325-year-old Dutch work on Kerala's plant wealth revived
By Ranjit Devraj
325 years after its publication in Amsterdam, the 'Hortus Malabaricus' (Garden of Malabar), a treatise on the medicinal plants of southern Kerala state, has been translated from old Latin into English. The translation unlocks a wealth of information for historians, botanists and medical researchers. But will it also help the biopirates?
The original author of the 12-volume Hortus Malabaricus (Garden of Malabar), Hendrik Adriaan Van Rheede, the Dutch governor of the former princely state of Cochin between 1670 and 1677, would have approved of the effort made by Kerala University in bringing out an English version after defying translation for centuries.
''Several attempts were made to bring out Dutch and English translations of the Hortus Malabaricus, but all of them failed to such an extent that there is a superstition surrounding it -- we have just broken that superstition,'' Dr B Ekbal, vice chancellor of Kerala University said in an interview soon after its much-awaited release for general sale this year.
Rheede's feat was almost superhuman considering he brought out the 12 finely illustrated volumes between 1678 and 1703 in Latin, the accepted language for scientific work in Europe at that time, and also employed three other scripts -- the local Malayalam, Arabic, Sanskrit. Plant names appeared in the Portuguese and Flemish languages as well.
Ekbal, a well-known neurosurgeon and health activist, said that apart from its obvious botanical and medical importance, Hortus Malabaricus throws light on the intense rivalry between European maritime powers on the coast of Malabar and in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and on the sociocultural history of these regions.
The volumes are replete with copious introductions, forewords, dedications, references and certificates given by or for people ranging from Rheede himself to the native physicians he relied on. They contain much information about the sociocultural conditions of the time in Kerala as well as the rest of India.
''None of this could be properly studied, analysed or appreciated by contemporary scholars because the text was in old Latin and so the vast fund of information contained in the several volumes remained inaccessible,'' Ekbal said.
The Hortus Malabaricus is many things to many people depending on their background and interest.
Prof K S Manilal, who laboured 30 years to bring out the English version complete with annotations and modern botanical nomenclature, said the Hortus Malabaricus was important to people of Kerala because it represented the earliest example of printing in the Malayalam language, now spoken by at least 30 million literate people.
For botanists, the work, which has detailed descriptions and illustrations of 780 rare plant species, represents a landmark in plant science and was extensively referred to 75 years later by Carl Linnaeus, the Swede who pioneered plant classification and is considered the father of modern botany. Hortus Malabaricus is not only historical, but actually created history.
According to Manilal, the book decided the political fortunes of Malabar and Ceylon and was in fact the product of political rivalry between Van Rheede and the formidable Gen Ryklof van Goens, who was bent on establishing the Dutch colonial capital at Colombo rather than Cochin.
''Van Rheede's main purpose in producing the volumes was to prove Malabar's superiority in terms of ready supply of valuable spices, cotton, timber and the availability of essential drugs for Dutch officers and their families in the East Indies,'' Manilal said.
Van Rheede was able to show that many valuable drugs purchased in European cities, including those used for the treatment of Dutch officers in the Indies, were actually made from medicinal plants originating in Malabar and exported through Arabian and other trade routes.
It worked. The Dutch government approved the opinion of Van Rheede over that of his superior while his publication went on to create a stir in the scientific and political circles of Europe, further stimulating the rivalry for colonies in India.
But the Dutch, who had captured Cochin from the Portuguese in 1663 after years of coastal warfare, lost it to the British in 1795. They later withdrew forever to the East Indies, leaving behind in what became modern Kerala and Sri Lanka, a string of ruined fortifications and, of course, the Hortus Malabaricus.
Manilal says the treatise would be invaluable to nature conservationists trying to trace the migration, disappearance and possible extinction of many useful plants from their original habitats in the Western Ghats of peninsula India, a zone recognised as one of the world's biodiversity hotspots.
In today's world, where the value of natural drugs is gaining fresh recognition but is bedevilled by such issues as intellectual property rights and biological patent laws, Van Rheede's work and its English translation has a new and special relevance.
In recent times, several of India's traditional plant-based remedies such as those from turmeric and neem have come under assault by biopirates and Indian activists. The government has had to defend them from being patented by recourse to ancient texts to show 'prior art'.
But some patent experts think that translating such texts as the Hortus Malabaricus may actually help biopirates rather than hinder them, especially in the absence of universal acceptance of the Biodiversity Convention that is in serious trouble with the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement under the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
''By publishing the Hortus Malabaricus in English you will be handing it to them (biopirates) on a platter,'' said B K Keyala, one of India's foremost patent experts.
Keyala said the details of medicinal plants and their uses given in the translated version, which is being made available at 500 US dollars for a set by Kerala University, will be tapped by biopirates who cannot be prevented from taking out patents on extracts from the plants and processes.