The copper plates inscribed at the port of Kollam in 849 CE provide an important glimpse of the movement of people, goods and ideas across the Indian Ocean world.
These complex documents are written in Old Malayalam but also include the names of twenty-five witnesses written in Arabic, Pahlavi (Middle Persian) and Judaeo-Persian (a form of Middle Persian written in Hebrew script). These scripts and the names given are vital clues in understanding the diverse communities from the Middle East and West Asia who visited or settled in Kollam during this period. Two trade associations are also mentioned within the text. The Manigramam was a well-known association of south Indian merchants who traded as far as Sumatra and Thailand. Historians now believe the Ancuvannam represented merchants from across West Asia. Together these trade networks and merchants spanned the entire Indian Ocean, from East Africa to China.
Scholars have used the Kollam plates alongside other written and archaeological sources to piece together the routes and networks in the 9th century Indian Ocean. Just two years later in 851 CE, a merchant from the Gulf wrote a handbook on trade with India and China – the Akhbar al-Sin wa-l-Hind (An Account of China and India). He describes Kollam as a good place for ships to take on ‘sweet water’ and to pay taxes on cargoes before crossing the Bay of Bengal. Other written sources tell us of the huge range of goods traded, including slaves, precious stones, exotic animals and spices.
A major archaeological find from the period is the wreck of a 9th century ship, excavated in Indonesian waters, filled with Chinese porcelain being carried back to the Middle East. Research has shown that it was made of East African timber to Arab design. In 2008, a team of ship-builders and maritime archaeologists in Oman began a reconstruction of this unique 9th century ship. The new boat was named the Jewel of Muscat and retraced part of the ancient trade route as far as Singapore via Sri Lanka from February to July 2010.
Through these networks, products were moved, bought and sold, merchants circulated and people migrated to participate in the interconnected commercial world of the Indian Ocean.