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Malayalam's Own Monsoon
by Dr.V. Sankaran Nair Bookmark and Share

Basically an air stream, laden with moisture, the monsoon is a sea and land breeze that sweeps back and forth over hundreds of thousands of square miles of land and sea, and keyed to the cycle of summer and winter. Popularly known as Monsoon, this seasonal wind blows over the Arabian Sea with consistency and regularity from the northeast for about six months and from the southwest for another six months alternatively, owing to the differential heating of land and ocean. Monsoon over India during summer is southwest monsoon and that during winter is northeast monsoon. The southwest monsoon comes from the direction of Africa, and enters the Indian sub-continent through western coast between May 25 and June 8. The northeast monsoon, that sweeps down from the Asian plateaus and the Himalayas (Oct. and Dec.) is the retreating one. They are respectively idavappathi and tulaavarsham in Kerala and both of them are known as Kalavarsham. Southwest monsoon sets in with clockwise regularity and this uniqueness of the rain made it known as Kalavaatham, Kalavarsham, Kalavrishti. But a precise definition of monsoon is still evading.

Thermal changes

All atmospheric motions owe their operation to the energy from the sun stationed about 93 million miles from the earth. During the vernal equinox, the sun moves northwards across the equator in the northern hemisphere and heats up the continents surrounding the Arabian Sea. As a consequence, a trough of low pressure forms over the region, extending from Somalia northward across Arabia into Pakistan and northwest India. Hot air rises over South Asia during April and May. Into these low-pressure areas the cooler, moisture-laden winds from the Indian Ocean flow, setting off a rush of damp air from the southern seas and spread northward over the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the Indian subcontinent.

The Western Ghats of Kerala, the orientation of which is from north to south, block the monsoon winds, from a south-westerly direction, that blows from the coast of Africa through the Arabian Sea during June, July and August, and precipitates the western coast of India, causing them to shed most of their moisture on the windward side of the Ghats.

The land heats in summer and cools in winter, but the temperature in the adjacent ocean areas remains relatively constant. As a result, massive convective updrafts rise over the land in summer, and air travel to land from the ocean to take its place-creating the long moisture laden summer monsoon. During the winter when the continents are cooler than the ocean, the process is traversed.[1] Scientists have identified thermal changes between the Asian land mass and the ocean as causes of monsoon, apart from the sun's northward tilt and other factors.

In nature's almanac, the advent of the monsoon is a gradual process beginning with a short period of transition from extreme heat to a very humid atmosphere with light rain. The onset of westerly winds over the west coast of India is often sudden. It is referred to as the burst of monsoon over India. For a day and a half, the pleasant westerly blows set the tone of the season. On the monsoon eve, the dragonflies fill the air.[2]  Dark, moisture-laden clouds from the sea rise and the horizon disappears behind the dark mass of congregated vapours. Lightning goes followed by peals of thunder. The cluster of clouds is likened to a battalion of gray elephants. The monsoon brings rains for eons to most parts of the Indian subcontinent. The southwest Monsoon's majestic arrival brings rain replenishing its water bodies, irrigating half of its arable land before retreating in September. Cultivation in India has remained dependent on the monsoons down the ages. The appearance of small rain birds as harbingers signals the farmer, to get ready with the kaikkotte (spade) and vith  (seed).

Monsoon's own country

October brings in the northeast monsoon. Dry weather sets in by the end of December. While January and February are cold months, March, April and May are generally very hot. The energetic nature of Indian monsoon depends on the heat balance of the atmosphere during the pre-monsoon and monsoon months and the transport of energy and water vapour in the air determines the force of the monsoon. More evaporation would result in more cloud formation providing more energy sources for local atmospheric circulations leading to an intense hydrological cycle and heavier precipitation.[3]

In terms of rainfall, India, especially Kerala, is a blessed country in the world. With an area of 6.5 lakh ha, Kerala falls within the humid tropics and its annual rainfall is 3000 to 4000 mm. India has two monsoon seasons, covering almost six months, making up 80% of the rainfall. It is also experienced that Kerala receives ninety per cent of rain in just three weeks.

Even today there are homesteads with paddy fields spread around the house where the visit of monsoon makes the homestead an island surrounded by rainwater. With the monsoon reaching the climax, the well in the vicinity will be full at the ground level. For a short period, one can scoop water from the well from the ground itself. But this convenience will be there for only a few weeks. By summer perhaps one will have to deepen the well for a bucket of water.

The monsoon adds to the beauty of Kerala when its traditional water bodies like backwaters, thousands of ponds, lakes, small rivulets and streams and 44 rivers capture nature's bounty and turn the narrow strip of Kerala, sandwiched between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats, into a water-land. The monsoons have turned the Western Ghats a lush rain forest and made Kerala one of the wettest regions of the world with mist and humidity contributing to a microclimate.

