The importance food-grains, we have is, fibrous plants. These were of great service to humanity since they supplied man with materials for clothing and thereby protected him from the extremes of heat and cold. In India, not only do we find a large number of such plants but most of these seem to have been indigenous to her soil where they were earliest cultivated and whence the world learnt their use.
Chief among the fibrous plains of India are the following:
Pre-eminent among the fibrous plants is cotton which was indigenous to India and from her soil, its knowledge and cultivation spread to the rest of the world. This would appear from the fact that the name of this plant has been borrowed by all the nations of antiquity from India. Thus Sanskrit karpasa became kapas in Hebrew, (and this word was used to designate the green hanging, in the book of Esther) and carpasos or carbasos in Greek and in Latin.
The earliest Greek information about this is furnished by Ktesias, and later on by Theophrastus and Herodotus, whose way of describing it as the wool of trees, showed Greek ignorance about it. We have no information about its cultivation elsewhere— not even in China, where it is believed to have been first cultivated in the 13th Cen, AD; Neither in Egypt, though Lassen once supposed the Mummy cloth to have been cotton, but this has been refuted by Mr. Thomson the kew expert.
The earliest mention of cotton is in the Asvalayana Srauta Sutra (VI. 4. 17.). The absence of the word karpasa in the Vedic literature proper may be explained by the fact that the Aryans had not by that time reached the cotton producing districts in the South or in the East. White cotton, Simula or cotton silk (Erodendron anfractuosum).
Though doubtfully indigenous, its cultivation goes to the Vedic period and it has been since then of great service as furnishing material for pillows mentioned in the Atharva Veda. Sana was also probably indigenous to India and its cultivation goes to the earliest historical period. It is mentioned in the Atharva Veda (II, 4, 5), as growing in the forest. It is also mentioned in the Satap B r. (iii-2-1-11, 1-6-1-34) and in the later sutras.
(Linum usitatissimum) its cultivation and use seem to go back to the Vedic period. Its various names are Atasi, Uma and Ksauma. Susruta also speaks of the medicinal properties of atasi oil. Later authorities repeatedly mention it.
(Corchorus) Variously called by different authors Identified by some with Sk. Patta, or Kalasaka. Originally indigenous to India and parts of China, its cultivation all throughout historic period has been mainly confined to Bengal.
iv. Sugar Cane:
Of plants producing sugar the sugarcane has been the chief of a number of varieties. It has been an important indigenous plant. According to Watts at least five such grasses were natives of India, one of the chief among them being the Saccharum officinarum which is mentioned as early as the Arthava Veda (I. 34. 5). Sugar from the juice of this plant was pre-eminently an Indian commodity and there is reason to believe that the rest of the world derived their equivalent of sugar from the Indian Sarkara (compare Arabic Shakar, Latin Saccharum, French Sucre, Eng. Sugar).
Of oil bearing plants which have been indigenous to India, or have been cultivated since the remotest historical period are the following:
According to Sir George Watts it may be regarded as indigenous to India. It has been cultivated from the earliest times being repeatedly mentioned in the Atharva Veda (A.V.II.8.3) XII 2. 54; XVIII. 3. 69, XVIIL. 4. and in other Samhitas. In the historical period it was regularly exported from India, its importance being due to its oil.
Probably a native of India from the earliest times. Its cultivation goes back to the later Vedic period, being first mentioned in the Sankhy. Ar., XII. 8. Susruta mentions the medicinal properties of its oil.
Important for its oil and for medicinal and other properties. Specimens of it are found elsewhere in the world but it may be regarded as a native of India. Its cultivation too goes back to the close of the Vedic period, and is first mentioned in the Brahmana literature (Chandogya, III. 14-3. Sadvim Br., V. 2. Sankhay, Sr. Su, IV. 15. 8).
Valued even now, for its oil and its use as food. Its medicinal properties are mentioned in Susruta, Caraka and other works.
It is indigenous to a large part of the Tropical region. In India, it has been a native of Malabar, S. E. coast, and Bengal. Its importance has been very great and it has been repeatedly mentioned in early literature.
Of spices and aromatic plants we may mention the following. The cultivation and importance of these is mentioned in the historical period. Some of these plants were natives to the Indian soil, while a large number of them were brought from the neighbouring islands, by the adventurous Indian sailors of antiquity.
Lassen derives its Greek name peperi and Latin name pepper from the Sanskrit pippali. It was extensively cultivated in the west coast of Southern India from the earliest times. According to Schoff, (Periplus p. 213-14) its use was unknown to the Egyptians and Hebrews and it was the Dravidian merchants who carried it to the westerners.
It was an article of export to the Western market and its trade brought unheard-of profits to Indian merchants. According to Pliny, 15 denarii were offered for a pound of pepper (Pliny XII. 14). Alaric demanded 3000 lbs. of pepper along with gold and silver for raising the siege of Rome.
vii. Cloves (Caryophyllos Aromaticus):
Its mention in Indian Literature goes back to the days of the Ramayana and Caraka. Its name, derivable from Malaya Leh-bang, suggests according to some authorities that it was brought from Malaya. The historian Paulus Eginata states that it was brought to Rome from India.
viii. Cardamom (Eletaria Cardamonom):
It is believed to have been indigenous to Southern and Western India where both varieties, major and minor, grow wild. It was also an article of export to the Western markets.
