India: The Nexus of International Trade in the First Millennium

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

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

Maritime Trade Routes between India, Africa, and the
Middle East, and inter-Asia trade between India and SE Asia and China, were
well established by the 1st century AD. Overland inter-Asia trade
routes (called the Silk Road in the 19th century) and the maritime
routes came together in trading centers in India and the Middle East, bringing
together traders, cultures and commodities from all parts of the ancient world.
Different segments of trade routes were dominated by regional merchants, and
all trade routes converged on Alexandria where Venetian and Genoese merchants
took over Asian and Middle Eastern merchandize for European markets. The volumes
of merchandize transported by sea far exceeded the capacity of overland trade. 

World Map based on Cosmographia of Claudius Ptolemy (15th Century AD)Original Source: Renaissance Exploration Map Collection, David Rumsey Map Center, Stanford Libraries

This map based on Cosmographia of Claudius Ptolemy, 2nd century AD, shows Asian and African regions engaged in international trade. While many of the names on this map are unrecognizable, "Mare Indicum" and the location of “Tarpobana Insula" (the island of Sri Lanka) suggest considerable knowledge of geography of the trade routes.

Detail of southern India and Sri Lanka from the previous map. While the area of Sri Lanka and Southern India are out of proportion, the locations are accurate.

Medical Manuscript in Malayalam Script (circa late19 to early 20th century)Original Source: Private collection James and Annamma Spudich

India has one of the oldest continuously practiced botanical-medical systems in the world. This passage from the Rg Veda, dated to 1500 - 900 BC, extol healing plants and the healer who has mastery of the healing herbs: “those herbs, the firstborn of the gods, three ages of the world ago, those I will worship in my thoughts, the hundred and seven virtues, of those with new (tawny sprouts) ….... With whom the herbs have come together like kingly chiefs and to the gathering that … called a healer (bhisaj) a demon-killer, the plague-dispeller….” (translation by Heinrich Zimmer in Hindu Medicine, 1948). This 19th century palm leaf manuscript is an example of one medium used for documenting traditional knowledge systems of India.

Hanuman flies to the Himalayas in search of sacred herbs (mid 17th Century AD) by SahibdinOriginal Source: British Library Board

Powers of medicinal plants to heal were often associated with divine beings. This image refers to the Indian epic Ramayana, and Hanuman’s search for the sacred herb Sanjeevani to heal the wounds of Rama’s brother Lakshmana. Lore and beliefs about sacred/healing plants encode information about their properties, garnered by centuries of use.

Detail of Hanuman carrying the mountain of herbs to Sri Lanka.

Muzuris Papyrus Muzuris Papyrus (2nd Century AD)Original Source: Austrian National Library, Vienna

The Muziris Papyrus, a trade document from the 2nd century AD, is a loan agreement between two foreign traders, about a shipment of 60 containers of Gangetic nard, 7478 pounds of ivory, and 1214 pounds of fabric from Muziris on the Malabar Coast to Alexandria, Egypt.

As stated by l. Casson in New Light on Maritime Loans, “the great contribution of the papyrus is the concrete evidence it furnishes of the huge amounts of money that trade with India required. Loaded with cargoes of the likes of that recorded in this papyrus, they were veritable treasure ships.”

Printed, resist dyed Indian cotton fragment, Discovered at Al Fustat, Cairo (15th-16th c. AD)Original Source: Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Fine muslins and dyed cotton textiles were major items imported from India (see commodities listed from the Muziris Papyrus). Techniques for making fine woven cotton from the perennial Indian cotton plant Gossypium arboretum and dyeing textiles with extracts of madder root (Rubia tinctorum L.) or indigo plant (Indigofera tinctoria) were perfected in India since antiquity. Dyeing fibers of cotton with plant dyes were multistep processes involving complex chemistry. Until synthetic indigo was manufactured in Europe in the 19th century, India was the major source of indigo dye and indigo dyed cottons.

Bower manuscript Bower manuscript (4-6th AD) by YosamitraOriginal Source: Bodleian Library, Oxford University

Indian medicines and medical knowledge were available across Central and East Asia by the middle of the first millennium. This leaf from a 4-6th century Birch bark manuscript (the Bower Manuscript), found under a Buddhist stupa in Central Asia in the 19th century, was the pocket book of the Indian Buddhist monk physician Yosamitra and describes uses of Indian medicinal plants.

Buddhism was integral to the spread of Indian botanical medical knowledge across Asia through Central Asian trade routes.

Indian medical manuscript fragment Indian medical manuscript fragment (9th c. CE)Original Source: Institute of Oriental Studies, Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg, Russia

This is one of many manuscript fragments on Indian medicines found at the Buddhist library at Dunhuang, China. According to Chen Ming, reported in the International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology at Soka University, 2005, these fragments deal with Indian medical concepts of Tri-dosa, Mahabhuta, and diseases resulting from abnormal Dosas. Manuscripts on Indian medicine in many Central Asian languages were also discovered at the caves.

Der Doctor Schnabel von Rom, a plague doctor wearing protective mask with beak filled with aromatic spices (1656) by P. FurstOriginal Source: Historisk Museum, Copenhagen

By the middle of the second millennium, Indian botanicals were essential items of European life as medicines, food flavorings and items of privilege. The face mask of the Plague Doctor in this image was described to be filled with aromatic spices, including Indian black pepper, believed to be effective against bubonic plague that devastated Europe in the 15th century.

Journey of the Magi (East Wall) (circa 1459–1461) by Benozzo GozzoliOriginal Source: Magi Chapel of Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence

Spices were highly coveted items of tribute in Europe during the Renaissance. This magnificent fresco, of the procession of the Magi from the East to pay homage to the Christ Child, represents the celebrated Medici family of Florence in all their pomp and elegance. The gold spice-incense box held high by the bearer, on the right side of the image, is an acknowledgement of the importance of spices and unguents from Asia during the period.

Detail, Procession of the Magi

Wholesale Spice Shop in Thekkady, KeralaOriginal Source: from the collection of James and Anna Spudich

Spices and medicinal plants once exclusively products of India are now cultivated in many parts of the tropics and are widely available. There is vigorous demand and trade in spices in the 21st century due to current interest in the culinary and medicinal properties of spices all around world. This spice shop in Thekkady Hills of Kerala with sacks of Black Pepper, dried Ginger, Cardamom, Turmeric and Cinnamon, still supplies spices to local and international customers.

Scenes from contemporary Spice Trade, Fort Kochi, Kerala (2013)Original Source: from the collection of James and Anna Spudich

This composite image from Fort Kochi shows many scenes from contemporary spice trade in Southern India. The large thatch-covered river boats, once used for transport of commodities through the backwaters, are now converted to motorized tourist vessels. The other images are of the India Pepper and Spice Trade Association Building, where auctions are still held for spices sales, ‘Godowns’ with sacks of Black Pepper, mounds of dried Ginger and Turmeric, and images of the Kochi Synagogue, closely associated with the history of the spice trade. And on the lower left are two spice merchants signaling with fingers of covered hands, negotiating prices the traditional way. It was not customary to bid prices out loud, the idea was that in the heat of the open bidding prices may get elevated irrationally!

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

Over centuries global trade brought distant cultures and communities in contact and had lasting consequences on the history of the world.

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

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

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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