A Spicy Heritage By Fahmida Mehreen
Spices – it is India’s proudest heritage, and the history of Indian spices is almost as old as the history of spices itself. The business and activity of Indian spices can be traced back to the ancient and medieval ages where spices played a significant role in bolstering the Indian economy. The spice trade attracted the merchants from all across the world to come to India, which resulted in the formation of trade routes and with time, the business has grown many folds. Spices have made people travel more than anything else in ancient times. It has changed how the world looks today.
For thousands of years, Indians have used spices and herbs for cooking as well as health purposes. The ancient Ayurvedic scripts also mention various spices. Many spices help digestion and prevent heartburn in the body. It is the quality of these spices that has given Indian food its great taste and exotic flavor, making it famous all over the world. During the Mughal Empire, many different spices were blended and mixed together to cook many delicacies with outlandish aroma.
Initially, the spice trade was controlled and dominated by the Arabs for almost 5,000 years, and the mode of transportation of spices was very humble – on the back of donkeys or camels in large caravans. This is how spices were transported from one location to another across the South East Asian territories like China, Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka. However, this network was time-consuming, dangerous, as well as expensive. Europeans were at the disadvantaged end of the trade since they lacked access to the Eastern sources of spices and had limited control over the price inflation. Indeed, some spices such as nutmeg and saffron had cost more than the same weight of gold. In desperation, they put extensive effort to discover routes to other regions which produced spices.
Many European explorers voyaged out into the ocean to find a cheaper trade route than one through the land, and finally, they discovered India. Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama, who was commissioned to find a sea route to India, and finally made the breakthrough. He successfully got into the Indian Ocean, made his way up the coast of East Africa and finally reached the shores of India in 1498. He returned to Portugal with a huge cargo of spices ranging from cloves, ginger, cinnamon and many others. The enormous profits made from this trade indicated to the Portuguese that vast wealth could be achieved through this new route to the Indian markets.
This huge demand for spices was generated not only for its taste but also for its qualities as a preservative agent along with their use in religious rituals, in making perfumes as well as embalming the dead. The qualities of Indian spices soon caught the eye of other western empires apart from the Portuguese, predominantly the Dutch and the British. They all wanted a piece of the delicious pie of the Indian spice trade. In fact, the competition to gain access to the Indian spice trade became so fierce that it inevitably led to the colonization of India. Most of the conquests initially started through trading companies but later led to colonization and monopoly through greed and hunger for power.
From the mid 15th century to early 17th century, the Spanish controlled much of the vast trade network in the sea which linked Asia, Europe and the Americas. Some of the Spanish explorers during this time circumnavigated the globe connecting the spice route as far as the Philippines and Mexico. Indian spices during this period reached the far corners of the western world as traders from many parts of Europe came to India and took spices in large cargos for trading in the West.
Towards the end of the 16th century, the Dutch explorer came to India, and they met with local Sultans and traders to build trading relationships and within the late 1600s. The Dutch-owned much of the cinnamon and pepper trade in India. Thus, spice trading posts were set up across India, especially in the port cities. These ports acted as the hub of knowledge, information and further trading opportunities.
Through the spice trade, Indian spices are no longer confined to India only. They are widespread across the globe. Through the spice trade, India has been exposed to globalization and international trade from the early 15th century, which has built its strong backbone in global business today. Even today, spices are an economic strength to India as the country is one of the largest exporters of spices in the world. Many people in the West add Indian spices to their dishes and use them for medicinal purposes. The demand just keeps increasing due to many Indians migrating to different parts of the world. n