Hendrik van Rheede, Dutch governor of Malabar in the 17 century, set out with his team of experts to produce Hortus Malabaricus – a 12-volume Latin treatise on plants found in the region. Almost 300 years later, an expert botanist in Kerala undertook an equally daunting task – making the ancient text accessible to modern researchers.
K.S. Manilal, a 74-year-old former professor of Calicut University, is the world’s foremost authority on Hortus Malabaricus and plants of Kerala. He has spent more than 50 years deciphering the text, identifying the plants and adding to their descriptions.
Hortus Malabaricus, written before the international naming system for organisms was established, uses Latin transliterations of the Malayalam names of plants. This makes it nearly impossible for researchers to identify various species. With professor Manilal’s English and Malayalam translations of Hortus, researchers the world over could study Hortus – one of the earliest comprehensive studies of botany.
Professor Manilal had to study Latin from scratch before he could understand the volumes. “I couldn’t find anyone to translate the text for me. So I had no option but to learn Latin,” he says. With help from others, he published the English translation of Hortus Malabaricus in 2003 and the Malayalam translation in 2008.
“But translation is only a minor part of Professor Manilal’s work,” says Joseph Antony, whose book Harithabhoopadam chronicles the professor’s work. The greatest effort was in identifying all the plants mentioned in the books. “Almost 670 species of plants have been mentioned in Hortus Malabaricus and some of the names are in archaic Malayalam unknown to people today. Manilal spent 27 years visiting locations in Kochi, Alappuzha and even as far as Kollam and Kozhikode to scout for plants,” says Mr. Antony. He tracked all but one of the species mentioned in Hortus. The professor’s pursuit of the book and its makers took him as far as Amsterdam, where it was published. “Manilal rediscovered Hortus in its entirety,” says Mr. Antony.
Professor Manilal’s fascination with Hortus began when he was a child at Moothakunnam in Paravur, says Mr. Antony. “The professor’s father used to cut out interesting news clippings and save them,” he says. Among these clippings, the young Manilal chanced upon a story of how Hortus carried the first example of printed Malayalam characters. There was ignited a spark that would become his life’s work.
The professor still remembers the first time he saw an original edition copy of Hortus. “I was doing my M.Sc. Botany at Sagar University in Madhya Pradesh. We were on a study tour to the Forest Research Institute at Dehradun when I saw the original edition kept there,” he says. He asked to be excused from the tour so he could pore over the volumes of Hortus. Over three days, he noted down the Malayalam names of plants mentioned in the book.
The three days then became a lifetime that Professor Manilal devoted to deciphering Hortus. The government of the Netherlands in 2012 conferred on him the Order of Orange-Nassau, one of the highest Dutch civilian awards, for his “life-long dedication to public service through the study of Hortus Malabaricus.” In his own country, however, this distinguished professor remains unrecognised.