History and Origin of Spices in India

Spices have been closely connected to magic, cultural traditions, preservation, medicine and embalming since early human history. Spices were a key component of India’s external trade with Mesopotamia, China, Sumeria, Egypt and Arabia , along with perfumes and textiles – as far back as 7000 years ago – much before the Greek and Roman civilizations.

The remarkable story of how spices played a key role in shaping the course of world history is as follows.

The clove finds a mention in the Ramayana – as well as in writings dating back to the Roman Empire in the 1st century AD. Caravans of camels moved regularly from Calcutta, Goa and the Orient in ancient times to transport these spices to distant destinations such as Carthage, Alexandria and Rome .

While these spices are readily available today, there was a time when people risked their lives to gain access to Indian spices. From the Indian perspective, it brought in traders and invaders alike – century after century.

The Origin of Spices – And Spice Trade

Although many spices originated from India, sourcing different varieties of spices from India was both difficult and risky. It meant embarking on long and difficult sea voyages – as well as withstanding intense competition from other powerful empires eager to dominate spice trade.

Between the 7th and 15th centuries, Arab merchants supplied Indian spices to the West, but took care to keep their source a closely guarded secret. To protect their market, discourage competitors and enhance prices, they are known to have spread fanciful stories to satisfy the curious – such as cinnamon growing in deep glens infested by poisonous snakes – among other things.

The Europeans took their ships on long expeditions in their quest for the true origin of the spices that gave life to their food. Since Indian spices were heavily in demand and very difficult to procure, they were even more valuable than gold at that time.

During the Middle Ages , it has been said that one pound of ginger was worth a sheep one pound of mace was worth three sheep or half a cow one sack of pepper was said to be worth a man’s life!

According to another estimate, Western Europe imported around 1,000 tons of pepper and 1,000 tons of other common spices annually during the late Middle Ages.These spices were equivalent to the annual supply of grain for 1.5 million people in terms of value.

Wars, Treaties & Maritime Discoveries

It is believed that the Parthian wars were largely fought by the Romans to ensure that the trade route to India remained open to them. In fact, they were also said to be a main factor behind the Crusades . They helped Western Europe regain access to the spice and silk routes to India and China that had been lost after the decline of the Western European empire.

Ferdinand Magellan, Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama were looking for a new route to Asia’s spice lands when they ventured out on their historic expeditions.

While Columbus discovered America instead of finding the storied spice lands, Vasco da Gama was successful in circumnavigating Africa for the first time in history. This Portuguese expedition was led in particular by the lure of pepper from India .

Portugal Gains Monopoly over Spice Trade

After Vasco da Gama successfully discovered the route to India via the Cape of Good Hope in 1498, a Portuguese expedition led by Pedro Álvares Cabral brought spices for the first time to Europe from India through the Cape of Good Hope in 1501. Thereafter, Portugal gained a monopoly on the spice trade that served it wonderfully for much of the 16th century.

During this period, over half the revenues of the Portuguese government came from Western African gold and Indian spices, with the spices being more valuable than gold.

But the Portuguese monopoly did not last for long. By the 1580s, Venice was increasing its pepper imports rapidly – at the expense of Portugal.

300 Years of Struggle to Dominate the Spice Trade

By the 17th century, trade came in the hands of the Dutch , who held it zealously till the British took over. The struggle between the Western European powers of France, Spain, Portugal, Holland and Great Britain for control over the spice trade endured over three centuries.

Today, procuring spices is nowhere as difficult or perilous as it used to be – but the allure of Indian spices still remains intact.

Curries based on Indian spices are integral to cuisines in several countries including UK, Germany, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan, South Africa, Trinidad & Tobago, Philippines, Fiji, Tonga and the Caribbean Islands.

In 2001, the British Foreign Secretary claimed chicken tikka masala to be Britain’s national dish.

Pepper, ginger and turmeric from India – when mixed with cumin and coriander from Arabia – are now the base of several dishes across South Asia. This has been spread globally by the British as curry powder .

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