Colonial botanical texts, as astonishingly beautiful as they are, may cast very dark shadows. In this article, Sita Reddy compares three works, each written roughly a century apart and under three different colonial powers in India:
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.
(1) ‘Tractado de las drogas y medicinas de las Indias Orientales’ (1578) is a Spanish translation of a key Portuguese text resulting from the search for medicinal spices by the Estado da India.
(2) ‘Hortus Indicus Malabaricus’ (1678–1693) is an illustrated Dutch botanical work produced by the VOC (Dutch East India Company) that definitively maps Indian medico-botany for centuries to come.
(3) ‘A Catalogue of Indian Medicinal Plants and Drugs’ (1812) is an English compendium of useful medicines reflecting the rapid rise of economic botany under the British East India Company.
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.