Poompuhar and a riddle in the sea, part one




By Sharon St Joan


In the hot sun, covering an acre or so, lie the ancient foundations of a Buddhist monastery. Only the base remains, meticulously laid with small, evenly sized bricks, some arranged in circular patterns where once there stood columns. The bricks are only a few layers high, all the rest is gone, carried away by time. A woman with a pot on her head carries away debris, and a couple of men work on constructing a protective wall around the boundaries of the site.


The Archaeological Survey of India has been excavating this site for thirty years. Next to the site is a small museum.



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Fifteen hundred years ago, saffron-clad monks prayed within the walls of the monastery and temple, while artists and sculptors created beautiful depictions of Buddha and the Gods. The temple belonged to a town of thirty villages, which had a bustling sea port and was the capitol of the early Chola kings. At the western part of the town the temple was built, and further east, on the shore of the Bay of Bengal, on the estuary where the Kaveri River joins the sea, was a thriving port. Known as Poompuhar or Puhar, the town is also called Kaveripattinam. It lies 318 kilometers (197 miles) south along the costal road from Chennai to Nagapattinam.



In ancient days, Poompuhar was famous and was described in plays, poems, and other sources of early Tamil literature. There was a mention in a Greek and Roman navigational book authored in the first century CE, the Periplus of the Ereythrean Sea (or, with modern spelling, the Eritrean Sea).


The Periplus, which may have been written around 60 CE, is a fascinating account of trade routes that extend from Rome and Greece through the Red Sea, and down the coast of east Africa, or, alternatively, ships would have sailed across the sea to India, all along the west coast, and also up the east coast, as far north as the Ganges. Trading ships going from Rome or Greece might have stopped in Egyptian cities along the Red Sea, or the Aksum Empire of Ethiopia, then along the ports of Yemen and across to India down the west coast and up the east to Poompuhar.


Claudius Ptolemy (Greek geographer AD 90 – 168) refers to the city of Poompuhar n his writings. The Tevaram is a collection in several volumes of Tamil poetry; in it the poets Appar and Sambandar who wrote in the seventh century CE describe the town, with its strong walls, busy roads, elaborate buildings, and bustling port.


A detailed plan of the city is given in the Silappatikaram, one of the great epic plays of Tamil literature, believed to have been written down in the first century CE and retold in the sixth or seventh century. The play is a popular tale of the merchant Kovalan who, attracted by a dancer, Madhavi, leaves his wife, Kannagi. He later returns to his faithful wife, but when he is falsely accused by the queen of stealing an anklet, he is beheaded. His wife, Kannagi maintains her husband’s innocence, and enraged by his beheading, sets fire to the town of Madurai, burning it to the ground. Kovalan and Kannagi are originally from Poompuhar and there are vivid descriptions of daily life in the town, which is said to have extended over an area of thirty square miles.


Another early Tamil epic play, Manimekalai, a sequel to Silappatikaram, focuses on Manimekalai, the daughter of Kovalan and the dancer he ran away with, Madhavi; their daughter converts to Buddhism and becomes a nun. This epic also gives details of life in Poompuhar.


Archeologists have also found terra cotta sculptures of Vishnu and Shiva deities that indicate that these faiths were also present in Poompuhar then, as well as Buddhism.




Traveling east towards the coast, from the museum and the Buddhist temple site, one arrives these days at a large fish market, with the stalls of fish sellers, and thousands of dead fish spread out under the sun. There are no customers in sight; only a handful of boys playing with a soccer ball. Leaving that behind, a few yards farther along one comes to the shore of the Bay of Bengal, with many tumbled rocks, on to which the waves of the Bay of Bengal crash. The expansive open sea pounding against the rocks is peaceful, as only a sea can be, in the brisk wind. The remains of an ancient brick wharf are still entangled among the rocks. Here huge ships used to dock from lands as far away as Rome, Greece, and Egypt, as well as Sri Lanka.


Continued in part two …


© photos and text, Sharon St Joan, 2015


Photos: Sharon St Joan


Top photo: Excavation site of the ancient Buddhist Temple.


Second photo:  A representation of the feet of the Buddha, found within the ruins of the temple.


Third photo: The coast, at Poompuhar.




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