A Persian church in the land of pepper - routes, networks and communities in the early medieval Indian Ocean

Lead Research Organisation: De Montfort University
Department Name: School of Arts


This research network focuses on the history of Indian Ocean connections and exchanges before 1500 CE. The network responds to a pressing need for research into the Indian Ocean world before the entry of European powers in the late 15th century and acts on the growing recognition that the Indian Ocean world is studied most effectively through multi-disciplinary and trans-regional collaborations.

The network focuses on the study of the early medieval period, particularly the boom in seaborne trade between the Far East and West Asia in the 9th century when the intensity of movement along the entire length of this route generated unique conditions of cultural exchange and interaction. This focus mitigates the problems of working across such a vast and heterogeneous area, with the many linguistic and disciplinary barriers it brings. A key location at the heart of this maritime route is the port of Kollam (Quilon) in Kerala, south India, where exceptionally detailed textual sources give evidence for routes, networks and communities at the port, and the cross-cultural encounters generated there. The documents are two copper plate grants in Tamil, commonly called the Sthanu Ravi plates after the local ruler under whom they were issued, and dated to ca. 849 CE. One grant awards trade privileges to two merchant associations at Kollam: the Manigramam, an indigenous south Indian group, and the Anjuvanam, believed to represent West Asian interests. The second grant sets up a complex endowment for a Persian Nestorian Christian church at Kollam. The grants are legal documents (tirumukam or 'orders' in Tamil) and it is their legalistic detail, together with extensive contextual references, which make them such an exceptional and complex source. It is a measure of their complexity and international significance that they are written in four languages (Tamil, Arabic, Middle Persian and an unidentifed north Indian language), five scripts (Vatteluttu, Devanagari, Arabic Kufic, Pahlavi and Hebrew), and attest to the presence and collaboration at Kollam of five world faiths (Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Zoroastrians and Jews) and two trade associations (see Visual Evidence).

The study of these documents anchors the members of this heterogeneous research network to one place and time, while simultaneously providing a starting point for the study of the entire ocean at this period. While focusing on a single set of documents, their very richness ensures that the work of the network will stimulate broader study. The following research areas will be central: textual and archaeological data on maritime routes and ports; commercial and faith networks and their interactions (central to this discussion is the Nestorian church's role in trans-Asian trade); trade as a catalyst for legal encounter, legal extraterritoriality; and the role of religious patronage as a locus for cross-cultural interaction and acculturation. The network does not advocate any particular method or theory but will encourage and actively support inter-disciplinary exploration and experimentation in these areas.

The research network will hold two two-day workshops, in September 2011 (SOAS and BL) and June 2012 (DMU); it will be connected throughout its lifespan by a closed website with discussion space, repository and resource links. The aim of the first workshop is to produce a revised critical edition of the Tamil text of the grants and new English translation (revising Gopinatha Rao's 1920 work) for use by other network members. This event will gather a small but world-renowned team of eight Tamil epigraphers and literary historians and includes a half-day visit to The British Library's collection of Tamil grants. The second workshop is substantially larger and gathers a team of 24 network members, plus Advisory Board and representatives, to explore the key research areas outlined above.

Planned Impact

The primary beneficiaries of this research network will be a wide spectrum of the academic community working in a variety of disciplines and regions associated with the Indian Ocean at all periods (see list of 'Key particpants' in 'Case for Support'). Wider academic beneficiaries will include World and Global Historians, and those working on other sea-centred spaces such as the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and the Pacific.

The interconnected world of the pre-Modern Indian Ocean resonates with surprising immediacy with our contemporary globalised world and the resurgence of India and China as world economic powers. Within this, the primary historical documents at the core of this network (the Sthanu Ravi grants) speak directly to a wide variety of diasporas and faith communities both in the UK and globally. Leicester is home to a multi-cultural and multi-faith population with uniquely rich links to South Asia (in the 2001 census over 28% of respondents in the city indicated a South Asian ethnicity) and to the western Indian Ocean since many of Leicester's communities arrived via East Africa. The city is also home to a growing Somali community. London in turn is home to both large south Indian and many East Christian communities. The prominence of East Christian communities in the network's research will also speak especially strongly to all contemporary Christian communities in the UK, but particularly to members of the East Christian church in South India and the Middle East and their global diasporas. The plates provide exceptional evidence for the collaboration and coexistence of five world faiths (Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Zoroastrians and Jews) at the port of Kollam which speaks to the agendas of organisations promoting inter-faith dialogue and social cohesion. Briefly put, the research network and its workshop events have great potential societal and cultural impact. The communication of the research findings to these groups will broaden their understanding of the histories of specific faith, trade and ethnic diasporas, and the history of inter-faith exchange, setting them in a truly World History perspective.

