Home to the spices that crossed oceans and mountains to make your food richer and life healthier!
With its majestic hills and magnificent waterfalls, Idukki hosts an array of spices, many indigenous to it. Part of the Western Ghats, this region is a district in the state of Kerala in the south of India. The name Idukki is derived from the word “Idukk” in Malayalam, meaning gorge. With its mountains that surround the plains and the rivers which flow through them, this landlocked district, stays true to its name. Idukki also shares its borders with the Indian State of Tamil Nadu.
The elevation in Idukki ranges from 130 m to 1300m from the mean sea level and this precisely is the reason for the diverse geography and weather in different parts of the district resulting in many varieties of spices and other crops. The region is majorly categorised into two; regions above 600m are classified as high ranges and those below fall into the category of low ranges. And again, the region which is at an elevation above 900 m is the famed Cardamom Hills, the home to green cardamom.
THE CARDAMOM HILLS
WHERE THE JOURNEY OF GREEN CARDAMOM BEGAN
Located at the east of river Periyar, with consistent rainfall throughout the year and a colder yet humid climate, the cardamom hills are the native of cardamom and also a hub of vast bio-diversity with many rare flora and fauna. From this small part of the world, hardly 850 sq. km, cardamom started its journey centuries ago. It began as an aromatic forest produce, collected by the hill tribes and sold to the local traders which then crossed hands, seas, mountains and became the fragrant, sweet yet pungent spice that flavoured the tea and coffee of the Arabs, that added life to the many dishes of Romans and Greeks and later became a favourite in lands far and beyond; unknown to the inhabitants of the Cardamom hills. Little did they know that in the later year’s this forest collectible that remained a rare spice for centuries, would shape their lives and livelihoods and become a reason for new settlements, innovations and flourishing trade.
Towards the 19th century, cardamom cultivation had started in this region, majorly by the Tamils from the north of Idukki. And in the 1850s, as cardamom was becoming a lucrative spice, the then Travancore State promoted the domestication and cultivation of cardamom through various financial and other support systems. This government interference led to major settlements and plantations and also raised cardamom to be a crop rather than a forest produce. It was the farmers from low ranges of Kerala and Tamil Nadu who came here, to explore and make new futures. Along with them came the labourers, officers and traders and settlements increased, the impenetrable forests that hosted wild cardamom became plantations, cardamom became a cash crop, a major revenue source for the state and an income to many. As a place very close to Tamil Nadu, major trade in the earlier days happened towards the east of cardamom hills, into the trading centres of Thevaram and others. However, trade also happened in the other direction as well. Cardamom, handpicked and sun dried were transported to Alleppy and was then sold further.
Since Cardamom was a lucrative spice to cultivate, it also led to innovations in terms of cultivation and processing. Many newer hybrid cardamom varieties, methods of drying using dryers rather than sun drying, innovations in these dryers, from wood to electricity, were all ideas from the very farmers who grew it. Today, the cardamom hills, a significant area in the high ranges of Idukki is the home to thousands of farmers, providing employment and livelihood to lakhs of people.
THE HIGH RANGES
NOT JUST CARDAMOM, THEY ARE THE ABODE OF FLAVOURS
The geography of high ranges, including the Cardamom Hills and its rainfalls doesn’t limit its livelihood options or its flavours to cardamom. It hosts a wide range of crops, from pepper to tea and coffee, clove, ginger, turmeric and many more. And the most famed among them is its pepper.
Legend has it that, before leaving, Vasco De Gama dared to ask the Zamorin of Calicut whether he could take a pepper stalk with him for replanting. His courtiers were outraged, but the potentate stayed calm. He replied “You can take our pepper, but you will never be able to take our rains.”
And the truth is not very far from this. Zamorin was right; the Black Gold can be taken but not the land that grows it and the unusual twin monsoon of the region. It is the climate and soil of the high ranges that makes its pepper high in flavour, aroma and oil content than its counterparts elsewhere, even the low ranges of Idukki. Pepper, including major indigenous varieties that could be cultivated commercially was introduced in the high ranges by the settlers from the low ranges of Kerala. Although it came from the low ranges, its flavours exceeded that of its predecessors. Today, in Idukki, pepper is majorly intercropped with others as it only gives an annual harvest.
