Recently, on one of my aimless virtual rambles, I found myself re-reading commentaries on the significance of a pivotal botanical text—the Hortus Malabaricus. It struck me that when I had first read these articles around two decades ago, I had followed the plot only in a superficial way because I had believed that they were making a point about Dutch contributions to botanical classifications and nothing more. However, when I read the commentaries again recently, I had a ‘light bulb’ moment. I realised that the Hortus could be understood as a retelling of an earlier, ecologically embedded knowledge of plants. In other words, the Hortus was not a story of how the Dutch discovered various plants of the Malabar region and their uses, but rather, it was a story of how the Dutch discovered the traditional botanical knowledge of the Ezhava community of the Malabar region. In some ways, the most intriguing part of the Hortus tale is that its sequel unfolded three centuries later!
But let me begin at the beginning:
The Hortus Malabaricus in its original form is a weighty tome of 12 volumes, which were all written in Latin and published between the years 1678—1693. In total, it contained copious multisensorial descriptions of 780 plants of the Malabar region, including the localities and habitats in which they were found, the smell and taste of various botanical parts, and the familial resemblances between different species. The text was accompanied by 794 meticulous illustrations that were labelled in Malayalam, Arabic, Roman, and Devanagiri scripts. (Some of the Malayalam names are still in use. That apart, the drawings were so true to life that three centuries later, scholars could identify the genus based on the illustrations alone.) It also documented the medicinal value and use of over 600 of these species.
This landmark volume was compiled by the Dutch governor of the Cochin region at that time, one Hendrik van Rheede dot Drakenstein. Van Rheede in particular, and the Dutch in general, were interested in competing with other European colonists to break the Arab monopoly over trade in medicinal and other economically useful plants of Asia. The Europeans were mostly unsuccessful in deciphering the botany of a region that was completely different from their own terrain, with two notable exceptions: Garcia da Orta who was the Portuguese author of a text on ethnomedicine, the Colóquios dos simples e drogas da India (published in 1563), and our protagonist, van Rheede. It appears that the latter was able to move past the cultural barrier to gaining botanical knowledge by developing a deep personal rapport with Indian experts on the Malabar region: an eminent physician from the Ezhava caste named Itty Achuden was the main contributor. He hailed from the Collet vaidya lineage of Carappuram (a place 25 km south of Cochin), and it was his ecologically embedded, practical knowledge that shaped the Hortus. Three Brahmin Ayurvedic practitioners Ranga Bhat, Vinayaka Pandit, and Appu Bhat also assisted van Rheede, but their understanding was largely textual and abstract.
Overall, it is estimated that the compilation of the Hortus involved the labours of 200-odd people, including Ezhava plant collectors, a select group of Indian physicians who ‘peer reviewed’ the manuscript, the interpreters of the Dutch East India Company, another select group of European botanists who further validated the species described. The collecting expeditions were supported by the Raja of Cochin and the Zamorin of Calicut and two wealthy Dutch patronesses, who financed the publishing costs but are merely referred to in the Hortus as ‘the widow of John van Someren, the heir of John van Dyck, Henry, and the widow of Theodore Broom’.
What is striking about this entire process is the deep regard that van Rheede had for his Indian collaborators’ knowledge. He acknowledges their role clearly in the frontis-piece of the Hortus, in a historical period during which racism and Eurocentrism were par for the course. For example, a little-known fact is that Carolus Linnaeus, who is often dubbed ‘the father of modern taxonomy’, assiduously studied the Hortus in 1740 and extended the Ezhava taxonomic principles to describe over 200 new species.
Therefore, my newfound understanding was that if we pay careful attention to how certain texts and historical figures come to be lauded and remembered as authoritative sources of knowledge, in contrast to those who are ignored or rejected, we can also learn about the politics of science in that period, i.e. what counted as ‘real’ knowledge and who was valorised as its authors.
However, the story does not end here:
In 2003, the Hortus Malabaricus became much more accessible to botanists around the world when a rigorous English translation was published by an Indian botanist, Professor K. S. Manilal, who was also from the Malabar region (the modern state of Kerala). He later produced a Malayalam edition too.
Manilal’s dedication to the task surpasses even van Rheede’s because it took him several decades of gruelling work and it was completed with far less support. He not only faithfully translated over a thousand pages of 17th century Latin into English, but also added his own commentaries on the botanical descriptions in each volume. In an interesting inversion, Manilal’s translation includes an appendix of plant names in Dutch. But perhaps his crowning achievement was to collect and reassemble a herbarium of almost all the species mentioned in the Hortus with help of one of his students and co-authors, C. R. Suresh (since van Rheede’s original collection has disappeared). This mammoth project was supported by the University Grants Commission and the Smithsonian Institution.
By 1988, these efforts enabled Manilal to co-author the book An interpretation of van Rheede’s Hortus Malabaricus, which is considered a classic by the International Association of Plant Taxonomists, as well as a fascinating Malayalam commentary in 1996, titled A study on the role of Itty Achuden in the compilation of Hortus Malabaricus. Understandably, the figure of Itty Achuden seems to have haunted Manilal over the decades that he engaged with the Hortus—he took extraordinary pains to gather material on this iconic but mysterious figure. But sadly, he found that there seemed to be neither other texts authored by Itty Achuden himself nor any trace of texts that might have informed the Collet vaidya lineage (since they were literate, hereditary physicians).
Manilal generously transferred the copyright to his path-breaking English translation to the University of Kerala for free in 2003 (followed by the copyright to the Malayalam edition in 2008). However, the institution proceeded to organise a formal book release without even inviting the author. Fortunately, others were considerably more appreciative: over the span of his career, Manilal was awarded the Vishwambhar Puri medal by the Indian Botanical Society, Y.D. Tyagi gold medal by the Indian Association of Angiosperm Taxonomy, E. K. Janaki Ammal National Award for Taxonomy, the Padma Shri and the (Dutch) Order of the Orange-Nassau. But the most appropriate recognition perhaps is that other botanists have named several species of plants after him, such as Lindernia manilaliana. Incidentally, a ‘liana’ is a woody climber!
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Manilal, K. S. 2012. Medicinal plants first described in Hortus Malabaricus, the first Indian regional flora published in 1678 and its relevance to the people of India today. In: Multidisciplinary approaches in angiosperm systematics (eds. Maiti, G. and Mukherjee, S. K.). Volume 2. Pp 558–565. Kalyani, India: Publication Cell, University of Kalyani.
Mohan Ram, Y. S. 2005. On the English edition of van Rheede’s Hortus Malabaricus by K. S. Manilal (2003). Current Science 89(10): 1672–1680.
Spudich, A. 2008. Such treasure & rich merchandize. In: Exhibition catalogue. Pp 72. Bangalore: National Centre for Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.