It was many months ago, while trawling the internet that I came across the mention (in a search result) of a young drummer from my hometown of Pallavur. The Chenda drummer’s name is Pallavur Sreedharan. I saw his name mentioned together with a popular IMAX movie and an audio CD. Later I met him at the temple the other day and mentioned it in passing, only to see him flummoxed. He recalled the visit of an American Sayip to Trichur and talked about the two days spent getting a lot of drumming filmed, but had not heard from him ever since. After I mentioned about the movie and the CD, he tried again to contact the producer, but has not succeeded to date. I tried to help him, but the tracks had faded out by then. But naturally, I thought, this is typically what happens to the humble enthusiastic toiler from a village.
This fortunately did not happen to Itty Achutan. Not only did this Ezhava Vaidhyer (doctor) collaborate with higher caste Brahmins in the two year effort, he rose to become the lead doctor and certifier in the team led by Van Rheeede when he set out to compile the legendary Hortus Malabaricus during the 17th century. Nevertheless, one must add, without the sponsorship of Van Rheede, and his formal certification and acknowledgement of Itty Achutan’s efforts, we would never have known about this master Vaidyar. Even after all this, the results of these stupendous efforts were unknown to India for many hundreds of years after Van Rheede left, and it was only a few years back that Dr Manilal completed the English and Malayalam translations of the magnum opus after a 35 year effort, working at the Calicut university.
This blog had been pending for a long time, and though I had been communicating with Dr Manilal on other matters, I had no access to numerous articles on this specific subject and related papers authored by him. I was also not aware that Dr Manilal had written a book about Itty Achutan’s role in creating much of the text and inputs for the Hortus Malabaricus, but alas that is also not available here for reference. Anyway, I had some time today and got into the research mode, trying to dredge out at least sufficient information for a blog post. The additional stimulus came while talking to my brother in India who is suffering from Kidney stones and who complained of the resulting renal colic. I recalled my own affliction some years back and my introduction to a popular capsule that not only reduced the possibility of infection, but also aided in the flushing out of the stone. It was made entirely of herbal oils, camphor & stuff like that, in Germany and the concoction must have been prepared ages ago. I recommended it to my brother and after I hung up, got thinking about the history of spices and their introduction in Europe, which as you may recall was primarily for medicinal purposes & preservation of meat. And all this reminded me once again of Itty Acuthan, the person behind the Hortus Malabaricus.
First let us read the chastising reminder from Al Beruni many years ago – The Hindus believe that there is no country but theirs, no nation like theirs, no kings like theirs, no religion like theirs, and no science like theirs. They are haughty, foolishly vain, self-conceited, and stolid. They are by nature niggardly in communicating that which they know, and they take the greatest possible care to withhold it from men of another caste among their own people, still much more, of course, from any foreigner.
But then, looking at the relationship between Rheede, Achutan and their team, it was not so, they formed a group of like minded individuals who were compelled to document their knowledge for posterity. Yes, one could debate if the Dutch planned to steal the knowledge for themselves in pursuit of profit, but at least from the Indian part it was a very co-operative effort. Or if you think back to those days when the caste system rigors were at their extreme, it could have been an act of rebellion, the Ezhava Vaidyer working with the foreigner who trusted him more than the upper castes who kept him and his clan apart, never respecting his knowledge. But it must also be remembered that the Cochin king was in full support of the project and must have goaded Itty Achutan into joining the team. Van Rheede’s acknowledgment and thanks to the king (I think it was in Vol3) is testament to this.
It also resulted in another first –Malayalam text was printed (note here that a facsimile was produced on copper plates and not printed as is done today using movable type) on paper for the first time. Incidentally, Itty Achutan not only spoke Malayalam, but also a bit of Portuguese, which he used to converse with the Dutch team (and an Italian missionary Fr Matthew) while preparing the book.
So what is Hortus Malabaricus?
As part of the project, all the country around was diligently searched and fresh specimens brought to Cochin by Achutan and his team, where the Carmelite Fr Matthews and others sketched them, with striking accuracy. A description of each plant was written in Malayalam and thence translated into Portuguese, by a resident at Cochin, named Emmanuel Carneiro. The Secretary to the Government, Herman Van Douep, translated it into Latin. The whole seems then to have passed under the supervision of another learned individual named Casearius, a personal friend of Van Rheede.
I must also add here that the book was actually a collective effort of a number of Viadyar’s of the area, North & South Malabar and some Dutch, Portuguese and Italians. To get to the work itself and how van Rheede came about planning it, please check out an earlier blog.
