Saturday, December 16, 2006

India- the global leader

“History loves a paradox, and there can be none greater than a ‘taste of spices’ being responsible for the exploration of our planet. Sovereigns pledged their prestige, and navigators risked their lives, not in the quest of gold or the thirst of power but to redirect the distribution of a few inessential and today almost irrelevant vegetable products. Whether eastward-bound like Vasco da Gama or westward like Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan, the great renaissance pioneers invariably sailed in search of spices, The discovery of the Americas, of a sea-route round Africa and of that missing link in the world’s circumference that was the Pacific were all incidental to this quest for pungency and flavour. So, by extension were the developments in shipbuilding, navigational science and ballistics that eventually gave the maritime powers of western Europe superiority over other nations and led on to dominion and power.

Ages before da Gama weighed anchor in India, a whiff of spices enticed into unknown waters Pharaonic and Phoenician sea farers, Greco-Roman traders, Indo-Arab merchants, Muslim scholars, Venetian fortune seekers, African adventurers and Chinese emissaries. Just about every maritime pioneer from before the age of Alexander to that of Napoleon had a nose for pungent substances. Thanks to the challenge of sourcing and redirecting these exotic commodities, mankind learned to overcome the fear of the world’s briny wastes.

In the Isthmian age, spices from Indonesia and Malaysia used to land in the tip of the Indian peninsula. Instead of being carried round Cape Comorin or Sri Lanka, they were landed on India’s east (Coromandel) coast and then transported overland to ports on its west (Malabar) coast.

A trail of Roman coin-finds across the peninsula between Madras and Calicut attests the early popularity of this overland short-cut and textual sources appear to confirm it. In the first century BC, Strabo, the greatest of classical geographers, was able to demonstrate some knowledge of India – ‘a nation greater than and more flourishing than any other’ and he knew of Egypt’s trade with the Malabar ports.

In the first century BC, Roman knowledge extended little beyond India’s west coast because that was as far as those who traded under Rome’s auspices ventured. Spices from further afield, like the cloves and nutmegs of the Moluccas or the sandalwood of Timor and camphor of Sumatra, entered the purview of the Roman world only through India’s west coast ports. Yet, the attraction of these ports for the Roman Empire, as for all later visitors from the west, lay not merely in their role as entrepots for the exotic produce of Indonesia, but as producer outlets for the better-known spices of Southern India itself. These included ginger, cardamom, turmeric and above all, black pepper, the mainstay of the spice trade and its only bulk community,

Harvested in the hill forests of south India, loose pepper was shipped from adjacent Malabar ports in such vast quantities, to both west and east. In fact, if Marco Polo may be believed, in the thirteenth century, for every vessel dispatched with pepper to the European market, ten sailed laden for China.

Black pepper had also been the principal Oriental import of the Roman Empire. So many ships sailed from the Red Sea to the Malabar every summer for pepper that it soon ceased to be a luxury and by the 4th century AD, may have been a staple of Roman life. Spices were landed on the African coast of Somalia and then conveyed by camels to the Upper Nile and then by boat down-river to the Mediterranean and Alexandria. From here, the spices were sent to Italy, reshipped to Narbonne to the south of France, repacked for river and road carriage o Flanders, Britain or the Baltic. In its heyday, Rome was the biggest beneficiary of this lucrative trade, but as of about the tenth century, Venice would grow rich and powerful on the proceeds of the spice trade.

It was the dominance of Venice and the stranglehold that they and the Arabs held over the spice movement that originated in India that prompted the Portuguese to seek alternative routes to reach India. The circumnavigation of Africa by Bartholomew Dias in 1480 AD, and the knowledge obtained from Arab sailors that the south-west monsoon winds would propel the sail ships towards India in summer and, the North-East monsoon would provide the return winds, emboldened Vasco da Gama to undertake an expedition to India in 1492 AD, that would eventually bring the country under European rule.”

Much of the text above is extracted from the book, “Spice Route” by John Keay who in the process of tracking the movement of different spices over a period of three millennia has provided a fascinating glimpse into the glorious past of India.

We are used to being told that India began liberalizing and globalizing in 1991, thanks to the far-sightedness of people like P.V.Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh. A look into our history tells us how absurd that statement is. Globalisation is not new to India. For much of its history, India has been the undisputed epicenter of the global spice trade, as a major producer and a major entrepot port for spices from Indonesia and beyond. We have had extensive links with China, Indonesia, Arabia and the Romans and have carried on a peaceful, but flourishing trade with both the east and the west, for several centuries.

But, as the mutual funds like to say, past performance is not a guarantee of future results. So, we have had to begin all over again in 1991 to make a mark in the global market. What a shame.

No comments: