The history of cardamom goes back into antiquity; it was one of the spices for which India, and especially Malabar were famed. Cardamom in those days, was gathered from the plants growing wild in the rain forest, perhaps by the tribal inhabitants. It was brought down to the trading towns, in the plains on the eastern side of the Ghats, in what is now Tamil Nadu, and to the great inland emporiums of ancient Kerala. These centers of trade in Kerala were situated upon the largest rivers coming up from the coast and its network of backwaters; they usually found a place at the eastern extremity of the rivers’ navigable waters, just before they climbed into the forested hills, where no trading boats could go. The Pottamkulam family, which owns this plantation, has its roots in just such a merchant town called Aruvithura (now commonly known as Erattupetta) which was the premier trading center for pepper, ginger, and other hill-produce.
Even in those days, the Cardamom Hills were already being exploited of cardamom and other exotic forest produce, but not in the way it is now. The growers (or more correctly, ‘gatherers’) were from the western hinterland of Tamil Nadu, from the villages and towns immediately at the foot of the ghats. The Tamil cultivators would ascend the ghats at the beginning of the picking season – probably sometime in August or September, bringing workers and provisions with them. Each one would stake out a section of forest for himself, in which he would harvest cardamom from the plants growing wild there. Initially no one had permanent claim to any section of forest — the first person to arrive could claim for himself wherever he wanted, as much as he could hold with the number of workers he had at his command.
Over time, the claims became more permanent, and almost tantamount to ownership. Only then did people begin to actually ‘grow’ cardamom. Even then, it was initially a matter of dividing a few cardamom clumps, and planting out the suckers to get a few more new plants for the following years. The cultivators would leave at the end of the picking season — usually in November or early December, leaving the plants to themselves till they came back in the next season. The legacy of these beginnings is still evident in the customs of land ownership and demarcation of cardamom lands — in traditional cardamom lands, there is no crime called trespassing: one can walk anywhere one pleases, including on any other person’s land, just as in the days when it was all forest. But of course, picking from someone else’s plants is a strict no-no, as it must have been also in those days!