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The unlikely treasures of Arikamedu

At an archaeological site near colonial Puducherry, a curious traveller finds Roman-era ruins and their dedicated protector

Ruins at Arikamedu. Photo: Subhadip Mukherjee
Ruins at Arikamedu. Photo: Subhadip Mukherjee

Being in Puducherry (formerly Pondicherry) is a bit like taking a bite out of the tastiest parts of Europe. The French left an occidental esprit behind when they moved out in 1954, but if one scratches the surface, this exotic past goes way deeper than the contemporary-nostalgic wine taverns and hipster bistros crowding the colonial streets.

In fact, the area’s cosmopolitanism stretches back to the days of the Roman empire, which is conclusively proved to me when I visit the Puducherry Museum (St Louis Street; Tuesday-Sunday; entry fee Rs50), where there’s a minuscule but mesmeric assemblage of finds, dug up in the 1940s on a riverbank outside town at a site known as Arikamedu. In that time so unimaginably long ago, there seems already to have been a semi-European trading post in the area. One perhaps replete with wine taverns, because the most sensational finds include shards of 2,000-year-old Roman amphorae shipped all the way here.

Unfortunately, there’s no proper information on it for museum visitors, but having read up beforehand I know that most of the amphorae found here are from Aegean islands such as Kos, known for exquisite wines. The grapes were mixed with salty seawater, which made the wine last over long journeys. So high was the demand that wine merchants in Italy started producing fake Koan amphorae filled with Kos-style wines especially for the Indian market.

A photograph from the excavations. Photo:Zac O’Yeah
A photograph from the excavations. Photo:Zac O’Yeah

Other than that, the Roman room has a mixed bag of goodies for the historically inclined, some of it in an indecipherable jumble: Ancient bricks are stacked on a kitchen table topped by a “Do Not Touch" sign but a small bead display has an unexpected signage telling visitors that these tiny beads were made here and sold to the Romans. I imagine they sold at a good price, for the locals to be able to sip wine and eat fish sauce (garum) made in Spain, that too from the finest Italian plates that were another important import during the period. The Arretine red clay tableware counted among the famous Archaeological Survey of India director Mortimer Wheeler’s most prized finds. “Were drama admissible to the archaeological scene, I should have been tempted to describe the moment as dramatic," he wrote (from Sir Mortimer Wheeler, a biography by Ronald Clark, published in 1960). The Arretine shards helped to establish a chronology of Indian archaeological finds because they had manufacturer stamps that identified them as pieces of high-quality dinnerware of the type that was fashionable in the Roman empire around 30 AD, produced in one particular pottery factory in Arretium (better known today as Arezzo in Tuscany).

Studying a photograph of the excavation at Arikamedu, where Wheeler found what might have been a riverside quay and a 50 AD brick warehouse, I decide to have a closer look. It seems to be about 6km south of the museum, near the village of Veerampattinam. In half an hour, just after my autorickshaw has driven through the Kakayanthope junction, I see the jungly site some distance away from habitation (in theory, open morning-sunset; free) and a ruined building with crumbling arches within a fenced-in area. The gate is locked.

Ancient bricks are stacked on a kitchen table topped by a ‘Do Not Touch’ sign but a small bead display has unexpected signage telling visitors that these tiny beads were made here and sold to the Romans-

Unfazed, my driver Muttu points to a hole in the fence and indicates that I should crawl through. The moment I get in, I spot a lad astride a motorbike and immediately get a bad feeling. Reports I had checked online during the auto ride had suggested this is a haven of illicit drinking. There is another motorbike visible, which means there will be two hooligans.

Looking in vain for an information sign, I am circling the neglected ruin when the two men sidle up and introduce themselves as protectors of the unprotected monument. I sense a protection racket. And I might be their next target for extortion. Ramesh speaks English, Ranganathan doesn’t. Ramesh looks young, only 30, he says—so I hope he’ll respect the fact that I am senior enough for them not to use lethal force.

But as it turns out, they want to befriend me! Ramesh tells me he isn’t really an archaeologist, but hangs out here every day keeping bad people away from the site. I ask him if the palace-like ruin is really a Roman mansion.

Raganathan (left) and Ramesh, who is an unofficial guide to the site. Photo: Zac O’Yeah

“No," he shakes his head, “it was a seminary built in the 1770s and, in fact, the same school continues today in Malaysia. Of Roman structures, nothing remains above ground."

Feeling reasonably satisfied that he knows more than I do, I ask Ramesh if he can show me any Roman ruins at all. We go off into the jungle. Some of the clearings we walk through probably represent the old excavation. There’s a pit that may have been a wine cellar. I also see a slight bulge in the ground, running parallel to the lagoon, 70-80m inland, perhaps a defensive wall.

It appears that Ramesh, who lives in the village nearby, guides people when they show genuine interest in the site’s history. Once we reach the river, which is mostly obscured by gnarled thorny bushes, he points out a brick lining in the steep slope. I ask if this is the quay that Wheeler discovered in 1945.

“No, the water’s edge was much further out then. It has eroded over 25m since his time."

So here I am, staring at something never before seen by the archaeological community, something that the Ariyankuppam river has dug out by itself. Ramesh is happy to show me another spot where a Roman wall can be identified if one dares to venture down the slippery riverbank. Further on the same path, he digs a heel in the dust and reveals a piece of circular pottery under the surface. He says it was a Roman well. There are many around. It reminds me that Wheeler found, amongst other things, water tanks believed to have been used in the preparation of export-quality muslin cloth. How come none of this is excavated? I ask Ramesh.

“Nobody cares," he shrugs, whose dream is to help set up a local site museum. If something like that came up, if the government started an interpretation centre, he would gladly donate every antique bead he has ever found. But despite much talk, neither the authorities nor private actors have been able to turn the site visitor-friendly—even though what we have here is one of the most important excavations in archaeological history.

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