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Postulating hypotheses is no crime -Dr. P.J. Cherian

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Postulating hypotheses is no crime   October 26, 2011

In the context of a report headlined ‘ASI urged to explore Pattanam,' published on October 22 in the Kerala region, Dr. P.J. Cherian , Director of the Kerala Council for Historical Research (KCHR), writes:

The KCHR had been exploring the North Paravur-Kodungalloor region since 2006, and since then has been excavating Pattanam since 2007. Suddenly, there is a spurt of ‘critical' comments against aspects of its work, as if the research findings came out only now. The KCHR was making public statements on its findings and issuing study reports all through these years. It has published field reports and interim reports after each season. Research papers have been published in peer-reviewed journals and presented at national and international seminars. (Some of these are available on the KCHR website, As an international research project with inclusive and multi-disciplinary perspectives, it has been open to critical scrutiny at all points of time. Unfortunately, what we have now are attempts to create controversy and confusion by spreading misinformation; the objective anyway is non-academic.

The attempt here is to provide some general information to readers, who might otherwise be misled.

In order to undertake any archaeological studies in India, an institution or individual has to obtain a licence from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Such licences are issued after a scrutiny of the application and assessment of competence by the Central Advisory Board of Archaeology (CABA), comprising a panel of eminent scholars and researchers, and chaired by the Director-General of the ASI. After all the formalities involved, I as the applicant was granted a licence for excavation and exploration in 2006-07. Since then, after perusal of the Interim Report of the work done during the previous season and an evaluation of the fresh application submitted, new licences have been issued each year. During the last two seasons, the ASI has been also a collaborating partner, and Dr. M. Nambirajan, Superintending Archaeologist of the Thrissur Circle of the ASI, is a co-director.

The KCHR has never categorically claimed that Pattanam is Muziris; establishing Pattanam as Muziris is not its research agenda. The KCHR has no pre-conceived approach in any of its activities.  It suggested the possibility, in other words hypothesised, that Pattanam could be an integral part of Muziris, based on clinching evidence found for inter-continental exchanges that intersected at Pattanam. As researchers would know, in order to locate Muziris and understand its extent, a larger area will have to be excavated and decades of post-excavation research along with underwater, geo-morphological and geo-physical studies undertaken. With collaborative support from the Indian Navy's Southern Naval Command, underwater explorations were conducted during two seasons. Research scholars from the University of Oxford and the University of Southampton are engaged in studying the geo-morphological and geo-physical features of the site. Many other premier institutions are involved in post-excavation research.

It is a fact that the research project stemmed from the hypothesis that Pattanam could be Muziris; there are other hypotheses, and there could be more. Many of them may fail scientific scrutiny unless adequate supporting evidence surfaces. Accepting this in all humility, let me share some other hypotheses, which later may or may not hold true. Was there urbanisation on the Malabar Coast much earlier than we now believe? Did Jain-Buddhist traditions play a role in laying the cultural foundations of this region? Can Pattanam challenge the notions of Euro-centrism? Can it rip apart the idea of pre-brahamanical “primitiveness”? Postulating hypotheses is no crime; rather a critical guess is what often nurtures scientific thinking. Dr. V.S. Ramachandran, the pioneering neuroscientist, wrote thus: “... It is a fundamental element of the scientific process that when data are scarce or sketchy and existing theories are anaemic, scientists must brainstorm. We need to roll out our best hypotheses, hunches and hare-brained, half-baked intuitions and then rack our brains for ways to test them.”

More than that, to a scientific mind, Pattanam should be much larger than Muziris. There is strong evidence to show that Pattanam had distinct pre- and post-Early Historic (read Muziris / Muciri ) phases. In fact, it will not be appropriate to confine in a myopic manner the life of a site that spans millennia to a few centuries.

