The lure of Indian spices

Botanicals from India were an important part of European life in the 16th and 17th centuries, writes B. N. Goswamy

The dhatura plant. Hand-coloured engraving from the Hortus Indicus Malabaricus, 1679
The dhatura plant. Hand-coloured engraving from the Hortus Indicus Malabaricus, 1679

Botany, at least scientific botanical knowledge, is something that I know remarkably little of, but I have always been drawn to what are often loosely called ‘herbals’ in the field of art history: illustrations of plants, especially flower-bearing ones, seen from close and rendered with exactitude.

In the context of Indian art, they enter our discussion when we speak of the possible European sources of design in some marble-inlay panels of the Taj, or some of our textiles, especially patkas — those elegant strips of cloth which once adorned every royal waist in India — of the Shahjehani period. Or when we come upon those albums filled with dazzling studies of individual birds and plants that Indian artists made for early European patrons, like Lady Impey or Lord Wellesley.

I was very interested, therefore, when a designer-colleague, Bani Singh, mentioned to me that she had been working on an exhibition centred upon illustrated European books dealing with Indian botanical knowledge. A few days later, she sent me a copy of the catalogue of the exhibition: Such Treasure and Rich Merchandize, the title taken evidently from an early text, with its quaint old spellings. It is a singularly rich even if slim little volume produced by the National Centre for Biological Sciences at Bangalore and authored by Annamma Spudich, a cell-biologist trained at Stanford who moved away from basic research to turn to documenting Indian scientific traditions in the natural sciences. The volume is not only packed with carefully chosen facts and information, but also elegant in its presentation of the material that the exhibition encompassed. Smoothly, almost seamlessly, it brings a period and a field suddenly alive, even for the common reader.

What the exhibition aimed at was to draw attention to seven early European books, recording traditional Indian botanical knowledge and filled with botanical illustrations, prints and maps, such as most of us know little about. The logic of producing such books in those early times — they date back to the 16th and 17th centuries — was evident. The Spice Route from India to Europe was being established then, and botanicals from India were fast becoming ‘important ingredients of European life as culinary additives, medicines, and luxury items like perfumes, aromatics and unguents for religious rituals’. In addition there was a very practical consideration: for Europeans settled in India, like the Portuguese and the Dutch, or travelling through the land, a knowledge of Indian plants, especially medicinal plants, was almost essential to their very existence "in the colonies", for here they encountered unfamiliar tropical diseases for which they had no remedies of their own. In the writing of books such as these, then, trade and taste, survival and curiosity, all seem to have come together. In any case, decidedly, a most impressive body of work emerged, based as it was on fieldwork and personal observations and collaboration with Indian physicians, and not on knowledge garnered from secondary or tertiary sources, as was usual.

There was thus the colloquies on the materia medica of India, authored as early as 1568 — Emperor Akbar had ascended the throne of India not long before this — by Garcia da Orta who, coming from Portugal, attended upon the viceroys of Goa, but acknowledged that here, in India, unknown to the Europeans, there already existed an important system of botanical knowledge "taught of yore by the Muses of Ganges and Ind". It took da Orta 30 years of work in India before he could complete his volume, something that became a rich and honoured source of information for others in Europe. There was also the Itinerario, published by the Dutchman, Jan Huyghen van Linschoten in 1596, well before the British or the Dutch East India Companies were founded. In this work, after nine years of labour in India, was published detailed information on as many as 45 plants — Drugges, Spyces, Hearbs and Plants, as he described them — of great medicinal and commercial value. In the course of gathering information and doing research, Linschoten received great help from many Indian physicians for whose knowledge and humanity, he had high praise. Thus: "Many of the heathen are well acquainted with medicine. They help not only the Indians but also the Christians, the archbishop, and viceroy with more dedication than the Europeans".

The greatest of all texts, however, to which the exhibition and the catalogue draw elaborate attention is the enormous, 12-volume work titled Hortus Indicus Malabaricus, prepared under the direction of Hendrik van Rheede, the Dutch governor of Malabar, and published in Holland between 1678 and 1693. In many ways this work stood above the rest: not only for the vast body of information it contained within its elegant covers — recording as many as 742 plants of Malabar — but also for the fineness of the copper engravings that illustrated them. Each of the ‘illustrations’ featured fully the roots, flowers, fruits and seeds of each plant, and bore legends giving the name of each plant in four different languages and scripts: Latin, Malayalam, Arabic and ‘Brahmanical’, in other words, Sanskrit. Characteristic of this thoroughness was also the fact that van Rheede handsomely and gratefully acknowledged in his volume the remarkable scholarship of four Indian physicians (vaidyas) upon whose expertise he freely drew and whose testimonials in the original he reproduced in his volumes: Itty Achudem, Ranga Botto, Vinaique Pandito, and Apu Botto. With a little effort, one can decode these names.

But one is also led into a different, and now somewhat remote world: a world filled with curiosity and wonder. It is in that world that Milton saw, inwardly, our banyan, the ‘fig tree’ that grew "in Malabar or Deccan" and spread "her armes/braunching so broad and long, that in the ground/ The bended twigs take root, and Daughters grow/ above the Mother tree `85". And it is to this world that "renowned men" came, "sailing through seas that men never sailed before", as the 16th century Portuguese poet, Luis de Camoens, put it: many of them lured by the perfumes of the spices of India.