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Kerala’s Spice Coast

The ancient trade that brought St. Thomas to India remains big business

“This main port opened to the seas well before the time of Christ, from 300 B.C. onward,” says Father Davis Chenginiyadan, executive director of the Kodungallur Research Academy for Mar Thoma Heritage.

The priest stands at the site of the ancient city of Muziris, located on a jetty at the mouth of the Periyar River, about 20 miles north of Cochin. This was once the main crossroads of India’s global spice trade and the landing spot of St. Thomas the Apostle, who brought Christianity to the region in the year 52.

Home to India’s first synagogue, church and mosque, Muziris symbolizes Kerala’s long, rich history of religious tolerance and social harmony. Today, it is little more than a feather-edged circle on the map some four miles outside the city of Kodungallur.

At present, only a green signpost touting “Muziris Heritage Project” marks the otherwise natural landscape. Still in its planning stages, the government-led project will preserve the site of the ancient port city within a 115-square-mile park. The park will allow for archaeological excavations and include public museums, monuments, markets and boatyards, as well as churches, mosques, seminaries and temples.

“There’s evidence of a connection with Roman and Greek culture, and references in the Bible to King Solomon and so many ships going to India to collect spices,” says Father Chenginiyadan as he gazes out onto the slow-moving Periyar.

“Our spices — different kinds of pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, nutmeg, turmeric, vanilla and so many others — were homegrown, but not here in the coastal lands,” he continues. “We couldn’t grow spices. They were grown in the hills near Kottayam, Idukki and Malabar and brought here on small boats through the waterways. These backwaters, rivers and canals ran parallel to the sea and stretched deep inland to Kerala’s spice growing areas. But they all came together here.”

Father Chenginiyadan pivots toward the river’s mouth and points to the Arabian Sea beyond.

“And this was the gateway to the outside world,” declares the priest. “Once knowledge of India’s seasonal monsoon patterns increased, sea routes opened up connecting the East and West. That’s why Muziris was the most important trading center for over a thousand years.”

No spice was more coveted than piper nigrum, the dried berry of the pepper vine. More than simply an expensive seasoning, the ancients also used it to cure meat, for medicinal purposes and in ceremonies. Highly prized and easily stored, it served as a hard currency and often was traded ounce for ounce with the most precious metals of the time. Merchants referred to it as the “king of spices” and “black gold.”

According to the third-century Syriac text, “Acts of Thomas,” which describes St. Thomas’s evangelism in India, a Jewish spice trader named Habban first brought the apostle to Muziris from Jerusalem.

“So it was this trading and commercial link between India and Persia, through the Jews, that may well be the root of the development of Christianity here in India,” says Father Chenginiyadan.

In 1341, a massive flood silted Muziris’s harbor and at the same time unlocked Cochin to the sea. Muziris never recovered.

The adjacent sleepy fishing village of Azhicode hardly compares to the bustling harbor of yore. There are no bartering merchants, no rugged seafaring vessels, no scents of aromatic spices, no gold coins and no traces of the Arab, Chinese, Greek and Roman traders who once sought to fill their treasure chests on these shores.

On this humid November morning, the only activity in the village consists of a fisherman napping on a bench and a small group of women visiting the St. Thomas Pontifical Shrine. Pilgrims from northern Kerala, they have come to pray before the shrine’s holy relic — a bone from the St. Thomas’ right arm.

The relic serves as a powerful reminder of the region’s roots — connecting it to the very dawn of Christianity and to a rich history of trade that has left a lasting mark on the village and its people.

Since the 14th century, Cochin has served as the hub of the coast’s spice trade.

At first glance, the city’s spice industry today resembles that of a bygone era. A large safe harbor dominates the cityscape. A dense concentration of processing and warehousing facilities crowds the waterfront. Countless traders and middlemen walk the streets, going about their day-to-day business.

A timeworn port city, Cochin also represents Kerala’s melting pot, with its diverse religious communities, global marketplace and world-class tourist attractions. As always, its spices reach markets all over the world. In the past 20 years, exports to the United States in particular have doubled and now constitute the largest share leaving Cochin’s port.

But on closer look, it becomes clear how much the business has adapted to the modern world. Traders now sit in offices glued to their computer screens, monitoring up-to-the-second fluctuations in global prices. The ticker list of spices is lengthy and includes many new hybrid varieties, each offering something special — brighter color, greater flavor, a longer shelf life. Advanced technologies in processing, packaging and shipping have also transformed the business.

“Fifteen years ago, there were no quality standards in India for spice export. Any low quality item could be shipped,” explains Bobby Jacob Markose, owner of Orient Spice Company, over the hum of his spice grinders pulverizing raw turmeric. “But that phase is out. Technology is here now. ‘Food Safe’ is the motto. Cleaning, grinding and steam sterilization are the facilities that can be sustained now.”

Yet while these advanced technologies have helped standardize the spices’ quality, they have left many of Kerala’s average spice farmers more dependant and vulnerable than ever.

“The whole spice trade, every activity regarding buying and selling, is controlled by them — Cochin people — but I don’t even know who the ‘they’ are,” says Father Hubby Mathew, director of the Peermade Development Society (P.D.S.), an agency of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Eparchy of Kanjirappally in the spice-growing region of Idukki.