Rivers and water flow

River, a natural stream of water, flows from its source in a channel towards a lake or another river and ultimately to the sea. They always flow downhill over a bed made of stones, pebbles, boulders, rock and mud. Shallower in the upper course of a river, the water in the middle and lower courses is much deeper. As such, the riverbed can be seen only at the shallower phase. The river flows either in a straight canal or a meandering channel, giving the river its shape. The river that starts as a stream has three courses. It is usually fast flowing and shallow in the upper courses, meanders or bends in the middle course and becomes widest and deepest at the lower course, closest to the sea. A river can also have an estuary or a delta as its mouth. The river, highly energetic in upper reaches is lesser gradient in its middle course. Other rivers join as tributaries in its middle stage. The river attains old age in its lower course and flows slowly towards its mouth at the sea. In its last stage at the estuary or lagoon, salt water from the ocean penetrates and changes its character.

Alappuzha, a water locked region, flanked by an unending row of coconut trees, is always washed by the silvery waves of the Arabian Sea and interlocked with a large number of canals and lakes. Three prominent rivers such as Achankovil, Pamba and Manimala empty into the lakes. This environment was bounteous enough to offer to its inhabitants a great variety of food items like rice, tubers, fruits, green leafy vegetables, pepper, ginger, turmeric, medicinal plants etc.

Watershed areas of Kasaragod, spread over Kannur and Kasaragod, have a total extent of 164.76 sq. km. Hillocks are situated along their basin up to the western boundary of the midland. The Kavvayi River is typical of the midland-originating rivers. Wetland covers wide land areas that are seasonally or permanently waterlogged, including lakes, rivers, and estuaries, freshwater marshes of low-lying land, submerged or inundated periodically by fresh or saline water.

In Kannur district, five rivers discharge their effluent contents into Ettikkulam lagoon and join the sea. Three rivers, Valapattanam, Ancharakkandi and Ponniam, before joining the sea, fall into Tellicherry Lake. The volume of water from 11 'rivers between Kodungalloor and Kollam is 40,640 Mcum. But nine of them (Keecheri, Karuvannur, Chalakkudy, Periyar, Moovattupuzha, Meenachil, Manimala, Pampa and Achankoil) together have 36,864 Mcum water. When the total volume of water in 27 rivers is 38,320 Mcum that of two rivers -Kochi and Kodungalloor - is 36,864 Mcum. However, Kodungalloor River is still having the rock - like sand - ridges and the water flow is often impeded. Cochin harbour has increased in depth, width and length. It is through Cochin harbour, that the water is mostly discharged into the sea. Therefore, the force and ferocity of water flow are imaginable! Huge volumes of water running in force and ferocity, when discharged into the sea, through a single river, cannot but create dangerous currents and sea - erosion. Worse is the situation, when that huge volume of water is devoid of elluvium also.'[4]

About 600 kilometers long coastline of Kerala, situated at the southwest    ern end of the Indian peninsula is only 100 kilometers wide at the widest point. Bounded by the Arabian Sea on the west and the dense tropical rain forests on the east, its 41 rivers, with an average length of 64 kilometers have their sources in the Western Ghats. The lagoons and backwaters, with an estimated area of 355,000 hectares, experience the tidal effect even 50 kilometers upstream since much of this land lies below high tide level. The total estimated volume of water from all the 41 west-flowing rivers is 82, 308 million cubic metre (Mcum). 

The encircling sheet of shining water offered the people in the countryside, water to bathe, drink, cook, and for irrigation. Such lands are common in Kerala. People reached from place to place, in small country boats, paddled with hands. Apart from the greenery offered by the rice banana and coconut belt, cashew, pineapple and papaya were cultivated with the advent of the Portuguese. Tea, rubber and coffee plantations were made after clearing natural forests. Wetland systems directly and indirectly support lakhs of people, providing goods and services to them. Moreover, significant socio-economic values like constant water supply, fisheries, fuel wood, and medicinal plants; livestock grazing, agriculture, energy resource, wildlife resource and transport are noteworthy. Ferryboats link this network of inland lagoons and streams. A boat journey through this network enables one to have a peep of the interior of the countryside.

Sunny days -herald of well culture

Kerala's topography is such that the steep slopes and hilly terrain fail to capture the precipitation at the high ranges. As a result the rainwater rushes down to the Arabian Sea, only 80 km away, within 38 to 48 hours. Most of the rivers in Kerala are short and fast flowing. They drain away the water within months to the Arabian Sea. These rivers splat during monsoon are dry during summer. The period between two monsoons, December and February, is one of sunny days and the nights are pleasantly cool. This ephemeral nature of the surface water sources compelled man, tired of looking up to the sky for rain, to dig the ground and probe 'hydro-riches stored in the bowels of the earth' thus evolving a well culture. A little over 15 per cent of the total groundwater generated during monsoon, seeps down to the underground geological formations called aquifers. They can be reached by digging up deep wells.

