Tracing Origins Of Mysore Sandal Soap Back To World War I And Its Suez Canal Connection

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The Ever Given ship stuck at the Suez canal is not the first one with a distinct Indian connection. In 1915, during the peak of World War I, an unexpected technical trade route lockdown caused the accidental invention of Mysore Sandalwood soap. The Mysore king learned that 5000 tons of tree logs from his erstwhile State of Mysore was waiting to be transported and had to be put to use quickly or risk losing them forever chanced upon the most ingenious invention.

The origin of the Mysore Sandal Soap can be traced all the way back to 1916, in the middle of World War I. The long-drawn-out first world war had plagued a vast majority of Britain’s resources along with the allied powers, including several key access points to send supplies and reinforcement required to keep up the fight in Europe.

It was at this crucial juncture that Egypt’s Suez Canal, which was then controlled and operated by the British Empire was seemingly under threat by the Ottoman Turks and its ally Germany.

The Ottoman-German alliance came into effect on August 2, 1914, shortly after the outbreak of World War I. It is noteworthy to mention that the treaty was created as part of a joint-cooperative effort to strengthen and modernise the failing Ottoman military, as well as provide Germany safe passage into neighbouring British colonies in Africa and Asia, which was predominantly controlled by the British and French empires (both of which were part of the allied powers fighting Germany).

The Suez Canal Connection

The British Empire which was aware of the rather complicated position Egypt was in at the time, knew that though the Ottoman Empire was formally a part of the British protectorate, it was not too long until the Turks would revolt. 

When news spread that the Ottomans planned to invade Egypt, and had already begun to build up a strong 20,000-men force under the command of the Fourth Turkish Army, the imperial British army, in order to maintain security and look after British interests in the region was forced to defend the strategically vital Suez Canal, which was important for trade and supplies.

The British troops had reportedly stationed 70,000 men in Egypt in January 1915, many of these were in units of the Indian Army, placed under Commander-in-Chief Major-General Sir John Maxwell.

British formations involved at this time included:

  • East Lancashire Division TF (later redesignated 42nd (East Lancashire) Division)
  • 10th Indian Division
  • 11th Indian Division
  • Indian Imperial Service Cavalry Brigade
  • Bikaner Camel Corps
  • Indian and Egyptian artillery

The Maharaja of Mysore, Nalwadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar, who was caught between all of Europe’s furore soon discovered that the war had effectively blocked the export of sandalwood from Mysore to major western countries – a major revenue for his kingdom during those days. The Maharaja was then forced to put his unused sandalwood reserves (of which he was the largest exporter in the world) to better use or risk losing the vast reserve to the war and face a humongous loss. It was then that he chanced upon unused sandalwood reserves and ordered the extraction of oil from the aromatic wood.

Two years later, India’s first indigenous soap was ready for sale. The key selling point was that during those days, soaps were made from animal fat or tallow and were only available for purchase in the US and Europe, neither of those places was ready to share the soap-making process with Indians. 

Wodeyur Maharaja then called on Sosale Garalapuri Sastry, who is nicknamed the ‘Soap Sastry’ – one of India’s pioneering industrial chemists at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, travelled to the US to learn how to make soaps and upon his return to Mysuru, the government installed the first soap factory at KR Circle. The soap quickly became a global sensation as it was one of the first entirely plant-based soaps and enjoyed the unique distinction of being the only soap in the world made from 100% pure sandalwood oil. It brought a touch of accessible luxury that now anybody could afford.

Soap and Sustainability

KDSL (Karnataka Soaps and Detergent Limited) a state-owned enterprise that now owns the Mysore Sandal Soap manufactures along with the premium soap, 58 other soap and detergent variants. As demand keeps increasing, so is the need for it to be established as an authentic brand. It is currently the only Indian soap with a GI (Geographical Indicator) tag. This tag ensures that no one else anywhere in the world can make and market soap as a Mysore Sandalwood soap.

Ever Given Update: 

Tugboat drivers successfully moved the rear-end of the 1,312-foot-long container 2 degrees (about 100 feet) freeing its rudder. Suez Canal Authority (SCA) announced that the ship’s bow remained firmly planted in the canal’s bank and that the extraction operation still faced significant hurdles. Engineers are hopeful that the 18-inch water level rise due to last night’s full moon and high spring tide, rescue efforts on Monday will be able to help free the ship.

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