In recent years, the P.D.S. has taken the lead in promoting organic and sustainable agricultural practices and organic spice production. Based in the village of Kuttikkanam, about 80 miles southeast of Cochin, the P.D.S. runs a range of sustainability programs, many tailored to the region’s organic spice farmers. Its organic farming cooperative provides organic spice processing and certification and guarantees members premium prices for their harvests. The P.D.S. also trains farmers in organic and sustainable agricultural practices.

“Commodities are now auctioned in the stock market. The pepper we’ve produced in Idukki may have already been sold by some fictitious people sitting somewhere else,” continues the priest.

“Many people are making a good life out of it other than the farmers and the poor people. For this reason, you can see, just after the harvest season, the prices are very low. The poor people, the small-scale farmers, they immediately sell their products. They’re not in a position to keep the products and watch for the better prices. So by the time the price goes up, he doesn’t have anything to sell. That’s why we built our program here in Idukki. Even though it’s very far from Cochin and that’s very problematic, it’s more accessible to the people. We kept it here so that farmers can have access to our facility.”

Augustine Vattoth, a 68-year-old spice farmer, lives 20 minutes from the P.D.S.’s organic spice processing plant. As he does every day, Mr. Vattoth trudges up and down the terraced slopes of his property to check on the health of his crops. He peels open a nutmeg seed to look for rot. He examines a wooden bowl tacked to a rubber tree to gauge the flow of the milky white latex sap. He rubs between his fingers buds of his clove and coffee trees. He tills the soil around his turmeric and ginger root plants. And he grabs hold of a pepper vine clinging to a tall post and inspects it in the sunlight.

He returns home, where his wife brews tea and his granddaughter, lying on her stomach in bed, is buried in her schoolwork. Unrushed, he picks up a newspaper and takes a seat on the front porch. Above him hangs a picture of St. Alphonsa of the Immaculate Conception — the first canonized saint of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church — along with rosary beads, a small cross and images of Jesus.

Mr. Vattoth’s demeanor betrays no hint of concern, despite his worrying discovery earlier in the day: the green peppers — his most important cash crop — are still not ripe. Heavy rains this past year have delayed the harvest.

The small-scale farmer contends with a host of other factors out of his control. Wide fluctuations in the value of his crops offer little income security. Two years ago, the price of pepper on global markets hovered around $1 a pound. Today, it sells for three times as much. The price, however, could easily plummet next year. Similarly, the price of cardamom — often called “the queen of spices” — has ridden a rollercoaster in the past four years.

“We are having a crisis here in Idukki,” says Father Sabu John, director of the P.D.S.’s organic spices unit. “These price fluctuations really frustrate farmers. When price goes up, wages also go up. But when price comes down, wages don’t come down. And mechanization is not always possible. There’s not a machine for plucking pepper, cardamom and cloves. It has to be done manually, by hand. The terrain is very hilly. So that’s the problem. The cost of production is always increasing.”

Kerala’s small-scale farmers also compete with producers in other countries, who often reap greater yields at lower costs. Kerala may be famous for its peppercorn, but Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia all currently export more pepper than India.

At the same time, corporate-run spice plantations have sprouted up in other parts of India. Their abundant crops drive down domestic prices, adding to the pressures facing Kerala’s mostly family-run farms.

“The plantations in Kerala actually have their history in British colonial rule, with the cultivation of tea,” explains Father John. “If you take a look at history, tea and coffee are relatively new here. But spices have been growing here since before Christ was born. So there are no spice plantations in Kerala, only small farms.”

Perhaps it is Mr. Vattoth’s deep Christian faith that has carried him stoically through the ups and downs of life as a spice farmer. The link between farming and faith, tilling the soil and praying for a good harvest, has long been at the core of Kerala’s soul. The man’s sense of calm, however, may also come from the sustainable agricultural practices he has adopted and the support he receives from the P.D.S.

“Mixed cropping is critical for Kerala’s spice farmers’ survival,” says Father John. “They don’t have a lot of land: one acre, two acres maybe. So they need to diversify. Almost all grow pepper. But if one crop fails, there’s another option. Cardamom may not be good one harvest, but pepper may be O.K. the next. Ginger will be an addition, and they’ll also grow some coffee. If the farmer’s got two cows, he can sell the milk and compost the dung. So for the farmers in Idukki, there’s a way to a livelihood.”

For generations, spice farming has represented a cornerstone of Kerala’s local economy. Yet, new challenges and changing attitudes have taken a heavy toll on traditional agrarian life.

“Comparatively, farmers’ lives are very difficult,” says Father John. “Even if it has a very good history here, people are not very keen to promote it because it’s not profitable and doesn’t have status or glamor.”

These days, younger generations tend to choose professions other than farming, often encouraged by their parents and relatives.

Renju Rosy Thomas, Mr. Vattoth’s 17-year-old granddaughter, for instance, is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in computer science.

“My family doesn’t ask me to help with the farm. They want me to study and learn,” says the young woman. “I want to get my Ph.D. But to do that, I’ll need to leave home.”

Mr. Markose, the spice factory owner from Cochin, sees Kerala’s spice farmers as victims of their own success.

“Kerala’s slowly abandoning farming,” he says, watching his workers pack turmeric powder into sacks. “The new generation is not going into it. You know, our spice farmers have gotten good prices. That has helped them give a good education to their children. And when children receive a good education, they get jobs elsewhere, white-collar jobs in business. They’re engineers, doctors and nurses. But they aren’t going back to agriculture.”

Award–winning journalist Peter Lemieux reports from Africa and India for ONE.

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