The complex flavours of cardamom and fieriness of the pepper give that unmistakable flavour to our food. Eating is elevated to an esoteric experience. But how many of us know that nations waged battles just for the sake of quaint potions of Indian spice? It was expensive, indispensable and a luxury to own and trade with spices recognised for their flavour, texture and colour. Centuries ago, explorers set sail to discover the beauty and fragrance of Indian spices and created naval history.
Come and join me as I trace the historic Spice Route. Spice was hailed as the biggest industry in the world. History has it that ancient civilizations flocked to India for her valuable spices 7,000 years ago. Ships laden with Indian spices navigated through the sea routes leading to Mesopotamia, Arabia and Egypt.
Traders also came on double humped Bactrian camels found in Central Asian deserts. Their caravans loaded with spices, crossed the Indian terrains and headed to the spice markets of Babylon, Carthage, Alexandria and Rome. Sacks of spices were bartered for gold coins. Even at that time people realised that food tasted better when a few spices were thrown into the cooking cauldrons. Spices were sought after for their medicinal value. In the pre-refrigerator era, people smeared spice powders to preserve their food. This went on for hundreds of years from the Middle Ages to modern times.
The spice quest opened out India’s commercial trade links with the rest of the world. Today we all know it as the fabled Spice Route.
The Bay of Bengal became the channel that connected India with many parts of the world. In the absence of export houses, Indian spice merchants directly interacted with foreign traders. Today the Spices Board from the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Government of India is an international link between Indian exporters and importers.
Going back in time, Kerala’s port city Calicut or Kozhikode in the Malabar Coast was the epicentre of spices. Indian merchants traded in spices like pepper, cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg and cloves. Relatively speaking, black pepper was valued as high as gold.
The European Age of Discovery is a reference point because Portugal was the leading maritime nation in Europe. It was a defining moment when the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama came to Calicut. He was the first navigator to sail directly from Europe to India. It was in 1498 during the Age of Discovery. His nautical journey to India was a catalyst to open out Western Europe’s sea trade with the Far East and new maritime routes for trade. Vasco da Gama was appointed Portuguese Viceroy in India. Portuguese was one of the earliest European empires to benefit from Indian spice trade, followed by the Dutch and the English. Oceanic Spice trade and commerce also resulted in foreign invasion and colonization.
Though merchants from Greece, Rome, Eastern Mediterranean, Arab countries and Europe trailed along the Spice Route, their influence was seen in various parts of India. They left behind heritage buildings, monuments and other landmarks, apart from giving a signature touch to many regional cuisines.
Spice trade also meant the promotion of nautical discovery and nautical expertise, art, culture and literacy, along with socio-cultural-religious beliefs. These impressions are preserved in museums in the form of navigation aids, textiles, erstwhile queer utensils and artifacts.
Whilst not measured in gold, there are few who would give away their spices today for what it brings and adds. Spices from India are being valued for their zing in taste, medicinal value, beauty and spa treatments and much more.