The Romans, Greeks, and the curry of the Tamils

When did curry come to Britain?

Some would say, in the 19th century when the first Indian curry house was opened in London. Others would say, in the 13th century when the first curry recipe book was published in England. Yet another, would say, it came via the Portuguese in the 16th century.

However, it seems that actually curry could have come to Britain during the Romans’ time.

The Romans, Greeks, and the curry of the Tamils

Ancient Tamil Areas

‘Sangam’ in Tamil means gathering or meeting of a group of people for a common purpose. In the ancient history of the Tamils, Tamil Sangam referred to the gathering of various scholars who would listen to amateur writers of literature and either accept or reject these writings based on their quality.

Like many other works, ‘Thirukural’, the only non-religious work of literature that was translated into 40 different world languages were heard and approved at least 2000 years back by a Tamil Sangam. Thiruvalluvar was the author of the Thirukural and his statue can be seen in London too.

The ancient Tamil history was divided into three ‘Sangam’ eras. Depending on the publication periods of Tamil works of literature, these divisions were made. Thus we now have different works of literature of three Sangam periods (First Sangam Period, Second Sangam period, and the third Sangam period).

According to tradition, the legendary Sangams (“gathering of the Academics”) were held in Madurai under the patronage of the Pandiyas. Madurai was the capital city of the Pandiya dynasty kings. The city is still vibrant. Pandya was one of the three prominent Tamil dynasties and the other two were Cholas and Cheras.

Sangam era of 300 BC – 300 AD describes the ancient economy of the Tamil areas (the southern tip of the Indian sub-continent and the North and East of the island of Eelam or Tambapanni (Ceylon now Sri Lanka).

The main economic activity was agriculture, weaving of cotton, pearl fishing manufacturing, and also construction.

Paddy was the most important crop; it was the staple cereal and served as a medium of exchange for inland trade. Black Pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, millets, grams, and sugarcane were other commonly grown crops. In ancient times the word curry was also used to refer to spices too.

Madurai of Pandiya capital and Urayur of Chola capital were important centers for the textile industry; Korkai was the center of the pearl trade. Industrial activities such as jewel and ornaments crafting and smithies where war tools, wheels for carts preparations were flourished.

Shipbuilding and repairing were also important industries of the Tamils.

Muchiri of the Chera land was an important harbor in the Arabic sea for export and import activities with Romans, Greeks, Africans, Chinese, and Arabs.

Pearl fishing was an important industry in ancient Tamils

Pearl Necklace

The Pearl Fishery Coast refers to a coastal area of the southern Indian sub-continent and the northern part of the island of Ceylon, extending along the Coromandel Coast from Tuticorin to Comorin.

The coast took its name from the presence of pearls along the coast, and the numerous pearl fisheries that operated to harvest them.

Hence, it was obvious that the Romans captured Egypt by 60 BC and ruled it for 600 years, similarly, the Greeks wanted to have trade links with the Tamils too. Remember during this period they were occupying Britain and so the curry or the black pepper could have come to Britain during the Roman time.

Remember Cleopatra’s pearl!

Romans and Greeks trading activities

Romans and Greeks’ trading activities were well recorded in ancient works of Tamil literature of the Sangam eras. In a similar sense, you will find writings of Tamil activity or historical information in Greek and (Roman) Latin publications too. I will discuss more on this in my forthcoming book.

Image credit to: karkanirka.org
2000+ years olds Kasu Maalai (Coin Garland or necklace) introduced by Romans and or Greek still very popular ornaments among the South Indian and Sri Lankan Tamils including Malayalees of Chera land.
Former British Prime Minister on an Indian Temple Visit wearing a flower garland
A Tamil bride wearing the 2000 years tradition Kasu Malai (Coin Necklace or Garland) introduced by the Romans / Greeks
Paavai Vilakku. Anthropomorphic oil lamp from Tamil Nadu

Paavai Vilakku (Maid carrying oil lamp) was also introduced by the Romans and Greeks and decorated and lit the mansions and palaces of the Tamils of ancient times. “Damsel with the lamp”.It signifies a unique craft made by the Yavanas (The Greeks and Romans) from a mix of metals including gold mainly for the use at the Palace of Pandya kings.

Romans and Greeks came to the spice-rich Tamils and bartered gold coins (Kasu) for spices. This was how the term ‘gold for pepper’ came about as black Pepper was bartered for gold coins or Kasu. The Roman, Greek, and Jewish skillful craftsmen were preparing ornaments and selling them to royals and the rich.

This also became reality during the medieval time when Europeans’ access to the Tamils were restricted by the Ottoman empire when Arabs had exclusive rights for trading the black pepper and some European Kingdoms were accepting pepper as the means of payment for tax due and so the term ‘pepper tax’ came about.

Remember the world-famous word CASH also came from the Tamil word KASU which referred to the coins only then when currency notes were not available but now refer to both coins and notes too.