Guest Author: George M. George
Most people talk about the Periyar Tiger Reserve as a vestibule of abundant wildlife—one of the last that still retains its serenity and pristine ambiance. A trip to the sanctuary while visiting Kerala is a must-do, even if it means praying on bent knees to the powers that may be, hoping to catch a glimpse of the true king of the rainforest, in addition to the other creatures of the wild.
My fascination with wildlife and the enthusiasm that preludes every visit to Periyar is without boundaries. Yet prior to every visit within the sanctuary, I feast my eyes on the tracts of spice plantations that border the protected wilderness areas of the Western Ghats: cardamom, pepper, star anise, turmeric, nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves (just to name a few). Coating the landscape on the outskirts of the forest, they make me wonder if we have forgotten a bit of the past that is relevant even today. A fascination with spices is not something new for the people of Kerala; they have been cultivating and cooking with them for centuries: the delicate preparation of their mouth-watering dishes, soaked in the quintessential (and compulsory) coconut milk and/or oil inspires this post.
Spices have always been the magic ingredient that transformed a bland dish or cuisine into something that left an actual taste on the palate, not to mention the mind. Historically, countless voyages have been charted for the sole reason of trading for the stuff of Kerala, more prized than gold or silver. This led to the creation of the first “official” Spice Route over 2000 years ago when trading ships from Egypt and other Arabic kingdoms charted their travel through the southernmost regions of Asia to India. Larger armadas of Chinese trading ships left their shores in the east to progress towards this tiny landmass (now called Kerala) on the southern tip of the west coast of India. Tales abound of various adventurers and traders who braved the wrath of the gods on the seas, for the prize that awaited them at the end of their journey. India’s history of expanded trade, countless invasions and the subsequent colonization never fails to mention spices as its prevailing attraction as a destination. Although other parts of the country today do grow various spices, it is Kerala where the spice culture and the highest quality goods are rooted.
One of the many explorers that come to mind is Christopher Columbus. Although he set sail to the west rather than the east, in accordance with his sponsors in Europe, his hard-held belief was that the world is spherical in nature and that his route should eventually lead him to the shores of this mystical land called India. In effect he was actually searching for Kerala. His adventures did lead him to a mystical land, albeit a bit different in nature from the one he set out for. Surprised at first about not finding the spices he came for, and then shocked by the indigenous tribes he incorrectly named as Indians, Christopher Columbus put the new world on the map, part of which in later centuries became popularly known as the United States of America.
Back to my original thought about these fine quality spices that grow in the hilly terrains of places like Thekkady and Kumily: were the humble spice plants here responsible for the eventual discovery of the Americas? Did Kerala have such a strong geo-political influence thanks only to the unpretentious cardamom seed? Am I wrong in assuming that the United States and the rest of the new world were discovered because of the spices in these hills? Or maybe I have provoked you to fully appreciate not only the wildlife that abounds in this region, but also the amicable and not-so-subtle taste of the Indian spice!
About the author: I am a director of Muthoot Group, based in Kerala, India. We began investing in hotels a decade back, and I took responsibility for managing those investments. We recently contracted Raxa Collective to operate Cardamom County, River Escapes and Pampa Villa; they are also responsible for developing new conservation resorts for us at Marari Beach and Panangad. Most importantly they are responsible for continuing and strengthening our longstanding commitment to conservation and sustainable development. Now I will have plenty of time to contribute here.