A two thousand years old Roman settlement in south India inspires contemporary Indian art.
Hidden in plain sight but well marked on google maps, Arikamedu is just 7 kms off the main city of Puducherry along the river Ariyankuppam at the point where the river joins the Bay of Bengal. No one I met had heard about it, so I decided to work on this as a continuous project that would question the lack of continuity in cultural patronage in India, the importance of rivers in the light of a flourishing economy due to ancient trade and the current state of extreme pollution of our water bodies.
The concept of this show was shared with artists a year ago and the works thus attempt to reconstruct somewhat, the imagery of an energetic ancient settlement booming with maritime trade, the exchange of goods, the clank of the Roman sisterces and marisippia, and the movement of traders, settlers and travellers from across the Mediterranean and the middle east.
Exceptional ancient objects have surfaced in archaeological excavations over decades - an engraved emblem of Emperor Augustus, an ivory handle, terracotta figurines, terra sigillata cups and plates, exquisite rouletted ware that was made in Arikamedu but fashioned around the typically Roman style, wine amphorae, blue glazed faience, Roman clay lamps and Mediterranean clay objects, shell beads, gems, gold, terracotta, bits of semi-precious stones, red fragment of a Roman lamp shade and pieces of Roman glass bowls. In fact, it is said the Romans decried the loss of silver on Indian imports that were in great demand in those times!
The site of Arikamedu has been identified with the place name Poduke cited in the Periplus Maris Erythraei, a well known manuscript written by an Egyptian-Greek merchant in the first century CE who it seems travelled to all the ports. A ‘Poduke emporion’ is mentioned by Ptolemy in 150 AD. Extensive excavations were carried out here in the late 1930s by the French and in the late 1940s by the British under Sir Mortimer Wheeler such that it came to be regarded as the most important site for studying Indo-Roman trade in the ancient world. It established Arikamedu as an ancient Roman settlement at the juncture of important trade between the Mediterranean and the east. More extensive research was conducted by Vimla Begley from the 1980s who ascribed to it the period of 2nd century BCE to 2nd century CE when trade, manufacturing of products for export and import of several commodities from the Mediterranean flourished. The settlement, it seems, continued well into the 7th-8th century CE. The present brick structure however, is an 18th century French missionary building but could have been raised using ancient found bricks which most villagers have been known to collect to reconstruct their own homes. To this day, glass beads manufactured in the region for exports can be found in the waters and soils and surface frequently.
This was a period of high energy and movement in trade between the Mediterranean and the east. The Roman conquests under Emperor Augustus at the end of first century BCE gave them control over the Egyptian ports. The take off of Indo-Roman trade was not random but structural to the Roman political economy as huge sums of money were put aside for it. The most precisely datable of all imports found at Arikamedu are small fragments of cups and plates of terra sigillata, more commonly known as Arretine ware, a typical pottery from the Arezzo region in ancient Rome. Although now protected by the ASI, a lot more work needs to be done around the excavated water reservoir, the 50 m long wall of the ‘warehouse’ and the port facilities as the settlement of Arikamedu grew along the river bank and extended more than 480 m north-south during its peak.