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Vol. XXXII No. 5, June 16-30, 2022

The Cotton Route at Pulicat

by Xavier Benedict


Yes, this was the combination that lasted between the 13th and 18th centuries. The search for dyers in Pazhaverkadu led us to find the cordial relationship the cotton textile weavers had enjoyed with other religious groups for centuries. Further research proved that this partnership defined the cotton route with both the colour and quality of their cloth. The street of dyers was once filled with Turkish descendants – a few still live in Pulicat – who sold blue indigo to weavers who were predominantly located closer to the Perumal (Lord Vishnu) Temple. There was a clear demarcation of people concerning their trade or job. This led us to understand that there were demarcated partnerships with communities who made the respective indigo dyed cloths of blue, a yellowish shade, and a reddish-brown shade.

Our research on Pulicat Lagoon, located fifty-five kilometres north of Chennai, began in 2009 with the establishment of our Interpretation Centre. We found nature-culture linkages defining the cultural landscape of the place. The reddish-brownor kavi colour was extracted from mangroves, which were wild in the lagoon till the 18th century. With the rise of lime usage in Madras, the mangroves were cut to fuel its furnace, because its dried wood gives maximum heat compared to other firewood. Most of the commodities that were exported by Vaishnavites were in shades of blue and Shaivites, shades of kavi. The religious places and dyers streets were aligned according to the blues and kavi extractors.

As our search for cotton traced the coastal lagoons ofCoromandel(kari-manal-medu) Coast, we were intrigued by the presence of most Kal Pallivasal (Stone Mosques) closer to the Perumal temples. Further understanding of its urban form made us realise that cloth dying too defined the cultural landscapes of historical religious precincts. The stone mosque is very unique in architecture – it dots the coasts of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. They were built by maraikayars – ship ­builders – who took care of textile shipments of Vaishnavites on the high seas for six centuries.One may find a similar set up at Kancheepuram and many more places in Tamil Nadu. The urban form of Mylapore and Triplicanewould match our definitions of the cultural landscape.

My recent visit to Potagada in Odisha recently concluded our urge to search for the cotton traces along the North East Monsoon coasts of India. Coromandel coast falls exactly where the North-East Monsoon rain cloud meets. The monsoon could be called export monsoon as most of the shipments that left the Indian coast were during that season. The import wind is the Southeast monsoon. During that season products from Southeast Asia and Gulf countries reached our coast. The first European fort and the port were constructed in Pulicat and most colonial forts in India were located on the Northeast Monsoon lagoon mouths to the sea. The strategic locations helped the Britishers create the Buckingham canal by connecting many channels and rivers. The canal that runs parallel to the sea coast today from Kakinada to Marakanam once acted as the backbone to connect all the export trading ports along the coast and its hinterlands for the East India companies.

The historical records of Portuguese and Dutch at Lisbon and Hague respectively show that more than 80 per cent of consignments moving out of Coromandel coasts ports during NE Monsoon were cotton. The spices from the Indonesian archipelago and gold from Japan were bartered for the fine qualities of cotton. Interestingly, Indigo blues and yellows were dominating the Vaishnavite exports and reddish-brown (or Kavi)and white shades, the Shaivite exports respectively. Wars were fought for dominance; however, the sophisticated weapons of the Portuguese brought triumph and Shaivite exporters (or sometimes rulers) were always in the dominating position.

The eruption of Mount Tambora between 1812 to 1816 and its aftershocks were felt up to 1819, creating panic and an end-of-the-world feeling amongst the high sea traders. Mount Tambora is a volcano on the island of Sumbawa in present-day Indonesia which had its most powerful eruption in human history during 1815 CE. The volcanic eruption killed more than seventy thousand people and the following year 1816 there was no summer. The colonialists who were facing high-level trade wars in Europe and the Indian subcontinent began to divide their business territories with high handedness after the death of a few important rulers in South India and as well as in Europe – for example, Tipu Sultan and Napoleon Bonaparte and as well the end of the American war of Independence. The companies’ heads started negotiating to realise trade zones by dividing the colonies. That raised the need for signing the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 CE. The Treaty was the defining moment in the history of the world or globalisation. The British took over the major portion of the Indian sub continent and the Dutch left with the Indonesian islands.

Following the Treaty, the British Empire implemented major plans to create a world superpower. Their strategies and unrecorded espionage work started slowly dividing the trade relationship the Indian people had for centuries. All this cordial relationship eroded with the rising power of the British. They systematically broke the understanding between the above-said teams. As the British power rose on the ocean, along with the simultaneous rise of American cotton, religious understanding soured and gave way to the rise of communal hatred. This hatred helped the colonists to have a stronghold on the colonies as well as the trade. The Northeast monsoon coast that defined the modern history of India gave rise to all the modern establishments or institutions in the world after London. The colonial presence helped both in raising the quality of lifestyle and at the same time the hatred. Till today, we continue this strategy for our political and business gains.

The research on the Cotton Route should be encouraged to trace our original plant species and the urban form of India. The history or history books were written based on the colonial mindset but should in fact be traced to nature. Understanding history through nature would lift vernacular thinking. Such change would help us reduce the impact of climate change. Nature-culture relations matter to bring peace, prosperity and sustainability.

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