constantly a melting pot of cultures, ideas, ideologies, political systems. They are truly an embodiment of time and place because a city records constantly in its various layers the imprints of people who’ve lived and died there. Take a walk down the history lane of a city and you’ll find strings of a narrative here and there – its architecture, planning, street and place names, or even where it gets its water from. As a citizen of the 21st century, I admire and support globalisation, but it fills with regret when the amateur historian in me realizes that in 200 years, the “recent” history of every city around the world would almost be the same.

Archaeological sites of ancient settlements are different, because they form a rift in this grand narrative. What turn of events – natural or man made – made them uproot their lives and move on? The ancient Roman city of Pompeii is a striking example; the city along with its people was completely destroyed and buried under tons of volcanic ash during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. The degree of preservation with which the city had been found in its eventual rediscovery during the 18th century – eerie and poetic at the same time – has made it one of the most famous Roman city examples, despite being only a mid sized city at best during its time. In death, even more than in its life, the city has stayed true to character.

The rediscovered city of Pompeii. Mount Vesuvius in the background [Source: Internet]

Closer home, the major sites of the Indus Valley Civilisation tell us other stories. Even though not as well preserved as those in the Roman Empire, their sheer size and level of organisation suggest a civilisation contemporaneous with that of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. The planned layout, the street grids, the building materials, centralised drainage systems, the Great Bath – all of them point to the level of sophistication achieved in urban living close to 4500 years ago. Much closer home, the legacy of cities in the Tamilakam during the Sangam period (3rd century BC to 4th century AD) live on through heritage structures, mythology, and a few archaeological sites.

The ruins of the city of Mohenjodaro, Indus Valley Civilisation [Source: Internet]

Rather than imagining our cities and its people as fitting into neat narratives of an unbroken culture, it is more wise to think of them as urban centres populated by people just as you and I.

The purpose of this exercise, of course, is not merely revelling in the past, the “golden age”, or twisting historic narratives or artefacts to fit our preconceived notions of history, and culture and religion. The first positive step begins when we start to look at our history not through the clouded lens of ancient Indian ‘culture’ but through the objective eyes of an unbiased historian. Rather than imagining our cities and its people as fitting into neat narratives of an unbroken culture, it is more wise to think of them as urban centres populated by people just as you and I. More hard working perhaps, or more religious, but still human. History then, and the story of our cities, become the story of ideas through time – sometimes evolving, sometimes failing – nevertheless stuff to learn from. The main reason to study our cities through time is to rescue some good, provocative and inspiring ideas which may be put to use in the present day world.

If this seems like a pointless thought exercise, consider that this same rationale for studying history is the bedrock of the Renaissance in Europe. Fuelled by the ideas and ideals of the ancient Greco-Roman world, Renaissance scholars, architects, artists and philosophers were able to incorporate into their society the ideas of rationality and humanism. This revolution in thought and reason lifted Europe from the dark ages and was responsible for many enduring works of the Renaissance which we study and appreciate today.

To sum it up, the question remains – why not here? Historic, archaeological and literary sources have shown that India has had in various points of its history great cities and civilisations whose legacy still live on. We seem to have gone the other way, force-fitting outdated ideas of social hierarchy on the present day world and yet ignore timeless ideas which can endure. We see the invaders and the invaded, “us” and “them” and not the substance behind each action because of our own religious fanaticism.

When do we stop mixing history with mythology and religion and start viewing it for what it is? When do we claim our own, home-made Renaissance? 

When we think of “our” history, in ancient South India, what is it that comes to mind first? Lush green landscapes and temples and agraharams? Self sufficient kingdoms with able rulers?  An unbroken, ‘pure’ culture leading all the way upto the 18th or 19th century when it was ‘corrupted’ by British colonialism? Neat linguistic divisions of Malayalam, Tamil, Kannada and Telugu?

What if I told you that South India had been a cultural fusion of beliefs, religions, languages and nationalities from antiquity? The history of ancient Tamilakam (present day Kerala and Tamil Nadu) is contemporaneous with ancient Greek and Roman empires, but much less well known. In fact, the port cities of this empire were much more cosmopolitan than any you’d find today, but they lie forgotten. It is only in the past decade that we’ve been putting together this history with archaeological excavations that may well be the find of this century.

A map of South India during the Sangam period (3rd century BC-4th century AD) [Source: Internet]

Muziris was an ancient seaport and urban center in the Malabar Coast (modern day Kerala) that dates from at least the 1st century BC, if not before it. The port was a key to the trade between southern India and the Phoenicians, the Persians, the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Roman Empire. The port lost its importance and fell off the global chart after the devastating flood of river Periyar in 1341 CE, which ultimately caused the destruction of the city, opened up Kochi as a port of importance, and changed the geography of Kerala forever.

The Indian Ocean trade routes during ancient times [Source: Internet]

A series of archaeological excavations from 2007 onwards have placed Muziris back on the radar, sometimes considered the site of greatest archaeological importance of our times. The debate about exact location of Muziris notwithstanding, it now finds place in the Kochi-Muziris biennale and the Kerala Tourism’s Muziris Heritage Project, among others.

Archaeological remains discovered during excavations at Muziris [Source: Internet]
My Design Thesis on “Rethinking Muziris” was an attempt to answer the questions raised by this article:

  •          Given a strong geographical, historical and religious context, what does the area require in its transition to an archaeological hotspot?
  •         How can history and archaeology combine to form a result which is as much accessible to public as it is sensitive to academia?
  •         How can the living realities of its context and surroundings become a part of the narration of the romanticized history of Muziris?

[This article is a collaboration between ArchiBlab, run by Sarat Chandran KP and Hashtag Urbanism, based on Sarat’s Design Thesis,”Rethinking Muziris”]


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