The significance of Pattanam is independent of the answer to the question whether it is Muziris or not. Pattanam has its own merits to claim a distinct and respectable place in the history of Indian Ocean exchanges and the study of Kerala society. It is the first site on the southwestern coast of India with stratigraphic evidence for maritime contacts. The site has produced pieces of evidence such as Roman period amphorae, including vessels from Italy, Greece (Rhodes & Kos), Spain, Egypt and Jordan; Italianterra sigillata ; Mesopotamian turquoise glazed pottery; Mesopotamian torpedo jars and a host of unidentified special pottery. Unarguably, the site was in contact with West Asian, African and European regions, and may be many others. Pattanam produced for the first time on the southwestern coast of India, rouletted ware, important evidence for hinterland and Indian Ocean exchanges. In the history of Kerala archaeology, Pattanam happens to be the first site to yield evidence for habitation from the Iron Age onwards, that is, as early as 1000 BCE as per 14C dates. The KCHR has taken all possible precautions to ensure that the standard of research at Pattanam matches, if not excels, those conducted by experienced teams. It has enlarged its permanent team to include young scholars with archaeological experience from throughout India and Europe. To any unbiased researcher, all the work done at the Pattanam site over these past few seasons should bring pride and joy.

The recognition that the work has got from elsewhere is gratifying. Let me mention only some accolades that came our way in appreciation of the systematic and multi-disciplinary research by the KCHR team. The Excellence Award 2011of the National Maritime Foundation was bestowed on the KCHR, “...for the sustained performance and demonstrated achievement in Pattanam archaeological research.” The British Academy appreciated its work with an International Partnership Award 2010, with the British Museum. The University of Oxford, the University of Rome and a number of similar institutions have signed memoranda of understanding (MoUs) for post-excavation studies in their own specialised areas.  

However, accolades are only secondary. What pioneering efforts like Pattanam truly require is an enlightened approach — and constructive criticism. 




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Historical insights

Print edition : April 23, 2010


K.N. Panikkar says legends in India have not been subjected to serious analyses.-S. MAHINSHA


K.N. Panikkar explains the historical significance of the recent excavations in Pattanam in Kerala.

Why is Pattanam causing so much excitement?

Until now, there hadnt been any archaeological effort [in the Malabar coast] to understand the Indo-Roman trade. We had only literary sources. The way people talked about it, Muziris had assumed a legendary dimension. But this is the first time that an archaeological excavation has brought out evidence of the Roman presence and, compared with other places, the evidence is much more in quantity. It actually proves the scale of the trade. The other important factor is the possible conclusions that might emerge about the relationship of this coast with the Middle East before the Roman trade, which is already being debated. That is a possibility but it requires detailed studies before it can be confirmed, which then will be a very important insight.


Ideas about Indian Ocean trade have so far been provided by Western travellers, merchants and scholars. What is the Indian perspective that emerges from the Pattanam finds?

One is about the spread of a network of trade, where it was not one point where the traded goods were collected but possibly a network in the region, which would mean a trading pattern internally connected with that centre. That is a very important idea, but to understand that much more extensive excavation is required. At the moment excavations are limited to a very small area. The second possible implication is regarding the goods of exchange. There is this traditional view of pepper and spices, of Europeans coming and collecting them in exchange for whatever goodwill or gold they could offer. That has been the assumption about it so far. But whether this pattern of trade had any other character is another important aspect.

Does Pattanam reveal anything about the commercial, economic and political system of the period?

Obviously the rulers or whoever controlled power were interested in establishing contacts and continuing to have trade relationships. Because, as such there is no evidence of any conflict and it was some sort of a free exchange that was taking place, where you have Roman materials available and you also have Indian coins available at the same place.

Therefore, one can make an assumption that political forces were not antagonistic to such trade, as had happened some time later on the Kerala coast. As to the extent or volume of trade influencing the economic life of the people, one indicator that we can see from the massive evidence that has come forth look at the large number of amphora sherds it shows that the volume of trade was not insignificant. The material of trade, as it seems now, was limited to spices and things like that. But I am sure that when a larger area is covered, possibly there will be more information about it.

Is there any possibility, as some are saying now, of small workshops, primitive industrial ventures, being active links in this trade?

I dont think it is possible to say that now. One nature of ancient history is that it tempts you to speculate. But I am very hesitant. I was initially uncertain about even using the word Muziris but now, of course!

