When Collectors scrambled to know more about the humble Adhatoda Vasica
(A weekly column on the region’s past culled from historical documents.)
Adhatoda Vasica or Malabar Nut, in more common terms, the local ‘Atalotakam’, is unlikely to have caught one’s fancy. It is among the scores of unassuming, undemanding plants packed with virtues that grow unhindered in the neighbourhood. But the British did not take it lightly. Instead, they invested all the Collectors of British India with the task of collecting all possible details about this demure plant. What triggered off such sweeping interest in this one is unclear, but having known few of its merits, they wondered if there is more to it.
It starts off with a circular from the Board of Revenue in Madras in July 1887 to all the Collectors in the administration. The circular signed by P. Rajaratna Mudaliar, Secretary, contains a detailed letter on the plant from Geo Watt, an officer on special duty with the Government of India working for the Revenue and Agriculture Department.
The Adhatoda Vasica intrigues Watt. The letter details his meticulous data relating to the plant. He delves into its habitat, medicinal and other properties. He calls it “a small sub-herbaceous bush generally gregarious.”
All about the plant
It is Watt’s obsession with a plant that is liberally scattered across India that is interesting. “The flora of British India says it occurs from the Punjab to Assam, Ceylon and Singapore common and frequently cultivated …it is difficult to know for what purposed so abundant a wild plant could be cultivated,” he writes.
What confuses Watt is the various uses of the Adhatoda Vasica in different regions. So, he wonders if there is a significant virtue being missed, which could be tapped. The plant, which produced a faint yellow dye, also had stems and flowers which gave relief from various illnesses. It was used for relief from phthisis, had anti-spasmodic properties and minimised “opthalmia”, among a host of others.
“All these facts go towards establishing the idea that the plant may possess a powerful active principle, the chemistry of which has not apparently as yet been investigated. The strong oppressive smell of the leaves would alone suggest this and it would seem that the properties above briefly mentioned were known to the Sanskrit writers many centuries ago,” writes Watt.
Watt, for long knew only the plant’s medicinal merits. Later, he comes across the Oudh Gazetteer which gives information on another facet to the plant. “The Rus” says the Gazette, has “fascine-like” properties which amply supports mud wells. “The leaf is held to possess high qualities as manure,” it adds. Watt further discovers that “as fuel it is almost exclusively used in the process of boiling down the cane juice.”
Further, in his tours of the Sutlej valley, he finds the plant is used not only as manure but also as “poison to kill aquatic weeds.”
Watt makes his conclusion. “Indeed it is quite possible that this extremely plentiful plant, when its properties are fully examined, may prove to be capable of further development. For example, a decoction of it might be found useful in developing animal pests to other crops, such as sugarcane, tea and coffee,” he notes. He suggests enquiries be made across India to the practice of applying the plant for multiple purposes.
That’s when the Collectors are pulled in to act with each assigned the task of finding the use of the Adhatoda Vasica in their region. It appears the response from most of them was lukewarm. So a memorandum is sent in October 1887 excepting the Collectors of Madras, Chingleput and Trichnopoly to expedite their reply.
William Logan, then the Collector of Malabar, gives a detailed account on the use of the plant in his district. “A well known shrub found in all parts of Malabar it generally goes by the name of Atulotakam,” he writes. Being proficient in Malayalam he writes the name of the plant in Malayalam too. He assumes the name to be “a corruption of the Sanskrit equivalent Atarushum Vashika and Vashakam” which “are also its other names in Sanskrit.”
He quotes the Materia Medica which elaborates on its qualities. From being used as a curative for cough, liver complaints and jaundice, its root, he writes, is “a specific for checking vomiting.”
Logan explains the stature of the plant in the domestic pharmacy. “The juice of the leaves is given mixed with long pepper powder, honey and sugar as an expectorant in coughs,” he writes. He diligently lists its other merits. The flowers are “antispasmodic and are given in asthma and bilious fever.” So also for bronchitis and pulmonary illnesses. Its fresh flowers are used to treat illnesses of the eye, he adds in a letter dated November 1887.
Finally in a resolution in April 1888, the Board of Revenue draws up a comprehensive data on the plant. In Nellore, Tanjore and Arcot they used it to kill aquatic weeds in rice fields and bind wells, while in Chingleput the leaves became manure. It is concluded that the “plant is held in high esteem throughout the presidency for its medicinal purposes.” What Watt deducted from this data, though, is unclear.
(Source: Regional Archives Kozhikode)