Wine In India, Historically Intriguing

Amphora shards have been found all along India’s western coast. Courtesy National Institute Of Oceanography

Amphora shards have been found all along India’s western coast. Courtesy National Institute Of Oceanography

As Spice Harbour’s restaurant, 51, looks forward to the day when it might serve a glass of wine with an evening meal, we look back in time for a bit of inspiration, thanks to our friends at Caravan:

…In August, I spoke on the phone to A S Gaur, a marine archaeologist at India’s National Institute for Oceanography and co-author of  a paper on ancient wine imports. Speaking from Goa, Gaur said he had recently discovered amphora shards at what appears to be an ancient shipwreck near Bet Dwarka, an island off the coast of Gujarat. Amphorae were widely used in ancient times for transporting liquid goods, especially olive oil and wine. According to Gaur, the amphorae near Bet Dwarka most likely date from between the second and the fourth centuries CE. It is difficult to analyse the residues found on the shards for a conclusive answer, he said, but trying his “level best” Gaur surmised the amphorae once held wine. “Roman wine,” he said, “was very famous in India during that time.” Wrecks and shards from the same period have been found at many other sites too. All over South India, Gaur told me, “many museums have amphora shards.”

Classical texts provide further evidence. By the first century CE, the Roman Empire controlled the entire Mediterranean world, and its tradesmen were reaching out far beyond. Mediterranean merchants were particularly hungry for Indian spices, especially black pepper, and traded in various Indian ports, such as Barbaricum (near modern-day Karachi), Barygaza (now Bharuch, in Gujarat), and Muziris (in northern Kerala). The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, an account by an anonymous Greek-speaking merchant from the first century CE, says of Barygaza: “There are imported into this market town, wine, Italian preferred, also Laodicean”—from a metropolis located in what is now Turkey—“and Arabian.” Other Greco-Roman writers, such as Pliny the Elder and Philostratus, also discuss Indians’ use and import of wine. Trade between the Mediterranean world and the Indian subcontinent continued in force until the fourth century CE, when it declined following the economic collapse of the Roman Empire.

The exact scale of the ancient imports, and the popularity of wine at the time, are hard to gauge. The Greek historian Strabo, in his Geography, notes that Indians “never drink wine, but at sacrifices. Their beverage is made from rice instead of barley.” More recently, in a study on Roman-Indian trade, Rajan Gurukkal, a professor of history at the Centre for Contemporary Studies in Bangalore, argues that Mediterranean traders sold few imports to the native population as there was not “a lot of demand for luxury goods,” and wine was only used to “gift chieftains.” The trade in olive oil and wine, then, would have catered primarily to Roman settlements on the coast, where merchants spent months waiting for favourable winds to take them home. Today, despite the recent boom and India’s massive population, India’s wine consumption is still relatively low—only slightly greater than that of countries such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Perhaps then, as now, wine had only started making inroads into the local palate.

Read the whole article here.

2 thoughts on “Wine In India, Historically Intriguing

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