History of Spice in India

It is a common misconception that the main native spice from India is chilli. Indeed, most people will swear that India as well as the Orient are its birth place. In fact, chillies were brought over to Asia by the Portuguese in the late 15th and early 16th century after  Columbus discovered the Americas. Prior to this this period, only real heated spice was peppercorns.

The spice trade in Asia and Asia Minor was actually made up of a diverse variety of spices including coriander, cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, bay leaf, peppercorns, fenugreek, Nigella sativa, mustard and fennel to mention but a few.

‘Since time immemorial India has been considered as the ‘Spice Bowl of the World’. The history of Indian spices is almost as old as the ‘human civilisation of Spices ‘. Conquering tribes from Assyrians and Babylonians, Arabians, Romans, Egyptians, the Chinese to the British and the Portuguese, all invaded India with one goal – to take advantage of the rich natural wealth, and Indian spices.

The earliest written record in India on Spices is found in the Vedas and datas back to around 6000BC. During the Vedic period information was primarily handed down orally from generation to generation through the medium of hymns. The Rig Veda contains references to various spices and there’s also a reference to black pepper in the Yajur Veda.
The mountains, tropical rain-forests, wetlands, marshy woodlands, rich valleys, and the green fields are all fertile areas in which Indian spices can thrive.

Spices from other countries such as China, Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka were originally transported by land, either by donkey or camel. For almost 5000 years the Arabs controlled the spice trade until the Europeans discovered an oceanic route to India.

In search for a cheaper way to obtain spices, many explorations were undertaken through sea voyages. Ferdinand Magellan, Vasco da Gama, and Christopher Columbus, are but a few explorers who traversed the seas in this region. In 1497 the Portuguese Vasco da Gama having travelled around Africa, discovered Kozhikode on the south west coast of India in 1498. He returned back with a huge cargo of nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and peppercorns.

Even in the ancient and medieval ages the Indian spices played a significant role in strengthening its economic condition. The history of Indian spices narrates a long tale of trading with the ancient civilizations. Spices were in great demand to preserve the flavour of food due to the lack of refrigeration and cold storage.

Fierce competition among the giants to control the spice trade led to the colonisation of India. The Portuguese, the Dutch, the French, the Spanish, and the British, all established monopolies over certain sections of the spice trade.

Empires were built and fortunes were made by brutal conquests and piracy, all because of hunger and greed. This era saw the formation of the Trading Empire which was known as The British East India Company. What followed is known to every Indian either through life experience or through our history books.

With time, the trade grew in leaps and bounds, and eventually the Spices Board of India was set up to administer the spice trading. Kerala, Punjab, Gujarat, a few North East states, Uttar Pradesh, and several other states became the hubs for growing spices. Indian spices are used for flavouring food, for medicines, pharmaceuticals, perfumes, and cosmetics.’

by Dr John Harrison