Leiden University Libraries Digital Collections

Icones Plantarum Malabaricum

In the 17th century, the island Sri Lanka was known as Ceylon and partly governed by the Dutch East-Indies Company (VOC). The main goal of the VOC was the monopoly on the export of cinnamon bark. Several employees of the VOC were also interested in the local flora as a source of herbal medicine. The Special Collections of the Leiden University Library hold a two-volume manuscript with watercolour drawings and handwritten descriptions of medicinal plants from Sri Lanka, known as Icones Plantarum Malabaricarum, adscriptis nominibus et viribus. Vol. I. & II. (BPL 126 D). The author / artist is unknown, but some of his / her drawings also ended up in the Artis library of the University of Amsterdam.

The manuscript consists of two vellum-bound books with 261 drawings of medicinal plants and associated text with Sinhalese and Tamil names, a description of the plant itself, its medicinal properties, and for which diseases it is used by the local population of Sri Lanka. In a research project in the framework of the Clusius chair of History of Botany and Gardens at Leiden University almost all specimens depicted in the book were identified and the early 18th century Dutch texts were translated and analysed.

The paper of the manuscript was made after 1694 and before 1710. In total, 245 species are described: cultivated garden plants and common weeds but also wild forest species and Sri Lankan endemics. Many species are used to purify the blood, to cure snakebites or to remove slime from the stomach. The detailed recipes show that the author had a good relation with traditional healers and local people, who were willing to share their knowledge with him.

More than half of the historic Sinhalese and Tamil names are still used in Sri Lanka today. Many of the species remain to be employed for traditional medicine in the region. This unique manuscript is a treasure chest of local traditional knowledge. Publishing this document online will hopefully lead to the discovery of the author / artist who has spent so much time and effort to preserve local Sri Lankan knowledge.