Portuguese and Dutch Records of Indian Medicine

By National Centre for Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research

curated by Annamma Spudich, PhD., supported by National Centre for Biological Sciences

after their arrival in India it became obvious to Europeans that Galenic
European medicine was inadequate to deal with tropical diseases and that Indian
traditional medical systems had powerful therapies eminently suited for
tropical diseases. So, an important commodity Europeans collected in India was
the rich legacy of Indian botanical medical knowledge systems for their use in
India and in other tropical colonies being established in Asia and the

The Records (Timeline)Original Source: from the collection of James and Anna Spudich

This timeline shows a selection of books on Indian medicines the Portuguese and Dutch assembled during the 16-17th centuries, juxtaposed along events in world history during the period. These books were assembled from the medical knowledge traditions of India by physicians and naturalists in the employ of their governments.

At the end of the 17th century, the Dutch governor of Kochi, Hendrik Adriaan van Rheede, stated the rationale for these efforts thus: "Indeed it would be possible to make use, with less expense and with greater profit, of Indian medicaments, either the same or at any rate with the same, with superior curative virtues, for the above-mentioned reasons.”

A Selection of Books on Indian TherapiesOriginal Source: from the collection of James and Anna Spudich

For the next 250 years physicians and scholars in the employ of the Portuguese, Dutch and later the British documented medicinal, agricultural and horticultural knowledge systems of India for therapeutic and economic benefit. This was the most important and lasting legacy from India to Europe.

Frontispiece, Aromaticum et Simplium Aliquot, Medicamentorium Apud Indos Nascentium Hisoria (1593) by Carolus ClusiusOriginal Source: Collection of the Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis, Mo. Pre-Linnean.

The first of these texts was published in Goa (1568), in Portuguese, by the physician Garcia da Orta. Early in Orta’s tenure in India, he acknowledged "that there were certain medicines the Greeks did not know." (English translations, Clement Markham, 1913). As the first textbook on tropical medicine and materia medica by a European, the volume was translated into all major European languages and became an essential tool for Europeans in tropical colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries.

"Tractado de las Drogas, y medicinas de las Indias Orientales, con sus Plantas debuxadas al bivo ..," (1578)Original Source: University of California, San Francisco Libraries, Special Collections.

This image of the common Indian folk medicine/spice Carcapuli is from a book by the Portuguese physician Christoval Acosta (Spain, 1578). Acosta came to India to meet "learned and curious men from whom I could daily learn something new; and to see the diversity of plants God has created for human health in Oriental India." The book, intended as a guide for physicians in Europe using Indian medicines, included forty-seven illustrations of Indian medicines available in Europe at the end of the 16th century.

Fruits that grow in India “Copied from Life.” (1598)Original Source: Beinecke Rare Book Library, Yale University

While in the employ of the Portuguese archbishop in Goa, the Dutchman Linschoten collected vital information on Portuguese life in Goa, including on Indian medicines and botany, for the fledgling Dutch East India Company. When he returned to Holland, Linschoten published his compilation of information with the help of the Dutch scholar physician Palladinus, in “On Spices, drugges, plants and stuffes for Physitions and Apothecaries, that is the common sort and such as are ordinarily used in India, and of their growing in what manner and place they grow.” The information was invaluable for the Dutch East India Company, and later also for the by British East India Company.

Frontispiece, Hortus Indicus Malabaricus, Volume 1 (of 12) (circa 1678-1693)Original Source: Blatter Herbarium Library, Mumbai.

The most extensive pre-Linnean European compilation on Indian botany is the 12 volume Hortus Indicus Malabaricus, assembled by the Dutch Governor of Malabar Henrick Adrian van Rheede, and published in Amsterdam between 1678-1693. The volumes record 742 plants from regional medical traditions of Malabar with 792 copperplate engravings. This monumental project was driven by the need for new medicines by the Dutch colonists in Malabar and in other tropical colonies, thriving healing traditions of Malabar and the remarkable health of the people of Malabar.

Statement of Ezhava folk physician, Itty Achudem (1678) by Itty AchudemOriginal Source: Blatter Herbarium Library, Mumbai.

The 12 volumes were assembled by "a broad committee…. brought together from various parts of Malabar." Four scholars who provided regional medical knowledge for the volumes are identified in volume 1. This statement in Malayalam Kolezuthu script by folk physician Itty Achudem of the Ezhava community acknowledges that he provided information from his family’s hereditary palm leaf manuscripts on the folk medical traditions of Malabar.

Notice here Itty Achudem's signature. By including Achudem’s individual statement, van Rheede identifies him as the primary contributor to the work – a unique gesture for colonial European works on Indian medical knowledge.

Statement recording the contributions of three Ayurveda scholars to the Hortus Indicus Malabaricus (1678)Original Source: Blatter Herbarium Library, Mumbai, India.

Contributions of three Indian classical Ayurvedic medical physicians are also acknowledged in volume 1. Their combined testament in Konkani language, identifies them also as important contributors to the 12 Volumes.

