Sanskrit Pippali becomes Pepper in Europe and America

Sanskrit Pippali becomes Pepper in Europe and America


A Letter From Grandpa

By Niranjan Shah
My dear Nikita and Sanjna:

In my letter of October 23, we saw that Sanskrit Kardamum became European Carda-mom, which is considered Queen of Spices. We also saw that Sanskrit Narang became European Orange. Now we will see that Sanskrit Pippali became European Pepper. Cardamom is Queen of Spices, and Pepper is King of Spices. Pippali is Sanskrit for long Pepper and Marica is Sanskrit for black pepper.

Black peppers are native to India and is extensively cultivated there and elsewhere in tropical regions. The word pepper is ultimately derived from the Sanskrit Pippali, the word for long pepper via the Latin piper, which was used by the Romans to refer both, pepper and long pepper, as the Romans erroneously believed that both of these spices were derived from the same plant. The English word for pepper is derived from the Old English pipor. The Latin word is  also the source of German Pfeffer, French poivre, Dutch peper, and other similar forms.

Peppercorns are often categorized under a label describing their region or port of origin. Two well-known types come from India’s Malabar Coast: Malabar pepper and Tellicherry pepper. Tellicher-ry is a higher-grade pepper, made from the largest, ripest 10 percent of fruits from Malabar plants grown  on Mount Tellicherry. Sarawak pepper is produced in the Malaysian portion of Borneo, Lampung pepper on Indo-nesia’s island of Sumatra, White Muntok pepper is another Indonesian product, from Bangka Island. Vietnam peppers are white and black pepper and come from Ba Ria — Vung Tau, Chu Se and Binh Phuoc.

Pepper has been used as a spice in India since prehistoric times. Pepper is native to India and has been known to Indian cooking since more than years 2000 BC. J. Innes Miller notes that while pepper was grown in southern Thailand and in Malaysia, its most important source was India, particularly the Mala-bar Coast, in what is now the state of Kerala. Peppercorns were a much prized trade commodity, often referred to as “black gold” and used as a form of commodity money. The term “peppercorn rent” still exists today.

Black peppercorns were found stuffed in the nostrils  of Ramesses II, placed there as part of the mummifi- cation rituals shortly after  his death in 1213 BC. Peppers, indigo, linen and tamarind wood chips were exported then from India to Egypt.

The competition for this valuable spice has been fierce for over 2,000 years and spurred exploration and discovery of the New World  by Christopher Columbus.

During the Middle Ages when the trade was monopolized by the Portuguese and later the Dutch, pepper was  so valuable that it was  worth more than gold by weight, and individual peppercorns were widely accepted as  legal currency. Workers,  who handled pepper, were issued clothes without pockets or cuffs to prevent theft.

Today, pepper still accounts for one-fourth of the world’s spice trade. Tunisians lead in pepper consumption with half a pound per person per year, whereas Americans consume about one-quarter pound per year.

The history of the spice trade is, the history of pepper. Pepper has been moving westward from India for 4,000 years. It has been used in trading as an exchange medium like money and, at times, has been valued so highly that a single peppercorn dropped on the floor would be hunted like a lost pearl. In classical times tributes were paid in pepper, and both Attila, the Hun and Alaric I, the Visigoth demanded pepper as a substantial part of Rome’s ransom.

As of 2008, Vietnam is the world’s largest producer and exporter of pepper, producing 34 percent of the world’s Piper nigrum crop as of 2008. Other major producers include India (19 percent), Brazil (13 percent), Indonesia (9 percent), Malaysia (8 percent), Sri Lanka (6 percent), China (6 percent), and Thailand (4 percent).

— Grandpa’s blessing

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


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