August 03, 2016
 

Above photos: Kerala Jews History Museum, Paravur; Paliam Palace Museum;

Kerala Tourism’s prestigious Muziris Heritage Project, a gargantuan excavation task was commenced after they stumbled
upon on archaeological findings that were believed to be from the ancient Spice Route linking India’s maritime contacts with contemporary ancient civilizations with as many as 31 countries. The first phase of the project was inaugurated by the
President of India Shri Pranab Mukherjee in Kodungallur, Thrissur in February 2016.

The Muziris project is the result of collaborative efforts by the Department of Tourism, Govt. of Kerala, along with many other government departments, historians, consultants, etc. to preserve and present to the world a heritage that had flourished for over 3000 years; it was the time when Kerala was a thriving centre of spice trade with the ancient port of Muziris as its hub. The port was the centre of trade between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean regions. The port of Muziris is mentioned in the 1st century travelogues, ancient Sangam texts and Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder’s encyclopaedic work,
Natural History. Muziris mysteriously disappeared and researches point to the port’s location as the mouth of the Periyar River in Kodungalloor.

Sangam literature describes Roman ships coming to Muziris laden with gold to be exchanged for pepper. Pepper, precious stones, silk, beads, Ivory and pottery were exported from here to West Asia and Rome in exchange of gold coins, glass, wine and wheat. For centuries, the land of Kerala mesmerised Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Arabs, Chinese, Roman and Greeks, welcoming them to come and do trade and even settle. Realizing the cultural significance of this ancient maritime trade route, Kerala Tourism has launched the ‘Spice Route’ tourism initiative linking 31 countries in Asia and Europe with India, particularly Kerala.

To reinstate the historical and cultural significance of Muziris, the Kerala Government had initiated the Muziris Heritage Project with active support of the Central Government. The Muziris Heritage Project includes built heritage like markets,
forts, religious structures, palatial residences, archaeological sites and landmarks that represent over 3000 years of world history. After a lot of research, excavation works and consistent efforts to restore a lost heritage, the state has planned
to open 29 museums. A hop on and hop- off boat tour of the Muziris Museums has also been developed as a unique way to experience this remarkable heritage. The history of Muziris has drawn attention to the ancient spice trade especially along the ‘Spice Route’’, which was one of the most significant trading routes that shaped the world trade, economy and balance of power. This initiative aims to revive cultural and academic exchange between these nations for the development of a multi-national cultural corridor.

Kerala Tourism’s efforts to protect heritage and promote peace through the Spice Route initiative have been lauded by both UNWTO and UNESCO, which have agreed to extend all support in effective promotion and implementation of the same. From the 15th century, the shores of Kochi were closely linked to the maritime chapter of the ‘Age of Discovery,’ a tale of grit, greed and human ingenuity as a string of navigators had arrived there after traversing large uncharted lands in search of spices and precious resources. Along the historic Spice Route, several places emerged as bustling centres of trade including
the ancient port of Muziris and some of the today’s tourist hotspots like Fort Kochi and Kozhikode.

U V Jose, Director, Kerala Tourism, says, “The port of Muziris disappeared in 1341 due to many natural causes including floods, etc. Over the centuries, a lot of efforts had been on to locate it but in vain. Since 1940, many archaeologists
have been trying to find out the place. In later half of the year 2000, some element of archaeological evidence was found when a team from the Kerala Council for Historical Research (funded by the tourism department) were completing a project in Pattanam for excavation. That is where they found real evidence. After finding out the evidence, the place of Muziris was
confirmed. Until then, people were searching without much evidence. Then, we actually conceived a project for heritage conservation. We initially proposed for a small circuit project with a budget of 50 crore rupees; but the government made it
a mega project with a budget of 100 crore rupees. The project site of Muziris is spread in two municipalities and 12 Panchayats - Kodungallur in Thrissur and North Paravur in Ernakulam - defined across an area of 150 sq km. In 2006, a lot of researchers gathered and decided to go with the excavation. The excavation is one part of the project, but what was amazing about the whole journey of discovering it was that we also found many heritage structures in and around the site.

Several shrines, churches, forts, synagogues, cemeteries, etc. were found. Some of them were completely destroyed or partially languishing in ruins. “We have restored several of these structures; we are developing 25 museums, out of which nine are operational, such as the Kerala Jews Historical Museum, Fort Kochi in Muziris, etc. The synagogue in Paravur has been completely restored and is now functioning as Jews Historical Museum. The one in Chendamangalam is now the Kerala
Jewish Lifestyle Museum.”

