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Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The Spice Trail

A museum in Pattanam, Kochi, traces the journey of the black pepper and what made Muziris, the ancient seaport, one of the first cosmopolitan centres in the world.

Written by Shantanu David | Updated: December 4, 2016 12:06:01 am
Black star: The Khor Rori House. Black star: The Khor Rori House.

Sitting serenely among the paddy fields of Pattanam, a small village that lies near Kochi, Kerala, is a diminutive building that will be a portal to the coastal state’s culinary past. Opened as the Khor Rori House, under the aegis of the Kerala government-led Muziris Heritage Project, it serves as a museum that will catalogue the excavation and story of Muziris, the ancient seaport which disappeared in the 14th century, known only by mentions in Tamil Sangam texts and Graeco-Roman manuscripts dating back to millennia ago. Muziris is, perhaps, one of the first cosmopolitan centres in the world, and all because of a single commodity: black pepper.

Universally in the ancient world, black pepper was a favourite among the ruling class; and not just because the mummy of Ramses II, the Egyptian Pharaoh during the Exodus, was found with two peppercorns stuffed up its royal nostrils. The pungent, dried fruit was used variously as a spice, digestive aid, aphrodisiac, preservative and currency, from the Mediterranean to the Far East. Available only in south India at the time, the commodity, along with other fragrant spices, came to affect the socio-geopolitics of the world as well as pushed the ports of Kerala and other regions onto the centrestage.

While little is known about the intricacies of the trade between Muziris, Egypt and other cradles of civilisation, there are vague references from the time of King Solomon arriving at the Malabar coast, as well as from other Middle-eastern territories. When the Romans conquered Egypt in 30 BC, the empire learned of the maritime routes along the Indian Ocean and Arabian and Red seas. The Romans set sail with amphorae of olive oil and wines, chests of gold and silver and their famed pottery, exchanging these for semi-precious stones, fabrics, and, of course, spices. Of these, pepper was paramount and, though prohibitively expensive, soon found its way into every rich Roman’s cellar and into their meals; several recipes from Apicius’s De re coquinaria, a cookbook dating to the 3rd century AD, call for the liberal use of the spice for dishes ranging from lamb stews to roasted flamingos.

The Graeco-Romans mention Muziris in several documents, from the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea — a celebrated navigational map of the known world between the first and third centuries AD — to the more prosaic Muziris Papyrus, a trade contract, dating to the second century AD, between an Alexandrine and an Indian merchant.

While the Romans were busy warding off consecutive raids and sacks by the Goths, Visigoths and Huns in the 3rd century, the Chinese and Arab merchants took advantage of this vacuum and soon came calling at Muziris, followed by the Persians. Muziris flourished once again. The new traders left their own discernible impact on the culture of Kerala; while Chinese fishing nets are now synonymous with the Malabar coast, the Arabs introduced the Indians to ghee, biryani, stuffed meat dishes, and, of course, coffee, sourced from the ancient Yemenese port of Mocha.

Still, Muziris was not without its problems; its muddy banks and shallow waters prevented large ships from entering the harbour. Calicut to the north and Muziris to the south were preferred destinations for larger ships, with Muziris acting as a conduit between the two ports. Finally, a “cyclonic flood” smashed against the Kerala coast in 1341. By dramatically changing the coastline as well as the mouth of the Periyar river, it erased Muziris from the land. All traces

of it remained a mystery until a team of archaeologists uncovered a hoard of Roman coins in 1983, some seven kilometres from the village of Pattanam, which was to become the main excavation as well as the site for the Muziris Heritage Project, an initiative of the Kerala Government and UNESCO.

After seven seasons of excavations over 70 hectares of the site, came the Khor Rori House — named after a derelict town in Oman which was the chief source of frankincense, a commodity valued highly in ancient times and a major import of Muziris and other trading centres. The museum showcases these findings and attempt to reconstruct life in Muziris during its heydays.

As you walk into the museum, you face the tangible remnants of Muziris — from the roughly carved rings and ornaments from different parts of the ancient world, to pottery such as platters and vessels. On another side lie tiny charms made from amber and an intaglio of Fortuna, the Roman goddess of luck. Knives and other implements are also displayed, transmuting from bronze to iron as the dwellers learned how to coax out more and more metals from their ores. Prominent on one side is a copy of Peutinger’s Table, an illustrated map with all the known routes during the Roman Empire, covering Europe (sans the British Isles and Spain, which were uncharted at the time), northern Africa and large chunks of Asia. On that13th century map, Muziris is marked prominently, with a depiction of an Augustine temple.

By the 14th century, other European nations were tired of Italian dominance over maritime and land routes. Ferdinand Magellan’s discovery of the African sea route made Portugal a powerful player. In 1498, Vasco da Gama landed in Kozhikode in the first Portuguese expedition to the subcontinent. He returned to Lisbon with a cargo that included pepper, purchased at a fraction of the cost at which the Italians sold it. Portugal established factories along the Malabar Coast, starting with Kerala, the jewel of which was the Kottapuram Fort. Tired of the Portuguese influence over Kochi, the kingdom’s prime minister secretly asked the Dutch in Ceylon to destroy the Portuguese, and provided them with the plans for Kottapuram Fort. A Dutch fleet was duly dispatched and defeated the Portuguese. Today, Kottapuram Fort stands in ruins.

What also remains is that taste for black pepper, spread around the world, where it accounts for one-fifth of the total spice trade in the world, having become as natural as salt. India is no longer the world’s only source of pepper and is not even its top producer, providing a mere 11 per cent of the global total. And yet, it was a small coastal state in the south of India that first grew this dried berry, which came to determine the course of history for a large part of the world.

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