Traditional Kerala homesteads meet their domestic water needs from open wells. Built up in the midst of a sprawling paddy field, the building complexes had several ponds around them, for bathing and other domestic purposes. The monsoon brings music and poetry, inside the house when it pours into the courtyard through the roof opened up towards the skies. The water that the courtyard receives percolates to the earth, which acts like a sponge and recharges the ground water, which seeps to wells and ponds constructed around the house. Some traditional houses had nine wells around the building to cater to the different needs. Today, Kerala has around 4.5 million open wells to meet daily requirements of water, out of which three million are perennial in nature. This high density of open wells, around 200-wells/ sq. km in midland and lowland areas,[5] has made Kerala one of the geographical locations with the highest density of open wells to meet domestic requirements. 70% of the people in Kerala depend on open wells for their domestic water requirements.

Tanks, ponds and springs meet the domestic and irrigation water requirements. Kerala has approximately 995 tanks and ponds and 236 perennial springs.[6]According to another report, Kerala has about 45,000 ponds, including temple ponds.[7] Even though (perhaps) the highest in number in the country, wells during summer months, afforded no water at all.

Of the 152-groundwater blocks into which Kerala is divided, the maximum usage of ground water has been witnessed in the Chirayinkeezhu, Kodungallur and Kasaragod blocks. During the southwest     monsoon (June and August), the hilly terrain in Kasaragod, instead of recharging groundwater, allows rainwater to flow away to sea making no impact of storing it in the ponds, lakes, tanks and wells.

Man-made Water scarcity

Emerging picture of water-rich Kerala being reduced to a water-deficient state can be compared to the killing of the duck that laid golden eggs. Unmindful of its water resources, Kerala preferred to be profligate. There was a time when Kanyakumari and Trivandrum were linked with Cochin by inland waterways. Owing to lack of maintenance or negligence, these waterways became nonfunctional. The way Bharatapuzha, a perennial river, was turned into a trickle is a fine example. If one stretches one's mind's eye to Trivandrum of fifty years ago, a picture of the city beaming with rain-soaked paddy fields and large public ponds will come to his mind. Paddy cultivation is becoming uneconomic today. The middleclass families abandoned cultivation, in effect leaving acres and acres of paddy fields fallow for a while. The sprawling high-density houses that we see today stand on former paddy fields. The availability of water supply made them fill their wells. This wiping out of the paddy fields sounded the death- knell of the water table. Digging a new well or a bore-well is not an answer to the deepening water crisis, which intervenes at times. These developments eventually caused the depletion of underground aquifers where groundwater is stored.

The advent of the British saw the replacement of non-renewable shola forests with plantation crops, followed by the illogical destruction of the highland area and encroachment of the evergreen tropical forests, which reduced rainfall. Extensive deforestation and degradation of catchment areas resulted in the decline of traditional sources of water. Increase in demand for residential buildings increased the demand for river sand. This decimated riverbeds, reducing the water table. In this context an increase in the number of ponds is suggested as the best means to Kerala's water problems. But the tendency is to fill them and construct high-rise buildings. The Building complex of the Water Works Department at Muttada, under the very nose of the Government in Trivandrum is a fine example.

Plenty amidst scarcity 

The torrential rains that inundate many parts of Kerala make the day-to-day life of the common people very difficult. The month of heavy rain in July-August is called the month of Karkkidakam, a synonym of difficulties. The villagers believe that their calamity is over, once the month of Karkkidakam is completed. The idavappathi rained for a period of 3' months with incessant terrible thunder. The tall coconut trees like trained soldiers faced the brunt of the wind. The red earth turned the crystal clear rainwater; blood red in colour, and the rivers carried it to the sea. It is pointed out that the monsoon rain of 1789 prevented Tippusulthan's all-conquering army from marching towards southern Kerala.

The strong winds and high waves make it impossible for the fishermen everywhere to go out into the sea during the monsoon. But, for the fishermen in Kerala, the early days of monsoon are the much-awaited time. The torrential monsoon rain washes soil out from the hills and forests which finds its way through these waterways into the littoral currents of the coastal waters leading to the formation of mud banks, in the sea floor some two km from the shore, suppresses the waves of the Malabar Coast in a unique way. This phenomenon known as Chaakara, a local term denoted a calm area of the sea, free from waves.

The slow current also hosts fish and prawns in abundance and encourages fishing activity to thrive. Thousands of fishermen from the surrounding areas rush to the village where the Chaakara is located. In this island of safety where the sea becomes unusually hospitable, they harvest shoals of fish from their traditional fishing vessels with traditional nets.  A single throw of nets enables them to bring home a miraculous bumper harvest of oil sardines and prawns, a bonanza for the whole year.

In earlier times, Kerala's extensive coastlines from Kollam to Thrissur, experienced mud bank formations quite frequently, bringing rich and bounteous harvest to the numerous fishermen. They believe that this gift from nature occurs as a result of the blessing of Mother Sea, known as kadalmath, kadalmakal, kadalvanitha, kadalkanya, kadalamma. But the formation of the mud banks is a strange geological phenomenon, peculiar to Kerala, whose secret remains to be explored from many dimensions. It holds the key to unfold the unique part Kerala played in the history of world civilization.

But today most of the studies show the weakening of Chaakara occurrence.[8]Studies on the phenomenon of Chaakara have not yet pointed out the reason for its occurrence as well as it's weakening. Science of Chaakara needs to be studied in depth so as to enable us to situate Kerala in the context of the development of world civilization.

