Spice, Spices, Trade routes, India

Spices are aromatic substances of plant origin, used in small quantities as food additives or in drinks, for taste, smell, color, as preservative or anti-bacterial agents, or as refreshing or invigorating agent. Some of these have a strong, pungent smell and taste, some others have hotter and sharper taste. Some are enchantingly fragrant, some are mildly sweet and in charming colors.

A spice is a dried part of a plant as its bark or leaves, root, fruit, or seed. It might be grated into a powder form, are mashed into a paste. It may even be used un-dried and eaten as a vegetable, like basil, or in another form as in cosmetics or perfumery. Some seeds like mustard seeds, or cardamom or cumin are used as it is, or in powder form. The roots, fruits, seeds, flowers and leaves of trees, plants and other herbs have been the principal constituents of India's time-tested and traditional Ayurvedic medications.

India has been famous for its spices even from early historical periods. These spices include dried fruits like black pepper and nutmeg, mustard or cumin, roots such as turmeric, garlic and ginger, barks such as cinnamon, dried buds like saffron, cardamom, drinkables such as tea and coffee. And there has been a flourishing spice trade between India and Middle East, and between India and the European countries. Some of these spices have been grown in countries like Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka), Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, in the Far East. China has also been in the picture for quite long and in fact the celebrated tea has come from that country. Some of the South American countries were also known to have been producers of some of these herbs. There is mentioning of the spices from at least from 6th century BC, if not long, long before that. During the so-called Middle Ages, the European countries imported 1,000 tons of black pepper and an equal quantity of other spices every year. The cost for this much of condiments was equivalent to the cost for the food grains for 1.5 million people, according to modern economists. The finance minister of the south-western state of the erstwhile Travancore was officially named the 'secretary for the pepper purse', and it shows how much important the pepper trade for that country was even during those early days.

The trade routes in the early modern period in world history were noted for the trade business the European countries were having those days. These routes were the gateways for the spices from South Asian countries, which meant India and its neighbors. Venice, which was the monopolistic dealer in the spices, was charging exorbitant prices. Portugal and Spain decided to control the sea (trade) routes, or to have fresh routes. And it was how Christopher Columbus was dispatched towards the west and Vasco da Gama proceeded towards the east. The former stumbled upon the Americas in 1492 and the latter landed in Calicut (Kozhikode, now) in Kerala, India. Columbus informed his people about the new land he landed on and about the several new spices he could notice there. Vasco da Gama too reported to his people about Malabar, the inexhaustible land of spices and other riches. The Portuguese became very rich and powerful by controlling the sea routes to India. They traded directly with India, Siam and China. On the one hand they controlled the Silk Routes to China and now the sea routes to India. Not only the spices, but almost all the visible riches and treasures of the East like gold, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, began reaching Europe, either bought or plundered. The rest is history, commercial, cultural, colonial, political and otherwise.

And now, of the total spice production in the East, 86% is from India, 5% is from China, 3% from Bangladesh, 2% from Pakistan, 1% from Nepal and the rest of 3% from other countries, according to an estimate of the FAO.