Such a Long Journey

Pooja Pillai
Parade of the Sons of Shah Jahan on Composite Horses and Elephants, Willem Schellinks, late 17th century Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The first book in which Malayalam appears in print is the Hortus Malabaricus (Garden of Malabar), a 12 volume treatise, written in Latin and published in Amsterdam from 1678 to1693. Compiled over a period of 30 years, under directions from Hendrik van Rheede, a naturalist and colonial administrator, who was at the time the governor of Dutch Malabar, the Hortus Malabaricus gives a comprehensive account of the flora of the Malabar region, along with their properties and detailed sketches. Malayalam appears in this multilingual book, along with other languages that were common currency at the time, including Arabic and Konkani.

Venu Rajamony

The Hortus Malabaricus was an important document of its time, the product, as Venu Rajamony writes in his new book India and the Netherlands: Past, Present and Future, of a multinational and multicultural team of botanical experts. Yet, it remained lost to the public until a botany and taxonomy scholar from Calicut, KS Manilal, learned Latin and translated it first into English in 2003 and into Malayalam in 2008. Highlighting such instances of the Indo-Dutch artistic and cultural exchange through the last 400 years was one of the reasons why Rajamony, who has been the Ambassador of India to the Netherlands since June 10, 2017. The book was released on September 30 at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, with the first copy being presented to the King and Queen of Netherlands, Willem-Alexander and Maxima.

Caunga. Hortus Indicus Malabaricus , Vol.1, 1678-1703. Wellcome Collection. CC BY

When I was appointed the Ambassador, I began reading the history of the Indo-Dutch relationship, and found so much information that is not widely known in India as well as in the Netherlands. There was much exchange of art and scholarship, and I felt that I must tell this story of how the two countries have complemented each other, says Rajamony, over the phone from the Hague. The release of the book comes ahead of the King and Queen s visit to India later this month, with their largest trade delegation. The connection between India and the Netherlands begins with the Dutch Golden Age, when latter was a flourishing centre for commercial and artistic endeavours. Following Spain, Portugal and Great Britain, it also emerged as one of the great maritime nations of the world, establishing a far-flung empire thanks to the ventures of the The Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), better known as the Dutch East India Company. Over the course of his research for the book, Rajamony says, one of the things that surprised him was how taken the great Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn was with Indian miniature paintings, collecting them and even making drawings inspired by them. I was pleasantly surprised to discover this as Rembrandt is considered an absolute master, who would only have made originals. It is very rare that a master like him would copy other artworks, says Rajamony. According to him, this fact is indicative of the high esteem in which Indian art was held in Europe. Further evidence of this, he says, is found in a 1657 poem by another painter, Willem Schellinks, called Op de Schilder-kons der Benjane. The poem goes, Now ingeniously Gujarati shows/ So beauteously on the page,/ His paintings more wondrously noble/ Than an artist s brush ever made:/And with this he mocks Europe/ Knocking from its head art s crown.

Title page of Hortus Malabaricus , 1678. Open Source CC0 1.0 Universal

The Indo-Dutch relationship dimmed in importance with the end of Dutch colonialism in India and the rise of British colonialism after the signing of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty (Treaty of London) in 1824. With this treaty, the Netherlands ceded all its territories in India to the British, in exchange for confirming their claims south of the Strait of Malacca, including what is now the modern nation of Indonesia. But while the colonial relationship ended, the Dutch fascination for India continued and Rajamony traces this through various examples. These include the works of Marius Bauer, who travelled through India in the late 19th and early 20th century, capturing his observations in numerous paintings and sketches, and the work of Jean Philippe Vogel, a Dutchman, who headed the Archaeological Survey of India, which he joined in 1901.

The book cover

In the book, there are also sections on the Dutch interest in Indian philosophers and writers such as Swami Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore and Jiddu Krishnamurti. A particularly delightful tidbit is a letter from an eight-year-old Dutch girl named Thea de Boer to Uncle Nehru , which resulted in the Indian government gifting a baby elephant named Murugan to the Dutch in 1954. The Indo-Dutch relationship of the past may have been defined, to a large extent, by the Netherlands colonial interests in the subcontinent but, according to Rajamony, the present and the future rest on the mutually-beneficial economic and commercial exchange between the two nations. The Netherlands is a country of 17 million people and is an economic powerhouse. We can learn from them. For instance, in water cleaning, in which we have huge challenges, and processing and logistics. Then there are areas such as IT, biotechnology and fintech in which both countries have many opportunities to collaborate, says Rajamony.