Ingredients of the mud banks

The mud bank turns to be an immense storehouse of organic matter, rich in phytoplankton and zooplankton. This delicious fish food attracts fish life to concentrate in the area. 'Consisting of highly cohesive and flocculated clay the most dominant texture of the mud bank sediment is silt or clay with sand. Mud density ranges from 1 080 to 1 300 kg'm '3 and dispersed particle size ranges between 0.5 and 3 'm (Devaraj et al. 1999). The mud bank area is rich in phytoplankton (70 to Page 4 760 WorldFish Center 761 130 ml' l-1) and chlorophyll a (11 to 33 mg'm-3). Blooms of phytoplankton (> 10 000 cells'ml-1), mainly Noctiluca spp., Skeletonema spp. and Fragilaria spp. occur in the mud banks, which are inhabited by 58 species of planktonic algae (Anon.1984). Zooplankton biomass is high (up to 4.1 ml/ per 10 minute haul) in the mud banks compared to that (1 ml/per 10 minute haul) of pre- or post- mud bank seasons. There are 19 groups of zooplankton dominated by copepods (80%). The sediments of mud banks carry rich loads of organic matter (5%). About 90 to 95% of benthic fauna in the mud bank consist of polychaetes and molluscs. The calm sea together with high productivity favors fish and shellfish migration to the mud banks and yields high catches. Fish production in mud bank areas was estimated to be 56% higher than in non-mud bank areas during 1966 ' 75 (Anon. 1984). Furthermore, waves as high as 2 to 3 m outside the mud bank get reduced to 0.5 m on the mud bank. This wave dampening facilitates safe anchorage and smooth fishing for traditional fishers during the monsoon season, which is generally unsafe outside the mud bank area.' [9]

Migration of Mud Banks

Within a few days of the onset of the southwest monsoon, the violent winds and strong ocean currents combine, stir wave action that vigorously churns up the silt-laden, nutrient-rich waters into a muddy pool of calm waters. [10] The Alappuzha mud banks running several kilometers close to the coast and forming a huge lake, protected from the turbulent sea is well knownThe stirring of the sea results in the mud settled at the bottom of the ocean rising to the top, bearing the Piscean booty.

The bank formation is sporadic and erratic and varies from year to year, in extent and duration. In some years they are not formed at all. A favourable combination of several factors like rainfall intensity and duration, temperature, salinity and some other unknown faculties - leads to the formation and decides its extent and duration of continuance. It has also been noticed that the banks are not stationary, which migrate, normally to the south within a specific segment and sometimes they are located at the original point. 'Year to year shifting of the mud banks, if any, is due to variations in bathymetric conditions, which determine the magnitude of energy convergence". Apart from the beneficial effect in the development of fishing industry, the mud banks have a decisive impact on the shore stability of the coast of Kerala. 

Chemistry of Chaakara

Scientifically speaking, this phenomenon of Chaakara that occurs in different locations in the coastal region of the Arabian Sea is the result of the geo ' morphological peculiarities of Kerala. Due to hydraulic pressure the level of the backwater rises during southwest     monsoon. The Cochin river estuary did not exist in olden days. But there were many small rivers and creeks all along the coast. Though small in size, their number compensated for the size and contributed to a uniform discharge of floodwaters into the sea. All the 41 west - flowing rivers remained connected with lakes, lagoons and channels not blocked by any man-made dams. Of the annual rainfall (regularly 300 to 320 cm), a major share used to flow through rivers and creeks, and discharged evenly into thecoastal region of the Arabian Sea. These flood waters contained large quantities of eluvium (silt and clay). [11]

A loose deposit of rock debris accumulated through the action of gravity at the base of a cliff or slope is colluvium. Geologically a deposit of superficial loam, sand, gravel, stones, etc., caused by weathering can be called elluvium.[12] The residual deposit of soil, dust, and rock particles, produced by the action of the wind, remain where they were formed by the decomposition of rock masses. The flowing water of the rivers transports them to riverbeds, food plains, lakes and estuaries, and these deposits of sand or mud become alluvium. When settled in colloidal form, it is colluvium, otherwise mud. Laterite rock exists through out Kerala.  The silt and clay of laterite soil consist mainly of silica, iron and alumina. When the seawater containing sodium and magnesium comes into contact with the former elements, chemical reaction takes place, resulting in a complex colloid of sodium and magnesium with the elements in silt and clay. Permeated with the colloid, the seawater loses its fluidity and fails to form into waves. The current slows down, with the cessation of rain. The water flow slows down, allowing the colloid to gradually settle down as mud on the sea floor. Sand is deposited over these mud deposits by tidal action and the sea retreats resulting in land formation. Such marine formations continued till 1920. Scientists believe that the area between Quilandi and Quilon is a marine formation that came into existence 3000 years ago, when the sea retreated. [13]

