Some years ago, If anybody asked me about an ancient land swallowed by the sea only the mythical Atlantis would be the answer. I can remember this well because I’ve played the computer animated game through out one whole night to finish the many levels at one stretch. But this was until I heard about Poompuhar. In reality there is an ancient Atlantis in our own backyard by name Poompuhar which I was unaware of till I visited it on a December afternoon some years ago. Yup, I am dusting out another travel tale from my past with an alert that this is a history post. But, I would appreciate if you read this till the end. 300 kms south of Chennai in Nagapattinam district is Poom puhar a major port city which is said to have played a significant role in the maritime history of India. This city was swallowed by a 400 feet tidal wave some 2000 years ago. Now an extension of this city still exists in the form a sleepy fishing village. This is also the place where the River Kaveri which originated in Talacauvery travels 700 kms and joins the bay and hence the name puhar meaning estuary in tamil. ( also called Kaveri puhum pattinam) This fishing village was once the capital city of the famous Chola kings. It was rich in maritime trade and the kingdom had trade with Romans and Greeks. This ancient port is recognized in the travelogues of Greek Geographer Ptolemy, Pliny and in Buddha jataka tales. Apart from the above, many historical literature are replete with mention of this city. Some of them are pali literature, temple inscriptions, tamil epics Cilapadikaram. All these texts describe that this kingdom was once rich in international trade and the kingdom had trade with Romans, Greeks ,China and Thailand. It had huge fleet of ships. The chola kings like Karikala cholan, Manuneethi chola ruled the city with pride and embellished it in various ways. It was supposed to have been a well planned city , peace reigned, art and culture flourished . The planned city was divided into two well marked divisions where on one side lived the working class like the artisans, merchants, gold smiths, diamond cutters etc., and the other side live the nobles, elite citizens, rich traders and physicians. Besides they had separate quarters for foreigners with whom they had trade associations. The city has had well laid out gradens. It had two markets one the day market and the other the night bazaar. It had temples for Lord Shiva, Indra, Sun, Moon, Vishnu besides the Buddha stupas and Buddha vihars. The three religions practiced were Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. There were ring wells on the fringes of the city (which are now found by the archaeologists.) and cool, shady trees were lined all along the river banks. Most of them speak of a great festival called ‘Indra Vizha’ devoted to Lord Indra. Pongal is also said to have originated in this age and place. The text of Cilapadikaram speaks of high level of technology and planning practiced here. Sewage ran underground and new irrigation techniques were used by King Karikalachola. In his time was designed the world’s ancient dam which is still a standing testimony at Trichy. The epic also states that the houses and halls of Poompuhar were built with precious stones and that the merchants were prosperous. Luxury and grandness abounded and art and crafts were at its peak. Traders from all over the world like Roma, Thailand, China and Greece found it such a gracious place that a whole neighbourhood of them lived there permanently.( archaeologists have found greek and roman coins here). Based on extensive research done by Graham Hancock, A edinburgh born marine archaeologist , Poompuhar could even predate the Sumeria in Mesopotamia which is where civilization is believed to have originated 5000 years ago. According to him,The Poompuhar site was swallowed by the sea 11,000 years ago. He has found some fascinating evidence during an underwater exploration in the area in 2001 which shows that a 400 feet tidal wave at the end of the last ice age swallowed the city. Ancient tamil flood myths also speak of a great kingdom called Kumari kandam. Prior to Hancock’s findings, even the national institute of Oceanography, Goa has also conducted archaeological investigations. The divers have found horse shoe shaped objects, ring wells along with megalithic black and red wares, brick work structures and many more antiques dating more than 7000 years ago. – all suggesting that an ancient city of Poompuhar must have been submerged in the sea. Unfortunately due to lack of funds the research investigations were abandoned by NIO and moreover the 2004 Tsunami is said to have worsened the situation by adding sediments over the ruins which are under the water. Further research by another geologist Glen Milne from UK has confirmed Hancock’s views and this research threw up evidences that the submerged poompuhar was far superior than Harappan sites. It could well be the birth place of modern civilization say some archaeologists. When my elders in Neyveli ( a place close to Poompuhar) told me about this place and we drove out of Neyveli after visiting many nearby places like picchavaram,Gangai Konda cholapuram I expected to see the remnants of a submerged city which was once the Chola empire. I thought walking over the city, running my fingers over the ruins and caressing the piece of history which once was a chola empire would make me giddy headed, but I found a sleepy fishing village with some catamarans gearing for their fishing journey. There were lot of small shops selling tender coconuts and goli soda and fanta(the locals call it color) and knick knack shops selling wares of sea shells. There was nothing which was left there which could give me a peek into the past and speak about ancient history. If only the ocean waves that gobbled up the city could confess ….. Of course, the TN Governement has tried its best to create an art gallery featuring the murals depicting the Cilappdiakaram story, the story which describes Poompuhar. The whole area is set in a well maintained garden with designed gazebos and statues. I expected some antiques , pieces of ruins, excavations or some tattered sails of the naval fleet but what was displayed were beautiful POP murals from the epic. There are some shell shaped guest house run by tamilnadu tourism which I found were not well maintained and spoilt with graffiti and dirtied by some tourists or locals. Such a rich piece of land which could speak enormous volumes of history is abandoned. While many countries with 200 years of history market every stone ,ruin, relic, land and exhibit it with pride , I thought I too should shout the news about the 2000 year old history in my blog.
Expect for the museum and shell shaped guest houses, the rest of Poompuhar is a lazy fishing village. Yes, yes just that, a small nondescript fishing village on the east coast of Tamilnadu with fishing nets, beach sand, crabs ,shells and rocky shores(like pondicherry).
And, of course Like the Karnataka handicrafts naming it after River Cauvery, Even Tamilnadu handircrafts has honored this place by naming its handicraft emporium after it and so you will find a Poompuhar, a TN government run handicraft store in major cities. ‘Poompuhar’ meaning beautiful estuary.
Wish the concerned people took measures to promote this place and showcase it to the world. I’ve heard there is a replica of the mythical Atlantis created in the sea world of Dubai. Perhaps we could recreate a Poompuhar and exhibit it to the world along with history brochures for travellers visiting this place. Perhaps then people like me would know there is an Atlantis in our own backyard and pick these souvenirs to know about our heritage and history rather than pick the beach shells and go there to drink 'color' or goli soda.
Many such thoughts cross my mind and i feel proud to have travelled in the same route where the traders of the past and many historical kings must have walked down. It indeed gives me a heady feeling for a moment to know I have walked over an extended piece of ancient history and an ancient part of my culture lie beneath me.
Location: Poompuhar is 300 kms south of Chennai in Tamilnadu's Nagapattinam district
The seven tiered silapdikara (tamil epic) art gallery featuring murals from the epic.