My recent short visit to Kerala took me to the quaint little town of Kollam (previously Quilon), virtually on India’s southernmost tip.
I did expect the place to be rather quiet (most of Kerala is rather so) but what I witnessed was right of a school history textbook.
What was striking was everyone takes it easy; there’s no rush for virtually anything; what can be done today is easily put off until forever, if possible, and everyone seems to be in a rather celebratory mood (perhaps my being there during the Onam festival had something to do with it).That said, I had read a few things about the city and was looking forward to the visit. And, one thing that fascinated me was the old Lighthouse, built in 1902, and then ‘strengthened’ nearly four decades later. Of course, that was on the itinerary, besides the old fishing harbour and the legendary seaside, not to mention the houseboat cruise on the famed backwaters.
I was a little bit disappointed, however, since the main structure was closed for repairs. Officials said they were in the process of installing an elevator inside. But just going around was quite an experience since it gave out an old world charm and I felt I had come back in time.
Kollam, also an old seaport, has had a strong commercial reputation since the days of the Phoenicians and Romans. Fed by the Chinese trade, it was mentioned by Ibn Battuta in the 14th century as one of the five Indian ports he had seen during the course of his 24-year travels.
The city’s rulers exchanged embassies with Chinese rulers while there was a flourishing Chinese settlement there. In the 9th Century, on his way to Canton, China, Persian merchant Sulaiman al-Tajir found Kollam to be the only port in India visited by huge Chinese junks. Marco Polo, the great Venetian traveller, who was in Chinese service under Kublai Khan in 1275, also visited Kollam and other towns on the west coast, in his capacity as a Chinese mandarin.
In 822 AD two East Syrian bishops – Mar Sabor and Mar Proth – settled in Kollam with their followers. Two years later, the Malabar Era began (824 AD) and Quilon became the premier city of the Malabar region ahead of Travancore and Cochin.
Kollam Port was founded by Mar Sabor at Thangasseri in 825 AD as an alternative to reopening the inland sea port of Kore-ke-ni Kollam near Backare (Thevalakara), which was also known as Nelcynda and Tyndis to the Romans and Greeks and as Thondi to the Tamils.