Spiced up! The story of Indian masala trade during ancient age

Updated: April 11, 2021 12:48 PM

Indian cuisine goes long back into history; archaeologically reflecting more than 7000 years of spice history that tells us of the evolution of spicy flavours, which later branched out to form the different regional cuisines.

spicesCenturies before the Greek and Roman civilizations came into existence, Indian spices found their way to Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Arabia.

By Monidipa Bose Dey, 

India is well known globally for its home grown spices, and Indian cuisine is equally famous for its various spicy delicacies. Indian cuisine goes long back into history; archaeologically reflecting more than 7000 years of spice history that tells us of the evolution of spicy flavours, which later branched out to form the different regional cuisines. Excavations in the Harappan sites have revealed that herbs and spices such as turmeric, ginger, pepper, etc were used as added flavours to dishes of millets, barley, wild rice, etc. In the arena of world history, Indian spices is said to have significantly influenced the shaping of the history of ancient international relations. The famous spice trade that existed from the proto-historic era and flourished during the ancient and medieval times between India and other nations is often cited by scholars as the main impetus behind Europe’s Age of Discovery. Spices, which were imported from India to Europe and other parts of the world, have also cast significant influences on global cuisines.

Centuries before the Greek and Roman civilizations came into existence, Indian spices found their way to Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Arabia. Later Greek merchants would set their sails and reach the port markets of south India, to buy various luxury items amongst which spices were always on their top list. Historians believe that the Parthian wars were fought so that the trade routes to India were not disrupted. Spices and other luxury items from India lured many explorers over the centuries to lead expeditions and crusades to the East.

It was again the same Indian spices that led the Arabian traders (of cinnamon and cassia) to lie about the land of origin of these spices, solely to protect their business interests. Owing to these cooked up stories, the ancient Greeks and Romans had some of the most ludicrous ideas regarding the places from where these Eastern spices came. Herodotus (5th century BCE), the famous Greek historian with information from the Arab spice traders wrote that cassia grew in swamps, and were protected by dangerous winged bat like creatures that gave out shrill cries. The Arabs gave out even more fantastic stories about cinnamon, which they claimed grew on mountain tops near Arabia. Gigantic birds would carry cinnamon sticks to their nests, which were built on inaccessible cliffs. To get these cinnamon sticks, the locals would place large pieces of fresh donkey meat near the nests of these birds, and these creatures would then carry the heavy meat chunks to their nests. These high nests not having enough support would break under the weight of the meat chunks and fall to the ground. The locals would then collect the cinnamon sticks and sell them at exorbitant prices to the Arabs. By narrating such absurd and fantastic tales to their buyers and lying about the land of origin of the spices, the Arabian traders managed to maintain complete monopoly on the Eastern spice trade for many centuries, garnering huge profits from it. Owing to their geographical position the Arabs made the perfect middlemen, and with their scary and fabricated tales they willfully stopped Mediterranean spice traders from establishing direct contact with India and Southeast Asia, the lands that actually produced spices. It was only in the 1st century CE that the Roman scholar Pliny derived and pointed out that the tales by Arab traders about Indian spices were cooked up, aimed at inflating the prices of spices, which at that time were considered valuable items of trade and exchange. These Indian and SE Asian spices (that are still in use) included black pepper, long pepper, cardamom, turmeric, and cinnamon.

Herbs and spices, which Indians call as masalas and use in their cooking, are often a mix of several spices that vary from dish to dish. One such spice used in most of the Indian dishes is the garam masala, which is a blend of multiple spices, and each state in India has its own specific blend of garam masala. In India spices and herbs play roles that go way beyond just cooking, and they are regularly mentioned in the Ayurvedic texts, where they are prescribed for their curative and therapeutic properties. In the medical books of Charaka and Sushruta there are many references to the medicinal uses of various herbs and spices, with documentation of nearly seven hundred medicines that are of plant origin, such as turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, pepper, cardamom, and ginger. Sushruta, who was a surgeon, recommended fumigation of sickroom and operating rooms with pungent vapours of bdellium, white mustard, and other aromatic spices to ward off malignant effects; while he recommended the use of sesame poultice on wounds as an antiseptic. Sushruta in his book made notes on the use of spices such as mustard seeds, cumin, ginger, black pepper, and cardamom, for treatment of piles, urinary issues, etc.

India’s love for herbs and spices remains strong and in these Covid times there has been an increase in the use of herbs and spices that boost immunity. Use of turmeric and ginger in drinks such as kada and in cooked food has seen a significant rise to fight the current pandemic; and even today India is seen as the ancient land that keeps growing exotic spices.

(The author is a well-known travel and heritage writer. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)

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