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Kaveri-Poom-Pattinam, also known as Poom-Puhar, was the capital of the Cholas in ancient Tamilakam. Now, the city lies below the ever encroaching ocean or lost to human neglect and depredation. But records persist regarding its glory days.

It was a great commercial port and boasted some of the wealthiest merchant families of ancient Tamilakam, some even wealthier than the monarchs of that age. The classic epoch Silappathikaram provides detailed accounts of the city’s layout and life.

Puhar was cosmopolitan and hosted sizeable foreign communities from the Orient, Africa, Middle East and Europe. Magnificent temples and buildings rose, and the arts flourished.

Seven-storey mansions were common in the wealthier precincts occupied by merchants. These buildings, as tall if not taller than many temples, hinted at the architectural, engineering and organisational skills of the people, not to mention the logistical acumen to pull off these constructions.

The windows were large and of lattice-work, ornamented and decorated, and with elaborate frames. One piece of retrieved material speaks of lattice work curved to look like the eyes of deer, and another of fishes. The lattice windows did not require curtains but allowed the people inside, and in particular the women, to look out without revealing their person.

Women wore clothes of fine texture, in-laid with gold and silver thread. Because of the weather, dyed cotton was the preferred fabric for daily use. Wool took a distant second spot. Silk was the preferred choice for auspicious days and celebrations. Women also adorned themselves with ornaments—gold, silver, gemstones, and corral. Pearl was highly prized before gold supplanted it.

Again because of the weather, during the summer months, men did not wear upper garments. They draped a shawl over their shoulders. Women tied a cloth around their chests but were otherwise naked from the waist up. But they made up for this lack of upper garments with garlands and jewellery—lots of it.

Elegant oil-polished furniture was the norm, including bolsters and cushions. A common feature was a swing, suspended from the ceiling, within the living room—usually the master’s favourite seat. Private living and sleeping chambers included furniture with inlaid gemstones.

The ground floor was of polished stone or granite slabs. No records regarding the upper floors but one assumes it was timber. Every mansion had a roof terrace where husband and wife spent the evening and enjoyed the view, the night sky and cool breeze.

All the mansions had a room dedicated to the family deity. The iron safe that contained the family jewels and money was in the master’s bedchamber. There was only one key, and it remained in his waist belt. When the master travelled, his wife would guard the key—tucked safely in her waist.

Every bungalow had a central courtyard which was the focus for gatherings of the extended family. A deep stone-lined well was a common feature in the courtyard. There were more wells in the surrounding grounds. An extensive orchard and flowering plants surrounded the mansion. The grounds also served for celebrations and the performing arts to entertain guests.

Watchmen, working shifts, stood guard at the primary gate and one of their night duties was to call out the time. Oil lamps using cotton wicks lined the low walls of homes and kept the streets of the wealthy lit at night.

Next week: Village Life in ancient Tamilakam

Copyright @ Eric Alagan, 2019