In ancient India, ginger was not significant as a spice, but it was mahabheshaj, mahaoush-adhi, literally meaning the great cure, the great medicine. For the ancient Indian, ginger was the god-given panacea for a number of ailments. That may be the reason why ginger found a prime place in the ancient Ayurvedic texts of Charaka (Charaka samhita) and Susruth (Sushrutha samhita). In Ashtangahridyam of Vagbhatt (a very important ancient Ayurvedic text), ginger is recommended along with other herbs for the cure of elephantiasis, gout, extenuating the juices, and purifying the skin from all spots arising from scorbutic acidities. Ginger is also recommended when exotic faculties were impaired due to indigestion.
The earliest mention of ginger cultivation is probably by Rabbi Benjamin Tudella, who traveled between 1159 and 1173 a.d., and gave an account of spices grown on the west coast of India. Tudella gives a vivid description of the place and trade in spices as well as cultivation of spices in and around the ancient port of Quilon in the State of Kerala (Mahindru, 1982). Marco Polo (A.D. 1298), in his famous travelogue, writes: "good ginger also grows here and is known by the name of Quilon ginger. Pepper also grows in abundance throughout the country" (translation by Menon, 1929). Another traveler, Friar Odoric (A.D. 1322), writes. "Quilon is at the extremity of pepper forests towards the south. Ginger is grown here, better than anywhere else in the world and in huge quantities." In those days Calicut, Cochin, Aleppey and Quilon were the ports through which all the spices were traded with the Western World. Nicolo Contai (A.D. 1430)
describes Calicut as the "Spice Emporium of the East." He described it as a maritime city of 8 miles in circumference, a notable emporium for the whole of India abounding in pepper, aloe, ginger, and a large kind of cinnamon, myrobalans, and zedoary. Linschotten (1596) gives a very interesting account of the spices. He states that ginger grew in many parts of India, but the best and the most exported grew on the coast of Malabar. He described the method of cultivation and preparation that appear to be similar to the present-day practices. Linschotten also wrote about the ginger trade and mentioned that ginger was mainly brought to Portugal and Spain from the West Indies, indicating the fact that the Portuguese were successful in cultivating ginger extensively in Jamaica and the adjoining West Indies Islands. Fluckiger and Hanbury (1874) writes: "it [ginger] was shipped for commercial purposes from the Islands of St. Domingo as early at least as 1585 and from Barbadoes in 1654. Reny (1807) mentions that in 1541, 22053 cwt of dry ginger was exported from West Indies to Spain" (Watt, 1872).
The most significant event in the history of the spices trade was the landing of Vasco da Gama on the west coast of India. Da Gama started from Lisbon in Portugal, arrived at Mozambique in March 1498, and from there he reached Mlinde by the end of April. The king of Mlinde advised da Gama to sail to Calicut and arranged an Arab pilot to help him. This Arab brought the Portuguese across the Arabian Sea in 20 days, and on May 17, 1498, da Gama anchored at Kappad, a hamlet near Calicut. Following this, a wave of expeditions arrived on the west coast of India (known at that time as the Malabar Coast), and the trade with Europe flourished. The arrival of the Portuguese also signaled the end of the Arab monopoly on the spices trade. Da Gama again came to India commanding an armada of 15 ships. By using all the techniques of intimidation, he entered into an alliance with the king of Cochin and secured all the rights of the spices trade from him. Subsequently in 1513 a.d., a treaty was signed with the king of Calicut (known as Zamorin), ending the decade-long fight between the two. By this treaty Portugal got the license to trade spices freely, although under the ineffectual supervision of the Zamorin government. However, there was no restriction in procuring ginger directly from the growers (Mahendru, 1982).
When the Portuguese started exporting spices directly to Europe, they forced the growers to cultivate almost every inch of land with pepper and ginger. This helped the growers in a way, as they were free from the bondage of a few big merchants. But the Portuguese could not continue alone for long. The Dutch arrived on the scene and they drove out the Portuguese practically from the entire west coast. The Dutch controlled the spices trade on the west coast of India only for a short while, as they concentrated more on East Indies. The powerful Travancore king defeated them. As time rolled on, the spices trade ultimately passed on to the British in the decades that followed.
