On the eastern coast of India, A few minutes south of Puducherry, on the banks of the river Ariyankuppam, lies Arikamedu – one of the most vibrant and fascinating cities of the ancient world.
We have seen India’s buoyant relations with other ancient civilizations in previous threads. Its trade with the western world initially took place via the waste coast. In the second half of the first millennium BCE, the southeastern coast also gained prominence.
The Indian peninsula sits at the center of the Indian ocean. The kingdoms of India also prospered greatly in the first millennium BCE. This led to India being a center of trade between ancient Asian powers such as China and ancient Europe and Africa.
A site that has thrown considerable light on the global trade on the southeastern coast of India is Arikamedu. Arikamedu was a major center of Indo-Roman trade from the 2nd century BCE and one of the earliest known manufacturing centers of Indo-Pacific beads.
While its origins are uncertain, many discoveries such as shells, beads, and pottery have established that a thriving local culture existed long before the arrival of foreign influences.
Arikamedu found mentions in several significant Greco-Roman texts, such as “Periplus of the Erythraen Sea,” written in the first century CE. It refers to Arikamedu by the Roman name ‘Poduke.’
Arikamedu was also mentioned in Ptolemy’s “Atlas Geographia” as ‘Poduke emporion’ in the mid-1st century CE.
We find the reflection of this on the Indian side as well. Various works of the Sangam tradition, e.g., “Pattupattu” (written well before 300 CE), provide accounts of the Romans and the trade with the Romans. Here, the Romans were called Yavans (Yavanaha).
These references talk of the export of Black Pepper, Italian wine, and sounds made by loading and unloading ships, to mention a few points.
Despite being such a booming town for 1000 years, Arikamedu was lost to history for centuries until the French East India Company accidentally discovered ancient ruins in the 1730s.
It was later excavated extensively by Sir Mortimer Wheeler, then Director General of ASI, in the 1940s and by Jean-Marie Casal. ASI has continued to study the site ever since.
Excavations at the site have uncovered substantial evidence of a Roman trading settlements, including amphorae, lamps, glassware, coins, beads made of stone, glass, gold, and gems.
These discoveries suggested that the settlement engaged in considerable trade with the Roman and later Byzantine world between the 2nd century BCE to the 8th century CE. That is around 1000 years.
Arikamedu was also a center of manufacture in its own right producing textiles, particularly the cotton fabric muslin, jewelry, stone, glass, and gold beads (It was particularly famous for this).
Sites such as Arikamedu tell the story of a comprehensive exchange between the Roman world and the Indian Subcontinent. It shows that the interaction was rich and multifaceted. It also highlights the booming trade between world civilizations that took place 2000 years ago.
This trade also allowed distant communities to share various elements of craft culture and, in turn, enriched these societies considerably.
The volume of Rome’s trade with India was so high that it compelled Pliny the Elder to lament In “Natural History” that “India, China, and the Arabian peninsula take one hundred million sesterces from our empire per annum at a conservative estimate…”
Natural History is one of the most important literary works in history, and it is the largest single work to have survived from the Roman Empire to the modern day. “Natural History” is a compilation of information from other ancient authors. It was written in 77 CE.
Arikamedu, at its peak, was a melting pot of civilizations. An apt ode to its location as a geographic center of the maritime Silkroad These global settlers stayed in the town for centuries, long after the trade dwindled, correspondingly with the decline of the Romans.
The thousand years of the known history of Arikamedu must have left a tangible legacy in three forms – the grasp of the seas in the region, the awareness of the global trade and geography, and the maritime skills honed in the local populations.
And perhaps, it can be hypothesized that these legacies contributed to the maritime ascendancy of the Cholas, who dominated the Indian ocean theatre between the 9th-12th centuries.