Natural Harbour

The mud banks, that occurs within a week or so after the onset of the heavy downpours and stormy winds of the South West monsoons and disappears with its withdrawal (September/October) is a strange geological phenomenon. They 'are formed due to periodic stress from the waves over a muddy bottom, resulting in bed erosion, generation of fluid mud and wave attenuation (Anon. 1984). The combined action of waves and currents transport the fluid mud near the shore. After about 2 months, the fluid mud exhibits downslide movement, dissipating the mud bank.'[14]

The absence of waves and freedom from the thrust and pull normally experienced in the open sea enable big vessels to remain in the sea facilitating the loading and unloading of the cargo from the ships in canoes and small boats even at the height of the monsoon. This phenomenon might have offered most of the ancient settlements of Kerala a sustained development since ancient times and made it safe to anchor right in the gracefully calm sea, and remain safe as if in a pond.[15]

History has tongues

Mud banks at Purakkad, Narakkal are famous. Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai in his novel Chemmeen has made a legend of Chaakara at Purakkad beach in Alleppy district. Later, when the novel was filmed, the entire world came to know more about this phenomenon. Thikkodiyan's[16] Chuvanna Kadal and Unni Joseph's Kadappuram have followed this tradition. After Chemmeen was translated into film, the sea became a hot subject to the filmmakers. The phenomenon of Chaakara might have come to the notice of the local fishermen first, centuries ago, as they served as places of refuge of fishes. From them it came to the notice of the foreign navigators from Arabia and Persia. This is evident from documents that speak about this annual visitation of Chaakara continuously since ancient times.

Mention of the rich find of fishery resources and the glee of the fishing communities of this region is found in the Sangam Literature and the writings of Pliny, a geographer and famous Roman traveller of the 1st century AD (Ray, 1993). In later centuries (7th and 8th AD) the Arab traders found their way to the northern part of Kerala by following the teeming shoals of oil sardines which migrate down the west coast of India hugging close to the in-shore waters. Friar Odoric, who sailed down the southwest     coast of India in 1320, also witnessed fishes come swimming in those seas ' in such abundance that for a great distance into the seas nothing can be seen but the back of fishes, which casting themselves on the shore, do suffer men for the space of three daies (days) to come and take as many of them as they please."[17] More recent periods of colonial rule in Malabar saw the systematic documentation of the flora and fauna for the scientific value of ichthyology. Francis Day's Fishes of Malabar (1865) was one such study.[18]

A great many travellers mentioned this phenomenon in their travel accounts. Ibn Batuta, the Chinese traveller of the 14th Century, wrote about Chinese ships halted to rest in Panthalayini. Correspondence between sea-faring merchants of Kerala and Arab dignitaries dating back to the 12th century and earlier also throws light on this matter.

Alexander Hamilton's Account of the East Indies, 1688-1723, Robert Kerr's A General History and Collection of Voyages and Travels, Arranged in Systematic Order: Forming a Complete History of the Origin and Progress of Navigation, Discovery and Commerce, By Sea and Land, From the Earliest Ages to the Present Time etc speak about mud banks.

The statement of Stavorinus, another writer, bears testimony to the fact that the mud banks at the mouth of the river at Cranganore (Kodungallur) helped the vessels to move perfectly in water depths of 20 feet without anchor or cables during the Southwest monsoon.

R C Bristow, builder of the Cochin harbour, in 1938, had made a study of the formation, nature, behaviour and effects of the mud banks followed by various agencies.

The influence of the mud banks on the sea is such that the part of the roaring sea is conduced to calm itself, allowing not even a wavelet to give discomfort to the small country crafts to ply over it.

It should be noted that the ships of Vasco da Gama were anchored in the open sea at Panthalayini, during 20th May to 26 August 1498.[19] This enabled the Portuguese to catch hold of the key of the Arabian Sea, heralding an era of competition among the Europeans to snatch the same.


Hydrography deals with the measurement and description of the physical features of water bodies and their littoral land areas leading to the mapping of the ocean bottoms and the measuring of ocean currents. Today the term is used mainly with respect to charting of the oceans and estuaries and coastal waters for navigational purpose.[20] The study of the movement, distribution, and quality of water embracing the full life history of water on earth is Hydrology. It treats the waters of the earth, their distributions, characteristics and effects. It is the science of determining and making known the conditions of navigable waters, charting rivers, coasts etc.

'Seasonal changes in winds and currents induce an annual cycle of hydrographic events along the southwest  coast. During the monsoon, the southerly current spreads over the entire continental shelf. Isolines of water temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen (DO) and density lift to the surface (upwelling) and occupy the area between the southerly current and the coast. Consequently, dense and cool water with low DO occupies the surface near the coast. During the post-monsoon period (October - January), there is a strong current with northerly flow. On the seaward side of the flow, there exists a southerly flow only in the southern region of the southwest     coast. During this period, low saline equatorial waters are adverted northwards causing sinking of high saline Arabian Sea water between 10' N and 12' N (Devaraj et al. 1997). During the pre-monsoon period (February - May), the northerly current disappears and the southerly flow constricts to a narrow belt. Mud banks characterize the southwest     coast, particularly the southern part from 9' N to 13' N. The mud banks are 1 to 3 m thick in calm, turbid waters with a high load of suspended sediment. They appear close to shore in a stretch of 2 to 5 km parallel to the coast, and with a width of 1.5 to 4 km.'[21]

