The Secrets of Malabar

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    It is amazing that one of the most exhaustive studies on the flora of the Western Ghats and Malabar was done by the Dutch Governor of Malabar, Hendrik Adriaan van Rheede over 300 years ago. Compiled in a mammoth 12 volume book called Hortus Malabaricus, it remains the only study of its kind till date. The book, which took nearly 25 years to compile and was published in Amsterdam over a span of 15 years between 1678 CE and 1693 CE, caused quite a stir in the scientific circles of Europe. It was seen as the source code of the botanical bounty of the verdant hills of the Western Ghats that had attracted trading ships from across the world for its spices and pepper for nearly 2000 years.

    What is amazing is that Rheede, the man who translate old palm leaf manuscripts preserved through generations, of the medicinal herbs in the Malabar region, had never really studied botany. Hendrik Adriaan van Rheede was born to a noble family on 13th April 1636 CE in Amsterdam. At the age of 20 he joined the Dutch East India Company and during a long stint there he travelled extensively. He was fascinated by the exotic flora that he saw at the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa), Batavia and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). This was quite different from what he had come across at home in the Netherlands.

    Rheede was part of the team led by then governor Admiral Van Ryklof Goens that captured the Portuguese fort, St. Thomas in Kollam in Kerala which was the first step in establishing the Dutch base in Malabar by 1661 CE. Dutch East India Company expanded their influence on the Malabar Coast between 1661 CE and 1795 CE.

    Ironically the book Hortus Malabaricus, for which Rheede is today remembered, was the result of a political dispute between Hendrik Adriaan van Rheede and General Ryklof van Goens, on where they should set up the Dutch colony’s capital. Rheede was keen that it should be in Malabar. Van Goens wanted it at Colombo. He did not want Malabar to get any prominence and tried his best to block all the efforts of Van Rheede.

    To make his point, Rheede wanted to prove Malabar's superiority in terms of the availability of valuable spices, cotton and timber and part of this was to iterate how the valuable drugs purchased in the markets of European cities were made from the medicinal plants that originated in Malabar. Rheedes’ close friendship with the King of Cochin, Veera Kerala Varma and the ruling Zamorin of Calicut ensured that he got their support and with it access to the best experts of local medicine.

    Hortus Malabaricus, Latin for ‘the Garden of Malabar’, listed 740 plants found in Malabar in the 17th century CE including 67 members of the bean family, 20 types of grasses including three bamboo and others. The book was written in Latin, the official language for scientific work in Europe but the descriptions of plants comprising their habit, foliage, flowers, fruits, colour, smell, taste and practical value appear inHortus Malabaricus under their Malayalam names as well. The plates bearing illustrations have been inscribed in Roman, Malayalam and Arabic scripts. Konkani names are given in Devanagari script.

    Hendrik Rheede was obsessed with getting the rich plant diversity of Malabar documented as accurately as possible to meet the standards of the European experts. It took him only two years to reject the methodologies in vogue for plant description at that time. Instead he represented and formed his own method of classification for the division of the plant kingdom.

    For this mammoth exercise of documenting the plants of one of the richest botanical areas of the world, Hendrik Rheede employed over 200 knowledgeable local collectors to bring to him whole plants or their twigs bearing flowers, fruits and seeds in different seasons. A board of 15–16 expert physicians and botanists from various parts of Malabar was engaged to examine the materials prepared and present its opinion about the curative properties of the plants collected.

    Hortus Malabaricus, was translated to English by Indian botanist Manilal from Kerala University who took up the task of tracking down the plants mentioned in the text. He spent 35 years on the project and in 2003, marking the 325th anniversary of Hortus Malabaricus; the University of Kerala agreed to publish all the 12 volumes of the English edition of Hortus Malabaricus.

    In the translation of the Hortus Malabaricus by Manilal, there are also details of how Rheede progressed in his documentation project. Governor General Van Rheede employed knowledgeable Brahmins like, Ranga Bhatt, Vinayaka Bhatt and Appu Bhatt but the contribution of Itty Achuden a local vaidya (physician) who belonged to Ezhava (a community in Kerala) community was the most significant, according to the author. Itty Achuden and his forefathers were all vaidyas or traditional doctors - highly esteemed medical practitioners. The collection of palm leaf manuscripts they owned contained hundreds of years of accumulated medico-botanical knowledge which was passed down from generation to generation.

    The Hortus Malabaricus, was the first organised work to take this oral tradition and codify it. It describes plants with multiple uses as well as with medicinal properties. It includes modes of preparation and application, based on pre-Ayurvedic knowledge of the ancient, renowned, hereditary physicians of Kerala. The final draft was translated into Portuguese by the official interpreters of the Dutch East India Company.

    The Hortus Malabaricus went on to influence many historical and botanical texts and is considered a turning point of sorts in the way plants were studied. As a result of this 12 volume work, the Dutch also established the center of Tropical Botany in Holland. The Hortus Botanicus of Leiden is the oldest botanical garden of the Netherlands and in 1736 CE it was expanded by Adriaan van Royen (Dutch botanist) and Carl Linnaeus (Swedish botanist) to include the study of oriental Botany.

    Hendrik Adriaan van Rheede was the Commander of the Dutch Malabar region from 1670 CE to 1677 CE after which he returned to Amsterdam and continued his work on Hortus Malabaricus. Rheede returned to India in 1684 CE, as he was appointed by Dutch East India Company’s council to combat corruption in Cape Colony (South Africa), Ceylon and Dutch India. On 15th December 1691 CE, on a voyage to Surat, he died at sea, off the coast of Bombay. Some authors suggest that he was already sick while others suggest that he was poisoned by the employees of the Dutch East India Company. He was buried in Surat on 3rd January 1692 CE, in a very elaborate mausoleum in the Dutch cemetery there.

    Rheedes’ contribution to the study of Indian botany has been great. It is amazing that he is remembered for his passion and fervor for plants - and not the work he did as a representative of the Dutch Government in Malabar.

    Cover Image: Wikimedia Commons

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