Chickpea ( Cicer arietinum )


As mentioned earlier, it is claimed that chickpea originated in the Turkey-Syria region and then spread eastwards towards South Asia. According to van der Maesen (1987), there are more than 30 wild species (the number now stands at around 40), of which 13 perennial species are found in the Afghanistan-Pakistan-India region. An annual species, Cicer reticulatum, which is considered to be the progenitor of the cultivated chickpea, has not yet been found in the Afghanistan-Pakistan-India region; however, one cannot rule out the discovery, in the future, of the presence of C. reticulatum or another annual species “close” to the desi chickpea.


It is usually a matter of speculation that the presence of wild species of a domesticated species in a geographical area indicates the origin of the latter, as also its domestication. Accordingly, West Asia is claimed to be the region where chickpea was domesticated. Let us look at the documented history of chickpea in India. The Vedas (Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda, Atharvaveda) were compiled between c. 8000 and c. 1000 BC. A commentary on the Rigveda, called Brahadaranyaka (c. 5500 BC), mentions a grain called khalva. The Yajurveda (c. 7000 BC), which followed the Rigveda, specifies khalva as a pulse ( Sudarsan Sarma, 1989 ). There is a large gap in documentation since the time when the Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and Upanishads (c. 6000–1000 BC) were compiled. However, we find that Kautilya (321–296 BC) mentions kalaya as a postrainy season crop that is consumed in various ways including the roasted form (Shamasastry, 1961). We should realize that even today chickpea in roasted form is consumed much more commonly than any other pulse. The word kalaya has a striking resemblance to khalva, and very similar words are used today for chickpea in Karnataka ( kadale ) and Kerala ( kadala ). In the Buddhist literature (c. 400 BC), the word chanaka for chickpea gained popularity, and today most Indian languages, except Marathi, have words for chickpea derived from chanaka. There existed another old Sanskrit word for chickpea. It was harimanth ( hari = horse; manth = agitating/chewing); chickpea grain has been fed to horses since ancient times. Today, the word in Marathi for chickpea is harbhara, which closely resembles harimanth, and has a similar meaning.

According to van der Maesen (1987), the Greek word erebinthos was mentioned in the Iliad of Homer (c. 1000–800 BC), but Theophrastus (370–285 BC) specified it for chickpea. Alexander III of Macedon (336–323 BC), who invaded northern India in 326 BC, was a contemporary of Theophrastus. It is easily possible that the Sanskrit word harimanth was corrupted, during the Greek- Indian interaction, to the word erebinthos. The common Greek word for chickpea is krios, meaning ram’s head, indicating the resemblance of chickpea to a ram’s head. By the time Theophrastus specified the word erebinthos for chickpea, the desi chickpeas had become a very common crop in India. I would therefore like to question the claim made in literature that the domestication of chickpea occurred in West Asia.


Kautilya (321–296 BC) mentions the treatment of pulse seeds before sowing (Shamasastry, 1961), which consisted in exposing the seed to the dew for 3–5 nights, while allowing it to dry subsequently in the sun during the day. It is well known that such a treatment should loosen the seed coat and possibly kill the propagules of potential pathogens on or in the seed. Kashyapa (800 AD) states that pulses are grown without irrigation (Ayachit, 2002). Kashyapa also mentions two kinds of varieties – large-seeded and small-seeded – and that the large-seeded varieties are to be sown in lines. Small seeds are moistened and broadcast before sowing. During the Sultanic period ( 1206–1555 AD ) in India’s history, seeds were soaked for 24 hours in warm water before sowing (Naqvi, 1984). This procedure was also recorded by a Mughal Prince Dara Shikoh (c. 1650) to produce ‘bigger’ seeds at harvest ( Razia Akbar, 2000 ). Watt (1889) recorded large (reddish or black), small (light brown), and white ( “cabuli” ) seeds in northern India and Pakistan; the “cabuli” were rare. We find the earliest mention of kabuli chickpea in Ain-i-Akbari, in c. 1590 AD (Blochmann, 1873). Traders coined the word desi to describe non-white seed varieties apparently only in the 20th century.

In the Kashyapiyakrishisukti, Kashyapa (800 AD) clearly mentions interculture operations in the pulses of postrainy season (Ayachit, 2002). According to Kashyapa, weeding should be done about one month after sowing, and, interestingly, manure (obviously cow dung manure) should be mixed with the soil near plant roots. Leaf senescence and pods would be seen three months after sowing. Maturity of seeds depends on varieties and the method of interculture. Kashyapa clearly indicates varietal adaptation; that is what we describe today as genotype × environment interaction.

During Alauddin Khilji’s time (1296–1316 AD), an interesting crop rotation was followed in northern India (Lal, 1980) – black gram and moth bean in the rainy season, followed by wheat or barley in the postrainy season. The land was then left fallow in the rainy season, but followed by chickpea in the postrainy season. This is a good example of a cereal-legume crop rotation.

