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Roman Maps and the Concept of Indian Gems

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The two maps discussed here are Ptolemy's mid-second century map of India (Stevenson 1991) and the apparent third century Tabula Peutingeriana or Peutinger Table.

We will begin with a textual document, rather than a map. The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea was written in the last quarter of the first century by an anonymous Greek sailor. He described the maritime trade in the Red (Erythraean) Sea, today called the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean. Three ports were mentioned as marts for precious stones.

The first (sailing east) was Barbarike, in the Indus estuary. This was a Parthian port, the Parthians then controlling Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Exports included turquoise and lapis lazuli (Huntingford 1980:42). The lapis lazuli would have come from Badakshan in northern Afghanistan, while turquoise was likely from the region of modern Meshhed in Iran.

Next was Barugaza (modern Broach, Gujarat, India), at the mouth of the Narmada River. There the Romans bought onyx stones and murrhine ware (Ibid.:47). Murrhine was very valuable to the Romans; modern scholars have had no end of fun debating what it was.
A consensus is building that it was fluorspar (or fluorite). There are major deposits near Broach.

Onyx (see The Onyx Problem) was strongly banded humanly altered Babaghoria agate. It and carnelian have been mined from old beds along the lower Narmada River in western India for millennia and are at the heart of the world's longest-lived and best-known lapidary industry (Francis 1982).

The third port was Muziris (sometimes, but I think incorrectly identified with Craganore, Kerala) on the southwest coast of India. From there were exported transparent stones of all kinds (Huntingford translated "precious" stones, but the Greek is diafanhs, "translucent"), diamonds, sapphires and pearls (Huntingford 1908:52). These were products of the South Indian gem industry, hitherto little explored or understood.

Ptolemy's map shows some understanding of the constituent parts of the western Indian agate bead industry. While distances and details are in error, the setup of this industry is visible. Barygaza emporium is on the north bank near the mouth of the river "Namadus," which arises far to the east from the "Vindus mons." The Vindhaya Mountains are not actually the source of the Narmada River, but border it on the north for much of its length.

Politically, Ptolemy has Barygaza in the same state as Ozene (Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh), named as the capital, but mistakenly placed on the Narmada. There is also a short mountain range, the easternmost peaks of which are labeled "Sardonyx Mountains in which [is] sardonyx stone."

At that time, Barygaza was the port of Malwa, consisting of the Malwa Plateau north of the Narmada and the Narmada Valley, including Barygaza. This powerful kingdom also controlled the carnelian and agate/onyx industry of western India. The author of the Periplus knew that the stones were cut at Ujjain (we know now also in neighboring villages), but said the stones came from Paithan (Maharashtra), which is most unlikely.

Nearly all commentators have assumed that the Periplus author was right about Paithan, but I strongly disagree. Paithan is well inland and the sailor never got near it; he relied on hearsay. While there may be stones around Paithan (the whole Indian peninsula is full of them), it has never been noted as a producer. Ujjain had a much closer source on the southern side of the Narmada Valley, a little upriver from Barygaza. Moreover, Paithan was the capital of the Satavahannas, constant rivals of Malwa. I see no reason to think the stones came from Paithan rather than the "Sardonyx Mountains."

Where are the Sardonyx Mountains? In fact, there are no mountains from which the stones come. They are mined from abandoned courses of the Narmada River, which over the eons has washed them out of the volcanic basalt through which it flows. The mines are near the mouth of the river. In the immediate vicinity the Satapura Range begins, the westernmost peak of which is called "Baba Ghor Hill" named after the patron saint of the agate industry (see Francis 1985).

So, Ptolemy had several details correct, but some basic information wrong. The location of the Sardonyx Mountains was placed well out of reach of Roman sailors and traders, but in truth they could have crossed the river and walked to the source of the stones. They could have brought stones directly from the pit mines, if they had known where to go. I suggest they were purposely misled by the Indians into thinking that the source was inaccessible.

This may also explain why the Periplus author said the stones came from Paithan -- another bit of Indian disinformation to keep their trade secrets to themselves. Such practices are hardly unknown, especially in the gem and luxury trades.

