History of Spices in India

by Dr John Harrison

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 civilization 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 – such as the Rig Veda (around 6000 BC) and the others – Yajurveda, Samaveda and the Atharveda. During the Vedic period information was primarily handed down orally from generation to generations through the medium of hymns. The Rig Veda contains references to various spices. There is also a reference to Black Pepper in the Yajur Veda.

The mountains, tropical rain forests, wetlands, marshy woodlands, rich valleys, and the green fields, all are rich in Indian spices. The history of Indian spices lies in the abundance and goodness of Mother Nature.

Spices from China, Indonesia, India and Ceylon (now Sri lanka) were originally transported by land from one place to another by donkey and camels in a caravan. For almost 5000 years the Arabs controlled the spice trade until the Europeans discovered a sea route to India.

In search for a cheaper way to obtain spices, many explorations were done through sea voyages. Ferdinand Magellan, Vasco da Gama, and Christopher Columbus, are but a few. 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 flavor of food due to the lack of refrigeration and cold storage.

Fierce competition among the giants to control the spice trade led to the colonization of India. The Portuguese, the Dutch, the French, the Spanish, and the British, all established monopoly over certain parts of 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 flavoring food, for medicines, pharmaceuticals, perfumes, and cosmetics.