The Minerva, the Roman vessel that had cut so precisely through the narrow gap between the treacherous rocks of the Gulf of Mannar, was a common enough corbita in home waters. But here, all the way across the Erythraean Sea, it was a rarity. Not many Roman ships sailed this far eastwards, and the ones that did usually dropped anchor at one of the better-known harbours west of the peninsula.

But the Minerva happened to be captained by a Greek man – Hippalus, a maverick from the Egyptian Sea port of Bereníke – who dared to sail to those places that made others cower in fear.

The sea was calm this side of the gulf, as the brunt of the first monsoon was borne by the Malabar coast, and Hippalus breathed easy as he stood on the deck, surveying the waters below. It was now a short stretch to where the Kaveri met the sea, from where they would be escorted upriver to Camara – their final destination.

Hippalus had made this journey several times before, originally as part of a convoy of Greek and Roman ships from Eudaemon, but, for the past few years, the Minerva had attempted the crossing alone. A lesser seaman would have baulked at this idea as the winds often led to catastrophic shipwrecks, but Hippalus had by his side an Arabian pilot by the name of Aafa, who was widely considered the best in this business. As a result, the ship’s owner in Rome reaped the benefits of reaching the rich ports of the East several days before the rest of the merchant fleet, and it provided Hippalus with much-needed time to devote to his literary pursuits.

And this, in fact, was at the top of his mind as the Minerva approached the eastern shores of Damirica. Hippalus had written in great detail – well, he had dictated while Aafa wrote – of the sea serpents and pirates on the western coast, but how would he introduce Damirica to his hypothetical readers?

It is time, dear reader, now that the storms of the Erythraean Sea are well behind us, and we are safely past the treacherous rocks of the Gulf of Mannar, that we learn more about the world we are in. We find ourselves in a kingdom that is the farthest our ships venture out to – Camara in Damirica as we know it, or Puhar in Tamilakam you’d call it if you were a native of this land.

This Camara, on the banks of the river Kaveri, is the capital of the Cholas, who, along with the Cheras (capital: Musiris) and the Pandyas (capital: Madurai) constitute the Tamil kingdoms in the southern part of the continent that the great Alexander, a man with whom I share my lineage, attempted to conquer a few hundred years ago.

A bit of history while we are here. The Chola kingdom is currently ruled by one Karikalan, son of Ilamcetcenni.

Following his father’s untimely death, Karikalan was exiled and later imprisoned by ministers wishing to hold on to power. The prison he was held in was set on fire, but the prince escaped with the help of a royal elephant and defeated his enemies in the civil war that ensued and laid claim to the throne.

Another battle followed, this time against the combined armies of the Chera and Pandya kingdoms, in which Karikalan emerged victorious. A few more conquests came in quick succession – some local and others further afield.

The last few years have been a time of relative peace with the king indulging in civil pursuits, such as commissioning shrines on holy hills, offering prayers to gods, enforcing arcane laws, and building aqueducts and bridges in true Augustan fashion. All this makes it easier for us to conduct our business here in the capital.

However, like most hot-blooded kings, Karikalan harbours an intense desire to conquer a few more kingdoms and claim more land masses for himself. And while the Chola king is busy with civil works, the defeated peoples of the Chera and Pandya kingdoms are looking for the right opportunity to strike... And the threat from Satkarni of Amaravati in the north is not to be underestimated.

An aside: I hear you, dear reader. How does a foreign seaman know so much about kingdoms so far from the empire? It is because I consider it my job; I couldn’t be a sea captain without knowing what goes on in the ports I dock my ship in. There are many who have tried to come, trade and leave, but let me remind you that they have not lived to tell this tale. I shall continue...

The gubernator looked up, annoyed. He had company on deck – Vallavan, the Chola trader that the little master had picked up at Cana, that Arabian seaport where they smother every traveller with the heady fragrance of frankincense.

He was pacing up and down impatiently. The young man had stayed out of Hippalus’s way for most of the journey, as was demanded of him, but as they neared their destination, he was up on the deck hoping to catch a glimpse of his homeland. He was about to call out to Vallavan to get out of his sight when the little master stepped gingerly on to the deck. This was the first time in forty days that Marcellus had been seen outside his cabin.

Hippalus scowled and pretended to pay no outward attention to the pair, but his sharp eyes did not fail to observe that Marcellus was dressed for disembarkation. He wore a toga with intricate gold embroidery over a chalk-white tunic and, on his feet, curved leather sandals that could only be from Alexandria – an attire chosen by his discerning mother, no doubt, who would have wanted her son to make quite an entrance in the foreign kingdom.

But, despite the adornments, this man was no longer the arrogant young scion who had come to meet him at the Egyptian harbour of Myos Hormos, from where the Minerva had started her long journey, bearing a letter from his father, the ship’s owner. The prolonged voyage across the ocean had taken its toll on Marcellus. He looked haggard and tired, but even then, Hippalus had to admit that he was a handsome young man, albeit unusual-looking for a Roman citizen of his class.

He took after his father, an unusual man himself – the son of a Carthaginian freedman who had struck it rich in trade and ended up marrying a woman of patrician rank. Marcellus had inherited his father’s tall frame, burnt countenance and jet-black hair, not to mention the disarming smile that many a rival trader had to come to rue in hindsight.

Hippalus was still to see any sign of the little master – a moniker that Aafa had conferred on him after the first night of seasickness that had provided much entertainment for the crew – inheriting anything other than his father’s looks, but if the old patriarch had dispatched him all the way to Camara, there was still some hope. On the other hand, it could well be a punitive trip intended to keep the boy away from the races, where it was rumoured he had carelessly gambled away the equivalent of this ship’s load of pepper.

“Mare nostrum!” Marcellus cried out in amazement.

Hippalus smirked.

This man was as far away as he had ever been from Rome and, yet, these blue–green waters east of the peninsula seemed to him identical to his native sea. He probably thinks that this is the short run from Messina to the mainland at Ostia, from where he can make it to the Circus for the afternoon races, Hippalus thought spitefully.

“Our kizhakkadal is not your calm sea, Marcellus.” Vallavan set him right. “Wait until you survive the first cyclone of the season.”

“Mare nostrum is known for wrecking entire fleets; it is not calm,” Marcellus retorted.

Like Hades, it wasn’t!

Hippalus was a man of the oceans, and the mare nostrum, despite its lofty reputation in the Roman world as the heart of civilization, was no more than an ordinary sea in his view. Only the Romans – a people who didn’t know the first thing about water – would compare it to the seas of this peninsula.

Vallavan must have known this too, but he kept quiet. Hippalus surmised that the trader was too diplomatic – he did not want to remind his friend and saviour that he had spent forty of the past forty-one days cooped up in his tiny cabin, not daring to face the ocean.

The Grand Anicut

Excerpted with permission from The Grand Anicut, Veena Muthuraman, Hachette India.