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ROUNDABOUT

Ancient landfall

BY HUGH AND COLLEEN GANTZER

Where did the Pallava ships go from Mamallapuram? A trip to Bujang Valley in Malaysia provides the answer.


At long last, we were standing on the Pallavas' landfall beyond Mamallapuram.



PAST GLORY: The foundations of a Hindu temple (below) and the view from Gunung Jerai. PHOTOS: HUGH AND COLLEEN GANTZER

MAMALLAPURAM has always fascinated us. It isn't just the mystery of why the Pallavan carvers suddenly stopped working. Nor is it only the rock sculptures that hold us enthralled. Equally evocative is the only secular monument left standing: the ancient lighthouse. It conjures up visions of a busy port with sweating stevedores loading and off-loading ships; sails unfurling, billowing with the moist monsoon breeze, sailing out to ... where? We couldn't visualise that distant destination, on the far side of the stormy Bay of Bengal. Did they anchor beyond a surf-skirted beach, or deep inside a rocky cove? Was there a lighthouse on that distant shore or did they take their bearings on a prominent physical feature? When one has a long association with the Navy, these questions refuse to go away.

Distant destination

Then, earlier this year, we found the answer. On a trip to Malaysia, we drove into the green Bujang Valley in Kedah, the oldest State in Malaysia. And we learnt that it is recognised as the oldest State because foreign sailors set up an ancient trading settlement there in the Fifth Century A.D. These "foreign sailors" were Tamils, subjects of the Pallavas. But the Bujang Valley had been mentioned in a Tamil poem, "Pattanopolai", as far back as the Second or Third Century A.D. There, the Bujang Valley is called Kalagan, which philologists claim eventually gave rise to the modern-day Kedah.

All this, and much more, is given in great detail in the well-appointed Lembah Bujang Archaeological Museum at Bukit Batu Pahat. The Museum, in thick rain forests, is backed by the Kedah Peak, now known as Gunung Jerai and towering to a height of 2,100 metres above the flat hinterland plains of the Straits of Malacca. According to historian Dato James F. Augustin: "Pallava traders from India's Coromandel Coast began to explore the eastern coast of the Bay of Bengal in search of spices, sandalwood, ivory, gold and tin."

Bujang's attractions

We felt that the first four products would, in all likelihood, have been available in India. Tin, however, could have attracted them. It was in great demand for bronze and bell metal. They were particularly drawn to the Lembah Bujang valley because the Kedah Peak could be spotted from 15 km or more out at sea. Moreover, at its foot was the estuary of the Merbok where ships could tie up on the banks and replenish their supplies of water and food. Most importantly, further upstream were the tin mines of Smeling. Excavations have revealed that in a fairly short while, a prosperous Indian settlement grew in the valley catering to the logistic and mineral needs of the visiting Pallava ships. The Pallavas, apparently, did not call the settlement Kalagan, as it had been named in the poem, but Kadaram.

Trading colonies seldom restrict themselves to trade for long and this also occurred in the Tamil settlement in Kadaram. As happened centuries later with the East India Company's trading station in Madras, the Pallava colonists decided to expand their activities. In the middle of the Sixth Century A.D., new waves of colonials from the Pallava Empire asserted themselves and engineered the break-up of the neighbouring Hindu state of Funan in Cambodia. Funan had, at that time, been in existence since the First Century A.D. The expatriate Pallavas must have been a formidable force to shatter such a long-established kingdom whose monarch had a significantly Pallava name: Rudravarman. Clearly, the fact that the people of Kadaram and those of Funan shared a common religion, culture and, possibly, a language, did not deter the Pallavas from widening their sphere of influence; to Funan's great misfortune.

The growth of a settlement

Meanwhile, word of the powerful new Tamil colony, and its coastal civilisation, had spread across the world. Other maritime powers realised that Kadaram's estuarine harbour, as Kochi would do centuries later, offered a safe haven for ships during the storm-ravaged monsoon months. Soon Chinese and Arabian ships also sailed in as did those from some of the independent states of the Malay archipelago: Srivijaya, Langkasuka, Khmer, Siam and others. Here in Kadaram, while they sheltered from the rain-laden winds, they bargained and traded, and the settlement thrived and grew in prosperity. The remains of more than 50 Hindu temples have been excavated in the Bujang Valley and so, in its heyday, it had grown to the size of a town.


In the museum we saw the stone artefacts of what were, clearly, temples to Siva. Malaysian archaeologists have also excavated, and partially restored, the foundations of one of them. As might have been expected, there was a temple on the peak of the mountain. On it were nine stone blocks laid in a row. Scholars have speculated that these could have been "hearths" dedicated to the Navagrahas. But we prefer to believe, along with other local archaeologists, that these were the remains of an ancient beacon where fires were lit to guide ships in when mist settled on the mountain or after dusk. It was, in other words, a lighthouse similar to the one in Mamallapuram.

An alternate route

Kadaram also played another critical role in the trading history of the world. Goods once flowed between Asia and Europe through the overland Silk Road. Overland routes, however, have always been more prone to attacks by brigands and marauders than maritime routes. As the sea route, via Kadaram, grew, the Silk Road fell into disuse. This maritime route eventually became established as the famed Spice Route. That resulted in the great European Age of Discovery and the establishment of the far-flung colonies in Asia and Africa.

We drove up to the wooded peak and stood looking out over the fat, fertile, fields below. Beyond were the hazed Straits of Malacca in the Bay of Bengal. And further beyond, below the curve of the earth's shoulder, lay India. The Pallavas had gone; so had the thriving town of Kadaram. But we felt a sense of triumph. At long last, we were standing on the Pallavas' landfall beyond Mamallapuram.

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