While workshops will be closed to allow for free and open intellectual exchange and experimentation, two scholars involved in inter-faith dialogue have been included (as detailed in the 'Pathways to Impact' attachment) as this will contribute directly to training in inter-faith dialogue and its practice in the UK. Furthermore, the dissemination of this research beyond the academic community will be effected via a small travelling exhibition which will carry the results to a wide range of locations in the UK and globally at minimum cost. The model for this is the British Museum-British Library's 'Lasting Impressions: seals from the Islamic world' banner exhibition, which recently visited Leicester's Highfields Library as part of a national tour. Network members' institutions and affiliations offer an obvious and immediate 'tour list' for this exhibition; within Leicester the dissemination will be supported by Leicester city's Libraries Culture Division which has a successful record of hosting dissemination events. Two sets of banners will be produced, one to travel to venues within the UK, the other to travel globally. Finally, funding will also be sought to develop the closed Mahara e-portfolio into a public open website.

De Montfort University also plans a range of local talks and events under knowledge transfer mechanisms to the City Council, Leicester City Libraries and local community groups.


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Description This research project focused on a 9th century document which was written at the port of Kollam in present-day Kerala in the equivalent of 849 CE. In South Asia, even until very recently, legal documents were inscribed onto copper sheets. Known as copper plate grants, these are one of the main sources for early and medieval Indian history.

Although the Kollam plates have been known to European scholars since the early 16th century, they are so complex to read that they had never previously been studied as a single document. This interdisciplinary project undertook the first holistic study of this exceptional source, using it as a starting point for the exploration of the medieval Indian Ocean world. A first workshop at The British Museum gathered a group of specialists in Tamil and Malayalam language and epigraphy, South Indian medieval history and literature. Together they produced a revised edition and new English translation of the Kollam plates. A second workshop at De Montfort University gathered scholars working on the regions all around the Indian Ocean rim, from East Africa to China, to study the Kollam plates in the wider Indian Ocean world of the 9th century CE.

This collaborative and interdisciplinary project has led to a radical reinterpretation of the unique medieval document known as the Kollam Plates. 1) The Kollam Plates represent a single document dated 849 CE not two separate and fragmentary documents as previously supposed. 2) The main language of the grant is Old Malayalam, not Tamil. 3) The West Asian group testimonials in Arabic, Pahlavi and Judaeo-Persian follow West Asian legal models and are an integral part of the grant document. The Kollam Plates grant is a unique multi-lingual and multi-script legal document which represents the interactions of at least five world faiths - Eastern Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Zoroastrians - and the two international trade associations, the Anjuvanam and the Manigramam, at the port of Kollam in the mid-9th century CE.

These findings reinforce the document's importance for the study of early Indian Ocean trade and for our understanding of the processes through which West Asian trade diasporas together with their religious institutions settled in medieval South Asia.
Exploitation Route The Kollam Plates offer a remarkable premodern example of the early 'globalization' of maritime trade which can help to situate and calibrate discussions of contemporary globalization. The juxtaposition of four different languages written in five different scripts (Vatteluttu with Grantha, Arabic, Pahlavi and Hebrew) is a graphically powerful reminder of the cosmopolitan character of medieval commercial cities.

The primary purpose of the Kollam Plates, namely to endow land for the upkeep of an Eastern Christian church built to serve the port's Persian merchant community, offers a premodern example of diaspora settlement and inter-faith relations in the South Asian context.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL http://www.849CE.org.uk
Description Membership of Defining the Global Middle Ages Research Network 
Organisation University of Oxford
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Membership of AHRC funded Research Network "Defining the Global Middle Ages" (PI Catherine Home, University of Oxford; Co-I Naomi Standen, University of Birmingham).
Start Year 2012
Description Lecture by Research Network member Professor Ludwig Paul at Cambridge University (UK) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact Carried news of the research project to a new university audience.

Dr Ludwig Paul is Professor of Iranian Studies at the Asia-Africa Institute, University of Hamburg (Germany) and a member of the research network. This lecture presented the results of his research to on the project to students and faculty in the Faculty.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
Description Public lecture - St Joseph's College, Indiana (USA) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Public lecture by Research Network member Professor Ken Hall at St Joseph's College, Indiana, Robinson Library 119B, 3 December 2013, 12.30 pm on the topic of "Maritime Trade and Underwater Archaeology in the Indian Ocean and Neighboring Waters in the Era of the Kollam Plates, c.900-1500."

Dr Kenneth Hall is Proferssor of History at Ball State University Indiana and was a member of the research network. This public lecture accompanied the travelling banner exhibition which was then on display in St Joseph College's Robinson Library.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
Description Traveling banner exhibition - The copper plates from Kollam. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Set of four portable banners communicating preliminary findings of the research network to the general public and to staff and students at universities. Three sets of banners are circulating at a variety of venues in the UK, USA and India from autumn 2013 throughout 2014.

The sets of banners carry the research results into a variety of public and university venues (libraries, departments, museums) in a very tangible way and allow for the display of related material (books, other museum objects etc).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
URL http://849ce.org.uk/exhibition/