Fifty-two-year-old Umayamma from a small village near Cherthala had never heard the name ‘Hortus Malabaricus’ till a scientist told her about it 20 years ago. But she remembers stories she had heard as a toddler about how her ancestor, a local medicine man, went to the Netherlands over 300 years ago to work on a catalogue of flora of the Malabar.
The doctor from Kadakkarappally here, Itty Achuthan Vaidyar, was a key force behind the completion of ‘Hortus Malabaricus,’ a 17 century treatise on the characteristics of over 700 plants found in the Malabar. The ‘Vaidyar’ (doctor) was one of the leaders of a team of botanical experts put together by Hendrik van Rheede, governor of the Dutch Malabar in the 1670s.
When van Rheede, also a botany enthusiast, set about recruiting experts who could help catalogue the flora of the region, Itty Achuthan was one of the top names on the list. “He learnt about medicinal plants from his ancestors and achieved great prominence at a very young age,” says Umayamma. After his work identifying plants of the region, Achuthan left with the Dutch to help complete the 12-volume ‘Hortus Malabaricus.’ The book later became world-famous as one of the earliest authoritative works of botany.
“But Itty Achuthan Vaidyar never came back home,” says Umayamma. “Some people say his ship sank when it was returning. But I don’t know these things.”
Achuthan left behind his mother and sister, who later moved out of Cherthala. Little that belonged to the Vaidyar remains at Kadakkarappally today.
A small wooden structure called the ‘kuriala,’ said to have been in existence since the time of the Vaidyar, now stands here as a memorial to the doctor. The figures inside the ‘kuriala’ resemble a Shiva idol and Umayamma and family light a lamp here every evening. “Many people from the area light a lamp here dedicating it to ‘appooppan’ (grandfather) whenever there is an auspicious occasion in the family,” says Umayamma.
Vaidyar’s garden of valuable medicinal plants has been reduced to a small grove (‘kavu’) full of trees and plants whose names no one knows.
The place is a temple of sorts for researchers studying ‘Hortus Malabaricus’ or the history of the Dutch in the Malabar. “Many people, even those from the Netherlands, come here with their books or movie cameras to see the grove and the ‘kuriala,’” according to Umayamma.
While visitors come and go, Umayamma and her two children struggle to protect Vaidyar’s land. They have had no help from the authorities in protecting the rare plants here or the memorial to the Vaidyar. “The government had expressed their willingness to take over the land and the memorial. But my uncle insisted that a road be built here first so that the people have at least the basic facilities. We have heard only empty promises from everyone after that,” says Umayamma.