Hippalus wind 

The southwest monsoon that prevailed between April and October was found favourable for the trip from Egypt to India, and the northeast monsoon, between October and April, was found favourable to the return voyage from the Orient. This remained an obscure secret with the Arabs for a long time. Monsoon winds promoted the Arab spice trade with India much against the resentment of Rome. No wonder, Rome made a futile attempt to invade Arabia in 24 BC. Finally; it was broken when Hippalus, an Egyptian sailor (in BC.43 or 46 AD), discovered that the monsoons reversed their direction twice a year. This intelligence made the sailing from Egypt's Red Sea coast to reach India and back shorter and safer. With this, Rome was destined to break the Arab monopoly. The full power of the vast wind systems of the Indian Ocean blowing in opposite directions during the monsoons and in other times, was an epoch-making event that helped the ships from Aden, near the Red Sea, to reach Kodungallur, via the Laksha Dweep, in a period of 30 to 40 days. This knowledge about the direction of the monsoon winds greatly facilitated the foreign traders and sailors from Egypt, Syria, Greece, Rome and Arabia to reach the western coast of Kerala for trade.

Age of Exploration

Prince Henry the Navigator (b.1394) established a navigational school at Sagres in SW Portugal in 1416, which served as a base for explorations. To this a naval arsenal, an observatory, a school for the study of geography and navigation were added. This gave the greatest impetus to exploration by new routes to new lands and in 1487 Bartholemeu Diaz (1500?-1550) reached the Indian Ocean. In the overland expeditions, Pedro de Covilhao (1487) went overland and by sea to Calicut (known for cinnamon, ginger, black pepper etc), Goa, and Hormuz.

Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus set out in search of a route to India in a gap of six years. But it was Vasco da Gama who was destined to reach Indian shores. Columbus landed in the Americas, and satisfied calling the Red Indians 'You Indians' and the fiery vegetable chilies, as spice.

Vasco da Gama (1469?-1524) with orders from King Manuel I of Portugal, 8 July 1497, sailed around the Cape to Mozambique in search of a sea route to India. He carried with him stores for 3 years and the best nautical equipment available at the time. The monsoon winds took da Gama to Calicut on the west coast of India on 20 May 1498, and he returned to Lisbon in 1499 (the day of ruination for Venice). This ushered in a new Portuguese era of the spice trade.

The monsoon winds brought not only rains but also foreign travellers safely to Kerala. In May 1498 the Zamorin of Kozhikode instructed Vasco da Gama to anchor his ships at Pantalayani Kollam, situated nearly 30km away from Kozhikode, before the onset of the rain. The foreign traders and sailors reached Kerala and returned home in accordance with the shifting of the monsoon winds, which came to be known as trade winds. During the interim period they engaged in trading activities.

The discovery of monsoon winds facilitated Kerala's foreign trade with the Roman Empire during the early centuries after Christ, in luxury items very popular among the elite section of the Roman society.

Pepper Trade

If one looks back across some 5000 years of recorded history, one can grasp the pivotal part that spices have played in the history of mankind. Cardamom, Cassia, Dill, Frankincense, Gallbanum, Garlic & Onion, Mint, Myrrh, Onychis (mollusk shell which gives off odour when burned), Saffron, Sesame, Stacte (oil of cinnamon or cassia or aromatic gum resins), Sweet Calamus, and Thyme were the ancient spices. Of these, pepper vines nourished and sustained by monsoon in the Western Ghats was the King of Spices.  Kerala was the only place in the ancient world where black pepper, which came to be known as 'black gold',[22] was found. Other famous spices include cloves, cardamom, nut mug, cinnamon, etc.

There was a time when sugar, tea, coffee, chocolate, citrus fruits, and tobacco were strange to the Europeans. It was oriental spices that added flavour and piquancy to food and drink and fragrant aromas. Kings sent expeditions in search of oriental spices. Wars were fought over them, whole populations were enslaved, and the globe was explored. The restless, ruthless competition that followed trade risked the life and fortunes of merchants. Cutthroat competitions induced global explorations. This reduced distances of nations and brought forth new political and economic crises.

This potential quality of the small black berry to help preserve meat is noteworthy. Refrigerator is used today to preserve meat. In those days before the invention of the refrigerator pepper was widely used to preserve meat. This helped the plant to conquer the hearts of the Europeans through their stomachs. It preoccupied a central stage in Kerala history by attracting successive waves of foreigners. From time immemorial, pepper had set maritime trade in motion; established navigation; made history and changed its course.

The Phoenicians in 1200 BC were the pioneers in the sea trade with Kerala. In 1000 BC King Solomon's ships visited 'Ophix', (the modern Puvar, in South Thiruvananthapuram) to trade in ivory, apes, sandalwood and peacocks. The fame of Kerala spices brought the Romans in 30 AD who were followed soon after by the Greeks. It has been found that Teak wood was used in the making of the Moon Athur Temple and the palace of Nebuchadnezzar (605-562 BC). In those days, Teak was exported only from Kerala.

