Part V: The Siddha Vaidya of Madras
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Part V: The Siddha Vaidya of Madras

A Venetian historian, a Mughal artilleryman, a vivid food diarist – both Indians and Europeans claimed Niccolao Manucci as their own.

brunch Updated: Dec 10, 2011 19:34 IST
Text and Photos: Jonathan Gil Harris
Text and Photos: Jonathan Gil Harris
Hindustan Times

What makes the firangi more Indian: the acquisition of Indian languages, knowledges, and ideas, or the consumption of Indian foodstuffs, drinks, and medicines?

The best view of Madras, now Chennai, is from the top of St Thomas Mount, near the airport. An effigy of a smiling Pope John Paul II stands by the rails at the summit; behind him, you can see the megacity sprawling all the way to the horizon. The hill’s name in Tamil, Parangi Malai, means "Firangi Mountain."

St Thomas mountIt allegedly commemorates one of the first firangis in India, the apostle St Thomas, who is said to have evangelised on the Malabar and Coromandel coasts from 52 A.D. before being martyred twenty years later on the hilltop. But Parangi Malai was also the home of another remarkable firangi some 1,600 years later – the Venetian runaway, English servant, Mughal artilleryman, and Madrasi siddha vaidya or physician, Niccolao Manucci.

Manucci’s biography reads like something straight out of a swashbuckling romance. He was born to poor parents in Venice in about 1639. At 14, he stowed away on an Asia-bound ship carrying an English aristocrat. This lord took a shine to Manucci, retaining him as a page. But shortly after arriving in India in 1656, the Englishman died, leaving the young teenager master-less.

Siddha medicalManucci eventually found employment with the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s son Dara Shikoh, whom he loyally served as an artilleryman in the succession battle with his brother Aurengzeb. After Dara’s defeat, Manucci successfully tried his hand as a physician – the profession of many European visitors to India, thanks to a widespread misapprehension that firangis were especially knowledgeable about medicine.

This physician is more famous now as a historian. Manucci authored the four-volume Storia Do Mogor (History of the Mughals), a chronicle that includes his eye-witness account of the battle between Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb. Despite its several glaring factual errors, the book is a fascinating read, thanks to the vividness with which Manucci records his experiences in Mughal India – a vividness that has earned him favourable comparisons to his better-known contemporary, the London diarist Samuel Pepys.

Amongst other things, Storia Do Mogor is a foodie’s dream: Manucci spends considerable time documenting his pleasurable gastronomic experiences. For example, he offers a long, dramatic description of his first encounter with pulao. Manucci’s fascinated attention to the effects of ingesting Indian substances may also be partly responsible for his ultimate success as a physician – and not just any physician, but a medical practitioner conversant with Indian as well as European traditions.

ManucciManucci certainly started out as a quack, but he was a quick study; his knowledge and reputation grew in Lahore, where he practiced successfully as a physician from 1670 to 1678. Here he honed his mastery of not just European but also Mughal medicine. In 1678, he joined the retinue of Shah Alam, the future Mughal emperor who was at that time Aurengzeb’s governor of the Deccan. But Manucci eventually fell into disfavour with his new employer. In 1686, despite threats from Shah Alam, Manucci daringly escaped to the French colony of Pondicherry, just south of the European merchant colonies of Fort St George (England) and São Thomé (Portugal), now both part of Chennai. He was to stay in this region for the rest of his life, until his death in 1717.

In 1686, after more than thirty years in India, Manucci confided in Pondicherry’s governor, François Martin, that he was finally ready to go back to Europe. But Martin retorted that Manucci had become too used to the Indian climate to survive a return, and recommended that he stay and find a local wife. Heeding Martin’s advice, Manucci married Elizabeth Clarke, the half-Portuguese, "country-bred" (possibly part-Indian) widow of an English merchant. This merchant had been the only Englishman in Madras living outside Fort St George, in the so-called Black Town populated by Indian weavers who made textiles for the East India Company. Through Elizabeth, Manucci inherited the merchant’s house and garden; its location in Black Town may have appealed to the trans-cultural Manucci, who possibly preferred this halfway space that was neither fully European nor fully Indian.

Soon Manucci acquired a garden property on the slopes of Parangi Malai, close to the European colonies but also at a safe distance from them. It was here that he wrote Storia Do Mogor; it was here also that his services were repeatedly sought as a negotiator in the growing skirmishes between the Europeans and the Mughals. Both sides believed Manucci to be one of them.