A number of museums, forts, waterfronts, mosques, old markets have now been developed. All of these are connected to waterways through rivers and canals. Now, we have hop-on and hop-off boat services.

Paravur Market
Close to the Jewish street and synagogue, the market is situated on the banks of the backwaters. One can still picture fresh produce unloaded on ‘Vanchis’, traditional Kerala boats that are used to this day, to ply the backwaters. We are thinking that this project would be a stepping stone for globally promoting our state tourism. The project as such is global but
it is part of the great Spice Route initiative which is as old as 3000 BC. The Spice Route had connected 31 countries in ancient times. We have also approached UNESCO and the UNWTO which have shown strong interests in the idea. We recently
attended a conference in China to propagate the idea of developing tourism along the Spice Route; the idea has caught the attention of many of the Spice Route countries.

The upcoming Kerala Travel Mart (KTM) will organise a unique Spice Route Culinary Festival to commemorate the shared legacy of the over 2,000-year-old maritime trade way. The culinary festival, to be hosted by UNESCO, Kerala Tourism and the Union Tourism Ministry in Kochi from September 23-26, will witness leading chefs from the 31 countries on the historic Spice Route converging on ‘God’s Own Country’ to discover the famed gastronomic delights of the state. The festival, the first-of-its-kind celebration of flavours and friendship, is a prelude to the ninth edition of the KTM, to be inaugurated on World Tourism Day, September 28.

Challenges
Jose said that the first challenge they had was to confirm if the place was indeed Muziris. Historians had a lot of deliberations over it and it took a lot of time to verify the same. “Another challenge that we faced was about doing it with private participation and we were able to succeed in it. It took a lot of time to plan the project as there was no sketch available. This kind of a civil engineering task had no schedule and we had to take it up with the government to convince
it, which involved a lot of procedure for approvals. At the end of it, it has come out extremely well; we have been able to restore the buildings to their original glory.”

Shine Kollamparambil Shanmughan, Director, Muziris Projects Limited, says, “The ancient Muziris port was part of the Spice Route that was connected to different parts of the world. We are also proposing a war museum.” Stating that the monsoons do not favour excavation for the major part of the year, Shine says that excavation is done only from February to May every year. “The first phase of the project was inaugurated this year. We have renovated and restored many structures, palaces, forts and places of worship according to the UNESCO norms. I have been working with the Muzuris project for the last few years. Earlier, when the project was conceived, there was a lack of coordination and people worked at a slow pace. There are 21 state government departments that are coordinating for the project, which in itself was a major challenge. Now, there is smooth harmonization among all the departments. “We used to have meetings every day for documentation while work was in
progress simultaneously. The Kerala State Public Works Department and the KITCO Limited (formerly Kerala Industrial and Technical Consultancy Organisation Ltd.), were in the loop. There was no sketch available. For the Jewish synagogue, some of its parts were taken by Israel. We had to take the blueprint from the Israel Museum and reconstruct it. We had to solve many hurdles through special meetings. Making the master plan was comparatively easy but the implementation was difficult. But, we are being supported by the Tourism Department throughout. We had to approach some residents to relocate
from the site of the Jewish cemetery. “For each and every museum that we had worked on, we had an expert committee. The Islamic History Museum is now in the final stage. There were many controversies, differences of opinions and arguments
among the members of the expert panel. So, the outcome was less and it lagged behind for completion. Historians also had differences of opinion on the location of the site; some of them felt Muziris was not in the Pattanam area and that it was
in Kodungallur area. But, we finally went past it and progressed. Right now, many international historians are coming down to participate in the excavation.”

Returns for Kerala Tourism
The project has been conceived in a way that it would contribute the maximum to the local community through local stays, employment and income generation. The travel agents are showing a lot of interest. Jose said, “So far, Kerala Tourism
has been banking on tour products such as nature, wildlife, backwaters, Ayurveda, etc. We are actually looking for new products and this Muziris project has actually created it. It is a global one at that as it can change the landscape of the state’s
tourism. Nationally, most of the tourists go to the North of India to explore heritage. Kerala had almost nothing to offer. This project has, sort of, filled the gap of heritage offering and it is of very high value. The whole trade is rejuvenated about the product. It may take four to five years to reap the benefits, but, I am sure it is going to be the product of tomorrow.”

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