2019 Jan 25
Sri Lanka and her love for spices tell epic stories of exquisite cuisines, rich trade, and entire wars fought over spice.
Sri Lanka and spices’ seasoned history dates back to BC. The spice industry grew in South-East Asia, especially with rising demand from Europe through the Middle Ages. Sri Lanka soon became a hub for spice merchants from all over the world.
Amongst the most valuable of spices traded was clove – a versatile bud from the evergreen clove tree (Syzgyium aromaticum).
Clove is native to the Maluku Islands of the Indonesian Archipelago. Considered to be rare and expensive, clove was desired by European monarchs and this drove great demand. A kilogram of clove would be sold for 7 gold coins which is approximately Rs. 1 million in today’s money. The aromatic clove was sought for its rich flavour and medicinal properties notably during the Middle Ages when pandemics spread through Eurasia.
However, a recent excavation at the medieval port of Mantai in Mannar, right here in Sri Lanka, revealed a clove dating to around 200BC!
UCL Archaeologist Eleanor Kingwell-Banham said that the clove was found in a context dating to 900 – 1100AD which makes it not only the oldest clove in Asia, but the oldest clove in the world.
The archaeological work was part of a project which was restarted in 2009/2010 after the civil war forced researchers to abandon the excavation in the 1980s. The team’s aims were to collect evidence such as preserved plant remains from the ancient port of Mantai. The multinational team of researchers behind the discovery included the Sri Lankan Department of Archaeology, SEALINKS and the UCL Institute of Archaeology.
Along with the clove, evidence of black pepper (Piper nigrum) dating back to 600AD was also found. They can be linked to the early medieval period when international maritime emerged across Asia, Africa and Europe which researchers believe is how the spice arrived at the port of Mantai. Black pepper, although not rare as clove was still a valuable commodity and known as ‘Black gold’.
Mantai, known as Manthottam in Tamil translates to Fields of Sand. It was a coastal town whose port harboured merchant ships from the far east and west. During the Middle Ages, Mantai flourished on the legendary Silk Route.
The seas were packed with small ships, boats brimmed with cargo, and the streets filled with foreign merchants. Exquisite ceramic would arrive at the harbour on Chinese sails and horses and stoneware on Persian. Mantai was the immigration capital of its time and even welcomed the great Princess of Madurai.
The merchants would look to sell their own goods and spend their gold on the local spices, seeds and gems. Transactions were much more secretive than today. During a transaction, the seller and buyer would traditionally handshake and the selling merchant would place a handkerchief over their hands. With their hands covered, their fingers would debate the price to protect them from spying eyes.
Today, little remains of the town. Mantai is now a small village by the beach. Thick shrubs and overgrown weeds lie where once busy merchants trod and debris and mould collect where once sails few high.
Mantai couldn’t receive the attention and systematic research it was due in the 1980s when researchers had to abandon their work as the 25-year old civil war had begun. Since then, the ancient town’s heritage has been a fading tale.
But Mantai’s great legacy has not been completely forgotten. The Ketheeswaram Hindu temple was rebuilt 65 years ago after the invading Portuguese in the 16th century destroyed it and most of Mantai. Many ancient texts including the Mahawamsa and Pali Chronicles refer to the town and its port as well.
Thousands of years on, Mantai receives attention once again as home to the world’s oldest clove.