Should tourism bury history?
DECCAN CHRONICLE -2-11-2011
The historical excavation project at Pattanam and Kodungalloor and the state tourism department's role in it, is proving to be a fiercely contentious issue.
Called the Muziris Heritage Tourism Project, the bone of contention is the very name of the project. Not only is it not clear that present day Pattanam is in fact the 3000-year-old port of Muziris, but turning it into a tourism project has raised the hackles of many historians who believe historical excavations and tourism should not be mixed.
Excavation at the two sites has been going on for the past five years. Remnants of amphora and other pottery pieces dating to the Roman, Parthian and Sassanian dynasties as well as some human skeletons have been recovered. Forty lakh artifacts, a majority of them belonging to the 15th century, have also been recovered.
The excavation is being handled by the Kerala Council for Historical Research (KCHR), a government body, and some historians say that KCHR does not have the expertise to handle such an important project and it should be handed over to the Archaeological Survey of India.
The Muziris Heritage Tourism Project website goes one step further and establishes that “present Kodungallur had been named Mahodayapuram, Makothevarpattanam Muyirikkodu and Muziris by the Greeks and Romans, Shingly by the Jews, Cranganore by the Portuguese.“
“The present day Kodungallur, situated 30 km north of Cochin and believed to be Muziris of the past, is said to have been first occupied around 1,000 BC and continued to be active till the 13th century AD.”
The website further says: “The prosperous port of Muziris (Muziris Heritage Tour), at the mouth of the Periyar, overlooking the Arabian Sea was engulfed and silted over by the flooding of the river (in 1341), leaving its actual site to conjecture. The excavations (Muziris Heritage Excavations) by the Kerala Council for Historical Research (KCHR) in 2007 and 2008 unearthed the archaeological and historical evidence which confirmed its location.”
Prominent historian M.G.S. Narayan, questioning the premise that Pattanam is Muziris, says that the KCHR is making tall claims. “There are no archaeologists in the current team except Dr Selva Kumar of Tanjavur Tamil University. There is a hurry to establish that Pattanam is Muziris which is not correct. I suspect there was a politically corrupt design involving the previous LDF government behind the project,” he said.
He, however, added that so far the project has not done any damage, but the Archaeological Survey of India is the competent body to guide the project.
“In the first place Dr Cheriyan, who is the director of KCHR and who is controlling the present excavation, is not an archaeologist. Moreover, at this stage tourism should not be brought into the picture,” he said.
“There is an attempt to establish that Muziris was a Roman colony and had interactions with different nations at different times and hence what evolved was multi-culturalism. They are trying to showcase it as a tourism object. They mean to say that Kodungallur didn’t have a culture of its own,” says K. Satheesh Chandran, co-ordinator of Socio-Cultural and Development Studies, an NGO based in Kochi.
Unmindful of such criticism, the State Government is going ahead with the Muziris project and plans to inaugurate the first phase next April.
Tourism Minister A.P. Anilkumar said that the State Government proposes to showcase this unique project before the ambassadors of various nations in New Delhi in the immediate future.
Prof K.N. Panikkar, chairman of KCHR, said that the tourism component has been included in the project to raise money for it.
He also said that KCHR has not come to any conclusion that Pattanam is Muziris. He said that he stands by his comments two years ago that he was not happy about naming the project the Muziris Heritage Tourism Project.
He said he had expressed his concern that tourism should not be merged with historical heritage. Panicker had said then that “tourism as a possible source of revenue can be disastrous for the culture of a place.”
Director of the project and of KCHR, Prof P.J. Cherian, says there is an attempt to target him saying that he was not an archaeologist.
“I don't know what kind of expertise they mean. Very scientific work is going on at Pattanam. Such work has not been undertaken since 1946. This could be a knowledge-based tourism project,” he said.
Controversies apart, how to raise funds for an archaeological project is a key problem but showcasing it as a tourism landmark even before the artifacts are arranged, raises several questions.