In the lapis lazuli-hued rooms of the ‘Ayurvedic Man’ exhibition, you’ll find yourself in front of three botanical texts that speak volumes. Together, they define the colonial history of Indian medical botany.
Written approximately a century apart and under three different colonial powers, these three texts trace the story of Europe’s long colonial encounter with Indian botanical medicine.
All three fall under the category of ‘herbals’ – books containing names and descriptions of plants with information on their medicinal, tonic, culinary, toxic, hallucinatory, aromatic or magical powers. But their diversity suggests that the colonial encounter with Indian materia medica was no monolith.
Dialogues in medical botany
The Portuguese were the first to arrive on Indian shores in their attempt to control the eastern spice trade. And while Acosta’s Spanish ‘Tractados’ text was widely known in its day, we now know that it was the direct, if unacknowledged, translated copy of an earlier Portuguese text that is the real original in this botanical story: Garcia d’Orta’s ‘Colóquios dos Simples e Drogas’ (1563). Orta served as personal physician to two Portugese viceroys under the Estado da India, and later to the sultan of Ahmadnagar.
It is impossible to overstate the originality and charm of Orta’s extraordinary text. It includes 59 colloquies – or conversations – on medicinal plants arranged in semi-alphabetical order. The dialogues are between Orta himself and four other characters, including the fictional physician Ruano (literally ‘man in the street’) and Malupa, a Hindu physician.
Widely considered to be the first colonial treatise on Asian medical botany, ‘Colóquios’ was funded by the Estado da India as an indispensable catalogue of tropical medicines in their native habitat – 16th-century Europe’s introduction to Indian materia medica.
As a botanical text, ‘Colóquios’ was many things: a list of simples, a detailed outline of the medicinal properties of the spices that drove Portuguese imperialism. Limited to medical plants sold in Europe, it argued for the value of spices – not just as culinary desirables, but as miracle drugs.
Of his encounter with the clove/cravo da India, Orta writes: “So strong and so delicious that I thought there must be a forest of flowers. It is to be used first as a medicine and for the scent, and then for culinary purposes.”