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You are here: Home / Plants and Crops / Milho, makka and ya mai: early journeys of Zea mays in Asia Printer Friendly Page
plants and crops
Chapter 4: Makka in the Middle East and South Asia
View:  Introduction | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Conclusions | References

Linguistic evidence indicates that Turkish, Arab, and other Muslim traders played an important role in dissemination of maize in the Middle East and South Asia. Common vernacular names for maize in the Near East, such as surratul-makkah in Arabic and gaudume-makka in Persian, are variations of "grain of Mecca" (64), indicating an association with the Muslim holy city of Mecca on the east coast of the Red sea in present-day Saudi Arabia. Yearly pilgrimages to the shrine of the Kaaba at Mecca and to the nearby holy city of Medina have facilitated trade and cultural exchange throughout the Muslim world for more than a thousand years.

Grain of Mecca

Muslim historians and the few European travellers in the Middle East region during the 16th and 17th centuries wrote rarely about agriculture and left few accounts of introduced American crop plants other than tobacco, which spread rapidly in the Muslim world (65). The journals of John Fryer, Father Barthelemy Carre and other Europeans who traveled in the Middle East from 1635 to 1680 record widespread tobacco smoking and tobacco gardens in present-day Syria, Iraq, and Iran (66).

Early Maize in Oman

In 1507, Portuguese ships under Afonso de Alboquerque sailed from the west coast of Africa to the Arabian penninsula for exploration and the establishment of trading operations. In 1557, his illegitmate son, also named Afonso de Alboquerque, compiled a text of his father's dispatches to the king of Portugal. On the coast of Oman near the entrance to the Persian Gulf, Alboquerque described Muscate, Sohar, and nearby cities as "supplied from the interior with much wheat, maize, barley, and dates, for lading as many vessels as come for them" and "Great quantities of dates and maize are exported hence" (67).

Rauwolf Finds Maize in Iraq

The records and herbarium of Bavarian botanist Leohard Rauwolf document the presence of maize in Iraq in 1574. From 1573 to 1575, Rauwolf traveled along the trade routes from Tripoli to Aleppo in Syria and along the Euphrates and Tigris River routes to Bagdad in Iraq. In fields near Jerusaleum, Aleppo, and near the Euphrates River, Rauwolf observed "Indian millet [maize].six, seven or eight cubits high" (68). Rauwolf collected specimens for his herbarium at the University of Leyden in Germany and in 1755, botanist Johann Friedrich Gronovious used the new binomial system of Linnaeus to classify plants from the Rauwolf herbarium (69). Gronovious identified as Zea mays a sample that Rauwolf had collected at Bir in Iraq in 1574 and had labeled as Turkisches Korn (70). In his travels in Iran and Pakistan in the 1890s, British counsel Percy Sykes noted that maize was an important summer crop in the Kerman region and that maize stalks were a source of fodder for horses in the Baluchistan desert along the coast of the Arabian Sea (71).

Maize was cultivated in South Asia by the mid-1600s, but the dates and circumstances of the first introductions of maize into Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka are not known. The few available sources of information include genealogical histories and natural histories written by South Asians, and the accounts of the rare European travellers who made observations of South Asian agriculture. Although Europeans are likely to have played a role in early introductions of maize into South Asia, the Spanish name mahiz and the Portuguese name milho do not appear to have survived as names for Zea mays in any of the South Asian languages. In contrast, linguistic evidence strongly supports a role for Arabs and other Muslim traders in introducing maize into South Asia. The majority of vernacular names for maize throughout South Asia from the 1600s to the present day are variations of makka, grain of Mecca. Examples include makka and mukka in Hindi and Rajasthani; makai in Bengali, Punjabi, Gujarati and Nepali; makaibonda in Maharastra; mukka-cholam in Tamil; mokka-jonnalu in Telugu, etc. (72). In ethnological studies conducted in the 1840s and 1850s, Brian Hodgson (73) found makai to be the name for maize among 16 of 23 languages or dialects of aboriginal tribes in the remote hill regions of eastern Nepal and northeastern India.