When these developments were going on in the west coast, the north of India was under the rule of the Mogul emperor Akbar. Under the Mogul rule spices cultivation in the north and western India improved considerably. The spread of Mogul dishes also demanded a considerable quantity of various spices. Ginger was an important constituent of most of these dishes, both vegetarian and nonvegetarian. Ain—i—Akbari, written by Abdul—Fazl, Akbar's prime minister, is a truthful account of the period, in which he presents the details of various dishes in vogue among the Moguls (Ain 24). In Ain 27(f) he records the market prices of spices. Ginger was comparatively cheaper than many other spices—dried ginger was four dinars per seer, and fresh ginger was 2.5 dinars. He mentioned that pickled green ginger was available at 2.5 dinars per seer. Ginger was thus a common man's spice, unlike black pepper and saffron (Mahindru, 1982).
Ginger was being grown on the west coast (the present-day Kerala) of India from time immemorial, and later on its cultivation spread to various other parts, mainly to Bengal and northeastern India. Buchanan (1807), who journeyed through the heartlands of various kingdoms that existed in southern India, made many references on the cultivation of various spices, including ginger, on the Malabar Coast. Ridley (1912) gives a detailed description of agricultural practices prevalent in nineteenth-century India. About ginger and turmeric, he quoted from the work A Hand Book of Agriculture written by N. Mukherjee: "The planting of ginger and turmeric was preferred under the shade of orchard trees. . . .The output of ginger was 2500 pounds per acre. . . Green ginger was sold at rupees four for 25 pounds. The cost of cultivation worked out to about rupees 250 per acre."
In other words, the farmer got Rs.166 per acre (66.4%) as profit from ginger. The quantity of rhizomes required for planting was estimated as 100 pounds per "bigha" (1600 sq. yards). Harvested ginger was processed before being sold in the market. Different methods were followed in the processing of ginger in different regions. In Maharashtra (Khandesh region), the processing was done as follows:
The rhizomes were dug up, cleaned of dirt and roots and boiled in a wide mouthed vessel, and then dried. After drying for a few days, the rhizomes were steeped in a diluted limewater, sun dried and again steeped in a stronger limewater and buried for fermentation. Later the rhizomes were dried and marketed. This product was known as "Sonth." (Watt, 1872)
The practice adopted in Bengal was: "Ginger was first brushed with a hand brush to remove dirt and steeped overnight in lime water; subsequently rinsed in clear water and dried slowly on a brick oven." The Bengal province in those days extended to the Himalayan hills, and ginger cultivation was prevalent in these areas. Campbell, who wrote the Agricultural and Rural Economy of the Valley of Nepal, states that ginger was carefully grown in Nepal and the produce "is reckoned by the people of the neighboring plains of Tirhoot and Sarun of very highest flavor and superior to the produce of their own country" (Watt, 1872). Watt also gives details of cultivation prevalent in these regions.
Sir Baden Powell, the legendary founder of the Boy Scout movement, reported the following practice:
The rhizomes were dried up by placing them in a basket suspended by a rope and shaking for two hours everyday for three days. Later on these were sun dried for eight days and again shaken in the basket and re-dried for 48 hours in the basket itself. This removed the scales and skins, making the produce suitable for marketing (Watt, 1882).
In the nineteenth century in Bombay province, ginger was processed by peeling the rhizome with a piece of metal or tile and later drying it in the sun.
The Cochin ginger (ginger that came from the Cochin principality and exported from Cochin) was processed similarly to the Bombay ginger. Harvested rhizomes were heaped for a few days and then washed thoroughly to remove dust and soil. The outer skin was peeled off using a bamboo splinter, washed again, and dried in the sun. Sometimes the dried ginger was heaped in limewater for a few hours and redried to improve the appearance.
A bigha of ginger crop yielded 10 mounds fit for sale at the rate of Rs. 6 per mound. The prevailing rate for ginger during the end of the nineteenth century was: Bengal Rs. 10.6 per cwt; Bombay Rs. 9.9 per cwt; Sind Rs. 11.6 per cwt. In Madras Province (including the Cochin region) ginger was available at 20 paise per kilogram (Mukherjee, quoted by Ridley, 1912).
It is also of historical importance to record the first detailed chemical studies on ginger by J.O. Thresh (Year Book of Pharmacy, 1879, 1881, and 1882). He analyzed a sample of Cochin ginger that was found to contain (in percent): volatile oil—1.350, fat (wax) resin—1.205; neutral resin—0.950; a and P resins—0.865; gingerol—0.6; substance precipitated by acids—5.35; mucilage—1.45; indifferent substance precipitated by tannins—6.8; extraction soluble in spirits of wine, not in ether or water—0.28; alkaloid—trace; metarabin—8.12; starch—15.79; pararabin—14.4; oxalic acid—0.427; cellulose—3.75; albuminoides—5.57; vasculose etc.—14.4630; moisture—13.53; and ash—4.8.
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