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By Sharon St Joan

 

The great ships spilled their cargo onto the wharf. After months on the sea, the sailors and tradesmen came ashore to spend a few days, to sell their wares, to amble along the wide streets and the colorful bazaars of the city. They paid for what they bought with round, punch-marked coins or square coins.

 

 

Beads and bangles were popular. 350 beads have been found in Poompuhar made from glass, jasper, agate, carnelian, coral, paste, stone, copper, and terracotta. Most were of glass, and also found were many glass bangles, ranging in color from green to blue, black, yellow, and red.

 

 

The village Maruvurpakkam, part of Poompuhar, by the sea had many buildings, including houses with distinctive windows that, it is said, were shaped like the eyes of a deer. There were elaborate, tall, many-roomed houses, with the upper floors being reachable by ladders. Inside were wide hallways and corridors.

 

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Fishermen and their families also lived in the village. It was a lively port, with numerous warehouses and many tradespeople; merchants selling silk, grain, fish; weavers; and potters; there were also jewelers and diamond sellers. There were inns for the captains and crews of the ships to stay in.

 

 

Today there are a few small fishing boats offshore and fishermen wading into the waves.

 

 

The Museum at Pallavaneshwaram, where the site of the Buddhist temple is, at the western end of Poompuhar, has photos and information about the archeological discoveries over the years.

 

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The archeological finds confirm the details found in ancient Tamil writings. The town of Poompuhar, or Kaveripattinam, was one of the busiest trade and commercial centers in the pre-Sangam period, before 300 BCE. It was a lively port from the third century BCE through the tenth century CE.

 

 

(The Sangam period is one of three early epochs of Tamil history, the first two sangam periods being legendary – though they may have also been entirely real, and the third which is commonly accepted as historical; a sangam was a gathering or an academy of poets and scholars, so the Sangam period refers to the Third Sangam, and goes from 350 BCE to 300 CE.)

 

 

Two main villages comprised the town, with Maruvurpakkam directly on the sea, and Pattinappakkam to the west. In between the two towns was a great market, surrounded by gardens, orchards and shade trees. There were many smaller villages as well.

 

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Not far away from the shore is a tower and an enclosed pool. This was once the site of a lake by the sea where the waters were miraculous, healing those with illnesses and infirmities.

 

 

The king and his court lived inland, in the town of Pattinappakkam, in the midst of beautiful gardens. Nearby lived doctors, astrologers, top army officers, wealthy businessmen, and court dancers.

 

 

The National Institute of Marine Archeology, Goa, while doing research in the area found that Poompuhar had been repeatedly afflicted by floods and erosions. Excavations of submerged wharves and pier walls extending out several meters in length have confirmed the ancient literary sources that refer to this town.

 

 

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The town was rebuilt several times. Marine archeologists have recovered pottery off shore dating back to the fourth century BCE.

 

 

In 300 BCE, after many floods, this wondrous and wealthy port city was destroyed by a tsunami. There may even have been a series of tsunamis, compounded by soil erosion. In the centuries following, the towns rebuilt on the site were repeatedly destroyed by the sea.

 

 

During the Tamil Sangam period, Ilamcetcenni was an early Chola king who ruled his kingdom from his capital, Puhar (Poompuhar). He married a princess among the Vellirs, and their son, Karikala succeeded him, becoming the greatest of the early Chola kings. He is believed to have reigned around 190 BCE. What is known about him is derived from frequent mentions in ancient Tamil poetry.

 

 

Karikala’s reign got off to a rocky start. His father died suddenly, and the young prince was unable to assert his claim to the throne. Instead of being accepted as his father’s successor, he was exiled. After a while when the situation had calmed somewhat, an elephant was sent to find him. When the elephant brought him back though, he was thrown into prison. That night there was a fire in the prison, causing burns to his leg. He escaped and was finally able to claim his rightful place on the throne, though he was left with the scars of burns and with one impaired leg.

 

 

As king, he was acclaimed for the beauty of his war chariots. Karikala consolidated his power in a great battle near Venni, now Kovilvenni, near the city of Thanjavur. There he defeated the combined armies of the Pandyan and Cheran kings, along with the fighting forces of eleven minor kings. This decisive victory set him on the road to greatness.

 

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He next defeated nine minor kings who had taken up arms against him, and he also conquered the entire island of Sri Lanka.

 

 

According to the epic poem, Silappatikaram, Karikala then headed north, invading territories all the way up to the lands of the Himalayas.

 

 

When he returned after conquering much of India, his chariot got stuck in the mud near Thiruvaiyaru, 13 kilometers (eight miles) from Thanjavur, and as it was being dug out, the idols of Dakshinamurthy, Vishnu, and the Seven Mothers were found in the mud. A voice from heaven told him to take them to the nearby Shiva temple, Panchanatheeswar, which he did, and there he took part in a consecration ceremony for them. This incident was recorded at the time in rock inscriptions.

 

 

Later Chola kings praised him as their great ancestor. He is known for building dikes that elevated the banks along the Kaveri river.

 

 

A large dam, the Kallanai, still in use today to regulate the waters of the Kaveri River was built by him. The Kallanai is built of unhewn stone, 329 meters (1,000 feet) long and 20 meters (65 feet) wide. The dam allows water to be diverted into canals to irrigate fields in the region.

 

 

There are nearby, in the sea, ruins much, much older than Poompuhar…

 

 

Continued in part three…

 

 

© text and photos, Sharon St Joan, 2015

 

 

 Photos: Sharon St Joan

These are models of early ships at the museum, in a tall, round tower, at Fort Dansborg, near Poompuhar. The town is Tharangambadi, which was a Danish colony from 1620 – 1845.