Cross-cultural pollination has been the catalyst for numerous marvelous discoveries throughout history, bridging continents and uniting diverse knowledge systems. Such a shining example lies in the pages of the 17th-century botanical treatise, Le Jardin de Orixa, which had remained shrouded in mystery within the hallowed halls of the Natural History Museum of Paris for centuries until it was recently discovered by renowned Kapil Raj, an Associate Professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris and a member of the center Alexandre Koyré for the History of Science. Unveiling this hidden gem of botanical literature sheds light on the untold stories of collaboration, perseverance, and the invaluable contributions of our nation’s indigenous cultures to the West.
Amidst the Greco-Roman backdrop of the manuscript's intriguing frontispiece, an array of figures unveils the tale of this botanical journey. At its core is Nicolas L’Empereur, a surgeon to the French East India Company, whose vision to amass local medicinal knowledge from South Asia was driven by a desire to save European lives during their perilous voyages to the region. As a result, in the 1690s, he embarked on a 30-year project in present-day Orissa, India. The title of the manuscript, Le Jardin de Orixa meaning Flora of Orixa, refers to its place of origin. The 14-volume opus boasts over 700 vivid paintings of indigenous plant species, each meticulously drawn by local artists, in the European botanical art style. The treatise underwent translation from local languages, mostly Oriya, to Hindustani (the medium of communication for Europeans and South Asians at that time) to French.
However, it wasn't merely a stroke of fortune that brought L’Empereur's vision to fruition. The journey to collect information on the properties and uses of local plants was far from straightforward. In a display of cultural understanding, L’Empereur nurtured friendships with two fakirs for over fifteen years before they entrusted him with their invaluable knowledge. These fakirs, elusive and guarded against strangers, held the key to unlocking the secrets of South Asian herbal medicine, and their contributions were pivotal in the manuscript's creation.
Equally noteworthy is the acknowledgment of women as essential sources of indigenous knowledge within the pages of Le Jardin de Orixa. As healers and collectors, they played a significant role in procuring the 722 plant species cataloged in the treatise. Their expertise, often overlooked in mainstream historical records, is now immortalized in this botanical masterpiece, becoming a testament to the inclusive nature of collaboration across cultures.
Regrettably, the completion of this monumental work came at a great personal cost to L’Empereur, who eventually faced financial ruin. In 1725, he entrusted his life's labor to the esteemed Academy of Science in Paris, where it lay dormant, unknown, and unheralded until modern times.
Rediscovering Le Jardin de Orixa serves as a poignant reminder of the inherent value in embracing cultural exchange and acknowledging the multifaceted contributions of diverse communities. Its legacy extends beyond botanical knowledge, serving as a testament to the strength of human connection and the power of shared wisdom. The treatise is an invigorating example of the magic that can be conjured when hearts and minds transcend borders and unite. However, I would like to end on a side note and bring your attention to the fact that history only remembers the name of Nicolas L’Empereur and not the many local artists who painted the indigenous plants or the names of the fakirs who shared their indispensable knowledge with the Frenchman.