Pepper: A spice that changed the history of South India

Pepper is now just one of those spices used to pep up your salad or curry. Not so long ago though, the humble peppercorns were bought by their weight in gold!
The story of pepper is intrinsically connected to the history and economy of the ancient Tamil country (Sangam era: 200 BCE – 200 CE) or Tamilakkam that used to cover most of the present-day states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The agrarian societies were masters at cultivating, weaving, manufacturing and construction. Paddy was the most important crop; it was the staple cereal after all. The next most important crop was pepper.

Karaikudi, where Chidambara Vilas is located, has it own contribution to this story. Karaikudi was one of the strategic villages, in the ancient spice route. Though an arid place, the region, according to historical records, had been a bustling business commerce and packaging centres for the pepper sourced from Malabar regions. Karaikudi was also home to the illustrious Chettiar community who were invited to the village by the Pandya King Sundara Pandyan in the 13th century from their original village of Kaveripoompattinam, to boost the trade for this region of Tamilakkam.

The Chettiars saw the potential of pepper and played an integral part in trading pepper to China and other South Asian countries. The legendary travellers that they were, cast their merchant nets far and wide. The trades of pepper and teak gave them riches beyond measure, and they invested much of their profits in constructing palatial buildings back in Karaikudi, much like Chidambara Vilas.

Pepper still dictates the economy of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Availability of land at cheaper price, lower wages and a hassle-free trade with tax waivers, has helped Tamil Nadu gain prominence among black pepper trade markets.