The excavation site at Pattanam is spread across backyards of modest homes. A huge number of pottery sherds have been unearthed in the last few years.-R.KRISHNAKUMAR

How do the Pattanam finds fit in with those from the eastern Indian coast, Arikamedu, for example?

I think there is considerable similarity. But as far as the Roman material is concerned, Pattanam has yielded much more than the East, amphora, and so on. That can lead to this assumption that Pattanam was a much more extensively connected trading point than Arikamedu. I think the material emerging from Pattanam shows it perhaps had precedence over Arikamedu, which of course, as far as the Malabar coast is concerned, has several implications.

What would these implications be?

The political implications are of course important; so is the state of economic prosperity of the region; and much more important is agriculture. Because the Romans concentrated more on the western coast, or Pattanam, it means that it had greater trade possibilities than other places. If you had trading of that nature, goods, particularly the spices, had to be brought there from the interiors. So what was the nature of the channel that brought it, who brought it, who were the people who produced it, was it done through intermediaries or was there some sort of control over production? These are all important questions that emerge from it.

How do you explain this dearth of archaeological finds on the west coast for so long, when it is now clear that even a casual dig would have brought out objects of archaeological value at Pattanam?

It is one of the paradoxes that given the importance that Muziris had and about which all the historians are talking about apart from a few excavations, there was no attempt here. It surely reflects on the archaeological organisation that we have. The Pattanam excavations were not initiated through any organisation. Lately, of course, they [the ASI] have been showing some interest.

Will the KCHR [Kerala Council for Historical Research] be able to continue with this project on a scale that such an important find demands?

It depends, because the type of excavation necessary at Pattanam is very large, which also means, in some way, upsetting the local population. The alternative we have suggested is the participation of the local people what I call democratic archaeology in which they would be part of the excavation and take an interest in it, and so on. But there are lingering problems. However, unless that is done, we will have problems even getting permission to excavate. There are a lot of apprehensions that their land would be taken over [by the government].

But can we now say we have at last found Muziris?

An unlikely entrance to an excavation site.-R.KRISHNAKUMAR

I am not sure in the sense, the conception that we have is of Muziris as a port. But what was its population, extent, and so on? My sense as a student of history tells me that Muziris is perhaps a large area and not really small. From this excavation also we have seen structures which possibly are remains of houses, etc. Possibly, Pattanam is part of the larger Muziris and with that possibility comes the questions linked to the volume of trade. But Pattanam is Muziris will be a hazardous conclusion. It can be decided only if a fairly large area is excavated.

But is that a possibility, the area being so thickly populated?

It is a possibility, but it will depend upon innovativeness. I have seen, for instance, in Africa, excavations being done in similar areas, not confined to one pit or two, but the project is spread out so that the spread of the population could be located. Similarly, if we have excavations, say, half a mile away from Pattanam, I am sure archaeologists can make some sense out of it. Even if results are negative, that will have its lessons to tell us. That type of innovativeness has to be there.

The disappearance of Muziris is still a mystery. Some say it was the result of the cataclysmic floods in the Periyar in 1341. But could it also be that it was related to the events at the other end of the Indian Ocean trade network, the waning of trade at the Egyptian Red Sea ports like Berenike?

The floods theory is the general assumption. But the decline of Muziris, I suppose, has something to do with the decline of trade in the early Middle Ages.

But an unanswered question that perhaps Pattanam might resolve is whether the Middle Eastern trade tried to replace it. But after getting into the vacuum left by the Romans, they may not have been able to sustain it as the Romans did. That is a possibility that depends on the type of trade that the Romans did, the success of that trades character, which may not be true as far as the Middle East is concerned.

The excavations at Berenike reported a lot of teakwood being used in buildings, and so on, which had been salvaged from ships that frequented the Malabar coast, and there is a theory that the ships were built in India.

I doubt it, very much. It is pure and simple speculation. It was not a merchandise that was in demand, the ships, I mean. But whether the Romans depended on the timber that could be obtained here, that is not very clear, because all indications are that there were other types of goods that interested them.