It is doubtful whether it was originally native of India. In historical times, however, it was brought from the Islands, cultivated and exported.
x. Saffron (Crocus Sativus):
Probably, not a native of India but of the region of south-western Europe; its cultivation is now confined to the valley of Kashmir, so far as India is concerned. This can be traced back to the post-Vedic period. Kunkuma is mentioned in the Susruta Samhita, and in some other medical works where, we find its medical properties described.
Root of Saussuarea Lappa, native of Kashmir and north- Indian hills, is mentioned as early as the Atharva Veda (Kustha). Not to speak or its medicinal properties it was highly prized by the Romans as a culinary spice and as a perfume, and was exported to Rome from India (Pliny, XII 25).
A perennial herb of the Alpina Himalaya, it was probably introduced in India proper, from the hilly regions where it was grown. Its earliest mention is to be found in the medical literature of the Hindus Nalada or Naladi is mentioned in the Vedic literature (V. I. I, 437). The Atharva Veda mentions Aja-srngi, Arataki and Tikshna-srngi along with these aromatics.
xiii. Nard (Nardus Indicus):
Leaf nard was exported from India to the Roman markets, and was sold at the rate of 40 to 75 denarii per lb. Spikenard held the foremost place among the ointments of the day.(Pliny, XII. 26, also Mark XIV; see Scoff’s note on the Periplus, 188-189). So also was Khuskhus (Vetiveria odorata) important for aromatic properties.
xiv. Ginger (Zingiber Efficinale):
It was also a native Indian product, and from India its use probably spread to some other nations. This would appear from philological evidence, which shows that the name of this plant in many languages is derived from its Sanskrit equivalent. Thus, Sanskrit Srngivera, becomes Zazabul in Arabic and Zingiber in Greek. The word Sringibera has been supposed by some to have been of Dravidian origin while others would like to regard it as a hybrid of Skt. Srnga and Drv. Vera meaning root.
xv. Turmeric (Curcuma, Haldi):
It was grown in India from earliest times and many nations learnt its use from the Indians. Thus Sanskrit Haridra is transformed into Persian and Arabic A1 Hard.
xvi. Colour-Bearing Plants:
Of these, the chief in antiquity was Indigo, identified by De Candolle with the Nili of classical literature. Most probably it was an indigenous plant of the Indian soil, though many varieties of it exist wild in the tropics. We have no evidence to prove that any other country grew this plant in antiquity; and hence the ancients called it Indicum. It was valued in the western world for its rich colour and medicinal properties and was largely exported to the western markets (Pliny XXXV, 25-27).
Its supposed presence in the cloth of the mummy led Royle to, suppose that trade relations existed between India and the land of the Pharoahs in the 3rd millenium BC. The presence of Indigo has been chemically tested and proved to be beyond doubt (J.R.A.S. 1898, p.250). In the Periplus, it is mentioned as exported from Bar-baricum (Schoff’s note, see p. 172-3).
xvii. Sandalwood (Santalum Album):
Another important Indian plant was the Sandalwood tree, a native of the hills of South-Western India e.g. the regions of Mysore, Coorg, and the Nilghiris. From a very remote antiquity, sandalwood was exported to the markets of the ancient world. It is supposed by some, scholars that the ‘Sonter’ incense mentioned in the records of the naval expedition to Puanit in the reign of queen Hatsep-situ of Egypt is nothing but Malabar Sandal wood (Santalum Album).
xviii. Fruit-Bearing Trees and Plants:
Other important Indian plants include varieties of fruit-bearing trees and plants. Of these, we may mention the Mango tree (Mangifera Indica), the Jack-fruit tree (Artocarpus Integrifolia), Plums (Prunus etc.), various kinds of apples and nuts, varieties of Palm, including the arica and date palms, the plantain (Musa Sapienlum) Grapes and varieties of orange, citron and varieties of melon.
The cultivation of grapes goes back to a period anterior to the 7th cen. BC. Grapes are mentioned in the Sutras of Panini, which speak of Kapisa being the premier vine growing district of India. The vegetables indigenous to India vary in its different parts and are too numerous to relate. Varieties of sweet and bulbous roots too existed from the earliest times. Along with these must be mentioned two other Indian products of importance e.g. the silk worm and the lac insect.
It is very difficult to trace the introduction of silk in India. Silk-worm was cultured in China as early as the 28th cen. BC and according to some historians, a Chinese princess married to a Khotan prince, secretly carried with her the silk-worm and the Mulberry plant. Some scholar’s attribute the introduction of silk in India to an intercourse with China, of which, there is reason to believe, the earliest evidence goes back to the 6th Century BC.
There is however evidence to prove that varieties of the silk-worm, existed in the Eastern part of India e.g., in North Bengal and Assam, and these regions are a continuation of the habitat of the silk-worm.
At present, the following three varieties of silk Saturniidae e.g., wild silk, exist in Eastern India e.g., the Tasar (Antheraea paphia) mainly of Bengal, the Antheraea assama (Muga of Assam) and the Attacus ricini Eri). Most of these depend on nature and hardly require any human care. We have references to the large use of silk from the seventh cen.
BC Silk is mentioned in the Sutras of Panini, in early Buddhist Literature (Koseyam), and in the Kautiliya Arthasastra which mentions indigenous silk fabric along with the produce of China (Cinapattah and Cina-bhumijah). Various plants suitable to the growth of the worm existed from time immemorial.
xx. Lac Insect (Tachardia Lacca):
The lac insect was endemic in India and even now is confined to her soil. Laksa occurs in Vedic literature, being first mentioned in the Atharva Veda. References to Laksa are numerous in the Sutra literature as well as in the Epic and poetical works.