Poompuhar and a riddle in the sea, part three


By Sharon St Joan

In the book, Underworld, by best-selling author and explorer, Graham Hancock, he devotes several pages to underwater explorations off the coast of India. In March of 1991, three divers with India’s National Institute of Oceanography, went down to a depth of 23 meters (75 feet) to explore one of three large structures under the waves. They only had enough oxygen to investigate the central structure, which they described as a large horseshoe shaped object, one to two meters (three to six feet) high. A second NIO dive down to the horseshoe shape took place in 1993 and careful measurements were taken.

It was 5 kilometers (three miles) off shore. The distance between the two arms of the horseshoe is 13 meters (42 feet). The structure is made of rock; it is covered with layers of sediment and marine organisms. Masonry present between the rocks provides a convincing indication that the structure was man-made.

Due to lack of funding, the NIO has made no further dives in this area. In February of 2001, Graham Hancock traveled to Bangalore to visit S. R. Rao, one of India’s most distinguished archaeologists, founder of the Marine Archeology Center at the NIO, who led the Poompuhar survey. Graham Hancock, in his book Underworld, provides a transcript of his conversation with S.R. Rao, who stated that dating the rock itself is not possible “we have only stone which cannot be dated in any meaningful sense.” He appeared, however, to be entirely open to the possibility that it may be extremely ancient.

Given that the now underwater site must have been built when the land was above sea level and out of the water, and that it was 75 feet down, Graham Hancock asked S.R. Rao for his views on this, mentioning that sea level rises as great as 23 meters had taken place at the end of the last Ice Age.

S.R. Rao agreed and then raised the question of where the origins of Indian civilization may have taken place – since the Indus Valley civilization already had a well-developed script and cities with advanced planning, something must have taken place much earlier than that. He went on to refer to the long-held Indian tradition of extensive lands, off the coast, known as Kumari Kundam, believed to have sunk beneath the seas around ten or eleven thousand years ago. This event would have been at the end of the Ice Age, when the sea level rose dramatically due to the melting of glaciers.

Of course, 8 or 9,000 BCE is generally considered by archeologists to be far too early for any civilization to have existed, but this is precisely the point of Graham Hancock’s research all around the world, which points to a far older human civilization, as yet unrecognized.

Of these ancient ruins from the far distant past, S. R. Rao commented , “It must have existed…we have photographed it. It is there, anybody can go and see.”

The manmade horseshoe structure, encrusted in barnacles, 23 meters under the waves of the Bay of Bengal, stands in silent testimony to the presence of these unknown ancient builders, over 10,000 years ago.


© text and photos, Sharon St Joan

Top photo: The sea, off the coast of Poompuhar.

Second photo: A shrine on the beach at Poompuhar.

Poompuhar and a riddle in the sea, part two



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.




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.




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.




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.





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.




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.



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.