Vanchi was the ancient capital of the Chera Kingdom in southwest India and that famed city’s layout provides insights to town planning of that era. It was a sprawling fortress city with high walls, bastions, intertwining moats and drawbridges.

A typical moat was a wide dry trench, as deep as forty feet, and often filled with iron-pikes. In times of siege, the defenders filled the moat with tinder which they ignited. Water filled moats contained crocodiles, with artificial islands for the animals to bask.

A gopuram (temple-like structure) towered over the gateways. Guards took position on the fortress walls and the gopuram.

The primary gateway led to an ordered courtyard and a market that sold fabrics, jewellery, foreign products, leathers and flowers, flowers and more flowers. Beyond the courtyard, streets busy with people and carts branched out. One street led to work sheds: potters, blacksmiths, carpenters, and other rough cottage industries. Another street led to tailors, gold and copper smiths and various “fine” trades. The artisans lived where they worked. Their wives, and most women other than the wealthy, weaved cotton, wool, and silk. Almost every household had a weaving loom. Children gambolled on the streets but under the watchful eyes of adults. The older children helped their elders and learned the skills of tradesmen.

As the visitor left behind the commercial district, they came upon the residential and entertainment precincts: temples, dance-halls and public eating houses. Tall elegant mansions of the wealthy hid inside deep foliage filled gardens behind low walls.

The king’s palace, durbar (audience hall), royal dance hall, temple, council chambers, royal stables and servant quarters occupied several hundred acres of garden and a lake filled land behind high walls in the city centre—an enclosed fortress within a fortress.

The king’s hereditary kaval-maram (guardian tree) grew in the royal compound. A symbol of the king’s lineage, the tree was of the sturdier varieties. To fell it was tantamount to seizing the king’s standard.

One extant record spoke of a museum in the ancient city.

Besides the primary gateway, secondary gates welcomed foreign merchants, itinerant traders, and local farmers and herdsmen who passed toll booths. Once cleared of customs, the visitor navigated a noisy welcome from street vendors, buskers, tradesmen and traffickers offering anything from street directions, exotic wild-life as pets, to cart rides to comely women.

On moonless or cloudy nights, the city’s night kaval (watchmen) patrolled the streets, lit bonfires on road junctions, and tendered to the fires. Dried animal dung—plentiful from the herds driven through the streets—served as fuel. Coolies collected and deposited the dung at the street corners. This kept the streets clean and the night lit.

Next week: Homes of the Wealthy

Copyright @ Eric Alagan, 2019


  1. Hi Eric… I am a tamilian… I see that you have a lot of interest in the south Indian history… I’ve studied all this in schooling… It is like review😇.
    South of India somehow escaped the Mughal abuse… So th scriptures and the monuments are intact. They could not escape the British thing I have noticed is they lived with the nature… Without destroying it.. commendable

    1. Hi Gayathri (or is it, Hema 🙂 )
      Yes, I do have a lot of interest in South Indian history especially as I’m writing historical novels based in ancient South India. Good to know that the posts provide a quick refresher of sorts.
      Yes, the ancients accommodated nature unlike the hard-nosed money driven culture that has spread across the globe.
      All good wishes,
      P/s. My apologies for the late reply as I was away.

      1. Hi Eric! It’s Gayathri 🙂 Loved reading your blog. I grew up reading tamil scriptures. Respecting and being interested in another culture is quite rare nowadays. You are commendable!

      2. Hi Gayathri,
        I don’t know why you think of me as an alien 🙂 But I share South Indian heritage with you. Though my family is mixed – Malayan, Chinese, Afghan and Anglo – my grandfather is a Kallan, hailing from what is now Tamil Nadu. My father is a Tamilan and hence my surname – Alagan.

      3. Oh.. my bad.. very sorry… Ignorant assumption.. your family heritage is interesting Eric.. bet most of you are very intelligent owing to varying genetic pools.

  2. You don’t mention human sanitation, although I suspect t that they must have had something set up to be able to accommodate so many people in such a confined place. Perhaps it went into the streets to mix with the animal waste? In modern India I noticed that many simply go to a stretch of no man’s land such as a railway easement and go. Pigs eat it up with glee! I enjoy history in your narrative format – thank you

    1. Hello Jane,

      Human sanitation – yes, I did not go there because the extant writings I accessed don’t mention. Keeping in mind that much of the writing we have are ballads and I suppose no one wrote songs about sanitation. I doubt it went into the streets to mix with animal waste – certainly not in the better parts of the ancient towns. I base this assumption from extant writings such as the Silapathikaram (my adaption Song of the Ankle Rings).

      But you are right – such behaviour is common in many third world countries.

      Even in Singapore, no thanks to the government letting in droves of foreigners (whom the government terms “foreign talent”), some people from China (no other nationality does this) simply urine and even defecate in public places such as bus stops. Not only men, women do it too. Outrageous. Videos have gone viral.

      Thank you for your words of encouragement.


  3. This post has nature re-cyling facts. Using crocodiles in water filled moats get rids of enemies with no remains, gruesome but save on burial and cremation. Then we eat the crocodiles and make leather goods from their skin.i dread to think if anyone should accidentally fall into the moats.

    Then the dried animal dung becomes fuel and lit up the street though I’m not sure of the air pollution part if this fuel produces “aroma d’dung”, LOL.

    1. Quite a naughty comment, Windy. Or should that be a cheeky comment 🙂

      Well, I doubt the air pollution comes anywhere close to what we experience now in modern cities. But the stench will definitely not help.

      Trust the week started well for you,

  4. I think we should understand about our vedic letrature where lots of material related out of boundary of science. And we should understand what kind of living can make balance with nature in favour of all. And i think with history we can understand this well.

    1. Hello and welcome 🙂

      First comment on my blog, I see. Thank you.

      Yes, we can learn much from history – otherwise, we risk repeating the mistakes of our forebears.


  5. Some of the old ways still remain, particularly in villages far from the modern influences of city. I like the descriptions you give as it brings back memories of my many travels in the south.

    1. Very true, Ian

      We discover remnants of the old ways in the villages. Glad to have brought back some memories for you.

      All good wishes for the week ahead,

  6. I am enjoying your series of posts detailing the culture of our ancestors. Thank you kindly for contributing the effort involved in bringing it back to life if only in our mind’s eye.

I like to hear your thoughts

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