Vaidya Legacy Strains to Regain Vitality

Famed 17th-century physician Kollat Itty Achuthan is a key brain behind the Hortus Malabaricus, the monumental 12-volume tome on the medicinal plants across Kerala. Yet, his native village near Alappuzha is struggling to earn name on Kerala’s tourism map even as there is a hype around Ayurveda.

Miles of bright sandy land along a southwest Kerala belt has for long been the homestead of practitioners of a medical system which the state government is now celebrating as a key theme in its tourism initiatives: Ayurveda. One such vaidya family in coastal Alappuzha district has a strikingly great legacy which has of late received revived public attention, yet is gasping to earn it the deserving status.

Welcome to Kadakkarappally, a quiet and green village, off Cherthala — a town known for its age-old tryst with Buddhism, which has been a source of dissemination of Ayurvedic knowledge in several parts of India. In the sleepy compound of a non-Brahmin household lies a small wooden structure that is closely linked to the compilation of a grand treatise on the medicinal plants of 17th-century Kerala.

An illustration on Papaya in Hortus Malabaricus
An illustration on Papaya in Hortus Malabaricus

The local population calls the thatched hut ‘kuriala’. Some say it had been the workplace of sorts of the medicine man who compiled Hortus Malabaricus for foreigner Hendrik van Rheede who was Dutch Malabar governor during 1670-77. Practically now, it stands as a memorial of sorts for Kollat Itty Achuthan who teamed up with the colonial administrator to later come up with the 12-volume tome — originally penned in Latin and recently translated into English and Malayalam.

Every evening these days, a lamp is lit at the memorial of Achuthan, who is believed to have been born sometime around 1640 and is suspected to have died in Amsterdam to where Rheede took him as a young man. In the compound now lives a family belonging to the eighth generation of the vaidya, whose legacy remained largely out of mainstream societal consciousness until the last decade when Hortus Malabaricus was brought out in English first and then in the state’s language, Malayalam.

“These days, we distribute medicinal plants to people far and near,” reveals L P Harikrishnan, a young member of the family. “At annual functions, we disburse the kits free of cost after collecting them from a local nursery. It is a tribute of sorts to our legendary forefather.”

On its part, the Kerala government has implemented a programme that aims to preserve the herbs and plants mentioned in Hortus Malabaricus.

The 'Kuriala', a memorial of sorts for Kallat Itty Achuthan
The ‘Kuriala’, a memorial of sorts for Kollat Itty Achuthan

Besides the Itty Achuthan Memorial Hortus Malabaricus Sasya Sarvaswam Project, conceived by the state’s forest and wildlife department and active in upstate Kozhikode, there is a hut erected in a medical garden at Jawaharlal Nehru Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute at Palode near Thiruvananthapuram. There are bigger plans in the anvil, according to government officials.

Back at his ancestral property, Itty Achuthan’s compound has a thick grove that has herbal plants and a few trees with and without medicinal importance. “The one at the centre is pretty old; its species has yet to be identified,” reveals Harikrishnan, 25, amid the chirping of birds.

True, it is a momentous assignment which eventually took shape as a 2,400-page book with 794 copper-plate engravings that lent Achuthan Vaidyar a special status in Kerala’s Ayurveda history. Broadly, however, his region has for long gifted eminent physicians, locally called vaidyars.

Notes historian professor Sureshkumar E B: “A particular territory of Travancore (southern Kerala) has produced a string of vaidyars from the Ezhava community, traditionally slotted among the bottom echelons of the Hindu caste system. For centuries, they have been a vital presence in several areas of Alappuzha district, virtually juxtaposing the upper-caste tag that Ayurveda has in most other parts of Kerala.”

Cherthala resident A N Chidambaran, who has researched on Itty Achuthan and Hortus Malabaricus, notes that the vaidyar’s Kadakarappally enclave itself boasts of a rich herbal-medicine tradition for centuries together. His 2011-published book Hortusum Itty Achuthanum — Sathyavum Mithyayum cites a long list of vaidya lineage of Kadakkarappally, which had a notable Buddhist university and big population of people from that religion, going by the notes of Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang who visited India in 620 AD.

That apart, it took three centuries for Achuthan Vaidyar’s vitality to be brought to public notice. That happened — first in 2003, when Hortus Malabaricus was translated into English, and then five years later when its Malayalam version came out.

Prof K S Manilal, who did the job after 35 years of study, says the treatise gives minute details about Kerala herbs, lending Ayurveda practitioners the benefit of knowing more about the source of their medicines. “It carries descriptions and illustrations of 780 rare plant species. The original work in Latin had its first volume coming out in 1678, and the last in 1693,” notes the 77-year-old expert.

Kudakuthanparambil Soman, a descendant of Achuthan Vaidyar treasures some of the professional paraphernalia of the medicine man.
Kudakuthanparambil Soman, a descendant of Achuthan Vaidyar, treasures some of the professional paraphernalia of the medicine man.

Kudakuthanparambil Soman, who lives in a tile-roof house in Kadakkarapally and is another descendant of Achuthan Vaidyar, treasures some of the professional paraphernalia of the medicine man. Keeping a medicine-weighing instrument among them close to his chest, the sexagenarian says his family got the antiques half-a-decade ago from a neighbourhood Konkani Brahmin family named Anappal, which had preserved it all these years.

Prof Manilal says a grave is now believed to exist at Amsterdam in the name of the Vaidyar, even as Harikrishnan’s mother Umayamma, who lights the lamp in the physician’s memory, sticks to old hearsay that the Achuthan’s ship sank while he was returning from the northwest European country to the Malabar Coast.

In fact, it has been three such families that had migrated from upper Konkan Coast to Kerala long ago who helped Achuthan Vaidyar compile the inputs for the treatise. Ranga Bhat, Vinayaka Pandit and Appu Bhat had worked on Hortus Malabaricus as part of the nearly 100-member team that comprised scholars, amateur botanists, technicians, illustrators, engravers and clergymen among others.

Researcher-blogger Ajay S Sekher says that the calibre of Achuthan as a physician can be judged from the fact he was appointed as the chief expert consultant for the Hortus Malabaricus project in the 17th century when caste system was at its height in southern India.

For the vaidyar, a long patch of eclipsed existence seems to have come to an end for now. Even so, his historicity is yet to find its deserving place on the map of Kerala Tourism—even in 2016.

(The writer is a freelancer and media consultant based in Delhi.)