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Loss of Early Portugeuse Records in India

Few documents of 16th and 17th century Portuguese history in India have survived, and fewer still deal with agriculture and other domestic issues. Asian historian Charles Boxer wrote that "the amount of relevant material to be found in the Portuguese archives is disappointingly small, most of the contemporary documents and reports having perished in the great fire which destroyed the building in which they were housed, the Casa da India, after the disastrous Lisbon earthquake of 1755; whilst the white ant has been responsible for the destruction of many old documents in the Goa archives" (74). European and Indian accounts relate that in 1498, 1500 and 1502 Portuguese ships under Vasco da Gama and Pedro Alvares Cabral crossed the Arabian Sea from Africa and reached the Malabar coast of southern India. The Portuguese seized Arab trading ships, looted their cargoes of Malabar black pepper and other spices, killed most of their crews, and returned with the spices to Europe. The 16th century Portuguese soldier Duarte Pacheco wrote "with these [his fleets] he [king Manuel of Portugal] has conquered and daily conquers, the Indian seas and the shores of Asia, destroying and burning the Moors of Cairo, of Arabia and of Mecca, and other inhabitants of the same India, together with their fleet, by which for over 800 years they have controlled their trade in precious stones, pearls and spices" (75).

Gardens of Goa

In their efforts to control the supply of spices to Europe and to control and tax inter-Asian shipping trade, the Portuguese established strategic bases for their naval fleets and trading operations along the western coast of India. In 1510 Afonso de Albuquerque captured the island of Goa from the Sultan of Bijapur, and there established the capital of the Estado da India. By 1524 Goa had become a thriving trading settlement of 450 Portuguese householders, where Portuguese men were encouraged to marry Indian women who converted to Christianity (76). Dutch traveller John Huyghen Van Linschoten described Goa in the 1580s as "well builte with [faire] houses and streetes, after the Portingall manner, but because of the heat they are somewhat lower. They commonly have their gardens and orchards at the backe side of their houses, full of all kinde of Indian fruites " (77). English merchant Ralph Fitch also described Goa in the 1580s as "a fine citie, and for an Indian town very faire. The iland is very faire, full of orchards and gardens, and many palmer trees, and hath some villages" (78). It is likely that these gardens and orchards of the Portuguese settlements at Goa and elsewhere on the western coast of India were points of introduction of maize and other American food plants during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Portugeuse Estado Da India

While they were establishing the Estado da India on the western coast of India under the control of the Viceroy at Goa, the Portuguese began to migrate eastward along the coast of the Bay of Bengal. In 1536 the Hindu king of Bengal allowed the Portuguese to establish trading stations at Satgaon (Porto Pequeno) and Chittagong (Porto Grande) at the north end of the Bay. In 1579 the Portuguese established a settlement at Hugli, at the mouth of the Ganges River, and gradually extended minor settlements north to Dacca in present-day Bangladesh. Many European travellers of the 16th century were highly critical of the Portuguese in Bengal, describing them as having " no fortes, nor any government, nor policie as in India, but live in a manner like wild men, and untamed horses, for that every man doth there what hee will, and every man is lord [and maister], neyther esteeme they any thing of justice, whether there be any or none " (79). European travellers' estimates of the size of the Portuguese population at Hugli in the 1600s vary widely. The best contemporary authority may be Miguel de Noronha, Viceroy of Goa, who reported "no more than 200 Portuguese, and with their Christian slaves would in all make up 800" as the population of Hugli in 1632 (80).

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Early Portugeuse in Bengal

During the 17th century the Portuguese Estado da India declined under increasing attack from the expanding Mughal Empire of northern India, and from the Dutch and English East India Companies. In 1632 Qasim Khan, governor of Bengal in the expanding Mughal Empire, attacked and destroyed the Portuguese settlement of Hugli, which thereafter never recovered its early importance. The Dutch took over the most of the Portuguese trade in spices and most of their inter-Asian trade. By 1620 the English East India Company had established settlements in India along both the western and eastern coasts, and inland settlements in cities of the Mughal Empire in northwest India. Calcutta was founded in 1690 at the mouth of the Ganges and became the capital of the British Raj that dominated South Asia into the 20th century (81).

