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Cardamom is known to be in use in India from ancient times. It is known as Ela in Sanskrit and references to this can be found in ancient Sanskrit texts. Taitreya Samhita, which belongs to the later Vedic period (ca. 3000 BC), contains mention of cardamom among the ingredients to be poured in the sacrificial fire on the occasion of a marriage ceremony (Mahindru, 1982). The ancient Indian Ayurvedic texts, Charaka Samhita and Susrutha Samhita, written in the post-epic period (1400—600 BC) also mention cardamom on many occasions; although it is not clear whether the ela mentioned in those texts is cardamom or large (Nepal) cardamom, it is the latter that occurs in the northeastern region of India.

Both Babylonians and Assyrians were quite well informed about many plants of medicinal importance. Assyrian doctors and chemists were known to use many herbs, and among the 200 or so plants known to them cardamom, cumin, dill, fennel, Origanum, thyme, saffron and sesame have been identified (Parry, 1969). It was mentioned that the ancient king of Babylon, Merodach-Baladan II (721—702 BC) grew cardamom among other herbs in his garden. However, in the ancient Egyptian texts there was no mention of the use of cardamom. Probably at that time cardamom might have been reaching the ancient Babylonia and Asseria through the land routes. We come across references of cardamom in ancient Greece and Rome. In those days in Greece and Rome, spices were symbols of luxury, and they occupied a proud place in social ceremonies and functions. Cardamom, cassia, cinnamon and sweet marjoram were among the ingredients of their perfumes, while anise, basil, fennel leaves, coriander and garlic were among their aphrodisiacs (Parry, 1969). Dioscorides (40—90 AD), the Greek physician and the author of the famous Materia Medica, mentioned cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, pepper and turmeric and many herbs as useful medicines. Cardamom has been recommended as an aid in digestion especially after heavy meals, and this was probably one of the reasons for importing large quantities of cardamom from India to Greece and Rome. It was one of the most popular oriental spices in Roman cuisine. Because of its importance, cardamom was listed as an item liable to duty at Alexandria in AD 176.

Sitting far away from that distant past one cannot be sure of the exact identity of the plants that the ancients used. This is true of cardamom as well, as there seems to have some confusion existing in the literature on cardamom. Linschoten in his Journal of Indian Travels (1596) describes two forms of cardamoms used in South India; and he called them Lesser and Greater cardamom. Does it mean that the Nepal (large) cardamom was reaching South India 4000 years ago? Dymock, referring to the introduction of cardamom into Europe writes "when they were first introduced into Europe is doubtful, as their identity with the Amomum and Cardamomum of the Greeks and Romans cannot be proved". Linschoten writes about lesser cardamom as "it most growth in Calicut and Cannanore, places on the coast of Malabar". Paludanus, contemporary of Linschoten, wrote that according to Avicenna, there are two kinds of cardamoms, the Greater and the Lesser, and continues to add that cardamom was unknown to Greeks such as Galen, and Dioscorides. Galen in his Seventh Book of Simples said, "cardamom is not so hot as Nasturium or water cresses", "but pleasanter of savour and smell with some small bitterness" and the properties indicated do not agree with that of the Indian cardamom. Dioscorides, in his First Book commented on the cardamom brought from Armenia and Bosphorus and added that "we must choose that which is full, and tough in breaking, sharp and bitter of taste, and the smell there of, cause the heaviness in a man's head" (Watt, 1872). Evidentially Dioscorides was writing not about the Indian cardamom, but some other distinctly different material. Such evidences led Paludanus (Watt, 1872) to conclude that the Amomum and Cardamomum of the ancient Greeks were not the spices of India.

In general, the references about the use of cardamom in ancient and early centuries of the Christian era and even in the middle ages are much scanty compared to spices like black pepper, cinnamon or cassia. Even Auboyar in his classical work on daily life in ancient India from 200 BC—700 AD, gave only passing references about cardamom (Mahindru, 1982).

Arabs were the major traders of Indian spices and they were successful in hoodwinking the Mediterranean merchants by keeping the sources of the spices a secret.

Cardamom was no exception, and even historians like Pliny thought that cardamom was produced in Arabia. This situation continued till the discovery of the sea route and the landing of Portuguese in the West Coast of India. This event was the beginning of the end of the Arabian monopoly on spices trade, which they have enjoyed for so long. The Portuguese started collecting and exporting pepper, ginger and cardamom directly to Europe.

