The Dutch Connection – Katargam Cemetery and Hortus Malabaricus

Remember your Class 8 History textbooks ? One of the most interesting chapters is on the Age of Exploration or the Age of Discovery that dominated the world history between the 16th and the 18th centuries CE. During this era, seafaring traditions proliferated and so did the trading of goods. This led the Europeans to search for a sea route to the markets of tropical spices that they were becoming increasingly fond of. Up until then the Arab merchants had a monopoly on the trade of Indian spices via the treacherous mountain passes of the famed silk route. The Dutch were among the pioneers in sea trade and established the first MNC of those times –  ‘The Dutch East India Company’.

During the 17th Century Suratte was a thriving port under the Mughal rule. The city was famous for its muslin, indigo and spices, which were supplied to the city both from hinterland and via the Indian Ocean trade route. In the late 16th century and in the beginning of 17th century, Portuguese were dominant traders in Surat. It is said that they were so agitated when two Dutchmen visited Surat for the first time in 1602 to establish trade contact that they were captured and taken to Goa where they were finally hanged until death.

In 1606, another Dutch merchant David Van Deynsen arrived in Surat to set up a trading post, but he too could not escape the wrath of the Portugese. He was tortured so much that he ended up taking his own life. But the Dutch did not give up and fortune turned in their favour in 1616, when Jehangir, the Mughal Emperor intervened and granted them trading rights. By 1620, the Dutch had established their own factory in the middle of Surat on the banks of the river, Tapi.

The Dutch East India Company controlled most of its trade in Asia via Surat. They had excellent relations with the Mughals and therefore unlike Portuguese, did not find the necessity to build elaborate forts. A number of  Dutch East India company settlements quickly mushroomed in and around Surat as well as in Ahmedabad, Sarkhej and Agra.

Dutch Cemetery in Ahmedabad located near Kankaria Lake 

In the first half of the 18th century, political unrest broke out in Mughal Empire and this had a detrimental effect on the business interests and establishments of Dutch in Surat. In 1759 AD, the British finally seized Surat and it marked the beginning of the end of Dutch influence in the region. Today, ironically the only existing Dutch presence in Surat is left in a cluster of tombs that are located within an enclosure in the heart of the walled city near Katargam gate.

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The Entrance Gate of Dutch Cemetery at Surat 

From a distance what appears as imposing tombs influenced by Mughal and Sultanate architecture, on closer inspection reveals traces of European architecture especially in the arches and pillars. All the epitaphs in the cemetery are in Dutch. Among the tombs, the most impressive mausoleum is that of Baron Hendrik Adriaan Van Rheede (who died 1691 AD), former governor of Dutch Malabar. It is a double storied octagonal structure with a central dome and a column supporting each of its eight corners. This 18 meters high structure has intricately carved wooden doors and murals depicting geometrical patterns . A fitting resting place for the man who gave us 12 volumes of the precious Hortus Malabaricus, the first of its kind documentation of plant life of Malabar region of India.

The Splendour of Dutch Cemetery at Surat 

Details of Hendrik Van Rheede’s Tomb

Hendrik Van Rheede was a nobleman from Amsterdam. In Dutch India, apart from overseeing the construction of forts and fortifications, he spent most of his time studying, documenting and cultivating tropical plants. In fact, he was the first European botanist in India who  focussed on the systematic documentation of tropical plants and their use in fighting tropical diseases. The Dutch East India Company stimulated such scientific research and brought out a series of publications for the first time on plant heritage of west coast of India. The efficacy of the treatise can be gauged from the fact that Carl Linnaeus, the Father of Taxonomy, used Hortus Mabaricus as one of the basis of his classification thus explaining Malayalam roots names of certain species. Rheede was assisted by the King of Cochin and the Zamorin of Calicut along with Gaud Saraswat Brahmins and Ayurveda scholars of Kerala in his herculean effort.

Today, it is sad to see the run down tombs and the pathetic state of the Dutch cemetery in Surat. It has been partly encroached upon and used as a playground and many of the precious architectural remains have been vandalized. There are heaps of garbage lying all around. A rich legacy is being wasted and needs urgent attention. I hope this post serves the purpose of raising adequate awareness.

The Present Condition of the Surrounding of Dutch Cemetery 

By Jitu Mishra

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