The Canal – High Tide. Ghantasala – 50 AD
The moment the prow of the last ship, a behemoth of two hundred tons, crossed the line, Vishnu ran up the stairs spiraling around the soaring bell tower. It was a gigantic bell casted in bronze. Two coir ropes from its hammer ran over well-oiled pulleys at opposite ends, weighed down by huge ring stones, almost a ton each, he smiled to himself thinking about how he had managed to lift so much weight so high, the weights so perfectly balanced, a gentle nudge was enough to send the hammer swinging. He pulled his head-cloth over his ears and unplugged the latches that held the pulleys and gave a shove, it’s the job he enjoyed so much and never delegated to anyone.
The sound carried for miles sending the flocks of water fowl to their wings. In an instant a long string of flags were hoisted on either bank of the waterway all the way to the horizon. He turned to look at the ships… the last had reached the safety of the deepest course of the river. Mahouts were urging the elephants tied to a giant wheel to lift the gates to block any outflow. Any moment now the waters would recede, Vishnu held his breath, and any moment those hundreds of men on the banks would dive in, with rakes that looked like huge flycatchers, to collect the bottom silt and load up the dredge boats. The high-tide will only be in the morning next, now is the time to go home for a spicy meal and some hot gossip.
The town got its name from the bell tower, Ghantika Saila. It was he who built it. The canal was a marvel of hydraulic engineering, ten miles long, connecting the ocean to the deepest channel of the river. Now the large oceangoing vessels can enter the river, completely avoiding the shifting sandbars at its mouths, and some of them might ply all the way to the capital and beyond. The town was built as a transit port where large ships can dock and transfer their goods to the warehouses or to the barges that travel upriver. In a matter of three years the town had grown into a preferred port-of-call of seafaring traders from Rome to China.
He ran down the steep steps and passed the locks made of thick wooden slats framed by crossbars of iron and generously coated with bitumen; straining under the weight of the river, as deep as a toddy palm on one side. A wide street followed the river bank, docks on one side and warehouses on the other. Huge cranes with pulleys stood on a manmade island, giving it the name Gilaka Lanka. Merchants and agents of all hues, Chinese, Javanese and Malay were busy supervising the unloading that could last the entire night. Greetings were offered and returned as almost everyone in the town recognized him, he was the president of the council and the architect of the canal; the prosperity of the town was due to him.
His was a massive house with tiled roof and an inner courtyard. Servants came to him running, carrying pots of water to wash his feet. He removed his sweat stained upper garment and was quickly wiped down with mildly scented towels and helped into a fresh tunic.
As he entered the threshold, his wife, the lady most respected in the town, was facing him. ‘That monster you’ve built has at least one use,’ she smiled playfully, ‘it tells me when to keep your meal ready.’
The meal was set under a canopy in the open courtyard. Couches were placed in a circle in true Roman fashion and his guests, prominent citizens of the town and representatives of various guilds, were already there waiting.
He greeted them affably before settling on a couch, his wife Nila pulled a stool and sat facing him. True to her name she wore a blue silk robe, fashionably pinched at the waist by a girdle of silver and translucent pearls, reflecting the shades of her robe. A string of Roman denarii of Emperor Augustus held together her lush black hair piled up in a bun. An incredibly blue turquoise, about the size of pigeon egg, fell suspended by a gold chain enhancing her cleavage.
Vishnu stared adoringly, unable to free his eyes away from her as she piled his truncheon with freshly cut fruits generously sprinkled with saffron and pounded sugar. Hmm…, he speared a piece of mango with a skewer and let its sweet juices fill his mouth, tickling his senses, and gave his wife his most indulging smile.
‘However much I may wish, I won’t run away from you, my husband,’ she said gaily, ‘why don’t you spare some of your charm for others too?’ She prodded him gently reminding him of his guests.
‘Can’t blame him, can we? If I had a wife like you, I wouldn’t be gadding about so far away from home,’ Lucius Portus, a captain of ships from Egypt was the guest of honor, reclining on a couch to the right of the host, served by Chanda, the most famous courtesan of Maisolus. ‘Tell me Lady Nila, if you have any plans of leaving this ill-mannered husband of yours, a grand villa and the fair weather of Alexandria awaits you,’ he said gamily with a hearty laugh. This was his second trip to East Indies, a sailor of extraordinary prowess.
‘Try your luck, Captain Lucius,’ Vishnu joined the laugh, ‘you may be good at negotiating the ocean in all its moods, but my wife here is an entirely new game, I warn you,’ he winked at his wife for everyone to see.
