History of Spices in India
A brief description of the revolutions of Indian spices over decades
Indian Spices have been closely associated with cultural traditions, magic, preservation, medicine, and embalming since early human history.
Around 7000 years ago and far before the Greek and Roman civilizations came into being, Indian spices were a key component of its external trade with the lands of Mesopotamia, China, Sumeria, Egypt, and Arabia, along with perfumes and textiles. The clove finds a mention in the Ramayana and even in writings dating back to the Roman Empire in the 1st century AD.
Caravans of camels moved regularly from Calicut, Goa, and the Orient in ancient times to transport these spices to distant destinations, including Carthage, Alexandria, and Rome. While these are readily available today, there was a time when people were ready to go to the extent of risking their lives to gain access to Indian spices. From the Indian perspective, it brought in traders and invaders alike – a century after century.
Quality Improvement of Indian Spices
Quality was a given, but sourcing spices from India meant embarking on long and arduous sea voyages and withstanding intense competition from other powerful empires eager to dominate spice trade.
Between the 7th and 15th centuries, Arab merchants supplied Indian spices to the West but took care to keep their source a closely guarded secret.
The history of spices in India has some dramatic stories. The Europeans took their ships on long expeditions in their quest for the exact origin of the spices that gave life to their food.
As much as these were in demand, spices were tremendously challenging to procure, which made them even more valuable than gold in that period.
During the Middle Ages, it has been said that a pound of ginger was worth a sheep; a pound of mace was worth three sheep or half a cow, and a sack of pepper was said to be worth a man’s life!
According to another estimate, Western Europe imported around 1,000 tons of pepper and 1,000 tons of other common spices annually during the late Middle Ages. These spices were equivalent to the annual supply of grain for 1.5 million people in terms of value.
The demand for spices led to wars, treaties, and maritime discoveries. It is believed that the Parthian wars were fought mainly by the Romans to ensure that the trade route to India remained open to them.
They were also said to be the main factor behind the Crusades. They helped Western Europe regain access to the spice and silk routes to India and China that had been lost after the decline of the Western European empire. Ferdinand Magellan, Christopher Columbus, and Vasco da Gama were looking for a new route to Asia’s spice lands when they ventured out on their historic expeditions.
While Columbus discovered America instead, Vasco da Gama was successful in circumnavigating Africa for the first time in history. This Portuguese expedition was led in particular by the lure of pepper from India. After Vasco da Gama successfully discovered the route to India via the Cape of Good Hope in 1498, Portugal gained a monopoly on the spice trade that served it wonderfully for some time.
During the 16th century, over half of the revenues of the Portuguese government came from Western African gold and Indian spices, with the spices being more valuable than the gold. But it was not to last for long, and by the 1580s, Venice was increasing its pepper imports rapidly at the expense of Portugal.
By the 17th century, trade came in the hands of the Dutch, who held it zealously till the British took over. The struggle between the Western European powers of France, Spain, Portugal, Great Britain, and Holland for control over the spice trade endured over three centuries.
History of spices exportation of India
Today procuring spices is hardly as tricky or dangerous as it used to be, but their allure remains intact. Curries based on Indian spices are integral to cuisines in several countries including the UK, Germany,
Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan, South Africa, Trinidad & Tobago, Philippines, Fiji, Tonga, and the Caribbean Islands. In fact, in 2001, the British Foreign Secretary declared chicken tikka as Britain’s national dish.
Pepper, ginger, and turmeric from India, when mixed with cumin and coriander from the Arabs, are now the base of several dishes across South Asia. This has been spread globally by the British as curry powder. In many ways, it can be said that spices were vital in shaping the course of global history.