The European colonizers were more interested in the procurement of black pepper and as a result pepper as well as ginger cultivation and production picked up considerably during the sixteenth—eighteenth century. Cardamom was considered a minor forest produce. Only in the beginning of the nineteenth century plantations were established for cardamom cultivation, that too as a secondary crop in coffee plantations. But its cultivation spread rapidly in the hilly terrains of Western Ghats and the portion south of the Palghat gap came to be known as Cardamom Hills.

The earliest writings on cardamom growing in India were those of the officers working for the British East India Company. The most important among such writings was that of Ludlow, an Assistant Conservator of forests. The other sources were Pharmacographia, Madras Manual and Rices Manual. Watt (1872) also described briefly the cardamom cultivation in South India. This system of cardamom collection from naturally growing plants continued till 1803 at least, but in later years the demand became too large, and large-scale organized cultivation was started in India and Ceylon (Ridley, 1912).

Previously in the native states of Travancore and Cochin, cardamom was a monopoly of the respective governments. The Raja (King) of Travancore made it compulsory that all the produce shall be sold to his official, who forwarded it to the main depot in Alleppey, then the most important port of the state of Travancore. At Alleppey, cardamom was sold by auction. The main buyers were the Muslim merchants, and the best quality (designated as Alleppey Green) was reserved for export. In the forest lands owned by the British Government cardamom was a miscellaneous produce, while in Coorg, forest lands were leased out to private individuals for cardamom cultivation. It was noted by Clighorn, the Conservator of forests of Madras Presidency, that the spread of coffee led to the eclipse of cardamom in many areas of the "Malabar mountains" (Watt, 1872).

In the Madras Manual there were references about how cardamom was grown. It is mentioned there that "in the hills (of Travancore) the cardamom grows spontaneously in the deep shade of the forests: it resembles some what the turmeric and ginger plants, but grows to a height of 6 to 10 feet, and throws out the long shoots which bear the cardamom pods". The type of cardamom management is clear from the following passage:

The owners of the gardens, early in the season come up from the low country east of the Ghats, cut the brushwood and burn the creepers and otherwise clear the soil for the growth of the plants as soon as the rains fall. They come back to gather the cardamom when they ripen, about October or November (Watt, 1872).

From the writings of British officials we also learn that a process of bleaching of cardamom was carried out in Karnataka, and for carrying out this, cardamom was transported to a place in Dharwar (Haveri) for bleaching with the aid of water from a particular well which is supposed to have the power of bleaching and improving the flavour of dried cardamom fruit (Watt, 1872). Mollison (1900) describes an elaborate method of bleaching cardamom using soapnut-water.


The cardamom producing areas are given in Fig. 1.1. Today, its production is concentrated mainly in India and Guatemala. Cardamom was introduced in Guatemala only in early 1920s from Sri Lanka or India with the help of a New York broker and was planted in the vicinity of Coban in the Department at Alta Verapaz (Lawrence, 1978). After the second world war cardamom production in Guatemala expanded considerably mainly because of the shortage for cardamom and the high prize prevailing at that time, and soon became the largest cardamom producer in the world. The natives do not relish the taste of cardamom, and so almost the entire production is exported. Currently, Guatemala produces around 13,000—14,000 tons of cardamom annually.

In India the area under cardamom has come down over the last one decade from 1,05,000 ha during 1987-88 to 69,820 ha during 1997-98, while production has gone up from 3200 tons during 1987-88 to 9290 tons in 1999-2000. During the period, the productivity has increased from almost 47 kg/ha to 173 kg/ha (Table 1.1). Cardamom cultivation is located in three states; Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Kerala has 59 per cent of area and contributes 70 per cent of production; Karnataka 34 per cent of area and 23 per cent production, while Tamil Nadu has 7 per cent area as well as production. Most of the cardamom growing areas in Kerala is located in the districts of Idukki, Palakkad and Wynad. In Karnataka, cardamom is grown in Coorg, Chikmagalur and Hassan districts and to a lesser extent in North Kanara district. In Tamil Nadu, cardamom cultivation is located in certain localities in Pulney and Kodai hills (Table 1.2). In India it is a small holders' crop, almost 40,000 holdings covering an area of 80,000 ha of cardamom (George and John, 1998).

The cardamom growing regions of South India lies within 8° and 30° N latitudes and 75° and 78° 30' E longitudes. Cardamom growing areas are located at elevations ranging from 800-1300 m above mean sea level (msl) and these areas lie on both sides - the windward and leeward - of the Western Ghats which acts as a climatic barrier of the monsoon trade winds, thereby determining the spatial distribution of rainfall. The rainfall pattern differs among the cardamom growing regions located in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka (Nair et al., 1991).

The productivity increase in recent years is due to the use of high-yielding varieties and better agro-production technology. However the export of cardamom has touched

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