After beaches, Kerala to showcase heritage

Last Updated: Dec 20, 2010, 11:21 AM IST

Kochi: Tourism in Kerala, which has so far targeted beaches, forests and backwaters, will soon showcase the glory of the 3000-year old Muziris port, unveiling the state`s heritage to the world.

The Muziris Heritage Project, claimed to be the first of its kind in the country, is expected to turn Muziris into a major destination for cultural tourism, Chief Project Consultant Benny Kuriakose said.

Muziris, 27 kms from here, was among the earliest port cities in the world. It is also home to India`s first church Mar Thoma church, first mosque Cheraman Juma Masjid and the oldest European monument Portuguese fort.

Situated on India`s south-western coast, Muziris was a spice city where the traders of the world -- Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Chinese -- thronged to buy and sell a variety of wares, mainly spices and clothes. As they did business, they became partners in promoting an early model of cosmopolitanism with Muziris as its global nucleus.

Recent and ongoing excavations by archaeologoists have yielded evidence of the ancient glory of the place as a hub of commercial activity, including a jetty whose wood was carbon dated to 2500 years by scientists.

The state had so far marketed its beaches and backwaters but not so much its heritage and history. The Muziris project was an endeavour to bring to visitor`s mindscape a culture of 3,000 years or more in all its plentitude and complexity.

There was a good deal of it in the state to be conserved and protected as monuments -- shrines, palaces, forts, seminaries, cemetries, boat yards, markets and so on.

These old human conclaves, whatever is left of them, were being showcased so as to make the voyage into history a supreme excitement.

"It`s been two years since we started the project and in another two to three months, it would be opened for tourists," Kuriakose told PTI. Nineteen departments and agencies were working for the project and many more coordinating.

The project, which includes a central aid of Rs 40 crore, "is a walk through 3,000 years of Kerala history. Buddhists, Arabs, Chinese, Jews, Romans, Portuguese, Dutch and British came here. Jews have left two synagogues. We are trying to link all these.. the existing muziris and the sites," he said.

A series of 27 museums, spread over the heritage region displaying maritime trade, lifestyle, barter system and handicrafts, were being planned and five would be opened next year, Kuriakose said.

Interactive museums are a major component of the project. Life and works of contemporary men and women who made a difference to social life in what was once Muziris will be the subject of some museums.

Since Muziris is spread on either banks of Periyar river, efforts were on to deepen canals and construct jetties. People can come in cars, park it and would be taken around in boats. Development of bicycle and pedestrian paths was also on the cards.

"This was a place where not even 100 tourists came. But once the project opens up, authorities are hopeful that many visitors would not miss this trip to history", Kuriakose said.

He said the state government was planning to collaborate with UNESCO on the project and a three-member delegation had visited Pattanam, the project site last week.

The team also met Kerala Tourism Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, Finance Minister Thomas Issac and Culture Minister M A Baby at Thiruvananthapuram and held discussions.

"Since Muziris had links with many countries, we would like to seek the coordination of the these countries with the help of UNSESCO and also try to include Muziris as a World Heritage Site", Kuriakose said, adding, "We know that this process consumes time and it is not easy".

Observing that including Muziris as a World Heritage Site "is a long drawn process", Kuriakose said a detailed documentation and management plan was required for the site.

Proper procedures according to International charters and guidelines also have to be followed, he said.

Noting that there was already a long queue in the Indian list to be included as a World Heritage Site and only two were possible per year, he said that was why the option of looking at an International Spice Route, with India taking the lead, could be proposed.

The Ambassadors of various countries, whose histories are linked with Muziris, are likely to meet in Delhi early next year, he said. The meeting is likely to discuss possible international collaboration including exchange of scholars between countries, Kuriakose said.

"There are many aspects in which other countries can collaborate. The government is already in the process of setting up the centre for Muziris studies", he said. Kuriakose said the UNESCO team, led by Nicole Bolomey, was "very happy and impressed with the progress of the project and lauded its concept of linking with development.

Excavations at Pattanam, a village about 30 km from Kochi, have led archaeologists to believe that it was occupied by the indigenous population around 1000 BC and continued to be active till the 10 century AD.

Enormous quantities of local pottery of the early historical period from the first century BC to the fourth century AD recovered from the site shows the range and scale of the business in the port city.

Archaelogists found a jetty loaded with pepper, mango, gooseberry, dry shells of coconut which was perfectly mummified in mud. The wood of the boat dated back to 25 centuries.

In a parallel excavation at Kottappuram closer to Kodungalloor recently, human skeletons were found and 8th to 10th century Chinese coins were also discovered.

The authorities are also planning to acquire land to provide facilities such as public toilets and improve roads in the project area.

PTI