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

10 comments

  1. What better way than to spend the evening on the roof terrace gazing at the stars and soaking up the cool night breeze. No TV, just relaxing and enjoying each other’s company and maybe some drinks to lighten the mood. Simple, free and heathy pleasures. We lost them all immerse in technology.

    1. Hello Windy,

      Technology and modern civilisation released more “free time” for us. But for most people, long hours at work and/or time spent on the idiot boxes (whether TV or handheld devices) has mopped up most of this excess time. For example, I suspect less people indulge in hobbies now, compared to 50 years ago. And watching sports is not what I call a hobby.

      Back in the ancient days, for the vast majority of people – chores never ended from before sunrise to beyond sunset, I reckon.

      Enjoy your weekend,
      Eric

  2. Thank you again for a visual remembrance, some of that still exists today in the south including more remote villages where the women still are naked from the waist up. No one takes any notice. However a woman wearing a short skirt in that environment would not be treated kindly to put it mildly. That is reserved for the big modern cities to the north where Western influence has made inroads. Seven stories? Wow! I remember construction had bamboo scaffolding in my era so that would have been a major undertaking.

    1. You’re very welcome, Ian.

      Yes, many villages in the 1990s were as you say but these, as you know, are fast changing.

      When I first came across mention of those seven storey mansions – I went wow (!) too. Rechecked and there it was – seven storeys. Amazing is an understatement.

      But then again, this pales when compared to the pyramids and other edifices of the ancient world. The only thing going for the mansions of Tamilakam is – these structures were financed by wealthy but ordinary people, and not pharaohs. While the pyramids were exceptions, these mansions seem to be the norm.

      Have a great weekend ahead,
      Eric

  3. It seems as though rich cities were very similar worldwide the main differentiators being architectural responses to the exactitudes of climate. I enjoyed this read and do wonder whether Tamilakam sink into the sea or was flooded by extra intense monsoons.?

    1. Hello Jane,

      The weather did and continues to play a large part in the development of cities – ancient and modern.

      Regarding ancient Poom-Puhar, recently (offhand I don’t recall the year) archaeologists and divers discovered what looks like the remains of a city below the waves a few miles out into the Bay of Bengal. From the calculations by geologists, the rate at which the ocean continues to reclaim the land, indicate the city below the sea was in existence about the time of Poom-Puhar. How thrilling is that. But as usual, the lack of political will and funds continue to hamper the work of Indian archaeologists.

      Peace,
      Eric

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