Van Rheede now looked for a man who could provide information on and help make precise drawings of these plants, describe them, including their medicinal use, since this could reduce the medical expenses of the Company. Thus he found the local expert Itty Achutan and then went on to form a team for the task.
Karappuram Kadakkarappally Kollattu Veettil Itty Achuthan
The Hortus Indicus Malabaricus speaks in its preface about Vaidyar (doctor) Itty Achuthan, a reputed vaidyar of the Ezhava Chekavar community as the main force behind the book.
Richard Grove introduces Itty Achutan aptly - among them were families of Vaidyar traditional doctors, highly esteemed Ayurvedic medical practitioners, whose occupation was passed down in a lineage from father to son, along with bulky collections of books and papers (in palm leaf format) containing hundreds of years of accumulated medico-botanical knowledge. Itti Achuden was probably the best known of these low-caste Vaidyar physicians.
After having selected his field staff led by Itty Achutan, Rheede split the team (varying widely according to historians as constituting 25-100 in all) into many groups of three who were sent into the forests. Three or four illustrators (not Fr Matthews as I originally thought) stationed with Rheede made a sketch of the plant as soon as the specimen was brought to them and Van Rheede personally certified the accuracy of each of them.
Now we come to the interesting part of the team effort carried out in the two tumultuous years between 1674-1676. Rheede was under pressure to leave and Van Goens and team were ramping up the political pressure from Ceylon. The work moved at a rapid pace, as the inputs were tabulated, sketched and collated, editorial analysis was done by a board of 15 scholars, physicians and botanists. Donep who translated to Latin was also a product of the Kottayam school of 1674 that I mentioned in a previous blog (Hasencamp’s school in Kottayam where Dutch, Malayalam, Sanskrit, Latin were taught). Carnerio incidentally was a Parangi Tupas of mixed race. Rheede was very happy with his motley group which collaborated with a single purpose, Brahmins (Ranga Bhatt, Vinayaka Pandit & Apu Bhatt) and non Brahmins, each were trying to win favor with their results. They did their best to ensure that they did not disgrace themselves and the competition between them was fierce. The debates were vehement, with the Brahmins referring to old texts and quoting sages and medical works, but with the team eventually arriving at acceptable conclusions.
Mohan Ram in his paper provides the following additional information about Itty Achuden as he understood from Dr Manilal.
Itty Achudem was born in the Collada family, famous for hereditary physicians in a place called Codakkarapalli of Carappuram, situated about 25 km south of Cochin. He belonged to the Ezhava caste, who were then treated as untouchables by the Malabar Hindu community. The head of the family who practiced medicine was known as Collatt Vaidyan. When a Collatt Vaidyan died, his practice and title went to his (eldest) son. The Collatt Vaidyans maintained a family book consisting of several volumes of palm leaf manuscripts in Kolezhuthu Malayalam, in which were recorded names of medicinal plants, methods of preparation and application of drugs and the illnesses for which they were used. The family book not only served as a guide, but was in turn constantly enriched by recording the experiences of the individual physician of a new generation.
Looking at the published certifications, one may wonder …Why did Itty Achutan write in Vattezhuthu while Carneiro used the Ariezhuthu script during the same period? It appears that the Ezhava caste used traditional old script as they were not formally lettered (in those cruel days only upper castes had traditional schooling) whereas the Tupas Carneiro used the formally taught and modern Ariezhuthu. Emmanuel Carneiro, the interpreter of the VOC, was born, married and residing at Cochin, educated at the Kottayam School. The Carneiro certificate in the original book also states that the original text was dictated in both Portuguese and Malayalam by the team.
The plants were arranged at the University of Leiden garden exactly as prescribed by Achuden and his fellow Ezhavas in the Hortus (This recreation of the arrangement lends some credence to the rumor that Achutan went to Amsterdam). Linnaeus subsequently adopted the same Ehzava method of classification in 1740, as did many other scientists who followed.
The Itty Certificate can be translated as follows
As intended by the hereditary Malayalam physician born in Kollada house in Kodakarapalli village of Karappurma and residing therein. Having come to Cochin fort on the orders of Coomodore Van Rheede and having examined the trees and seed varieties described in this book, the descriptions of and the treatment with each of them known from our books and classified as in the illustrations and notes and explained in detail to Manuel Carnerio, the interpreter of the Hon company, clearing doubts thus supplied the information as accepted without any doubt by this gentlemen of Malabar (attested 20th April 1675)
Carneiro states in his certification as follows
Note: many translations provide the date of 20th for Carnerio's certificate but it is actually the 19th as confirmed by Dr Manilal.