Oblivious to the humor, and only understanding the spoken words, another guest at the dinner interrupted in his native tongue, rather bluntly, ‘You will have no such luck with our ladies,’ he said expecting someone to translate. Karataka was the superintendent of the waterway, appointed by the court of Dhanyakataka charged with the collection of tolls. He’s from a conservative family of tax accountants from the western country, a social oddity, yet an important cog in the administrative machine. Lifestyle of the town was an anathema to him. He saw it as a threat to the ancient system of highs and lows, where every person had an ordained place in the society. He never liked the way Vishnu conducted his social life.
It was Chanda, the courtesan who tried to diffuse the tension, ‘Huh uh, Arya Karataka is right, Captain. With Master Vishnu for husband, who can erect the tallest tower in the country, you will have no such luck,’ her eyes sparkled when she said that, and translated the same for Karataka without the reference to the tower and the double entendre.
Karataka was not fooled. It was obvious from the laughter all around that he wasn’t party to the joke and that irritated him further. He vented it on Chanda, ‘Shut up, you woman, I don’t need any approval from a whore,’ his voice cut through the atmosphere like a whiplash. Blood drained from the faces of the guests, Captain Portus was amused.
Vishnu was livid. Being a courtesan of first class, Chanda ranked higher than a mere accountant on any social scale. An insult to her, that too at his house, can not to be tolerated, ‘Arya Karataka, I’m sure you did not mean it. Lady Chanda is my guest and an apology to her is due,’ he said controlling his temper.
By then Karataka had lost all his senses. ‘Who are you, you insignificant spawn of an ironmonger from east, to tell me what I can say and do?’ he burst out. All the frustrations and fears pent up in him came out in the open. ‘You are fit only to live in mud and dirt, but look around, what you have here is an abomination in the eyes of god,’ he continued to rave, ‘How dare you ask me to apologize? You must fall at my feet first and apologize to me, for seating me at the table with this low born trash,’ he pointed at the other guests, ‘weavers, and workers of leather and stone, sharing a meal? Aaargh’
‘Shut up you imbecile,’ Vishnu squared up to him unable to tolerate the attack on his guests ‘If you don’t … I shall tie you up and throw you in the canal.’
‘Yeah… the Canaaal!
Karataka sneered. ‘It’s the cause of all the corruption and depravity. Look here, these barbarians should never be allowed into our holy land, but your canal brings them here, right into the heart of our lives.’ He broke through the cordon of guests and strode menacingly towards the lone foreigner, still at his couch and watching the goings on with keen interest. ‘Get out, you pale skinned savage, it’s your silver… polluting our gods and destroying our ancient ways, get out,’ he screamed like a bird of prey, swooping down on Portus.
Nila stood up with her hands stretched out trying to shield their honored guest.
‘Get off you evil woman,’ his palm brushed against her naked breast as he pushed her aside. ‘How dare you meddle with the affairs of men? Your place, woman, is in the kitchens, not here, flaunting your body to strangers like a harlot… I curse you. I curse the canal and this corrupt town…’
Now, Vishnu’s patience finally broke. He pushed the crazed man and launched himself at him, punching him, crushing his delicate bones. Nila stood there, stunned by the violence, for a moment, her whole world collapsing around her. She knew her husband’s strength. If his rage is not contained it would turn him into a murderer. With an enormous effort, she pulled him away from the wicked man, however much she wished him dead.
To be continued…
The Andhra Empire of Satavahanas served as a gateway for trade between West and East. To the Roman Empire, it probably was the largest producer of luxuries. Rome was the consumer, Asia the source of raw commodities, and the Andhra Empire was the most advanced industrial hub of the ancient world.
It is obvious from the limited knowledge in the contemporary Roman writings, about the geography of the east coast of India and beyond, that their ships had rarely ventured beyond the ports of Arabian Sea. The trade out of east coast had entirely been in the hands of Indian merchants. Twin-mast ships, some as big as two hundred tons of cargo capacity, were built at the Andhra shipyards. A string of ports dotted the Andhra coastline between the lakes Pulicat and Chilka; and the Krishna Delta had the largest concentration of such ports, both coastal and riverine.
Contemporary Roman accounts mention three such advanced ports on Krishna River – Contacossyla, Ephterion and Kudura – which are identified as Ghantasala, Bhattiprolu and Guduru. An ancient manmade channel from the sea joined the river near Ghantasala, the course of which can be seen today on Google Map in Meduru-Majeru drain. They also state that ships from these ports controlled the trade of East Indies, to Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam and China.
The Andhra coast in general and the region around Amaravati in particular, had truly served as India’s Gateway to the East in ancient times. Unfortunately, the coastline of over a thousand kilometers between Madras and Visakhapatnam had been completely neglected by successive modern governments. Nowhere on the South Asian coast between Karachi and Chittagong do we find such a long stretch of coastline deprived of a major port – An historical injustice that needs to be put right.