Ambel, (Nymphaea pubescens Willd.) (1692)Original Source: Blatter Herbarium Library, Mumbai

This double folio copperplate engraving is an example of the exquisite illustrations in the Hortus Malabaricus. Each illustration includes roots, flowers, fruits and seed and some part of the plant drawn to size or juxtaposed with other images to provide sense of scale. Names of the plants are written in Malayalam (language of Malabar), Sanskrit, Latin and Arabic scripts. Unidentified Indian artists and two Dutch artists made the original drawings, later turned into copperplate engravings in the Netherlands.

Image of a Kerala man; collector, or physician (?) (1692)Original Source: Hortus Indicus Malabaricus, Private Collection

The human figure, with the Cardamom plant added to indicate the size of the plant, could be a physician, a collector who procured the medicinal plants, or one of the Indian artists. In volume 3 van Rheede pays tribute to the Indian collaborators as "experts in plants to whose care it was entrusted to collect for us finally from everywhere the plants with the leaves, flowers and fruits for which they even climbed the highest tops of trees."

Drawing of Todda Panna with human figure Drawing of Todda Panna with human figureOriginal Source: British Library

Comparisons of the original ink drawings made in India (now in the British Library) with copper plate engravings in the published volumes suggest that, besides two Dutch artists identified in by van Rheede (Antoni Jacobz Goetkint and Marcelius Splinter), unidentified Indian artists were intimately involved in creating the original drawings. The images of a Malabar male, on the left in the original drawing has become more Europeanized in the copper plate engraving done in the Netherlands (see Images 15-17).

Detail of the human figure from the original drawing of Todda Panna.

Copperplate Engraving of Todda Panna (1682) by Antoni Jacobz Goetkint, Marcelius Splinter, and unidentified Indian artistsOriginal Source: Peter Raven Library, Missouri Botanical Garden

Note that the human figure in the published image of the Todda Panna is reversed by the process of making the copper plate engraving and the facial features of the man are decidedly more European in the hands of the Dutch engravers.

Detail of the human figure from the copper plate engraving of Todda Panna.

Codda-pana, Hortus Malabaricus, Volume 3 (1682) by Antoni Jacobz Goetkint, Marcelius Splinter, and unidentified Indian artistsOriginal Source: Private collection of James and Annamma Spudich

Besides information on medical botany of Malabar, Hortus Malabaricus volumes also provide glimpses of daily life and landscape of Malabar in the 17th century.

The illustrator has used the image of ten men carrying a leaf of the Codda Pana tree (Umbrella Palm tree) to show the large size of the leaf, and also to illustrate the local custom of using the leaves as protection from tropical sun and also as rain shade.

The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, (1597)Original Source: The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes. Private collection.

In addition to botanical medical knowledge collected by Europeans in India, physicians and scholars in Europe also compiled information about Indian Medical plants from travelers and traders. This woodcut of the Arched Indian Fig Tree is one of 280 images of Indian medicinal plants in ‘Generall Historie of Plantes’ published in England in 1597 by apothecary John Gerard. While Gerard had never been in India, he left fascination glimpses of the circuitous routes, knowledge and materials traveled from India to England in the 16th century. For Nasturtium indicum, he reports “the seed of this rare and faire plant came first from the Indies to Spaine and those hard regions, and from there to France and Flanders, from their I received seede… from Iohn Robbins of Paris.”

The Indian Spice Trade (Exhibit Chapterisation)National Centre for Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research

The remarkable knowledge of medicinal properties of regional plants Portuguese and Dutch collected in India was conveyed to botanical gardens in Europe associated with schools of medicine. In a communication in 1691 van Rheede states that plant collections he sent to Holland were “not only to satisfy the curiosity of many wise men and amateurs, but also in order that the world might enjoy and be served by the medicinal virtues.” Botanical gardens across Europe, in Leiden, Amsterdam, the Jardin du Roi in Paris, and later the Kew Royal Botanical Garden, cultivated exotic tropical plants for medicinal and horticultural purposes. These tropical plant collections had lasting influences on the study of botany as an independent discipline away from medicine. In his seminal work on plant taxonomy, Species Plantarum, Carl Linnaeus includes 320 Indian plants reported in Hortus Malabaricus.

This exhibition is part of a series on the India Spice Trade. Do explore the other sections here:

1. India: The Nexus of International Trade in the First Millennium

2. In Search of Knowledge and Riches: Communities in Indian Spice Trade

3. Europeans Enter Indian Spice Trade

5. British and the Botanical Wealth of India

Visions of India in Early Modern Europe
Credits: Story

Curated by Annamma Spudich, PhD., supported by National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, India.

Curation text © 2019 Annamma Spudich, PhD.

Images outside of NCBS collection courtesy to the respective institutions and collections who have given the permission. Some images are hosted via NCBS - the original sources are cited, and more information about the respective images can be reached by clicking on the image or image captions.

Explore all chapters of The India Spice Trade:

1. India: The Nexus of International Trade in the First Millennium

2. In Search of Knowledge and Riches: Communities in Indian Spice Trade

3. Europeans Enter Indian Spice Trade

4. Portuguese and Dutch Records of Indian Medicine

5. British and the Botanical Wealth of India

6. Visions of India in Early Modern Europe

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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