Now we turn to South India. This region is far richer in gemstones. It has not received the recognition it should for various archaeological and historical reasons, and perhaps because the lapidary industry is no longer operating (it seems to have died a slow death in the nineteenth century). My work on this topic began with questions about the Arikamedu gem industry, and over the last seven years I have put together a fairly detailed picture. It is to much to go into detail here (see Francis 1993, 1994), but looks more or less like this:

The sources of the stones were procured and processed by Pandukal people (also misleadingly called Megalithians) from southern India, particularly in Periyar district, Tamil Nadu (formerly part of Coimbatore district) and the Krishna-Godavari doab. Stones were processed at Arikamedu and Kodumanal (Periyar district). Stone beads from Arikamedu went westward through Urayar, the Chola capital.

Pearls from Korkai on the Gulf of Mannar went northward through Madurai (the Pandyan capital). They met at Karur, the Chera capital. From there they went west along the Noyyal River, past Kodumanal, where more stone beads were added, through the Phalgat Gap in the Western Ghats and to Muziris for export.

The stones included diamonds (mostly for industrial use), sapphires (also perhaps for the same use), beryls, rock crystal, amethyst, citrine (first produced at Arikamedu), carnelian, agate, black onyx (first produced at Arikamedu), crystalline prase, and almadine and hessonite garnet. Nor was the trade all to Rome. Raw lapis lazuli from Afghanistan was swapped for etched carnelians made at Kodumanal via Muziris and Barbarike. The etched carnelians are today being illegally looted from Afghan sites; Kodumanal apparently made the lapis lazuli beads that are widespread in South Indian urban sites.

What did Ptolemy know of this trade? Not much. Muziris is placed on the Psuedostomus River and Curellur (Karur) is up this river. The name of the river "False Inlet River" comes because the Roman could not sail up it to reach Karur because there was a mountain chain in the way. Well to the west is "Punnata in which is beryl." That's O.K. as far as it goes, another bit of Indian disinformation. However, no link at all was made between the other parts of the "treasure trail." Poduka (Arikamedu) is not connected with Muziris in any way, nor is the pearl element of the trade noted.

The Peutinger Table is even worse. It's an odd map, stretched long to give information about major roads. It is heavily weighed toward the Roman Empire, the rest of the world greatly shrunk. Italy takes up about 40% of its total length. The easternmost 4% of the map accounts for a vast stretch of land. In the north is "Sagae Scythae," that is Central Asia and Russia. Below that is Bactria (Afghanistan) and below that the limits of Alexander's campaign (the Indus River). Below that is India. The world ends there. Ptolemy knew about Southeast Asia and China; this map maker did not.

If this last bit of the Peutinger Table is turned 45 the rough triangle that results could be taken to represent peninsular India. On the northeast side is the Ganges flowing to the sea. There is no mention of Barygaza or anything connected with the western Indian agate bead industry. Muziris is there, prominently marked. Indeed, it appears as the most important city east of Antioch! In the next century Dionysius Periegetes wrote about Indian gems, and they are all South Indian stones: beryl, diamonds, amethyst, citrine, prase.

If the Peutinger Table represents the best Roman geographic knowledge in the third century, a lot was lost from the days of Ptolemy. It is by no means certain that the Table does represent that; it is simply the only map that has survived from that period. Nor is its precise date known.

One other note. The Peutinger Table has "Temple of Augustus" near Muziris. I wonder if it was not really a temple of Agasitya, reputed author of some of the Vedas and the patron saint of South India. the late Vimala Begley did not think so. Does anyone have thoughts on this issue? E-mail met at the Office.

Gallery Tour of Maps

We have several books on

Indian stone beads.


Francis, Peter, Jr.

      1982Indian Agate Beads, World of Beads Monograph Series 6, Lake Placid: Lapis Route Books.
      1985 Baba Ghor and the Ratanpur Rakshisha Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 29:198-204.
      1993 South Indian Stone Beadmaking Margaretologist 6(2):3-6.
      1994 More on South Indian Stone Beadmaking Margaretologist 7(1):7

Huntingford, G.W.B.

      1980The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea London: Hakluyt Society Series ii, #151.

Stevenson, Edward Luther

      1991Claudius Ptolemy The Geography New York: Dover Publications.

Margaretologist 6(2) and 7(1) discuss South Indian stone beadmaking. They are available here.

Bead Emporium: A Guide to the Beads from Arikamedu in the Pondicherry Museum is available here.


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