When Pepper gave Bharatavarsha a New Name: The Sink of Precious Metals

With pepper at the heart of its flourishing spice trade, India overflowed with coins and other precious metals from Rome earning it the moniker, "sink of precious metals."
When Pepper gave Bharatavarsha a New Name: The Sink of Precious Metals

In this Series

When Pepper gave Bharatavarsha a New Name: The Sink of Precious Metals
The History of how Bharatavarsha’s Pepper Decided the Fortunes of European Empires and Nations

EVEN AS THE REMNANTS OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE hurtled towards extinction, Alaric the Goth laid an audacious siege to Rome itself in 408. It would count as one of the more spectacular humiliations in the sorry latter-day history of this Christianized Roman Empire. Alaric also offered a way out: he would lift the siege on the immediate payment of three thousand pounds of pepper, cash, and valuables. Needless, Rome capitulated.

However, we return to Pliny’s lament which had fallen on deaf ears. Both in his time and later, Rome continued to recklessly feed its insatiable appetite for Indian pepper. For India, it was a bounty which cost little in the bargain. In fact, the transaction was wholly one-sided because our ancients had fashioned their economic policy on a simple mantra: abundance or what is known dravya-samruddhi, material abundance. Thus, apart from pepper, India had an almost unlimited supply of commodities of every variety. In return, gold, silver and specie from Rome flooded southern India. Adventurers and researchers in the eighteenth century discovered thousands of gold and other precious coins in the general region of Malabar, Madurai and Coimbatore dating back to the regimes of Augustus, Tiberius, Gaius and Claudius. The classical Tamil poem Ahananuru mentions how the “beautifully-built, large ships of the Yavanas came with gold and returned with pepper.”

This Roman Affair gave Bharatavarsha a new name: the sink of precious metals. However, for Rome, the sink had become a national drain. This was perhaps the earliest phenomenon of a nearly-wholesale transfer of wealth from one country to another. Thus, while Roman traders were flushed with unbelievable profits, it came at a ruinous cost to the public exchequer. Repeated warnings like those of Pliny quite obviously went unheeded by the cream of the Roman society: from the Emperor to the aristocrats. The going was so good, and the Indians were only glad to supply us our luxuries. Rome was flushed with spices, perfumes, unguents and personal ornaments especially for its women leading to the wry remark that “there was no year in which India did not drain the Roman Empire of a hundred million sesterces.” The opulence reached insane levels when at a funeral, 210 cartloads of spices were burnt along with firewood. According to another account, Nero burnt an entire year’s of produce of cinnamon and cassia at the funeral of Poppaea.

The Scene in India

During the Roman period, the nerve-centre of pepper cultivation and trade in India spanned the regions of north Kerala, Alappuzha, and Kollam. Its chief port of export was the selfsame Muziris.

Known in Tamil as Mueiri, and in Malayalam as Muyirikkodu, Muziris was renowned as the capital of the Cheras since ancient days. Strategically located at the mouth of the Alappuzha River, it was easily accessible to inland traders as well. It reached its pinnacle during the Roman Affair. Here is a brief description of its glory during that period:

It was an extremely busy place, with a harbour crowded with ships and craft of all kinds, with large warehouses and bazaars adjoining it, and with stately palaces and places of worship in the interior. There the native traders came by river with their cargo in vallams (country boats), and emptied it into the large and spacious Yavana ships and Chinese junks. The merchandise taken at Muziris consisted of pepper in large quantities, cinnamon, ginger, betel, beryl, pearls, ivory, silk cloth, spikenard, diamonds, sapphires, and tortoise-shell.

If these were the items exported to Rome, here’s the list of imports from Rome:

The imports consisted of Roman coin in large quantities, topaz, thin clothing, figured linens, antimony, coral, crude glass, copper, tin, lead, wine, realgar, and orpiment. Wheat was also imported in small quantities only for the use of sailors.

The prolific scholar R.K. Mukherjee paints a brilliant miniature of India’s unchallenged commercial dominance for centuries as a result of such thriving commodity trade:

Through ages India thus occupied a unique position in the commercial world as the main supplier of the world's luxuries. As a consequence she throughout had the balance of trade clearly in her favour, a balance which could only be settled by the export of treasure from European and other countries that were commercially indebted to her. FOR INDIA DESIRED NOTHING WHICH FOREIGNERS COULD GIVE HER BUT THE PRECIOUS METALS. THUS HAS SHE BEEN FOR MANY CENTURIES THE FINAL DEPOSITORY OF A LARGE PORTION OF THE METALLIC WEALTH OF THE WORLD.

This historical truth reveals further insights. Arguably, the reason our ancients wove their economic policy around material abundance was because they had unerringly realized the abundance of their geography and had tuned into the rhythms of their climate. It was a geography that yielded…plenty. This economic “policy” cum civilizational vision was in the very DNA of our people: even fifty years ago, it was common in our villages to borrow cash or commodity and promise to return an equal amount of grain, pulses, etc., in the harvest season. This is also reflected in other facets of Sanatana history. For instance, very few wars fought by Hindu kings for the explicit purpose of plunder. On the global stage, it was reflected in the non-invasive policy of Hindu kings: they had no need to step out of the natural boundaries of their sacred Bharatavarsha in search of gold or precious metals. Their commercial policy ensured that these precious items poured into their domains on their own, peacefully. Thus,

The productions of India were superfluities to Indians but were… not only highly prized by the nations of Western Asia, Egypt, and Europe, BUT WERE OBTAINABLE FROM NO OTHER QUARTER EXCEPT INDIA.
Capitalisation Added

These sidelights and insights of history have a direct relationship with the continuing fortunes of Indian pepper throughout the medieval period as we shall see in the next episode.

To be continued

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