Muziris seemed like a myth only the other day, but we are now finding evidence for its existence. The governments new Muziris Heritage Project circuit is so full of monuments that thrive on such myths and legends, including those relating to the coming of three major religions into the country

I think those are legends and we should keep them as they are. People talk about them as if they are real, without any evidence for it. It is as if you construct a history and then bring in things to try and support it. We need to subject such things to scrutiny. In India legends have not been subjected to serious analytical work, as in many other countries.

The legends of Kerala alone will be a fascinating study. But one thing I hope the Heritage Project will concentrate on is the Periyar belt, which is a major civilisational area. Somewhere beyond Kalady [the birthplace of Adi Sankara, the 8th century Hindu philosopher-saint], we had discovered a huge megalithic site, the biggest you can find in Kerala. But nobody took care of it. If someone sees megalithic remains in their land, they tend to hide it. But there is a possibility of it being a major civilisational area, a civilisation which had faded away as new forms emerged.

The Kerala government has boldly named its tourism project the Muziris Heritage Project, even though scholars seem to be unsure about its true extent or location.

I was not really happy about it. Of course, the KCHR is not involved in the project. I have expressed my concern that tourism should not submerge the historical heritage. That is always possible, if it is not controlled. I think tourism as a possible source of revenue can be disastrous for the culture of a place.



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Saturday, October 8, 2011

"Entire Kerala coast is Muziriz"-Say'sMuziris project DirectorP J Cheriyan

Cherian, however, still shies from admitting that the site is indeed Muziris or Muchiripattanam: 

This very interesting interpretation is to escape from the controversy related to the present identification Pattanam as the early port Muziris by Cheriyan and Team . Now we have to investigate Entire coast of kerala for locating Muziris.
Please wait for the next annoucements!!!!!

“Muziris could be one port or several. It could be the entire Kerala coast. It would require much deeper research and evidence to establish it.”
22 -6-2011

ഡൊ:ചെറിയാനും സംഘവും വളരെ കാലമായി പട്ടണമാണു മുസിരിസ് എന്നു പറഞ്ഞു ഉറപ്പിക്കാന്‍ നോ‍ക്കുന്നു.ഇതിനു തക്കതെളിവുകള്‍ ഇതുവരെ കിട്ടിയിട്ടുമില്ല.500 കോടി രൂപവരെ ടൂറിസം അടിസ്ത്ഥാനമാക്കിയുള്ള പുരാഖനനത്തിനു അവിടെ വേണ്ടി വരും എന്നാണു കണക്ക്.ഈ പശ്ചാത്തലത്തിലാണു വേണ്ടത്ത്ര തെളിവില്ലാതെ ലോകം മുഴുവനുള്ള മാദ്ധ്യമങ്ങളില്‍ മുസിരിസ് കണ്ടെത്തി എന്നു പ്രചരിപ്പിക്കുന്നത്.കണ്ടെത്തുന്നതു നല്ലതാണു.കേരളത്തിനു അഭിമാനിക്കാം.
ഈ വിധത്തിലുള്ള അടിസ്ത്ഥാനരഹിതമായ പ്രചരണമാണു എതിറ്ക്കപ്പെടുന്നതു. ഈ പശ്ച്ചാത്തലത്തിലാണു പി ജെ ചെറിയാന്റെ ഇപ്പോഴത്തെ പ്രസ്ത്താവനശ്രദ്ധിക്കേണ്ടതു.ഒരു കേരളതീരം മുഴുവനുമായിരിക്കാം മുസിരിസ് എന്നു ഒരു മുഴം നീട്ടി ഒരേറു.!!!പക്ഷേ ഇതൊരു പുരാവസ്ത്തുഗവേഷകന്‍ പറയു
Dr. PJ Cherian, Director, Kerala Council of Historical Research Presented the paper titled
"The Impact of Recent Archeological Discoveries in the ancient Muziris on the
Historiography of the Establishment of Christianity in Kerala"
12.30 pm Discussion
01.15 pm Lunch
presented a paper on "MUZIRIS" in a SEMINAR conducted in BOMBAY on 28-July 2011

28 July 2011 Thursday
Dr Cheriyan and Dr Shajan say even now that they never Identified PaTTanam as ancient port city MUZIRIS!



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Fresh excavations at Pattanam after a gap of five years

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