However a detailed analysis of the Malayalam names from the book by Dr Manilal and Govindan Kutty actually reveal that the names came from various parts of Malabar and various Malayalam dialects, not just the understanding of Itti Achutan from the Chertalai region. Note here that a third certificate by the Bhat’s can also be found in the book.
Another famous Botanist of the past who acknowledges Achutan’s contributions is Johan Jacob Scheuchzer who lists in his book Bibliotheca Natural history an entry which starts thus - Dr Itty Achudem who in 1670 put in efforts to produce the Hortus Malabaricus.............
And as it turned out, Rheede who had also planned a Hortus Africus died in 1691 without starting this next project. The last volume of Hortus Malabaricus was published in 1693.
A few words about the illustrators - Many articles mention Fr Matthews as the illustrator or as a member of the team.While the first draft of the HM had a few pen sketches provided by Fr Mathews, they were found to be innacurate and substandard by Van Rheede and others. As Rheede himself explained, the old father provided much input and association to the work, but the pen sketches provided were woefully inadequate. The final illustrations were made by a team of artists most notably Antoni Jacobs Goedkint and Marciles Splintjer.
But whatever happened to Achutan?
Mohan Ram states in his paper – Nothing is known about the date or year of Itty Achuden’s birth or about his descendants. All efforts by Manilal to trace Itty Achuden’s life after the compilation of Hortus Malabaricus have failed. It is said that Itty Achuden put the family book in a cane (rattan) basket and passed it on to a Konkani Brahmin neighbor for safe keeping, as he was leaving his home for a long time. There is a story in his village that he was taken to the Netherlands by the Dutch. This has yet to be verified, as the Dutch kept accurate records of all passengers arriving or leaving their ports by boat. It is also believed that the Konkani family returned the cane basket and its contents to the head of the Collatt family. There were no more physicians left in the family and the priceless treasure of the documentary record of medicinal knowledge (Some say the book is titled Keralaramam) got destroyed some time in 1963 or thereabouts. Curiously the basket still survives! Manilal informs me that members of Itty Achuden’s family had maintained a small thatched hut called Vilakku Maadam for several generations, to worship their ancestors by lighting an oil lamp every evening. As Itty Achuden was probably the last of the ancestral vaidyans, a lamp continues to be lit even today in his memory.
Today Linnaeus and Burman are extolled as fathers of modern botany whereas the man behind much of it, the Vaidyer Itty Achutan has passed into oblivion. Or, maybe not since Karl Ludwig Blume, a botanist of renown decided that Achuthan should be honored and thus named an entire plant family in his name during the 19th century. The Achudemia family is named after Itty, and seems native to China and Japan, though found worldwide.
In Kerala, not many know of Achutan or his inputs, though the practice of Ayurveda continues with increasing awareness. There are many Ayurvedic institutions and colleges formed to pass on the knowledge to the future generations. Even so, you can find Ayurvedic herbal medicines like Dashamoolarishtam promoted by contemporary medicine houses like Dabur and advertised with popular film actresses.
So when you see Juhi Chawala chirp on TV about this medicine or when some global drug company patent a ‘kashayam’, give forgotten stalwarts like Itty Achutan a thought…..
Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins - Richard H. Grove
Hendrik Adriaan van Reede tot Drakenstein (1636-1691) and Hortus Malabaricus -J. Heniger
Asia in the making of Europe, Volume 3 - Donald F. Lach ((), Edwin J.Van Levy
The Dutch power in Kerala, 1729-1758 - M. O. Koshy
Asia in the making of Europe, Volume 3, Book 2 - Donald F. Lach
Indigenous Knowledge and the Significance of South-West India for Portuguese and Dutch Constructions of Tropical Nature: Richard Grove
On the English edition of Van Rheede’s Hortus Malabaricus by K. S. Manilal (2003) - H. Y. Mohan Ram
Dhatura pic – tribune
by Sivadas Verma reporting for Indian Express
And of course there is the Malabar botanical garden in Calicut- The garden has a herbal garden, Hortus Malabaricus garden and `star forest’ apart from water plants. It has a total area of 40 acres and has been dedicated to the memory of Itty Achuthan Vaidyar, who helped in the compilation of Hortus Malabaricus.
Interestingly, the first volume of HM bears an engraving of a large garden and a summerhouse bearing a tablet reading `HORTUS INDICUS MALABARICUS', so much so that, the area in Fort Kochi where the garden was cultivated is still referred to as `Odatha' (Malayalam version for the word Hortha) and vestiges of the wall still remain