'And she gave the king an hundred and twenty talents of gold, and spices in very great store, and precious stones: there came no more such abundance of spices as these which the Queen of Sheba gave to king Solomon.  And the navy also of Hiram, that brought gold from Ophir, brought in Ophir great plenty of almug trees, and precious stones'.[23]  

The Akananuru, a first or second century Tamil work, mentions about Yavanas coming in large vessels carrying gold and returning with pepper. An early Tamil poet chanted in praise of the thriving town of Muchiri where the beautiful great ships of the Yavanas (Greeks) bringing gold came splashing the white foam on the waters of the Periyar and returned with loads of their favourite pepper. Akam songs 2,112,182 and 273 make references to pepper cultivation. Song 126 of Puranannuru provides information about the ships, which brought gold from Rome. Cargoes such as textiles of various kinds, spices and semiprecious stones were shipped from India to Egypt. 

In the age of exploration the medieval world saw Moslem merchants dominating the spice trade of the East and Middle East. The pivotal points in the east were Calicut, Colombo, and Malacca. Venetians were the middlemen. They moved spices from the Mideast to the rest of Europe. The Turks in 1453 conquered Constantinople and this brought about the eventual decline of Venice as a great power. 

For a long period, the monopoly of pepper trade was in the hands of the nomadic Arab tradesmen, from whom the Phoenicians came to know about pepper, and controlled the spice trade in the western world. Herodotus, Theophrastus, Strabo, and Pliny give the impression that South Arabia was the great spice emporium of the ancient world. Herodotus reports about Arabia as the sole source. The Arabs monopolized spices until the Greeks forged the new trade routes with the east. This enabled them to cut the trip from the Mediterranean to India from two years to one. Chaucer (1349-1400), Boccaccio (Decameron) 1313-1375, The Arabian Nights, Shakespeare (1564-1616) etc have made splendid reference to spices.

Pepper that put the wind in the sails of a great many European sailors was instrumental in the development of trade and conquest. In the heydays of the Roman Empire, pepper reached Northern Europe. But its fall brought its supply to a halt. 'It took the monumental force of the crusades to crack open the trade between north and south; and as pepper regained its popularity in Europe, merchants and traders began to seek improved means to supply the ensuing demand.' [24]

During the early phase of this renewed commerce, pepper was the largest import as the Europeans craved for it. As its cost became unbearable, the Europeans began to explore new ways to get it.  "The coup de grace was the rise of Portugal as a great sea power." The Portuguese won the control of the spice trade when Vasco da Gama reached the Indian shores. But their rivals were the Venetians.

The formation of the Dutch East India Company did not reduce the pepper cost. When the British and the French formed their East India Companies, the competition that came into force brought down the cost of pepper.  Europe had to wait until they were able to introduce the peppercorn plant in the New World and Brazil to become the world's largest producer.  Still pepper remained the king of spices.

The pepper trade won Elias Haskett Derby, the title of America's first millionaire. His fortune in the American pepper trade in the early 1800s, helped him to spice up Yale University by an endowment. Historical records speak that pepper drained the Roman exchequer towards Kerala. Again, we see the formation of Yale University with the wealth accumulated in selling the pepper. Where is the place of Kerala in this picture?[25] Kerala is the producer of pepper but how many Universities in Kerala can compete with the Yale University. Then where did the Roman gold go? The difference may be the difference in the word sale and sail. Kerala was both a sailor as well as seller, but not beyond its gateways. They remained in their koolam and preferred to be a coolie only. Had she been able to catch the monsoon winds like the Chinese, she would have been taken a leading role in guiding rest of India to new direction.

Ancient Ports of Kerala

By the 1st Century AD, the Roman sailors taking advantage of the monsoon winds borne down upon the Arabian Sea to the Indian Coast in pursuit of trade. Once the monsoon winds took the reverse turn, they returned home with their goods, sailing back to the Red Sea, crossing Egypt. 

The Roman coins discovered from the various parts of the country, especially from Kerala, and the references about the trade in classical accounts and in early Tamil works speak about the volume of the trade that existed between Kerala and the Roman Empire. Large hoards of ancient Roman coins discovered from Eyyal (Thrissur), Kottayam (Kannur) and Paravur (Ernakulam) included coins of Roman rulers like Augustus (BC 24 - AD 14), Tiberus (14-37 AD), Claudius (41-54 AD) and Nero (54-68 AD) and this collection roughly covers a period of 250 years of ancient Roman history. It is no wonder that Pliny, the Roman historian, complained of the luxury trade with India, which drained the Roman treasury.