Buchanan (1807) recorded (i) considerable chickpea crop mixed with safflower in the Andhra Pradesh-Karnataka border areas, and (ii) chickpea crop followed by a harvest of rice or finger millet. Buchanan also mentions that chickpea grows well on soils endowed with residual moisture, a fact that is common knowledge today.

Watt (1889) recorded sole as well as mixed chickpea (with wheat or barley), or chickpea on fallow lands in Uttar Pradesh, India. Some farmers from Maharashtra (India) and from Pakistan perceived that chickpea enriches the soil and also “kills” weeds. To reduce the possibility of excessive vegetative growth, cattle were allowed to graze on plants in Pakistan, while mechanical ‘detopping’ was done in Uttar Pradesh for the same purpose. Watt also recorded a perception of Pakistani farmers, which holds true even today, that lightning and thundershowers injure chickpea, a clear reference to the Ascochyta blight epidemic that is favored by these weather conditions.

Yields and markets

Unfortunately, ancient documents give very little information on yields per unit area.
This is due to many reasons, such as

(i) the measurement of land varied in different periods and in different regions;
(ii) weight measurements were rarely done;
(iii) volumetric measurements, such as number of bags per unit area, were common, but lacked uniformity; and
(iv) commercial commodity farming was rarely the goal; the produce was consumed by the farming families and fed
      to the domestic animals, and only the surplus was marketed.

In addition to these reasons, a millennium of political turmoil in India, after 900 AD, discouraged farmers from making any effort to increase the productivity of land. It is only after the British gained political control of the Indian subcontinent, and aimed at exploiting the resources of the region to strengthen the empire, that we begin to see definite data on yields. Watt (1889) recorded the following information:

1. Uttar Pradesh: Non-irrigated, 460–750 kg ha-1 (sole), 550–830 kg ha-1 (mixed);
    Irrigated, 1100 kg ha-1 (sole), 1300 kg ha-1 (mixed)
2. Central India: 1000 kg ha-1 3. Gujarat: 1120 kg ha-1 4. Maharashtra: 740 kg ha-1

It is interesting to note that in Uttar Pradesh, yields of chickpea from a mixed crop were higher than the sole crop yields. One reason could be that chickpea used to be mixed usually with a cereal crop such as wheat that had received manure, which in turn could have benefited chickpea. On the other hand, yields of the sole crop were low because these were rarely manured. The Ain-i-Akbari, which was written around 1590 AD, gives interesting and useful information on market prices of chickpea (Blochmann, 1873). The kabuli chickpea cost twice as much as the desi, and it was 33% more costly than wheat. The kabuli chickpea and the green gram dhal were sold at the same price, thereby showing a high demand for the green gram dhal. Chickpea flour, because of value addition, was sold at par with wheat. I have not given actual prices, since the units of both weight and money were very different in those times.


We find the same descriptions for all pulses. These were stored in large pots, their borders and inner walls were smeared with oil, and ash was spread all around the pots ( Risala-Dar-Falahat c. 1400 AD; Majumdar, 1984). Apparently, ash and oil were commonly used by the Romans ( Orlob, 1973), and the technique must have spread to India through West Asia, because I have so far not come across the use of oil and ash to protect stored grain in any of the ancient Indian texts. During the Sultanic period (1206–1555 AD), grain was stored by mixing with pounded bones of elephants and also by placing leaves of pomegranate and Lactuca sp. with the grain, in a ratio of 1 part leaves to 100 parts grain (Naqvi, 1984). Again, a point out that in the practice of placing leaves (e.g., neem ) so far in any of the ancient Indian texts.


Chickpea serves as food in many ways. The cooked dhal, called soopah ( soup ) in Sanskrit, constituted a common food item. We find it mentioned by Charaka (c. 700 BC), who states that chickpea soup has good food value and that it helps in the recovery from spleen and liver disorders (Vidyalankar, 1994). Susruta (400 BC) mentions the cooking of chickpea in various forms: leaves (as vegetable), green seeds, dry whole seed, and flour (Krishnamurthy, 1991). A common food since the time of the Rigveda (c. 8000 BC) was the ‘instant’ food sattoo, made by preparing flour from roasted chickpea and barley or wheat, and mixing it in milk or water with some cane jaggery. Roasted chickpea enabled hungry people to survive under adverse conditions such as wars (Khan, 1982). The collection of acids from chickpea leaves for medicinal use (digestion; cooling effect) was mentioned by Vagbhatta II around 800 AD ( Gode, 1961). The practice of collecting acids from leaves is unique to the Indian subcontinent.


As pointed out before, chickpea grain has been fed to horses since ancient times. Likewise, seed hulls were fed to cattle, a practice that continues to this day. Elephants were also given chickpea grain (Gode, 1961). The Manasollasa (1131 AD) mentions chickpea flour as fish feed, and the grain as feed for buffaloes (used in fights) and boars (Gode, 1961; Sadhale and Nene, 2005).