The tea plantations in Idukki, located in the famous tourist spots of Munnar and Peermedu, are the hub of life and quality tea. The climate and soil also results in high oil content and flavours for clove in these mountains. The coffee from Idukki also has made a long lasting impression in the world of quality beans.
The trade and settlements from different regions in the high ranges have its imprints on the culture and everyday lives in the society that formed here. The tribes that inhabited this land, the people from west of Tamil Nadu and the settlers from the other side of Periyar all together formed the people of the high ranges. And so, this region which is a part of today’s Kerala, has a strong Tamil influence and the food have the flavours of low ranges of Idukki and bit of the new land they settled in. Even the dialects and words used in everyday life have this mixing up of various cultures.
THE LOW RANGES
LOWER ONLY IN ELEVATION, REGION OF HISTORICAL AND COMMERCIAL RELEVANCE.
With the ideal climatic conditions to grow spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and other crops like cocoa and rubber, the low ranges of Idukki stands toe to toe with the high ranges. These crops, especially nutmeg and cocoa, are a major source of livelihood to the population here. One of major towns in this midland, Thodupuzha, has its mention in early historic records as a place of early settlements. With more warmer and humid climate, this region is also ideal for processing of products like cocoa, nutmeg and rubber. The low ranges have had the bigger markets for produce from the high ranges, which was then transported to many other places of sale. And many in the present high ranges of Idukki finds their roots in the villages of the low ranges.
Why IDUKKI matters?
Imagine your food without these spices!!
The geography of a land shapes its destiny and its people add colours to that journey and destiny. And it was no less true for Idukki either. The terrain, soil and elevation of Idukki became the foundation of the spices that travelled and still travels far and wide. The spices brought this small part of the world to the forefront. The diversity of this land gave its people better lives and the spices became the flavours and life in the dining rooms and kitchens of millions of people across the world, unknown to each other.
The famous local markets for spices in Idukki not only fills your heart and senses with the refreshing aroma of the many spices even now but also holds the stories of a generation who crossed the hills and rivers in search of newer arenas, livelihoods, who came in search of good soil to make the spices available to the larger world. It holds the memories of a time when people travelled, walked for almost a day to sell their produce, of a time when the only vehicle that climbed the high ranges was a jeep and the wit and will of those who came from different parts of the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu and made Idukki their home. These places carry the footprints of the traders and travellers who came in search for the best of spices from across the world and had happy returns.
These happy returns not only made it to the kitchen in the lands far and beyond and shaped the lives of people in Idukki but it also left it imprints on the destiny of the world. Spice trade, being one of the oldest trades, have led to the rise and fall of kingdoms, to spice wars, conquests; some for the spices, and many for the land that grew them and also invited the likes of Vasco Da Gama for new ventures.
The cultivation of the spices that travelled from Idukki, from the bustling markets, that crossed the orient, became a vital part of almost all cuisines across the globe, holds more importance now than ever. The human quest for more; to grow more and earn more have led to an unsustainable pattern of farming in all of Idukki. And the developments in the chemical farming that creep into this pristine lands gave its supporting hand for this pattern. The indiscriminate usage of chemicals, especially for cardamom, has begun showing its effects in the last few years. The soil that has turned infertile and the inadaptable hybrid varieties have led to more chemical usage to get the same yield. With environment degrading, the health issues of farmers have also increased. And the health issues is not only limited to the people of Idukki, but also the consumers outside.
It’s time to rethink and go back to the routes, to find solutions from the land Idukki once was. And that’s what we, at Graamya, located in this spice district of the world do. From promoting indigenous varieties to sustainable farming and processing methods, we work towards a tomorrow, where Idukki, its spices and its soil remains rich in nature, the health of its growers and are the source of good health and taste for its consumers.