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Cover Story

Port town buried under the sea

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WATERY GRAVE: Divers will have to scrape through layers of sediment, sea barnacles, flora and fauna to piece together the story of the town that once had trade links with the east and west

Exploration planned under the sea off Poompuhar on Tamil Nadu's coast could provide evidence of the thriving trade centre mentioned in the works of Ptolemy and Pliny.

According to the Tamil epic Manimekalai, Poompuhar on Tamil Nadu's east coast was 'swallowed' by the sea following the curse of a goddess. The myth says that a Chola king, mourning his son's death, forgot to celebrate the annual spring festival, Indra Vizha and incurred the deity's wrath. Historians today believe that the disaster that hit the port town was a tsunami. Centuries later, the 2004 tsunami that ravaged modern-day Poompuhar has posed a big challenge to archaeologists.

The ancient town lies buried in the sea and divers of the Goa-based National Institute of Oceanography will have to scrape through layers of sediment, sea barnacles, flora and fauna to piece together the story of the busy port town that had trade links with the east and the west.

"There is enough proof that the rich merchants of Manigrama, a suburban village of ancient Poompuhar, travelled by boats accompanied by 'sena muka' (soldiers to defend vessels against pirates) to Takua Pa (now in south Thailand) to trade in mani (gems). A Tamil inscription on a stone to this effect is still preserved in modern-day Takua Pa, " says former state archaeology director, R Nagaswamy.

Notable Greeks such as Ptolemy and Pliny describe this Chola town as an important port. It flourished between the 3rd century BC and the 5th century AD and did business with both the Roman Empire and China, until it was washed away by tidal waves. Onshore and offshore excavations since the 1960s have given archaeologists an exciting glimpse of this once rich town.

Excavations have revealed ring wells, brick structures, semi-precious stones and shards of amphorae. State archaeology minister Thangam Thennarasu says the government is keen on an elaborate exploration that can help unearth and preserve the remnants of an ancient Tamil culture. The government is in talks with the NIO for an expedition that would also include other ancient ports off the TN coast, now submerged under the sea.

Besides Poompuhar, the excavation team will also explore Alagankulam, near Rameswaram, Periyapattinam, where large quantities of porcelain were found, Korkai near Thoothukudi, mentioned in Sangam literature as a pearl-rich port and Nagapattinam, another port that flourished during the medieval period.

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