Saturday, November 1, 2014

Laughing dove doesn’t laugh!

Quite a common bird, Laughing dove (Spilopelia senegalensis) is seen in dry scrub and semi-desert habitats. They have a characteristic call the reason for the name. While in sub Saharan Africa they are referred to as Senegal dove. Spotted this one at Bharatpur (Rajasthan), further away from the lake. 

Itty Achuthan: 17th century Ayurvedic doctor and a pioneering botanist 

I was in Kerala, as I was flipping through the newspaper at the village reading room (that hasn’t changed in last many decades) I came across this news item related to declaring Itty Achuthan’s  ‘kuriala’, a small pagoda like wooden room used by the scholar almost three centuries back,  as a heritage site. I recall reading about Itty Achuthan, as also visiting an exhibit few years back at Natural Historical museum (Delhi) where there was an exhibition on Hortus Malabaricus. Next day I was at Kadakarapally (a coastal village near Cherthala town), about a kms walk is the Kuriala, it’s clear that the region had quite strong Buddhist influence before Shankaracharya (his birthplace Kalady isn’t far from here) advaithic philosophy, which unfortunately gave impetus to a pan-India resurgence to ritual driven deviance that degraded the religion as also the gave the foundation to mediocre and cannibalistic society. This need to be asserted since Itty Achuthan belong to marginalized section and his access to knowledge was possible due to a parallel stream of egalitarianism that existed in the society. Buddhism being the forerunner to this. Hortusum Itty Achuthanum - Sathyavum Mithyayum (by AN Chidambaram) cites a long list of vaidya tradition of Kadakkarappally, which had a notable Buddhist university and a large population of followers of Buddhism, going by the notes of Chinese traveler Hiuen Tsang who visited India in 620 AD. 

The lady of the house, of the Kollat family, came out and explained to me about Kuriala's significance and so on. No she has no connection with ayurveda, her son later joined, he told me he does ‘some cable work’ as he took me to the Kavu nearby which is site of some rare plants. Next day I also visited the Hill palace in Thripunithara (kochi) where a botanical garden based on the plants mentioned in Hortus Malabaricus is maintained.  

Itty Achuthan was a 17th century Vaidyar (ancient traditional doctor -that is usurped under systematized ayurveda) who had precious understanding on practice of Ayurveda as also the specialized knowledge on rare endemic medicinal shrubs. Apart from his own observations the lineage, of hundreds of years of accumulated medico-botanical knowledge, that he kept in palm leafs became a rich source. He led the compilation and documentation work of Hortus Malabaricus –meaning Garden of Malabar, is a comprehensive treatise that deals with the medicinal properties of the flora in the Malabar region (that is now Kerala). Originally written in Latin, it was compiled over a period of nearly fifteen years and published from Amsterdam during 1678-1693, it was conceived, managed and financed by the Dutch Malabar governor Hendrik Van Rheede. The Hortus Malabaricus comprises 12 volumes of about 500 pages each, with 794 copper plate engravings. Over 742 different rare plants and their indigenous sciences are described and illustrated in the book, making it one of the earliest authoritative and comprehensive documentation of flora of the Indian subcontinent, it is arguably a pioneering effort from anywhere across the world. Itty Achuthan’s efforts were however lost in India, it was only when Hortus Malabaricus was translated into English/Malayalam (by Manilal, who also made efforts to focus on Itty Achudan’s significant contribution) that his greatness became apparent. Even then, he is being ignored, none of the Ayurvedic colleges nor any institutions are named after him (it is in this context you have to understand the profusion of Gandhi in all possible public places, he is being hoisted while some amazing people are willfully negated. These depraved Gandhians I have been cautioning against). It took the policy maker so many years to declare Itty Achuthan’s legacy as heritage. What a deviant society is this? Non-violently so!! In the meanwhile the West has honoured and cherished him by naming Achudemia –an entire plant family, in his name. This was done as early as 19th century! Such is our education system and culture that not many (even in Kerala) are aware of Itty Achuthan.

Itty Achuthan indeed is father of modern Ayurveda. It is his diligently acquired deep knowledge that once got published was converted into medicines and products not only in India but has become part of tradition in western countries too. Many of the knowledge related to uses of spices in Europe can be traced to not only his efforts but also benevolent nature, as he shared whatever he knew unlike the elites who kept it secret with whatever viciousness they could muster. His concern was preservation of precious knowledge, for this he got support and encouragement from a Dutch. Indians didn’t have much use of Achuthan’s knowledge is a devastating indictment of what Indian society is all about. Though must add the Cochin king did help the Dutch in the effort. Apart from specialized knowledge on flora Achuthan was also a multilingual and could converse in Portuguese this also helped his case. There were few elites from Konkan region too but their contributions were quite insignificant since they lacked practical knowledge, and were mostly superficial and techniques followed were based on weak foundation, the reason why Reede put faith on Achuthan. Achuthan’s methods of classification had context of social affinity and relevance. It should be pointed that much later Linnaeus adopted the same method of classification in 1740, as did many other scientists who followed. One could conclude that it was Itty Achuthan’s diligent observations and acumen that made Hortus Malabaricus possible, and so helped our understanding of our flora.  It wouldn’t be out of place to mention that he in many ways helped put the foundation botany as also knowledge related to it.

Itty Achuthan kept all his knowledge in palm leafs and kept it inside the cane basket, due to neglect and lack of interest they got destroyed over the centuries now only the basket survives. A lamp is lit every night at the Kuriala in memory of this great vaidyar, who should be remembered for his yeoman service in spreading knowledge and understanding of flora for the sake of humanity. He is undoubtedly father of modern Ayurveda.

Itty Achuthan’s whereabouts and what happened to him is sketchy. It is held that he was taken to Amsterdam where he died in 1670s, though no record exist to prove it.

From my scribble pad…
Hooded men
My apologies to the pause that precedes the violence 
The knife that search for the artery. 
For the black hoods that we have become. 
Anonymous lives and brutal fates fed to the gory specter 
Only the mating call of the bee eater breaks the eeriness 
Lungs gargle in blood that has lost its use 
The pain doesn’t spill but grows into an appetite. 
How have we come here, this far? 

Fragile, umbilical cord to the sleeping world 
Learning each step and being sure, very sure 
That the pause doesn’t make us listen 
Silence don’t make us searching 
Where do we go from here?