As a child, I loved visiting the local markets with my grandmother. The air enveloping the markets was perpetually filled with a dust of spices, tickling your nostrils and propelling a convulsion of coughs, as Grand-mother and the shopkeepers meanwhile haggled to an endless deal. I liked watching the heaps of red, yellow and all those hues, the tangy aroma of them as they consumed the air; it was sheer wonderment.
Yet on another thought there is so much more they entail; a great legacy, of a lasting tradition of gastronomy, of ushering a prosperous economy and changing the trajectory of the subcontinent…forever?
The Silk Route diaries:
Since school days, the famed “Silk Route” really interested me. The spice trade was not simply an event stretching not only some centuries. Even a millennium back it triggered an international curiosity and it was the allure of spices that led several traders to usher upon a risquè-filled sojourn towards the eastern islands. Inscriptional evidence found in Greece, Rome, and various literary sources attest to the existence of an intense international trade along the famed Silk Route. While the rest brought in copper and precious stones, India tilted the balance in her favor with her boastful supply of cotton, silk, textiles and then spices! So partially was the trade tilted in favor of India that Pliny the Elder in his records complains how the Roman Empire fell down due to the drain of specie to India as the Roman thirst for silk and muslin remained insatiable.
In the erstwhile Western countries, spices were deemed as precious as gold and often gifted across during special occasions. In the culinary realm, as a certain food historian suggests, the delicacies amongst the elites more so, consisted of an unpalatable amount of spices used, besides their taste, for their medicinal function! Even the poor-man’s house boasted of spices although he could afford only enough to be added as a preservative to the cold meat.
In India on the other hand, scientists have unearthed evidence that ginger, turmeric and garlic have been in use to prepare curries since the time of Indus Valley! Thus, what we know as the popular curry is a continuing and surviving tradition in the gastronomic history of our sub-continent for millennia at a stretch! The trade with South Asian countries introduced several more ingredients and with the arrival of the Portuguese, chilies were thrown in; probably this explains the explicit blend of chilies in the chain of cities where the Portuguese had settled. Try a Cochin style Chemeen curry to know of chilies. Anyone yet?
Of Caravans and Coasts:
Not only were the Greek and Roman and Parthian traders vying for Indian spices but that of the Arabian Dessert too! Traders from far in the Middle East had always been active in the Spice trade yet as Islam had consolidated an Empire, merchants and mercantile trade flourished, encouraged by the ruling dynasty of the Abbasids. Lying at the crossroads between the European countries and the coveted land of spices, the Arabs laid opportunistic bait and became the powerful middlemen between the rich Orient and the European merchants who often had to get past them to reach the coveted spices.
Thus, by 7th Century a gradual but large wave of Arab merchants swarmed in and indulged in the lucrative spice trade, venturing into the further East of Java and China too! Subsequently, they spread along the entire coastline, centering their settlements in Gujrat, Karnataka, and the Konkan Coasts.Thus by then we had a whole swarm of Arab, Jewish and Christian merchants settling in and fiercely contesting the Spice trade. They settled, assimilated, appropriated, influenced and added so greatly to the Indian way of life and helped weave the multiple- thread of Indian sociology-religious aspects.
In Kerala for instance, owing to the spice trade a cosmopolitan, urban community of Christians, Baghdadi Jews and Arab Muslim traders coexisted that changed several dimensions. In fact the continuum of this trend led to the rise of the consolidated Mappila Community, an Arab-Muslim group. What is surprising is that the first mosque built in the subcontinent by the Mappilas, was in a Jain style rather than the atypical dome…..a cultural barter indeed!
The Final Onslaught:
Thereafter, from the 14th-15th CE onwards, Europe broke from its feudal fold and began to aggressively participate in the trade. The Age of Discovery and Expansion ushered and the Renaissance suitably built the European ego that led to the belief that world domination was their prerogative. Thus to break free from the Arab monopoly of the Eastern Spice Trade, the kingdoms sponsored innumerable merchants who set out on a discovery of the way to the fabled land of gold and spices. While Columbus wrongly discovered America, the Portuguese hit on gold with Vasco Da Gama discovering the sea route to India…Thereafter came the Dutch, the French and finally the English who colonised our country and changed the historical trajectory of our country, irrevocably so…..
Such was the role of spices in the historical trajectory of India; it was one of the many factors that helped build up the poly-spectrum melangè that India has emerged as today.