Muslim Trade in Asia

The greater number and accessibility of European archives encourage an unbalanced view of the relative importance of Europeans in Asian trade in the Middle Ages. The unique account of the Moroccan Ibn Battuta, who traveled extensively in North Africa and Asia from 1325 to 1354, reveals that Muslims from Arabia (now Saudi Arabia) and Persia (now Iran) controlled the maritime trade between India, the Middle East, and Europe, and also played a large role in the maritime trade with China (82). Modern historians have concluded that European trade remained a minor component of South Asian maritime and overland trade during the 16th and 17th centuries of the Estado da India. For example, Muslim traders from the Indian State of Gujarat were major competitors with the Portuguese for the spice trade in the Indian Ocean (83). In fact, the typical journey of an Italian merchant to India in 1500 was quite similar to that of Marco Polo 300 years earlier. From Alexandria or Damascus on the Mediterranean Sea traders crossed to the Arabian Sea by overland caravan or through the Red Sea or Persian Gulf. At ports such as Aden on the Red Sea or Hormuz on the Persian Gulf, goods were transferred to a larger ship to cross the Arabian Sea to the western coast of India, thence to the Indian Ocean and lands to the east (84). Marco Polo wrote "Aden is the port to which many of the ships of India come with their cargoes; and from this haven the merchants carry the goods a distance of seven days further in small vessels. At the end of those seven days they land the goods and load them on camels, and so carry them a land journey of 30 days. This brings them to the river of Alexandria, and by it they descend to the latter city. It is by this way through Aden that the Saracens of Alexandria receive all their stores of pepper and other spicery; and there is no other route equally good and convenient by which these goods could reach that place" (85). As noted above, the holy cities of Mecca and Medina on the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia were a center of pilgrimage and trade for Muslims throughout North Africa and Asia.

Travels of Marco Polo

When the Portuguese arrived in1500, South Asia was a patchwork of independent kingdoms, largely Islamic in the north and Hindu in the south. The Muslim Sultans of Delhi controlled most of the fertile valleys of the Indus and Ganges Rivers, from present- day northern Pakistan southeast to Bangladesh. In 1526 Zehir-ud-din Muhammad Babur, the Muslim king of Ferghana in present-day Uzbekistan, conquered northern India and founded the Mughal Empire, which eventually controlled Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India south to the 20th parallel. During the 17th century the Mughal capital at Agra became a great center of trade, by caravan and by barge transport on the Ganges River. The Mughal Emperors were passionate gardeners and played a major role in documentation of agriculture and in introduction of new plants into India.

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Botany of the Mughal Emperors

In 1530 Babur wrote the Babur-nama, the first book on the natural history of India. Babur's extensive records of flowers, and of fruits and other agricultural plants that he saw in India include no mention of any introduced American plants (86). In 1595 court historian Abu-l-Fazl published the Ain-I-Akbari, a detailed agricultural survey of the provinces of the Mughal Empire. The Ain described ananas (pineapple) as a fruit that came from Portuguese ports and was served at the table of Akbar. The fact that the Brazilian name of the fruit, ananas, was widely adopted in South Asia has facilitated tracing its introduction (87). However, the only possible mention of maize in the Ain has been refuted by Habib. In his 1893 Dictionary of the Economic Products of India George Watt wrote that in the English translation of the Ain a flower called kewrah was described as having leaves like maize (88). Later authors have cited Watt's note as proof of the existence of maize in India in the 1500s. Habib, however, notes that this is a mistranslation of the original text, which reads juwari, which is likely to mean sorghum rather than maize (89).

Early Maize in South Asia

In his study of manuscript collections and other 17th century sources from western India, historian Parashuram Krishna Gode (90) discovered references to makka or maize. Maize was mentioned as tasteful, strength-giving, and dear to children in a text found in several medical and botanical works published near present-day Mumbai before 1620 and between 1640 and 1700. Maize also was reported in the Deccan region of western India in lists of food taxes between 1630 and1680 and in a 1707 historical report of the cutting and looting of maize and other crops from farmers' fields. Far to the north in the Kathmandu valley of Nepal, a Vamsavali or genealogical history of the Buddhist Malla rajas recorded the introduction of maize during the reign of Jagatjyotir Malla from 1615 to 1627. "In this reign some Indian corn [maize] was by chance brought from the east, mixed up among a quantity of mas or urd-dal [a kind of pulse]. The clever people of the country were immediately assembled, and decided that this new grain would cause a famine, so it was thought best to send it back whence it had come; and to destroy all the ill luck it might have left behind, Brahmans were fed and the gods worshipped" (91).

American Crop Plants in India

Few European travellers to India during the 16th century reported American crop plants. Three Portuguese travellers to southern India, Domingo Paes in 1520, Fernao Nuniz in 1535, and Garcia da Orta in 1563, described fruits, grains, and other crops, but did not mention any American plants (92). In 1578 the Portuguese botanist Christophoras Acosta reported pineapple in western India (93). In the 1580s, Van Linschoten reported that pineapple was found on the west coast and "was first brought by the Portingalles out of Brasille, so that at the first it was sold for a noveltie...but now there are so many growen in the countrey, that they are very good cheape." Van Linschoten also reported other American food plants- papaya (Carica papaya), cashew (Anacardium occidentale), and sweet potato- on the western coast of India (94). A manuscript written by Father Antonio Monserrate, which was discovered in a Calcutta church library in 1906, contains a report of maize in northwest India in 1581. In 1580, Monserrate left his post at Goa to join the first Jesuit mission to the court of Akbar at Agra. During Akbar's campaign against Mirza Hakim in 1581, Monserrate traveled with the Mughal army north and west of Agra into the hill regions of Kangra, Kashmir, Swat, and Kabul. He reported that provisions procured locally for the army included "grain, maize, pulse, and all manner of provisions and other merchandise" (95).

Throughout the 17th century, European travellers reported American crop plants in India. In western India, from the Malabar coast and Goa north and inland to Agra, reports include those of Methwold (1615-1622), Terry (1616-1619), De La Valle (1623-1626), Mundy (1628-1634), Tavernier (1631-1661), Fryer (1672-1681), Hamilton (1688+), and Carre (1672-1674). In eastern India, from Sri Lanka north along the Coromandel coast to Bengal, reports include those of Methwold (1615-1622), Manrique (1629-1643), Bernier (1656-1668), Bowry (1669-1674), and Baldeus (1672) (96). Pineapple and tobacco were mentioned most frequently, but papaya, cashew, sweet potato, guava (Psidium guajava), and chili pepper (Capsicum annuum) also were reported. Although none of these travellers mention maize, an intriguing illustration reproduced from the original 1672 text of the Dutchman Philip Baldeus shows natives of Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka presenting various fruits and vegetables, including a clearly distinguishable ear of maize, to a group of Dutch soldiers (97).

From 1602, missionary priests of the Jesuit and Capuchin orders traversed the Himalayan range in Bhutan, Nepal or Ladakh (now the State of Kashmir) to travel between India and Tibet, and from 1715 to 1769 a mainly Capuchin mission was established in Kathmandu in Nepal. Unfortunately, the priests left few accounts of agriculture in these regions and rare records of American crop plants. Early in the 18th century, Father Ippolito Desideri reported pineapples in Kathmandu and a Father Loro reported maize (98).

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Bogle on Maize in Bhutan

As the British East India Company extended its influence in South Asia, the Panchen Lama of Tibet requested a visit by a Company representative. In 1774, Governor-General Warren Hastings responded by sending George Bogle to discuss issues of trade and diplomatic relations between British India and Tibet. Bogle traveled north from Calcutta through the present-day State of West Bengal, Bangladesh, the State of Assam, and Bhutan to Tashilungpo in Tibet. Bogle introduced potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) and other plants and reported on geography, agriculture, and other subjects of interest to the British government. Of the villages in Bhutan, he wrote "The prospect within the hills is confined -not above 25 miles; country all equally clad with wood. There were not above six or eight villages to be seen on the brow of the mountain, with little patches of wheat, barley, or Indian corn" (99). After Bogle's untimely death at the age of 35 in Calcutta, Governor-General Hastings choose Samuel Turner for a second British mission to Tibet in 1783. In Assam and Bhutan, Turner reported pineapples growing wild in the forests, tobacco, and chili pepper. In Bhutan he found remnants of the potatoes that Bogle had planted 10 years earlier (100). On his political mission to Bhutan in 1837, William Griffiths reported that maize was grown as a cereal crop and maize ears were fed to horses (101).

Kirkpatrick on Maise in Nepal

During the first British mission to Nepal from February to April of 1793, Colonel Kirkpatrick described the grain crops grown on unirrigated hillsides in the Kathmandu valley. He wrote that "the principle are Muckhye [Indian corn], Kodo Murrova (Eleusine sp.), some species of Ghya [a dry coarse rice], and Toori (Brassica sp.).These articles are chiefly consumed by the husbandmen themselves, and others among the lower classes of people" (102).

Buchanan's Travels in India and Nepal

Under the direction of Governor General Wellesley, Scotsman Francis Buchanan (later Hamilton) undertook extensive botanical, ethnological, and general surveys during his two decades (1794-1815) in India. Buchanan traveled from 1800 to 1801 through regions of southern India (now the States of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Karnataka) that the British had annexed in 1799 and through adjoining regions. He reported commercial production of tobacco and chili pepper, and cultivation of sweet potatoes and maize throughout the region. Buchanan described a tribe called the Soligaru who lived in the remote mountains west of Mysore, collecting honey and wild yams from the forest, and using shifting cultivation to prepare plots that they " broadcast with Ragy (Eleusine coracana), here and there dropping in a seed of Avarat (Dolichos lablab), Tovary (Cajanas cajan), mustard, maize, and pumpkin" (103). Near the city of Bangalore Buchanan found that "The maize thrives better than at Silgutta, growing seven or eight feet high, and producing four or five heads. The gardeners, however, remove all except one; and allege, that the plant is not able to bring more to perfection. The same prejudice against the grain prevails here as elsewhere in this country. When I asked if they ever made it into flour, my question was considered as a joke, or perhaps as an absurdity, at which the people could not help laughing" (104). After his travels in southern India, Buchanan joined the British mission to Kathmandu from 1802 to 1803, and spent an additional two years on the Nepal frontier. Buchanan reported that maize was an important crop in the Jumla district of western Nepal and in the Kathmandu valley, just as Kirkpatrick had observed ten years earlier (105). Farther to the northwest in Kangra (now Himachal Pradesh), Kirkpatrick noted "although most parts of the country are high, the ascents from the plains below are easy, and the summits of the hills are level, so that a large proportion is fit for cultivation, and is well occupied. The poor live much on maize" (106). During the winter of 1811-1812, Buchanan surveyed the state of Bihar in northeast India, and found "the chief crops seem to be Maize, Orohor (Cajanus cajan), Til (Sesamum), and Cotton" (107). In Bengal in 1794, Henry Colebrooke noted that maize "is the most general produce of poor soils in hilly countries, and is also very generally cultivated in the western provinces." (108).