He won a reputation amongst the English and Portuguese as a man of Christian virtue; but his fluency in Persian and preference for desi clothes meant that Manucci was legible to the Mughals as an Indian. As he remarks in his Storia Do Mogor, the Mughals (including Shah Alam, with whom he later reconciled, and who briefly stayed in Manucci’s Parangi Malai house as his guest) did not think of him as European. Indeed, one of the two surviving pictures of Manucci is a Mughal-style miniature portrait; wearing Indian garb, he twirls a flower. In his case, however, the flower may be less the traditional Mughal sign of aesthetic refinement than evidence of the kind of material he worked with as a physician.

Having a garden attached to his Parangi Malai property was doubtless a professional necessity for Manucci. In it he could grow the flowers and herbs he used in his medical practice, which he resumed upon moving to Madras. Europeans and Indians alike valued his medical skills in potions and cordials. Especially in demand was his efficacious concoction, "the Manooch stone," made of a substance called lingam.

BroadwayNo, this substance was not what one might think: no precious parts of male anatomy – human or divine – were damaged in its manufacture. This lingam was, rather, cinnabar, known to western chemists as mercuric sulphide. The substance was a staple of the siddha vaidyas, Indian doctors skilled in an antique form of Tamil medicine close to ayurveda and unani. Siddha medicine traditionally employed herbal, inorganic, and animal drugs to treat disruptions of the body’s proper balance in relation to external elements such as climate and foodstuffs. On the evidence of his "Manooch stone," Manucci seems to have embraced the knowledge of the local Tamil doctors. Much of siddha philosophy would have resonated with Manucci’s bodily experiences in India. His decision to heed Martin’s advice not to risk his life by returning to the cooler climes of Europe is a case in point, as is his conviction that eating certain Indian foods contributed to his physical health as much as his gastronomic pleasure.

Searching for traces of Manucci’s three decades in Tamil Nadu is a near-impossible task. The Madras in which he lived is enormously different from the Chennai of today. The one was a tiny European outpost ethnically segregated from the community of Indian workers who sustained it; the other is a sprawling, traffic-clogged megacity of nine million that constantly and insatiably swallows up its past – including the historical remnants of the Portuguese colony, now remembered only in the name of the Chennai suburb Santhome and its church. The cannons Manucci describes seeing at Fort St George survive; but his two houses and gardens are long gone, their foundations destroyed or buried deep beneath the rickety buildings of Broadway near China Bazaar Road and the army barracks near St Thomas Mount.

powdersWhat remains, though, are the Indian gastronomic and medical cultures absorbed by Manucci. The pulao that so bewitched him is a north Indian dish, but I tasted a very fine descendant of it in The Residency, the restaurant of the Sheraton Park Hotel on TTK Road, Chennai. And siddha medical practice is also still very much alive in the city. In Chennai’s leafy suburb of Anna Nagar, I located the Siddha Central Medical Research Institute. Its dispensary features all sorts of powders and potions that would have been familiar to Manucci, including ground lingam.

Manucci’s body was transformed by India’s food and climate, as François Martin noted. But Manucci also transformed others’ bodies with his medicines. More accurately, he created new, hybrid bodies – his own mixed intellectual body of Indo-European knowledge and the mixed physical bodies of his patients, treated with Indo-European materials. And he did so not as a European colonist, but as a firangi-turned-siddha vaidya whose life-story reminds us that what we might think of as "Indian" has always been a mix of the indigenous and the foreign. Casting one’s gaze over Chennai today, its cityscape full of signs in English and Tamil, street names that commemorate Europeans named Sterling as well as Indians named Annadurai, and a sacred mountain that has both an Anglo-Portuguese and a Tamil name, we might see how the mixed bodies that the Italian-Indian Manucci produced are prophesies of the sprawling mixture that is Chennai – and, indeed, India itself.

This concludes our five-part series

Jonathan Gil Harris is Professor of English at George Washington University in Washington, DC. The author of five books on William Shakespeare’s plays and culture, he is currently spending a year in India researching a new book about European travellers to India in the time of Shakespeare

From HT Brunch, December 11

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First Published: Dec 10, 2011 16:06 IST