Hortus Malabaricus - A Great Contribution of Konkanis
A stupendous work in Latin, Hortus Indicus Malabaricus is the earliest as well as most comprehensive book on the natural plant wealth of Malabar (Kerala). The 12 Volumes of this Malabar Garden were printed and published from Amsterdam between the years 1678 and 1693. The book project was promoted and materialised by the Dutch Commander at Kochi, Hendrik Van Rheede, who later became Governor. The book is unique in many respects. It contains comprehensive and invaluable information about the plant wealth of Kerala. It is the first-ever printed book bringing out the ancient and traditional ethno-medical knowledge about the medicinal properties of plants by the physicians of Kerala. In this book Konkani and Malayalam, two native languages of India, came into print for the first ever time. In it the name of each tree, plant and creeper is etched along with its drawing in four languages - Latina (Latin), Malabarica (Malayalam), Arabica (Arabic) and Lingua Bramanica Antiqua (Konkani).
Though the book was the result of the indomitable will power of Hendrik Van Rheede, all the basic work and the original compilation of plant properties was done by three Konkani Physicians of Kochi, namely Ranga Bhat, Vinayaka Pandit and Appu Bhat. The three have themselves certified this in their joint certificate in Konkani, which appears as such at the start of the very first volume of the book.
But this certificate is not the only Konkani matter appearing in the book. The Konkani* names of each plant, tree and creeper are also included through out the book, in all 12 volumes, both in its descriptive parts and alongside their respective drawings. While the names are in roman script in the descriptive part, the names alongside the diagrams are in original Nagari script itself, indicated as Bramanical characters.
Even though the book was in Latin (the worldwide language of that time) and even though the its subject matter was the Plants of Malabar, Hendrik Van Rheede had two overwhelming reasons for specifically including each and every plant name in Konkani also in his masterpiece. Firstly, the Konkani physicians of Goa and Kochi were equally famous at that time, many of them invariably becoming royal physicians of their respective provinces and states. This fact is well supported by any number of historical references. It was also well known that a century earlier Gartia De Orta*, the author of ‘Coloquios Dos Simples e Drogas’ a book in Portuguese on the plants of Goa, had compiled his book with the help of the Konkani Physicians of Goa only. Further to this, at Kochi, he definitely had to thank those three Konkani Physicians for greatly helping him to realize his dream project. In stark difference to the attitude of many of his own people and most of the local malabaris, those three had unselfishly contributed two full years of their life for the project, besides sharing their invaluable traditional knowledge and their first hand experience in the field. For two years, they had put in solid work, more often than not even beyond their calling. Van Rheede had personally visited them at their homes. He was surprised and impressed by their unique method of keeping their traditional knowledge intact through well-remembered descriptive verses. He has described about this wonderful experience at length in his preface to the third volume of the book.
The certificate given by the three Konkani Physicians, though crisp and factual, is neverthless quite self-explanatory about the tremendous work that went into the making of the great book. In fact, they have not wasted a single word describing or highlighting their ancestory or their scholarship. Instead, they allowed the quality and expanse of their work to speak on their behalf. Hence, the certificate itself is very simple and reads thus:
Swasti Sree Salivahana Saka 1597, Rakshasa Samvatsara Chaitra Bahula 10th.
We, Ranga Bhat, Vinayaka Pandit and Appu Bhat, three physicians residing
in Kochi Rajapattana, upon direction from Hendrik Van Rheede, Commander of Kochi,
had sent knowledgeable persons, giving them payment, to respective places of Malabar
and brought the respective medicinal creepers, plants, roots, fruits and seeds
that grow there in respective seasons and drawn their diagrams.
Afterwards, we have described the names and various qualities of those medicines
with reference to our medical lexicon and as understood in our long experience,
and we have personally overseen the compilation of this book
for the past two years morning and evening.
So as not to consider the same incorrect, we have put our signatures.
So as it may be considered the truth, we have given this in writing in Nagari letters.
Signatures : Ranga Bhat Vinayaka Pandit Appu Bhat
Here, the three have certified unmistakably that the y have themselves compiled the book (ami ho livru sampadun dila meaning we have compiled this book) and were also responsible for the collection of the medicinal plants from respective regions by sending knowledgeable persons to respective places of Malabar, paying them for bringing the respective medicinal plants during respective seasons. The three had supervised this (lagi ravunu meaning standing near) and the making of the drawings of various parts of each medicinal plant, tree, shrub and creeper. All three of them were fully engaged (sakalim sanje meaning morning and evening) in the compilation work of the book for the past two years (aji don varsham meaning for two years now) prior to 1675, the year of the certificate.
Thus we see that the Hortus Indicus Malabaricus of world renown is in fact a great contribution of the 17th century Konkanis of Kerala. We are rightfully proud of their incomparable contribution. Indeed, we have more than one reason to be proud in this regard. The second reason is with regard to their immense love and pride towards Konkani, their mother tongue. Not only did they incorporate the names of each tree, plant and creeper in Konkani throughout the 12 volumes, but also wrote and signed their vital certificate in Konkani !
* In the book, Konkani is indicated as Lingua Bramanica Antiqua.
The 17th century certificate was written and etched in the manner and style of those times, which might be somewhat unfamiliar now. Further to this, some writing notations (mostly anuswara) are missing in the print. Hence, to make it easily readable, the body matter is reproduced herein with enhanced clarity, modern-day spacing between words, and with the missing notations added back, for the sake of coherence and comprehension.
- This article has since appeared in "SMRITHI", the Souvenir of the 'Konkani Sammelan 2012' of USA
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