Hippalos: Early Navigation of Deep Sea Routes Between India and Egypt – Part I

Hippalos: Early Navigation of Deep Sea Routes Between India and Egypt – Part I

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On the south-east or Coromandel Coast of India, about two miles (3.2km) south of the former French enclave of Pondicherry, there is a tract on the east known locally as Arikamedu, near the village of Virampattanam. After 1937 it was gradually revealed as an Indo-Roman trading station.

It appeared that the port began to rise about the end of the last century BCE, and reached its apogee in about 50 CE and later. The Roman remains included, for example, amphorae (wine-jars), Roman glass, Roman lamps, gems, etc. Moreover, the archaeological site revealed that the port city was used as a small ship-building or ship-repairing yard.

Erythraean Sea, first century AD.

Erythraean Sea, first century AD. ( George Tsiagalakis / CC-BY-SA-4 licence )

Hippalos, Greek Navigator

In his novel Hippalos, Professor Kamil Zvelebil, who was one of a succession of scholars who have worked on this topic, speculated on how, in a partly-destroyed but still well-preserved amphora, was found a scroll with Greek text. It revealed the reminiscences of Hippalos (or Hippalus) , a legendary Greek navigator credited in the first few centuries before the common era with the discovery of a direct route between Egypt and India across the Indian ocean!

However, these days the consensus seems to be that Hippalos was probably a fiction, although his name is repeated in several classical courses as discoverer of this ancient sea route connecting east and west, across thousands of miles of the Arabian sea or northern Indian Ocean, depending on your point of view.

Arikamedu is real enough and was only one of several Roman outposts in India. The most famous being the port of Musiris, where, at the time of Jesus, a Greco-Roman merchant colony was established as the first landfall after an epic sea journey of two thousand miles across the Arabian Ocean.

Entrance to the Arikamedu site.

Entrance to the Arikamedu site. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The precise location of Musiris is uncertain, although it was likely near modern Cochin, in Kerala. Recent excavations have concentrated at Pattanam, close to the temple of Bhagavati at Kodunkallur, as discussed in my book Isis, Goddess of Egypt & India .  In 1341, a great cyclone changed the local geography, destroying what remained of the ancient harbor, at the same time opening a new estuary of the river Periyar at Cochin, 18 miles (30 km) south.

Site of the ancient harbor.

Site of the ancient harbor. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The Opening of the Ways

The maritime arguably began well before Greek and Roman times, although famously, during Alexander Great’s retreat from Western India in 326 BCE, he made a great tactical blunder, forcing his army on a long and hazardous sixty-day march through the Gedrosian desert, now part of Iran. Why he did not use the sea route to Egypt remains one of history’s unknowns.

Alexander the Great, mosaic, circa 100 BC.

Alexander the Great, mosaic, circa 100 BC. ( Public Domain )

It is not entirely outside the bounds of possibility that the journey across the ocean was made at a much earlier date than previously thought. I say this based on the presence in India of many thousands of megalithic tombs, some of which contain anthromorphic figures, as well as sarcophagi in terracotta and stone. Since the end of the Tamil Sangam age, circa 350 BCE to 300 CE, cremation has been the accepted manner in which Hindus disposed of their dead. Before and during this time, Sangam texts themselves record other practices.

The Manimekalai poem enumerates these as:

“Those who cremated, those who cast away or exposed the dead to the elements or animals. Those who laid the body in pits which they dig into the ground, those who interred the body in subterranean cellars or vaults and those who place the body in a burial-urn and inverted a lid over it.” (Ch 6.11, 66-67)

It is interesting also that the Sangam itself refers to a gathering or assembly of 300 Tamil poets and scholars who were “taken by the sea” – itself an indication of the state of maritime communication of the time.

Sage Agastya,Chairman of first Tamil Sangam, Thenmadurai, Pandiya Kingdom.

Sage Agastya,Chairman of first Tamil Sangam, Thenmadurai, Pandiya Kingdom. ( CC BY-SA 2.5 )

India is of course more well known for its Hindu cremations rather than tombs, although some contemporary Hindus, desirous of breaking the widespread taboo against inhumation, have cited these ancient practices as a precedent. Knowledge of who exactly made these tombs and how they relate to the other religions such as Buddhism is uncertain. One intriguing finding is that the design of some of the sarcophagi are based on Mesopotamian models. Some scholars say that the design of these terracotta coffins must have reached India via an ancient deep sea route! The burials are all clustered near south Indian harbors such as Arikamedu and Musiris. There is also an association between these megalithic burials and powerful rivers that may have benefited from management systems of a kind familiar from Mesopotamia and Egypt.

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