Cowpea ( Vigna unguiculata )

It is now accepted that cowpea originated in Africa since the wild types are found there. Ng and Marechal (1985) suggested that cowpea reached India more than 2000 years ago. These authors further suggested that two “cultigroups”, Biflora and Sesquipedalis evolved from Unguiculata in India and Southeast Asia, respectively, under intensive human selection. Thus, it seems India has been a center of cowpea diversity. Excavations at Harappa (Indus-Saraswati civilization; 3200–2000 BC) have revealed that cowpea was one of the grain legumes grown (Mehra, 2002). Charaka (c. 700 BC) documents cowpea with its Sanskrit name rajmash (not to be confused with ‘rajmah’, the name currently used for Phaseolus vulgaris ), and since then rajmash is the name that has been used for cowpea in all Ayurvedic texts (Vidyalankar, 1994). Other Sanskrit names are mahamash and chapala. The Jain literature (200 BC–300 AD) mentions cowpea as chavala (Jain, 1984). The Ain-i-Akbari (1590 AD) mentions the Persian word lobhia for cowpea as a grain legume sold in the markets (Blochmann, 1873).

Currently, the popular names for cowpea are lobia and chaura. In other languages, the names are chola or chorap (Gujarati), chavalya (Marathi), alasandulu (Telugu), alasande (Kannada), and karamani (Tamil). Lobia can be traced to Persian, and not to the Sanskrit word lobhya (meaning ‘alluring’) as Achaya (1998) has suggested. Chola, chorap, and chavalya can be traced to chavala in the Jain literature as also to chapala in Old Sanskrit. The origin of karamani in Tamil is not clear. Achaya (1998) suggests that the Kannada name alasande could be because cowpea was brought to the west coast of India from Alexandria. However, I would like to suggest that either the name alasande is derived from the Sanskrit alasaka meaning flatulence, or to Alasanda, a city founded by Alexander near Kabul. Maybe the cowpeas were marketed from Alasanda. Watt (1889) has given information on how cowpea was grown by farmers in the 19th century. In Northwest India, cowpea was mostly intercropped with cotton or pearl millet. In the Rohilkhand region of Uttar Pradesh, Watt (1889) recorded about 2000 ha of sole crop of cowpea. The cowpea grain was less valued than green and black grams as it is “difficult to digest”. In Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, cowpea was fairly important; about 16000 ha were under the crop. In Maharashtra and Gujarat, cowpea was not an important crop; it was grown mixed with sorghum or pearl millet. In the Burdwan region of West Bengal, two types called barbate and rambha were sown in September; the white seed was preferred. Bhavamisra mentions three kinds of cowpea, white, red, and black. He describes cowpea as tasty and nutritious, and capable of increasing milk production, and that the larger grain is better for food purposes (Chunekar and Pandey, 1998).