Classics Confidential | Phiroze Vasunia on the Classical Tradition in India

Here’s the official description:

In the sixth interview recorded during this year’s Classical Association meeting, CC’s Anastasia Bakogianni talks to Professor Phiroze Vasunia about his recently published book The Classics and Colonial India (OUP, May 2013).

He tells us about the impact of the Graeco-Roman classics in the age of empire (1750s-1945) and about the collision of cultures in India during this period. The very concept of the ‘classical’ was problematic in a culture with its own long-standing local traditions which included Sanskrit, Persian and Arab threads. These competed with the imported Graeco-Roman classics privileged by the British educational system (which encouraged the colonisers to view themselves as ancient Romans). Neoclassical architecture, now largely destroyed, also radically transformed the landscape of the country. Indians such as the writer Henry Louis Vivian Derozio (1809-31) and Mahatma Gandhi, however, opened up their own dialogue with ancient Greek culture and its literature. Inspired by British Romantic Philhellenism, Derozio’s poetry forged a passionate connection with both ancient and modern Greece, while Gandi’s admiration of Socrates informed his own political thinking. This is not, therefore, a simple story of empire, but one of a dialogue of traditions.
Phiroze also tells us about his work as the general editor of the Ancients and Moderns series which is published in the UK by I.B. Tauris and in the USA by OUP. The series explores how classical antiquity continues to inform modern thinking, and examines the encounter between ancients and moderns on topics such as gender, slavery and politics. Seven books have appeared to date, and more are forthcoming.

… and the interview:

More Romans in India?

We’ll keep our eye on developments from this one … a big chunk out of an item in the Times of India:

The sixth season of the Pattanam excavations at North Paravur near Kodungalur have found 2,000 ancient pottery shreds, which according to the experts of Kerala Council for Historical Research (KCHR), are unique and new to the archaeological world.

According to KCHR, which leads the excavation process, the findings are different from the already known Mediterranean, West Asian, Harappan and Chinese pottery remains and an international expertise is required to shed more light on it. Remains of a human skeleton were also found in one of the sites, which will be sent for DNA examination.

KCHR head of Pattanam excavations P J Cherian, said new findings will be addressed at an international workshop which the council is planning in collaboration with the British Museum, London. “No expert associated with the project was able to identify the shreds, with anything found elsewhere in the world. It is a challenge for the archaeological community. KCHR is hoping that the latest findings would throw light on the unknown aspects of Indian Ocean maritime traditions, culture and civilization,” Cherian said.

KCHR is pinning hopes on national and international experts, who will participate in the five-day workshop planned in September this year, with the support of the British Academy of South Asian Studies. “The soil condition in Kerala is not good enough to preserve ancient relics and the skeletal remains we found were very fragile. But, DNA process is possible. and we will conducting it soon.

The skeleton might belong to a Roman or an Indian. someone of Indian origin. [...]

Sadly, there aren’t any details yet why they would think this might be a Roman … it would be nice to know if this is a necropolis type thing too; they have found Roman potsherds in the area (e.g.: Muziris Update (?)) …

Indian Artifacts from Berenike?

Interesting item from Frontline:

One way to understand the implications of the archaeological discoveries at Pattanam is to delve into the amazing wealth of data from the excavations at the lost Ptolemic-Roman port city of Berenike, on Egypt’s Red Sea coast. During the Ptolemic-Roman period (third century B.C. to sixth century A.D), Berenike served as a key transit port between ancient Egypt and Rome on one side and the Red Sea-Indian Ocean regions, including South Arabia, East Africa, India and Sri Lanka, on the other.

This ancient port city was well-connected by roads from the Nile that passed through the Eastern Desert of Egypt and also by sea routes from the Indian Ocean regions. Cargoes unloaded at Berenike and other Egyptian Red Sea ports (such as Myos Hormos, now lost) used to be taken along the desert roads to the Nile and from there through the river to the Mediterranean Sea and across, to the Roman trade centres.

Exotic goods from Rome and Egypt flowed into Berenike along the same desert road before being loaded into large ships bound for the Indian Ocean.

By the end of the second century B.C., the Egyptians and the Romans finally learnt the skill of sailing with the monsoon winds across the Indian Ocean (“from the Arabs and other Easterners”). Voyages from Berenike for the riches of the Malabar coast therefore became “faster, cheaper, but not less dangerous”.

According to most accounts, one of the major centres in India that ships from Berenike travelled to, along with the monsoon winds, was the emporium of Muziris, on the Malabar coast.

However, as the silting of the harbour, among other uncertain reasons, caused Berenike’s eventual abandonment before the middle of the sixth century A.D., Muziris, too, disappeared mysteriously from the itinerary of the later voyagers to the Malabar coast. For a long time since then, both these centres remained forgotten.

But while archaeological evidence about Muziris or the Indian Ocean trade remained elusive in the Malabar coast, it was Berenike that eventually offered invaluable proof of its links with the Yavanas.

In wide-ranging and ongoing excavations at Berenike launched from 1994 (and at many other places on the Eastern Desert), a team of dedicated archaeologists from the University of Delaware (United States) led by Prof. Steven E. Sidebotham, along with partners from several other institutions, has documented evidence of the cargo from the Malabar coast and people from South India being at the last outpost of the Roman Empire and of Indians on the Berenike-Nile road.

Among the unexpected discoveries at Berenike were a range of ancient Indian goods, including the largest single concentration (7.55 kg) of black peppercorns ever recovered in the classical Mediterranean world (“imported from southern India” and found inside a large vessel made of Nile silt in a temple courtyard); substantial quantities of Indian-made fine ware and kitchen cooking ware and Indian style pottery; Indian-made sail cloth, basketry, matting, etc. from trash dumps; a large quantity of teak wood, black pepper, coconuts, beads made of precious and semi-precious stones, cameo blanks; “a Tamil Brahmi graffito mentioning Korra, a South Indian chieftain”; evidence that “inhabitants from Tamil South India (which then included most of Kerala) were living in Berenike, at least in the early Roman period”; evidence that the Tamil population implied the probable presence of Buddhist worshippers; evidence of Indians at another Roman port 300 km north of Berenike; Indian-made ceramics on the Nile road; a rock inscription mentioning an Indian passing through en route; “abundant evidence for the use of ships built and rigged in India”; and proof “that teak wood (endemic to South India), found in buildings in Berenike, had clearly been reused”(from dismantled ships).

via South Indians in Roman Egypt? | Frontline.

The same magazine has a sort of ‘state of the finds’ article: Muziris, at last?

There was also a (annoyingly vague) report last week about Muziris in the Hindu:

… which mentioned the Roman connection, but only in passing (I’m not sure what date or origin many of the finds mentioned in that article would be).

Some of our previous coverage on Muziris:

Adrian Murdoch also covered the Muziris thing: