Sugar is a sweet gift of India to the world


Niranjan Shah, a civil engineer, who pioneered famous high-rise buildings in Baroda, is a broadcaster in India and the USA and a prolific writer. Under “A Letter from Grandpa.” he has been writing since 2002 on India’s historical, philosophical, and literary heritage. He can be reached at  

By Niranjan Shah
My dear Nikita and Sanjna:

Dr. A.L. Basham, professor of history at various universities in England and Australia, wrote in Wonder That Was India: “As well as her special gifts to Asia, India has conferred many practical blessings on the world at large; notably rice, cotton, the sugar- cane, many spices, the domestic fowl, the game of chess, and most important  of  all, the decimal system of numeral notation.” William Harten Gilbert wrote in Peoples of India: “In the history of human culture the contribution of the Indian people in all fields has been of the greatest importance. From India we are said to have derived domestic poultry, shellac, lemons, cotton, jute, rice, sugar, indigo, the buffalo, cinnamon, ginger, pepper, sugar-cane, the games of chess, Pachisi, Polo, the Zero concept, the decimal system, the basis of certain philological concepts, a wealth of fables with moral import, an astonishing variety of artistic products, and innumerable ideas in  philosophy and religion   such    as asceticism and monasticism.”

Sugarcane is one  of the major crops of India. Ikshu, the term for sugarcane, is found in the Atharva Veda, Vajasaneyi Samhita, Maitriyani Samhita and Taittriya Samhita. It is mentioned in Grhya Sutra of Ashwalayana also. It has been suggested that the celebrated family of  Ikshvakus got its name from its having an extensive sugarcane plantation. Even today sugarcane is being used in certain Vedic ceremonies all around the country of India. The English word “sugar” originates from the Arabic and Persian word shakar. Arabian and Persian word shakar, itself was    derived from Sanskrit Sharkara. It  came  to English by way of French, Spanish and/or Italian, which derived their word for  sugar   from the Arabic and Persian shakar. The  Portuguese word açúcar, the Spanish word azúcar, the Italian word  zucchero, the    Old French word zuchre and the contemporary French word sucre   all    are  from original Sanskrit word Sharkara.

Indians were the first people to discover how to crystallize sugar. John F. Robyt locates the two most probable origins of sugar cultivation as North East India or the South Pacific, which provide evidence of sugarcane cultivation as early as 10,000 BC and 6,000 BC respectively. Further archaeological evidence associates sugar with the Indus valley. Crystallized sugar was reported 5,000 years ago in India. In 510 BC  the Emperor Darius of Persia invaded India where he found “the reed which gives honey without bees.” Around the eighth century A.D., Arabs introduced sugar to the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia, Egypt, North Africa, and Spain. By the 10th century there  was no village in Mesopotamia that did not grow sugarcane. It was among the early crops brought to the Americas by the Portuguese. At this stage sugar was still a luxury and vast profits were made to the extent that sugar was called “white gold.” However, sugar remained relatively  unimportant until the Indians discovered  methods   of  turning    sugarcane juice into granulated crystals   that  were easier to store and to transport.

Indian sailors, consumers of clarified butter and sugar, carried sugar by various trade routes. Traveling Buddhist monks brought sugar crystalization methods to China. During the reign of Harsha  in North India, Indian envoys in Tang China taught sugarcane cultivation methods after Emperor Taizong of Tang (626-649) made his interest in sugar known, and China soon established its first sugarcane cultivation in the 7th century.

Chinese documents confirm at least two missions to India, initiated in 647 CE, for obtaining technology for sugar-refining. In South Asia, the Middle East and China, sugar became a staple of cooking and desserts. Sugar beet was first identified as a source of sugar in 1747. The European Union, Brazil and India are the top three producers and together account for some 40 percent of the annual production. However most sugar is consumed within the country of production and only approximately 25 percent is traded internationally.

— Grandpa’s blessing

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