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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


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.

Image of sarcophagi and anthropoid figures from K.P. Rao Deccan megaliths, Delhi, 1988

Image of sarcophagi and anthropoid figures from K.P. Rao Deccan megaliths, Delhi, 1988 (courtesy author)

Image of sarcophagi and anthropoid figures from K.P. Rao Deccan megaliths, Delhi, 1988

Image of sarcophagi and anthropoid figures from K.P. Rao Deccan megaliths, Delhi, 1988 (courtesy author)

Image of sarcophagi and anthropoid figures from K.P. Rao Deccan megaliths, Delhi, 1988

Image of sarcophagi and anthropoid figures from K.P. Rao Deccan megaliths, Delhi, 1988 (courtesy author)

The Long Journey

The journey is 2000 miles (3200 km) across the open Indian ocean. It is the kind of achievement that would have found its way into the annals of ancient kings and queens, rather like the celebrated journey of Queen Hatshepsut to Punt, an unknown destination assumed to still be somewhere on the African subcontinent. But there again, perhaps the journey was to South India?

We can agree it was a risky venture, but one that got significantly easier during the time of the Roman emperor Augustus.  Before 21 CE, the historian Pliny estimates that 120 ships had made the trip by coasting around the rim of the Arabian/Indian Ocean, paying port taxes, nowadays called cabotage.

In a colorful classical account one reads how some parts of this coast were said to be:

“marked by clusters of mean huts of the Ichthypagoi, the eaters of fish, and inland from these were villages and pastures of folk who speak two languages but who are vicious and cruel.  They who plunder any who stray from a course down the middle and enslave any they rescue from shipwreck.  Any course down this Arabia coast is full of risk if only for its lack of harbors, poor anchorages or foul rocky stretches with no approach because of cliffs. They are fearsome in every respect.”

Despite these hazards, at journey’s end the ship’s cargo would generate more than enough profit to make the whole enterprise worthwhile. 

A classical text called the Periplus Maris Erythrae (Voyages of the Red Sea) is one that attributes the discovery of the South Western trade wind to a Greek called Hippalos. No date is mentioned. The geographer Strabo does not mention Hippalos but he does have a date of 116 BCE, and the pioneering voyage of Eudoxis of Cyzicus. Other tales say that whoever made the trip benefited from the help of a shipwrecked Indian sailor, who offered his technical know-how as thanks for his rescue.

The journey required knowledge not so much of geography as the prevailing winds, principally the south-western monsoon which became known as the Hypalus or Hippalos trade wind.

Advancing monsoon rain and winds near Nagercoil, India. These strong winds affected maritime trade voyages.

Advancing monsoon rain and winds near Nagercoil, India. These strong winds affected maritime trade voyages. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

So we can imagine around about November a Greek ship loaded with trade goods would leave the harbor of Musiris. The ship would be large by the standards of the day, perhaps a draft of 500 tons. Much of this capacity was not the trade goods but provisions for the crew, which including soldiers, needed in case of pirate attack, a threat particularly common off the coast of Musiris.

Such a large ship was unable to navigate the shallow reaches of the Periyar river. It would lay at anchor close to the estuary mouth, and receive its cargo from smaller vessels.

Ancient trade vessel

Ancient trade vessel (courtesy author)

Its hold would be stuffed with a valuable cargo of diamonds, pearls, sapphires, agate, onyx, rubies, ivory and textiles. Chinese silk was also available, together with India textiles, cottons, exotic items such as peacocks, large tigers for the amphitheater, carnelian, cardamom and above all, pepper. The Romans were particularly fond of pepper. Indeed, so much did a taste for this precious commodity spread to the rest of their empire, that even Alaric the Goth demanded 3,000 lbs. of pepper in his treaty with the Romans in 408 CE. Pepper was more than a culinary herb; its excellent medicinal qualities had been described in Indian medicine (Ayurveda) for millennia.

Three silver-gilt Roman (piperatoria) or pepper pots from the Hoxne Hoard of Roman Britain

Three silver-gilt Roman (piperatoria) or pepper pots from the Hoxne Hoard of Roman Britain. (Photograph by Mike Peel ( BY-SA 4.0)

Assuming the presence of military was a deterrent to the local pirates, the trading ship would make its forty-day crossing directly from Musiris to Ocelis, near modern Aden.

From Ocelis the journey was due north, deeper into the Red Sea…

(Read More: Hippalos: Hazardous Journeys by Camel and Caravan – Part II)

Featured image: Man sailing a corbita, a small coastal vessel with two masts. Probably made in Africa Proconsularis (Tunisia). Found at Carthage. Circa 200 BCE. (Public Domain)

By Chris Morgan


Rajan Gurukkal and Dick Whittaker (2001). In search of Muziris. Journal of Roman Archaeology, 14, pp 334-350. doi:10.1017/S1047759400019978.

Rajan Gurukkal Rethinking classical Indo-Roman trade: political economy of eastern Mediterranean exchange relations New Delhi : Oxford University Press  [2016]

“The Megalithic Burials and Urn-Field of South India in the Light of Tamil Literature and Tradition” K R Shinivasan , Ancient India No 2 1945

Mortimer Wheeler, My Archaeological Mission to India and Pakistan.  (Thames & Hudson 1976) p. 55

“The Roman Road & Stations in the Eastern Desert” G W Murray JEA (Oct 1925 3-4)

Kamil Zvelebil “Siddha Quest for Immortality: Sexual, Alchemical and Medical Secrets of the Tamil Siddhas, the Poets of the Powers” Mandrake of Oxford. [Online] Available at:

Chris Morgan's picture


Mogg Morgan is a respected independent scholar, former Wellcome student, and holder of an advanced degree in Oriental Studies from University of Oxford.

He is the author of several books on Egypt, specializing in folk religion, ritual calendars and the... Read More

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