An Awesome History Of The Lost Indian City That Traded With Romans

Want to have a glimpse of Rome? Visit Arikamedu, the only city with an archaeological record of Roman presence in India. Famous for manufacturing amazing bead jewelry, the glass beads site here was considered as the “mother of all bead centers” in the world. Know more about this lesser explored place of India.

Do you know that there is a small town in India which will give you an experience of Rome? Arikamedu, an archaeological site in Kakkayanthope, Puducherry will give you a glimpse of Roman culture in our very own backyard. It was formerly a major Chola port dedicated to bead making and trading with Roman traders and was believed to be the only town to have ties with Rome.

Arikamedu, which means “eroding mud”, is located at around seven kilometres from Pondicherry.

Various Roman artifacts like containers bearing the mark of Roman potter schools VIBII, CAMURI and ITTA have been found here, which support the claims that there was trade between Rome and ancient Tamil India.

Arikamedu proves the presence of Roman and ancient Tamil trade relations. Photo Courtesy: Jayaseerlourdhuraj / Wikipedia

Arikamedu proves the presence of Roman and ancient Tamil Indian trade relations. Photo Source: Jayaseerlourdhuraj / Wikipedia

The city is located along the beautiful Ariyankuppam river and is believed to be the only city with an archaeological record of Roman presence in India. Having started out as a fishing village, Arikamedu soon became a unique bead-making site as it manufactured beads made of both stone and glass.

Various textiles, beads, terracotta artifacts and gold and semi precious jewellery were exported to Greco Roman ports and other countries in the East from Arikamedu. Arikamedu’s glass bead making site was considered as “mother of all bead centers” in the world.

Wines in amphora jars, cups and plates of Terra Sigillata (fine red Roman clay pots) and other various ceramic products were imported by Tamil while products like beads, terracotta objects, glass, gems, plants, spices were exported.

Terra Sigillata tableware have been found only in two places outside of Roman Empire, one of them being Arikamedu, which is one of the things that marks the existence of trade between the two regions.

Ancient Roman pottery found in Arikamedu. Photo Courtesy: PHGCOM/ Wikipedia

Ancient Roman pottery found in Arikamedu. Photo Source: PHGCOM/ Wikipedia

Discovered in the 1930’s, the town was excavated three times in the 1940’s. The excavation credit of this place is often given to Mortimer Wheeler in 1945 as he was the most known archaeologist associated with it. But, according to this report in The Hindu, the ancient city was first excavated by French archaeologist residing at Pondicherry, Jouveau Dubreuil, and Dr. A. Aiyappan, the Superintendent of the Government Museum in Madras, four years before Wheeler came there.

‘‘The archaeological site where the ruins of the ancient city Arikamedu exist is fast disappearing. This is the only surviving site in south India which has a rare cultural continuity from 300 BC to 1800 AD,’’ says Suresh Pillai, an interdisciplinary artist and film maker.

Grey Pottery With Engravings. photo Courtesy: PHGCOM/ Wikipedia

Grey Pottery With Engravings. photo Source: PHGCOM/ Wikipedia

There is a contrarian view held by historian J B P More, who also enunciates it in his book ‘From Arikamedu to the Foundation of Modern Pondicherry’, which claims that Arikamedu was not a flourishing port 2,000 years ago.

More says that there was no mention of this town and its trade relations with Rome in ancient works like Sangam and in various temples in and around Pondicherry.

“It is not possible to decide just on the basis of the discoveries of Roman potteries, coins and artifacts, wells and some thick walls in Arikamedu mound that it was once a flourishing town and that town was Poduke or Pondicherry or Puduceri or Puduvai. There is no evidence for such a town in Sangam literature or epigraphy or even in ancient Chinese literature,” More has told Times of India.

However, Pillai has argued that the reason there is no mention of this town in classical Tamil literature is because most of it came into existence only after the city of Poduke or Arikamedu achieved its full glory.

Remains of the ancient building that existed during the trade. Photo Courtesy: Muthukumaran pk/ Wikipedia

Remains of the ancient building that existed during the trade. Photo Source: Muthukumaran pk/ Wikipedia

Having witnessed many discussions and surveys, this place still stands tall as a majority of the sources prove the existence of the ancient Tamil-Roman relations. Another study by Vimala Begley and team found out that, “Metal workers, glass blowers, shell cutters, craftsmen in precious and semi-precious stones and ivory workers were grouped in this area, making or assembling the objects which were exported overseas.”

Their study found a good quantity of pottery and various architectural features dated from 3rd century BC to the French times. They also discovered Chola coins, Chinese celadon pottery and other East Asian artifacts at the site.


Site of Arikamedu’s ancient ancient harbour. Photo Source: John Hill / Wikimedia Commons

Today Arikamedu just consists of walls after being damaged by the cyclone Thane in 2011. The only structure still standing tall are the walls of The French Mission house built in 18th century.

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