Passage to India
It’s a nagging thought that’s never found full expression. But each time I would read about medieval Europeans and their rush to find a way to get to India to discover the riches of the East, something inside me would stir uneasily. Pepper, I would read, was more precious than gold in Europe in those days. A single nutmeg commanded prices we associate with white truffles in modern times.
It didn’t sound quite right to me. If spices commanded such high prices then they must have been available in Europe in the first place, long before Vasco da Gama landed on our shores.
But, if the Europeans had not got here, then how did they already have access to Indian spices? How did they set prices for them?
I was confused too by the historical fact that many of the foods we now regard as typically Indian – potatoes, tomatoes, chillies etc. – were only introduced to our sub-continent by the Portuguese and other colonial powers. To me, this suggested that had we engaged in contact with Europe over the centuries then we would have eaten our first potato long before the Portuguese decided to set up their colonies.
Even as these thoughts nagged away at me, I saw two things that made me think. The first was the American TV mini-series, Rome, set in the time of Julius Caesar. One episode features an Indian trader. Hang on, I thought to myself, you mean there were Indians in Rome many centuries before Vasco da Gama, Christopher Columbus and the rest decided to brave the seas and sail to India? (In Columbus’s case, of course, he ended up in South America and thought it was India.)
The second was an excellent column by Vikram Doctor in last Saturday’s Economic Times where he attempted to understand the Indian fascination with Italian food. According to Vikram, contacts between India and Italy dated all the way back to ancient Rome, when the Brits and the French were still living in the trees. (Actually Vikram didn’t say anything about the Brits or the French; that’s my little contribution.)
One of Vikram’s sources was K T Achaya, the food historian whose works are shamelessly plundered by all of us food writers. So, I pulled out Achaya’s A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food to see what he had to say.
And blow me, if Vikram and the producers of the Rome TV series, hadn’t been right all along. Never mind all this medieval stuff about Alphonso de Albuquerque and Vasco da Gama and the rest of them. Long, long before (till 1500 years before!) any of these guys were born, India had links with Europe, with ancient Greece and with classical Rome. What’s more, we sold food to them.
There’s no getting around the facts that Alexander The Great got to India in 327 BC or that he took the sea route back to Alexandria. So clearly, there were contacts between India and Europe over three centuries before the birth of Christ and it was possible to use the sea routes.
After Alexander went back, the Greeks stayed on, many ruling parts of India till they were defeated by the likes of Chandragupta Maurya. Even then, many Greeks continued to live in India and it is the accounts of such Europeans as Seleukos Nikator that have shaped our understanding of that period in Indian history.
Obviously, the Greeks took back Indian spices and oils, creating a taste for them in Europe. Further, writes Achaya, in AD 40, a Greek sailor called Hippalos wrote a graphic (and personal) account of how to navigate the monsoon winds and reach India.
Hippalos described such Indian exports as ivory from Orissa, muslin from South India and such food items as sesame oil, pepper, salt, ghee and ginger grass.
According to Achaya, Tamil texts talk of Romans whose “well-built ships rode the waves” and who took back “different kinds of grain, white salt, sweetened tamarind and salted fish.” In return, the Romans gave us gold, brass, topaz, horses and wine.
Yes, you read that right. Two thousand years ago, we were importing Italian wine. Around 50 years ago, excavations near Pondicherry revealed a Roman warehouse dating to the first century AD. Not only did this contain coins issued by the Roman emperors of that period, Augustus, Tiberius, Nero and Caligula, it also had large Roman amphorae, the jugs you see in all paintings of Rome in that period. Clearly, this was an ancient bonded warehouse for the import of wine.
There is, Achaya concedes, a gap of a thousand years before we find evidence of more links between Rome and India. But by the thirteenth century, Italians were doing what Marco Polo claimed to have done and travelling overland to China by way of India. Polo himself praised Indian ginger. Others wrote about Indian pepper, the local oranges and other foods.
Did these travellers take Indian spices back to Europe with them? Well, yes and no. From what I have been able to establish, our reputation for splendid and exotic products (muslin, spices, wood, oil etc.) dated back to before the birth of Christ. But trade with Europe – through the medium of European ships – seems to have wound down by the second or third century. The Marco Polo-type of visitor went back and praised the riches of India but did not actively engage in trade.
However, we forget two things.
The first is that the links between Europe and what we now call the Middle East were strong. Italy is next to North Africa. The Romans had suzerainty over Egypt (remember Caesar and Cleopatra). Alexander’s most famous city, the Alexandria that survives (he built many cities and called them all Alexandria) is also in the Middle East.
Contacts between India and the Arab world seem to have gone on throughout history. The Arabs knew of India, its riches and its spices. So, even if Europeans did not sail to India themselves, they had the Arabs as intermediaries.
Secondly, there was already a well-established spice trade, long before the East India company was thought of. Nor did the spices come only from India. Chinese and Malay traders brought goods to Indian ports. Arab traders took them to North Africa and the Mediterranean.
And from there they reached Venice and Genoa which became centers of the trade.The reason the Europeans came to India (or why Columbus tried to find a new route) was not because they were so fascinated by stores of our spices. It was because of trade. The Arabs were charging too much for spices and the Europeans hoped to set up a direct supply chain.
So, why then do we treat the arrival of Vasco da Gama and the rest as such unprecedented events when India had been sending spices and foods to the West for centuries?
Part of it is that we rely too much on Western accounts. And partly, we play down our own heritage. By the time the Europeans got here, we were a sophisticated civilisation that knew of the West and had little to learn from the Europeans.
And why did we only taste the chilli and potato after the Europeans got here? Why didn’t our own traders or the Arabs import them?
That’s simple. It was all a matter of timing. When Vasco da Gama first landed in India, Columbus had only just returned to Europe from South America. So the potato, the chilli, the tomato and all the other new world foods were as novel to the Europeans as they were to us. If the Portuguese had not brought them our own traders would have.
It’s time we gave our ancestors a little more credit. We were not an isolated backwater cut off from the world, and thrilled by the sight of white men. We were then the world’s richest country, self-assured and entirely aware of what lay beyond the waters.