The copper plates from Kollam contain a huge amount of information about daily life in this Indian Ocean port in the 9th century CE.
Within the four walls of Kollam’s busy marketplace, goods arrived by land, river and sea, slaves were bought and sold, while commodities were weighed for sale and assessed for taxes. Merchants, clergy, the local governor and his bodyguards, palace officials, village chiefs, washermen, carpenters, salt-makers, farm-workers and toddy (palm wine) tappers are all mentioned in the document. Members of at least five world faiths (Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Zoroastrians and Jews) were present at the port speaking a wide range of languages and dialects and writing in their own distinctive scripts.
One part of the document grants land and tax privileges to an Eastern Christian (or Nestorian) church and so gives an insight into the Christian community of 9th century Kollam. Christianity had been practised in south India since the 1st century CE and by the 9th century, the Eastern Christian church was well-established all across Asia. The church at Kollam maintained close links with Iran and the Gulf.The location of the church at Kollam is still the subject of debate and local tradition maintains that its original site now rests underwater. However, scholars are currently combining archaeological and historical sources to identify the different locations mentioned in the text.
But we know that the church lands were bounded to the west by the sea, to the north by agricultural land and to the south-east by the palace walls. The document describes how the boundaries of the land were marked out by the ceremonial walking of a female elephant. This and other rituals were powerful visual signs of the legal process for the wider community of the port.
Through the copper plates, 9th century Kollam emerges as a cosmopolitan port, where different peoples, practices and interests interacted and were accommodated through negotiated legal agreements.
New English translations of the Old Malayalam cited here with thanks to Kesavan Veluthat.