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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