Late September, an Indian whiskey, the Indri Diwali Collector's Edition 2023, was awarded the prestigious 'Best in Show, Double Gold' prize at the Whiskies of the World Awards 2023.
This recognition solidified its position as the best whiskey in the world.
Out of 100 whiskey brands, including renowned Scotch, Bourbon, British, Australian, and Canadian malts, the homegrown Indri whiskey — India's first triple-barrel single malt — emerged victorious.
This achievement is fitting of India's storied legacy as the world's centre of luxury once upon a time.
"The area [of India] was thought wealthy, not only for its gold but also for its precious stones and pearls, and to aim more for luxurious living…"
This is from The History of Alexander by Quintus Curtius Rufus somewhere around the turn of the first millennium BCE.
It is a truism that the ancient world thought of India as a golden bird, a 'soney ki chidiya'.
In the ancient world, the prosperity and riches of India were a byword; the food, drink, clothing, and the entire way of life were aspirational in a way that we, in the twenty-first century, find it difficult to believe, conditioned as we are to think "West is Best."
As I have written before, the "West" was capable of appreciating and idealising the "East." The disdain and contempt accompanying colonisation and its aftermath are but relatively recent developments.
There was an emphasis on describing Indian civilisation as an ideal one and its people as noble and cultured. They were looking for ideal projections in far-off lands and sought it in India.
There were reasons for this: the wide and wonderful variety of goods available in India. The luxuries of the world were supplied by India.
Let us dial back a few thousand years and return to the days when the banks of the Saraswati and Sindhu teemed with civilisational fervour.
It was a world connected by sea and land routes, from India to the Gulf to Africa and Europe, on the other side to South East Asia, Russia, and China.
The artisans of the Saraswati-Sindhu civilisation combined gold, precious stones, beads, shell, and faience to make elaborate ornaments, especially bangles. These were a creation and innovation of this civilisation and have been found in Central Asia.
Ivory seals and boxes, timber, cotton textiles, copper and bronze fish-hooks, carnelian and precious stone beads, shell and bone inlays were all luxury items of the time and found in Iran, Arabia, Mesopatamia, Levant, and Central Asia.
These were also the times of the Pharaohs of Egypt. The apex of high status was the embalming of their bodies after death — frankincense and dammar resin from India was used for this purpose — with remains found in embalming workshops.
As time flew by and the first millennium BCE arrived, India’s reputation only grew. It had the resources and the people to make luxury goods and export them.
Reams have been written about the European fascination with spices and its impact on trade, commerce, and colonisation. It must be remembered that spices were an exotic and much-loved commodity well before that.
For instance, the Minoan civilisation was a Bronze Age culture centred on the island of Crete. It is often regarded as the first civilisation in Europe. Remains of cumin and coriander from India have been found here.
Black pepper was worth its weight in gold through the millennium — our own Sangam literature makes a mention.
Ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, mace, nutmeg, and saffron along with black pepper from India appear in the first millennium CE cookbooks from Rome to Italy.
Huge amounts of these ingredients were to be used, which could be afforded only by the rich. Conspicuous consumption was the order of the day for rich Romans.
The story goes that there was a contest between Mark Antony and Cleopatra about who could eat a more expensive meal. Cleopatra outdid Antony by dissolving a priceless pearl (also from India) into vinegar and drinking it up!
Fragrant wood, gum, resins, and aromatics were another category of luxury exports to Arabia and Europe. These were so popular in Rome that the use of exotic perfumes was banned by the censors in Rome around 189 BCE.
Agar, frankincense, and myrrh were staples of perfume making and fabulously expensive. In Pliny the Elder’s time a little later, there are estimates that Indian balsam cost 1,000 denarii (roughly $45,000 today) for a pound.
The most excellent textiles, the softest and best cotton and silk came from India. Scraps have been found in remains from Harappa.
Madurai cotton and varieties of silk from Assam, Tamil Nadu, and Bengal were the least world in sartorial elegance from the Roman Empire to the British ones.
Indian muslin, soft enough to go through the centre of a ring, is still a byword. Brocade, or silk embroidered with gold and silver wire, dates back to the first millennium BCE.
Another telling statistic is that the Roman Empire annually spent an estimated 550 million sestertii on Indian imports of frankincense, pepper, and Cos silk.
Precious Stones and Jewellery
Pearls, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, diamonds, jewellery, and artefacts fashioned from these objects were Indian items to wear and show off.
The Pompei Yakshi is an ivory artefact found in Pompei, manufactured in India in the first century.
Look at the picture below: it is a composite example of all the luxury items mentioned — perfumes, textiles, jewellery, fashioning of artefacts that were traded across the world; all these are exhibited in this exquisite figurine.
Animals and Animal Products
Chief examples are ivory and hides. Exotic animals from India were exported to all parts of the world.
Elephants hold pride of place and so do, surprisingly, parrots. Other species, such as serpents, cheetahs, baboons, and monkeys, have also been found either for public exhibition or as private pets.
Artefacts and jewellery made of ivory were very popular.
In the annals of world trade, the anonymous Periplus of the Erythraean Sea — which is a Roman period guide to trade and navigation in the Indian Ocean — is unmatched. It is a kind of logbook recording sailing and commercial details of trade routes around the Indian Ocean littoral.
Many Indian luxury items exported across millennia are recorded in here: Malabathrum or bay leaves, Gangetic jatamansi or spikenard, and pearls.
Also recorded were — pepper, pearls, ivory, silk, transparent stones, diamonds, sapphires, and tortoise shell from the Chera and Pandya kingdoms (the best in the world).
Pearls and Muslins, again, from the Chola kingdom. Spikenard, ivory, agate, carnelian, silk, cotton, mallow cloth, yarn, and long pepper from Bharuch in Gujarat.
The Kushans, the Satvahanas, the Cholas of the tenth century, the Rashtrakutas of Gujarat, the Gajapatis of Odisha, and the Vijayanagara kingdom continued these exports. India remained prosperous.
The trade towards East and South East Asia through the Indian Ocean and South China Sea also included the fine Dhaka Muslins, the fabulous Gujarati silks, and minerals and metals among a plethora of other, more mundane items. Temple decorations, too, came from India.
Before concluding I would like to refer to the purported letter written by Alexander to his mentor, Aristotle, about India.
It is a forgery, of course, composed by a Greek in the third or fourth century CE, but found its way into the legends of the world.
It is mostly an ode to the fabulousness of these same luxury articles described above: gold, precious stones, cotton, animals and animal hides, perfumed woods, and balsam, all described in the most fulsome and admiring way and the quality extolled.
It is a reflection of the impression of India in the eyes of Europe at the time.
The second millennium CE saw the Muslim invasion, colonisation, and the turn of the global order to industrialisation, where India was cut off from its paths of growth by alien and exploitative rulers.
It slowly lost its reputation as the centre of luxury and riches, dreams and aspirations of humankind.
The world has moved on and much work will be needed to recover the reputation of the country.
After two decades in the Indian Revenue Service Sumedha Verma Ojha now follows her passion, Ancient India; writing and speaking across the world on ancient Indian history, society, women, religion and the epics. Her Mauryan series is ‘Urnabhih’; a Valmiki Ramayan in English and a book on the ‘modern’ women of ancient India will be out soon.
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