Early Maritime Relations of Kollam

Written by Megha RamMohan

Artwork credit: Kerala Museum


Kollam formerly, Quilon is situated in Kerala on India’s Malabar coast. Kollam is known for its flourishing trade hub and its serene beaches. It is the largest city and also a producer of cashew and coir manufacture.

In the 9th and 12th centuries CE, Kollam was the capital of the Venad Kingdom. Its natural harbor at Neendakara was an ancient trade hub with many contacts with foreigners. References to Kollam can be found in Roman and Phoenecian accounts from the first century C.E. In later times, it finds mention in the travel writings of the Chinese, Arabs and Europeans like Muhammad Ibn Battuta, Sulaiman Al- Tajir and Marco Polo dating from the 9th century onwards.

The oldest name of Kollam is “Desinganadu” after the king Jayasimha from whom the Venad dynasty is supposed to have originated. The name Kollam has a long etymology bearing the marks of the place’s history spanning centuries. One theory has it that the name Kollam derives from the Sanskrit “Kollam,” which means pepper, because the place had been an ancient trading and exporting center for pepper. Yet another theory proposes that the Sanskrit “kollam” also meant a boat, and the place got its name owing to being a port town where boats were harbored.It was once called Elancon by early travelers, Kaulam Mall by Arabs and Coilum by Marco Polo. Kollam’s history with the outside world is quite something. It is worth taking a look at.

Early Evidence of Trade Relations

Mesopotamia: The earliest account of trade relations was with the Babylonian and Sumerian kingdoms. On the Assyrian inscription Obelisk of Shalmaneser III Indian elephants and other animals are portrayed. Teak wood was also found in the temple of the moon at Ur and the palace of Nebuchad Nezzar. This indicated a strong trade relation between these mighty kingdoms.

Nelcynda: Kollam in the Greek script “Periplus of Erythrean Sea” is believed to be known as “Nelcynda”. Periplus gives a detailed description of the port such as it being a busy place with many traders from all over the world. It mentions how there is a place at the mouth of the river, the village of Bacare to which ships would drop down on the outward voyage from Nelcynda. Pliny calls it “Nelcyndi”, Ptolemy calls it “Melkynda” and that it belongs to the Ay Kingdom of the South. The roman script called the Peutinger Map mentions Kollam as Nelcynda and Kottanara.

Biblical Records: Kollam is also said to have had trade relations with the Hebrew King- Solomon. The reference can be seen in the Books of Kings in the Old Testament, where Solomon sent ships to the Phenocian King Hiram stored with gold,  ivory, apes, peacocks etc. This showed that he traded with the West Indies ports with major imports from Kollam.

Persia: Darius the Great, the persian king organized many merchantable expeditions to gain trade relations with India through land and sea. His ships  sailed down through the Indus and thence  around Arabia to reach Egypt. Thus it created trade relations with the Malabar Coast and Persia.

Arabs: The Arabs were our long time partners in trade.  Merchant Suleiman, the first Arab traveler described how the ships from Arabia take a full month to reach Quilon (Kollam Mali), and it takes ten dinars for the port dues. Ibn Battuta describes Malabar as the “The Land of Pepper”and that it takes two months to reach Kollam from Goa. He also describes how Kollam is the port where many Chinese merchants come for trade.

China: The rulers of China and Kollam were also quite close and even had the Chinese settle in Kollam in the medieval period. The Chinese Annals also explain about how in 1282 CE emissaries sent from the King of Quilon landed at the Zaytoun port in China. Marco Polo visited Kollam as a diplomatic representative of Kublai Khan in the 13th century. Kollam mostly profited off of the Chinese trade. They exported items like Brazil wood, spices, coconut etc. China exported silk, quicksilver, porcelain, Chinese net and more. Later restrictions were issued at the Coromandel Coast and Kollam due to illegal trade in luxuries. The names for it were Gu-lin and Ju-lin.

Portugal: Kollam was a major trading center of the Portuguese in the 15th century. Commodities like pepper, cinnamon, ginger, clove, mace, nutmeg, fish etc were exported from Kollam to Portugal in high quantities. The Portuguese issued a paper document license called ‘Cartas’ for trade to native ships so they could know if they belonged to enemy ships. These Cartas were signed by the Portuguese authority and those who didn’t pay for it were raided by the crew taken as prisoners.

Tharisapalli Copper Plates

Tharisapalli Copper Plates are a record of information based on the Jewish merchant Mar Sapir Iso. Mar Sapir Iso brought with him a long chain of commercial networks. Persian, Chinese and Jewish traders were the most prominent among them. Their exchange activities were managed by the merchant guilds Manigramam and Anjuvannam. The first half of the plates mention how Mar Sapir Iso founded the city of Kurakkeni Kollam and that he established the Tarsa church there. But some say it is just a speculation. He also brought elements of the Sassanid culture into the city of Kollam. Kurakkeni Kollam was known as Kollam Male In the Jewish Geniza papers. Mar Sapir got several commercial and economic privileges from the local ruler Ayyanadikal Thiruvadi. The most important one was the right to keep weights and measures such as ‘kappan’, ‘panchakandy’ and ‘parakkaol’ under its safe custody.

Kollam was a predominant place of maritime trade. Its geographical area was a favorable aspect for them. This in turn helped them in becoming one of  the largest trading hub in the world. The legacy of Kollam is still prevalent today.

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