In Search of Knowledge and Riches: Communities in Indian Spice Trade

By National Centre for Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research

curated by Annamma Spudich, PhD., supported by National Centre for Biological Sciences

Before Europeans directly entered India Trade, maritime
trade was dominated by Asian and Middle Eastern merchants. Along with the
enormous wealth amassed by regional traders, cultural, artistic and
philosophical influences were exchanged between these regions that are evident
even today.

Peninsula Indiae… Malabar & Coromandel…Original Source: Private collection of James and Annamma Spudich

This is a map of the Indian peninsula and Sri Lanka giving geographical information about the important coastal cities of India.

The inset in the lower left corner is a drawing of the primary commodities of India, and foreign and Indian communities, involved in trade.

Relief Panel of a Ship at Borobudur StupaOriginal Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the first century AD, the Roman historian Pliny reported on the unique navigation methods of Indian ships, “they carry birds on board with them and at fairly frequent intervals set them free and follow the course they take as they make for the land.” This image from the Buddhist Stupa at Borobudur shows one type of ship involved in trade from India to East Asia.

Arab Dhow (13th Century)Original Source: Bibliothoque Nationale de France, Paris

An illustration from one of the greatest illuminated manuscripts of all time, a compendium of tales by al-Harari from the 13th century, shows an Arab Dhow, a small sailing vessel of the type that dominated the Indian Ocean trade between Africa, the Middle East and India for centuries.

Detail showing travelers in the Arab Dhow

Mosque in South India, 16th Century (1604)Original Source: Beinecke Library, Yale University.

Muslim communities were integral to spice trade throughout the Middle East and Asia. This engraving from the Itinerario of Jan Linschotten, published in 1604 in the Netherlands, shows a mosque in Southern India alongside a Hindu temple. Muslim traders were some of the leading spice merchants before the arrival of the Portuguese at the end of the 15th century.

First day Cover with Persian Cross, Commemorating the Syrian Christian Church (1973) by Indian Postal ServiceOriginal Source: Private collection of James and Annamma Spudich

This first day cover (1973) with the Persian cross from St. Mary’s Valiapally in Kottayam, Kerala, commemorates the Christian communities from the Middle East who came to India in the first millennium. They were engaged in India Trade as spice growers and spice merchants and continue in such roles to this day.

Photograph of the facade of Kaduthuruty Valiapalli (2012)Original Source: from the collection of James and Anna Spudich

A relief on the façade of one of the oldest Christian churches in India (~4th c. AD) the Forona Church in Kaduthurthy, of mermen carrying small boats, also alludes to distant origins and sea voyages of this community.

First day cover commemorating the 400th Anniversary of the Jewish Synagogue (1968) by Indian Postal ServiceOriginal Source: Private collection of James and Annamma Spudich

Indian Postal Service issued this first day cover in 1968 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the rebuilding of this historic structure (on the site of an earlier synagogue dated to the end of the first millennium). Jewish traders from the Middle East were engaged in spice trade in Malabar by the middle of the first millennium to the middle of the 20th century.

Tiles, interior of the Cochin synagogue (1980)Original Source: from the collection of James and Anna Spudich

The blue and white porcelain tiles covering the interior of the Jewish synagogue in Kochi were imported from China by the Jewish spice merchant Ezhekial Rahabi when the synagogue was rebuilt in the 16th century.

Chinese Fishing Nets, Kochi Harbor (2015)Original Source: from the collection of James and Anna Spudich

Many remnants of the Spice Trade can still be found in the West Coast of India. Along the harbor of present-day Fort Kochi, these fishing nets hoisted by weights, called the Chinese Fishing Nets, allude to the once vigorous trade with East Asia.

Erythraei Sive, Rubri Maris Periplus (1597) by Abraham Ortelius (Cartographer)Original Source: David Rumsey Map Collection at Stanford University Libraries

This world map by the cartographer Abraham Ortelius (1597), referencing the 1st century AD travel document Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, shows coastal cities along the trade routes.

Because of the dangers of the Indian Ocean voyages and the valuable cargoes they carried, trading ships often traveled in groups.

The Indian Spice Trade (Exhibit Chapterisation)National Centre for Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research

The images presented in this chapter are but examples of the vast body of records referencing Early Spice Trade. The technologies developed over time to facilitate travel and trade over vast distances required exchanges of science, art and technology between cultures. The results of such contact between diverse cultures is what has made the world what it is today.

This exhibition is part of a series on the India Spice Trade. Do explore the other chapters here:

1. India: The Nexus of International Trade in the First Millennium

3. Europeans Enter Indian Spice Trade

4. Portuguese and Dutch Records of Indian Medicine

5. British and the Botanical Wealth of India

Visions of India in Early Modern Europe
Credits: Story

Curated by Annamma Spudich, PhD., supported by National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, India.

Curation text © 2019 Annamma Spudich, PhD.

Images outside of NCBS collection courtesy to the respective institutions and collections who have given the permission. Some images are hosted via NCBS - the original sources are cited, and more information about the respective images can be reached by clicking on the image or image captions.

Explore all chapters of The India Spice Trade:

1. India: The Nexus of International Trade in the First Millennium

2. In Search of Knowledge and Riches: Communities in Indian Spice Trade

3. Europeans Enter Indian Spice Trade

4. Portuguese and Dutch Records of Indian Medicine

5. British and the Botanical Wealth of India

6. Visions of India in Early Modern Europe

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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