History of Malaysian Telugus: Deccan’s Pride

There are almost 500,000 Telugus in Malaysia. Another 1 million in the United States, around 300,000 in Myanmar, 500,000 in the Gulf countries, 150,000 in Canada, 130,440 in Europe, 120,000 in Fiji, 100,000 in Singapore, 100,000 in Australia, 80,000 in South Africa and 50,000 in Mauritius. These make up the Telugu diaspora – people of Telugu origin who have migrated from the state of Andhra Pradesh in India to other countries far and wide, across the globe. The origin of the Telugu diaspora, as in the case of any other race that has settled down in large numbers outside their homeland, can be traced to many hundreds of years before the 20th century. Andhra Pradesh is a south eastern state of India with the second longest coastal line – about 960 kilometres stretching from Ichchapuram of Srikakulam district to Sullurpeta of Nellore district. It has always had huge seafaring communities, and by the 18th century, boasted a number of thriving seaports, namely the Visakhapatnam Port and the Kakinada Port. Export of agriculture produce, textile (such as cloth, chintz and palampores) and metal crafts, fisheries and more importantly shipbuilding activities were some of the economics activities anchored by these and other smaller ports along the coastal stretch from late 17th century through 19th century. The sea line continued presenting huge economic potential to the prosperous eastern state, even as forces of colonialization started to strengthen throughout India in the mid 18th century. The ports and the rich trading ecosystems that were developed around them continued serving as gateways for international trade with England and the rest of Europe. They enabled a new range of commodity crops such as wheat, sugar, cotton and indigo to be exported as raw materials to these countries where demand was escalating as industrialization intensified. Before the separation of Telangana, the interiors of Andhra Pradesh spanned the entire Rayalaseema region, covering the plains of the Deccan plateau and lined by the Eastern Ghats mountain ranges with the Godavari and Krishna rivers cutting across towards the Bay of Bengal. Andhra Pradesh boasted thousands of acres of fertile land that saw rich farming communities producing some of the most treasured staples at that time, namely rice, sorghum, millet, sugar cane, pulses, castor, spices, cotton and groundnuts. Throughout the 18th and 19th century, agriculture formed the backbone of the Andhra state, fuelling a large number of post harvest processing activities operated by households and villages, namely the production of sugar, jaggery, cotton, silk, tobacco, textile and edible oils.
Do you know: jaggery (or ‘bellam’ in Telugu) is the primary sweetener used liberally in both sweet and savoury dishes in Andhra and neighbouring states before the introduction of white sugar. Jaggery was to Telugus what molasses was to Western communities. Jaggery is made from fermented sugar cane water, and is rich in iron, magnesium, potassium, calcium, selenium, manganese and zinc. The production of jaggery uses advanced production methods that combine complex harvesting, boiling, filtration and fermentation techniques developed over centuries and deployed by skilled men to yield one of the most treasured ingredient for India’s rich cuisine. Jaggery features prominently not just in daily Indian fare such as sambar, pickles, vegetable stews, sweets and a wide range of fillings for rice-based recipes such as idiapom (steamed rice noodles) or pitti (steamed rice flour), it is also a key ingredient in traditional medicinal preparations, and is still used widely for Ayurveda based prescriptions.
As in the case of any prosperous agriculture communities, the agriculture surpluses continued to fuel the growth of the population, especially on the coastal plains and Rayalaseema in the 17th and 18th century. The natural growth of population saw gradual expansion in agricultural lands and overall produce from the interiors. At its peak, areas such as Visakhapatnam, Krishna and Telangana saw the establishment of bigger towns such as Visakhapatnam, Vijayawada and Hyderabad, with huge market exchanges for inflow and outflow of agriculture, minerals and textile products.   This article was first published here.

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