Phoenicians, Egyptians, Greeks, Arabs, Jews and Romans had trade with Kerala, much before 43 BC. Ancient Kerala had many ports such as Mussiris (Kodungallur), Nelkanda (Niranam), Naura, Kollam, Kodungallur, Panthalayini Kollam etc, which facilitated the arrival of foreign traders to Kerala

References about the ports of Kerala are available in the early Tamil works. The Periplus Maris Erythraeai (1st century AD), the Geographia of Ptolemy (2nd century AD) and the Travelogue of Cosmas (6th century AD) are the principal Greco Roman sources for the study of early historic trade ports on the western coast of India, and the evidence they provide is strong.  The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea has information on the trade between India and the Roman Empire.[26]

'Tyndis is of the Kingdom of Cerobothra; it is a village in plain sight by the sea. Muziris, of the same kingdom, abounds in ships sent there with cargoes from Arabia, and by the Greeks; it is located on a river, distant from Tyndis by river and sea five hundred stadia, and up the river from the shore twenty stadia. Nelcynda is distant from Muziris by river and sea about five hundred stadia, and is of another Kingdom, the Pandian.'[27]

According to Sangham literature Tyndis is located 100 miles north of Kodungallur, where a branch of the Chera royalty stayed. It is assumed that either the modern Ponnani or Panthalayini-Kollam, or Kadalundi or Thanur near Quilandy, might be Tyndis. S.N Mazumdar says that the port of Tyndis stands for the Dravidian Tondi.

During the Mamankam festival, celebrated with great pomp and pageantry, traders from outside came in ships and barges to Tirunavaya through Ponnani, the only port in Malappuram district and one of the oldest in Kerala. It is also an important fishing centre.


Modern Kodungallur is about 38 km from Kochi. The famous and prosperous sea-port in the ancient times was known as Muziris/ Muchiri to Pliny the Elder (N.H. 6.26), and was familiar to the author of the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. Muziris was a bustling Indo-Roman centre of trade during the early historic period between the first century BC and the fifth century AD. The evidence of the Peutinger Table suggests that there was a temple to the Roman emperor, Augustus. In fact, India's first Christian church (constructed by Saint Thomas in AD 52) and Moslem mosque (built in 662 AD, situated in Methala) were built in Kodungallur. The Jewish Synagogue, built in Fort Kochi (1568) is the oldest in India. The Greeks, the Romans, the Jews and the Yavanas all came to this place at different times in its history. The Jewish temples in Kodungallur, Mattancherry near Kochi, Kollam, etc. are some of the remnants of Jewish settlement in Kerala.

In some of the foreign accounts, Muziris is referred to as an emporium, an important trade centre, where pepper and other spices, various kinds of goods and articles, were exchanged. Pliny noted that Muziris was not big enough for the ships to enter the port and refers to it as the ancient capital of the Chera Empire. Kodungallur is called Muziris in Tamil and Greek literatures. It is also known as Vangi, Musirippattinam, Musiripathanam, Mahodayapuram, Mahadevar Pattinam, Kotilingapuram, Kudalingapuram, Makodai, Kodunkaliyur, Thiruvallur, Sree Kotarapuri, Ravi Visvapuram and Balakreetapuram. These are the different names of Cranganore (Kodungallur) at various points of time.

Indo-Roman trade made Muziris a bustling centre during the early historical period, between the first century BC and the fifth century AD. It is presumed that to this international trading center, Phoenicians, Egyptians and Greeks too came for trading activities. Besides Muziris, the important ports mentioned in the early Tamil works and classical accounts are Tindis (Tondi), Bares and Nelkinda. References to Muziris are aplenty in early Tamil literature like Purananuru and Akananuru. The chieftains of Tamizhakam paid great attention to develop these ports to increase the trade by the sea. Marine Archaeologists, who have long believed in the existence of these ancient ports, are straining to locate them. 

Hunt for Muziris

The traditional view located Muziris near the mouth of the current course of the Periyar River, Kodungallur (Cranganore). In pursuance of the ancient accounts, search for the remains of Muziris was focussed on the northern side of the Periyar river mouth. Excavations made in 1945 and 1967 could yield findings pertaining to the 12th century, a millennium ahead of ancient Muziris. The fumbling chronicler found solace in explaining for the a

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More by :  Dr. V. Sankaran Nair
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Comments on this Article

Comment Dear Sankaran Nair Sir, first of all I would like to show my gratitude an happiness on reading your article. I had read this essay with much interest. I couldn't stop anywhere. Really this article is useful and informative. I understood many interesting facts about our 'God's Own Country'. Also it pointed out the crisis what we are going to see in future. Anyway Thanking You once again.
"Keralamennu kettaal abhimaana poorithamaakanam nammude antharangam".

Hari Sankar.R
10/05/2012 12:24 PM

Comment This essay is very informative.As a student,not only me but also all can get informations from this.Thankyou for the Author and the publishers.

Thankyou Thankyou very much..........

11/22/2011 08:21 AM

Comment well the dravidians were a middle eastern straight haired hamitic race i keep hearing people say we came aborigines i have never seen dark indians resembling africans yes i know some of the dravidians mixed with mongoloid type people and have seen very very few resembling aborigines andaman people these african looking ones are not from dravidians(i keep reading the word (probably people who use this word to describe a people, it sounds like they are unsure?

02/05/2011 22:28 PM

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