Kerala’s Spice Coast

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

text and photographs by Peter Lemieux

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“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.

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