Art fest paints lost pepper trade back to life

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SummaryThe buzz is back in the abandoned spice warehouses of Kochi.

The buzz is back in the abandoned spice warehouses of Kochi. A fresh coat of paint across walls and graffitis has given a fresh lease of life to an old Jewish settlement that was once know as the terminal market for spices across the globe.

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB), a three-month-long international arts festival that started on December 12, puts the spotlight back on Kochi and Muziris, two very important trading centres of spices.

The ancient city of Muziris, located 30 km from Kochi, was a prosperous seaport and financial centre in the First Century BC. Believed to have been swept by the sea during the 1341 AD Periyar river flood, Muziris was a key link to the Indo-Roman Empire and Indo-Greek trade routes. Trade shifted from Muziris to Mattancherry as the flood in Periyar created a natural harbor in Kochi. Interestingly, the Biennale comes at a time when spice trade is bypassing Kochi for various reasons.

Kochi used to receive some 70,000 -90,000 tonnes of pepper every year. Currently, the spot market availability of pepper is minimal and trading volumes at the 50-year-old commodity exchange of Indian Pepper and Spice Trade Association (Ipsta) has dwindled. Members have stayed away from trading in the past few years or have shifted to new commodity exchanges.  The regional exchange, formed in 1957, was once the only exchange in the world to trade in pepper futures. Nearly 300-400 tonnes of pepper used to change hands daily at the Ipsta floors. Some abandoned warehouses in the old town of Mattancherry are now being converted to boutique resorts. Foreigners still come in large numbers, but they don’t come any more for pepper.  With pepper production on the decline and the bulk of the product being sold at the primary point itself, Kochi is also likely to lose its sobriquet of being the ‘terminal market for pepper’.

“Pepper trade is struggling to survive. Many trading houses have shifted operations and warehouse from the Mattancherry area. Spice trade no longer holds the place as it did several decades ago. Biennale could be the solution to the problem and help trade and tourism,” Jose Dominic, CEO pf CGH Earth Group, a leading hotel chain said.

Veteran trader Kishore Shamji feels that pepper has virtually abandoned Mattancherry for political and fiscal reasons. “Militant trade unions have a role in some traders shifting to other states. Tax anomalies are another reason for trade shifting to

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