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Hodgson on Maize in the Himalayas

While he was with the British mission in Kathmandu from 1820 to 1842, and later in the city of Darjeeling just east of the Nepal border, Brian Houghton Hodgson studied ethnography and natural history of the Himalayan region. In Kathmandu, Hodgson noted a "preference for rices, maizes, sorghums, panicums or millets, buckwheat, and amaranth, on the part of the people" (109). During his ethnological studies of the Kiranti tribes of the remote hill regions of eastern Nepal and the Bodo and Dhimal tribes of northeastern India, Hodgson noted the use of shifting cultivation to prepare plots of chili peppers, maize, millets, and rice. Hodgson wrote that, compared to rice, "maize and even millet seem to contribute as much to the quantity of home-reared food" (110). In Darjeeling in 1848, Hodgson assisted botanist Joseph Hooker in preparing for his exploration of the Himalayas. In east Nepal Hooker observed "villages which are merely scattered collections of huts, are surrounded with fields of rice, buckwheat, and indian corn, which latter the natives were now storing in little granaries, mounted on four posts" (111).

Hooker Eats Popcorn in Bhutan

In central Sikkim, Hooker described "scanty crops of millet, maize and buckwheat" and houses hung with "cornucopias of indian corn" (112). In Lachen valley on the Tibet border, Hooker wrote a charming description of what appears to have been his first taste of popcorn "prepared by roasting the maize in an iron vessel, when it splits and turns partly inside out, exposing a snow white spongy mass of farina. It looks very handsome, and would make a beautiful dish for desert" (113). Hooker also reported maize in the mountains of the present-day State of Meghalaya just north of Bangladesh (114).

Maize in Thailand and Burma

To the east, and envoy from the king of France to Siam (present-day Thailand) in 1687-1688 reported that maize (bled de Turquie) was grown by the Siamese but only as a garden vegetable for home use. The whole ears were boiled or grilled without detaching the grains (115). In nearby Burma from 1783-1808, the Italian Vincentius Sangermano was missionary to descendants of the Portugeuse who had colonized Burma in the 16th century. In his studies of Burmese natural history, Sangermano reported that "Besides wheat, this empire is very fertile in maize, panicum, and a species of grain called piaun which is similar to the indian millet..." and also noted the cultivation of other American crop plants like chili pepper, cassava, guava, pineapple, and tobacco (116).

Moorcroft on Maize in Afghanistan

British exploration of northwestern India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan was restricted until the mid-19th century because these areas were not under British control or influence. From 1819 to 1825 British agents William Moorcroft and George Trebeck traveled throughout the western Himalayan regions of India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan to Bokhara in Uzbekistan in search of horse breeding stock and evidence of Russian influence. Moorcroft reported crops of maize in the State of Kashmir and in Pakistan, and just west of Kabul in Afghanistan he recorded "Indian corn is cultivated, and although it seldom exceeds three feet in height, yields a return of forty or sixty for one" (117). Following Moorcroft into the western Himalayas were other British travellers who reported maize, including Andrew Adams in Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh in 1849 (118) and A. D. Frederickson in Punjab (119).

Maize as the Food of Hill Tribes of South Asia

Contradictory statements appear in the 19th century botanical literature of British India on the prevalence of maize in South Asia. In his description of Indian plants, Flora Indica, published in 1832, William Roxburgh, director of the Botanical Garden at Calcutta, wrote that maize was "cultivated in various parts of India in gardens, and only as a delicacy; but not anywhere on the continent of India as far as I can learn, as an extensive crop" (120). In contrast, in 1868, B. H. Powell wrote that, in the hills of the Punjab region of northwest India, maize "is the favorite crop of the people, and for six months of the year forms their common staple of food" (121). In his 1893 Dictionary of the Economic Products of India, however, George Watt cited "the extremely local character of the information often supplied by Indian writers" and concluded "It is thus very probable that in Upper India [a region, comparatively speaking, unknown to Roxburgh] maize was much more extensively grown at the beginning of the century than might be inferred from Roxburgh's words". Watt stated further that maize "is a field crop upon which at least the bulk of the aboriginal tribes of the hilly tracts of India are very largely dependent for subsistence. Thus its diffusion over India, during the present century, might almost be said to be one of the most powerful arguments against the statement often made that the Natives of India are so very conservative that they can scarcely be induced to change their time-honoured customs" (122).

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