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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

When Orientalism met Taxonomy

Just as good people today end up aiding and abetting the destruction of the planet there were enlightened people working for imperialist forces in the past too. Working in the British East India Company, were a number of men (yes, I am not aware of many women employees), many influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment, members of scholarly societies, who landed up in India and took a keen interest in documenting the land, the people, the culture, and of course the flora and fauna. They were very well-educated for that period, many influenced by "liberal" philosophies at the East India College, Haileybury under teachers like Thomas Malthus. They started scholarly societies in India such as the the Asiatic Society and put their ideas into print. They have been called Orientalists but connotations vary. For many, 1857 marked the end of certain kinds of admiration, but some Orientalism persisted, especially outside the main zone of the rebellion. It is worth examining whether this had any impact on the study of the fauna and flora of India.

Applicants to the East India Company service had to pass an exam which included a section on natural history (set in this case by J.D. Hooker, the famous botanist). We will see that many of these  questions such as the one on ascorbutic plants simply cannot be discarded as a fad, it was a matter of health and survival. One wonders if an average Indian civil servant today will be able to answer these questions.

Part of an examination paper for EIC applicants.
Dublin Medical Press, 4 August 1858.

Even before the English EIC, there were other overland and seafaring visitors with an interest in the environment. Long sea journeys challenged human bodies and strengthened the role of ship surgeons who also needed to look for local substitutes for traditional medical remedies. In the 1600s some herbal remedies were almost miraculous. It was around the time when scurvy, the great killer of sailors, was found to be easily and effectively treated by lemon juice (yes, part of the answer to Dr Hooker's question 7 on ascorbutic plants is the citrus family!). It is unsurprising therefore that food and medicine, especially from plants, and local knowledge of them was big on the agenda of travellers. The Dutch, the Danes, the Portuguese, the English, they were all at work, examining traditional herbal remedies. The methods they used to obtain knowledge seem to have varied. Most collected specimens and sent them off to learned societies in there own countries.

The Dutch East India Company project of Hendrik van Rheede is exceptional in the nature of collaboration in knowledge production that put Indian traditional knowledge on record and gave local knowledge its due. Rheede came from an enlightened upper class background and it is interesting to see how he viewed other cultures. Rheede worked at a time when Linnaeus' ideas of binomial nomenclature were still in development. The only labels that he could use were what he could find from local usage. He was aware of local variations both regional and linguistic and recorded them quite carefully. He had copperplate engravings made for printing the illustrations and all of them include local names in their original scripts in the corner.

Jackfruit from Rheede's pre-Linnean work with Indian names
Sitaphal Annona squamosa from Hortus Malabaricus
A species claimed as an example of pre-Colombian biological transfers between the New World and Asia

Linnaeus considered words that came from non-classical languages (anything besides Greek and Latin) as 'barbarous'. Linnaeus made extensive use of names from Greek classics for his scientific names. He is said to have had reservations about using local names except in the Latinized form as species epithets and only rarely for generic names. Joseph Needham accused Linnaeus of being prejudiced about Chinese knowledge although some later workers have pointed out there is little evidence for this claim.(Cook, 2009) It has been pointed out that Linnaeus used nearly 258 names from Malayalam based on Rheede's work, the Hortus Malabaricus. (See Jain and Singh 2014 for a list)

We have already seen how Brian Hodgson was a big fan of local names in his descriptions as well as binomials. He was however forced by peer-pressure to shift to the use of Greek and Latin roots.
Hodgson (1841)
We have seen also Hodgson's opinions on Macaulay and his defence of the vernaculars. This was perhaps a minority stance that had a few echoes in southern India. Walter Elliott who had noted the local name of the Madras tree-shrew was commemorated in the binomial name given by G. R. Waterhouse and the genus came from the local Tamil name - Anathana. Waterhouse never went far from Europe (although he could have joined Darwin on the Beagle if had chosen to). So it seems somewhat ironic that the only the people who were pedantic about the use of classical biological names were in the Asiatic Society of Bengal (Blyth?) and Jerdon in the Madras Literary Society.

Jerdon (1839)
Oriolus kundoo

Petrocincla pandoo - now Monticola solitarius pandoo

Names of Indian origin but with almost certainly no real connection seem to have been introduced into ornithology by Colonel W. H. Sykes. Working in peninsular India, he recorded all kinds of information as part of his job as "statistical reporter". He would later become a director of the East India Company. He measured the pressure and temperature at various times of the day at all locations he visited. He looked at the soil, counted the people, commented on female infanticide, sex ratios, army health, expenditure, the mathematics of insurance and almost anything that could be counted or measured at that time. He was one of the founders of the Victorian statistical movement. His bird specimens got species names such as meena, seena, govinda, beema, asha, deva, pandoo, kundoo, (and a primate got lingoo) and so on apart from more routine eponyms after the powers around him. There is no clear rationale for many of his bird names, they are not names used locally for the birds except in some cases like his Lanius lahtora (lahtora being a local name for shrike). The situation changes strangely when he deals with fishes and he uses local names almost as a rule - for example Gorius kurpah, Cyprinus nukta, Barbus musullah, B. kollus and so on.

C.-J.-B. Amyot and Audinet Serville (1843) Histoire naturelle des insectes 8. p. 266.
  Macrocheraia grandis (=Lohita grandis )

The French entomologists Amyot and Serville are quite careful in their use of Sanskrit for insects from India. Redescribing a common northeast Indian bug which they called Lohita, they are careful in indicating the etymology and the association, even transcribing the original Sanskrit. Dalader, is a bug that has a leaf like expansion on the antenna and the name is derived from Sanskrit dala and dru meaning leaf bearer. Amyot & Serville also use such names as Sastrapada, Dalpada and Adrisa, although I have not examined the rationales for these (in Distant's Fauna of British India. Rhynchota volumes). No such care can be found in the name usage of the W. L. Distant, G. W. Kirkaldy or Frederic Moore.

Running through the Fauna of British India volumes by W. L. Distant on the bugs gives us  some of the names that appear to be of Indian origin. Distant uses a few names in the first few volumes on Heteroptera (Nishadana ) but he really takes off with Sanskrit-origin names with the Auchenorrhycha (then called Homoptera). Presumably, the sheer volume of species and genera that are new to science make it too difficult to spend time on searching for names. Distant however does not have the time for finding meanings in Sanskrit and there is almost no association with the characters of the species. He is not alone in this, entomologists Kirkaldy (Nirvana, Krisna), Kirby (Devadatta) and Walker (Asyla) also use a few names that are of Sanskrit or Indian origin. I call this the dictionary flipping system of nomenclature. We will soon meet the master of this art.

  • Purana
  • Haphsa
  • radha, Platylomia
  • durga, Meimuna
  • Mata
  • Aola
  • Lahugada
  • Sena
  • Gudaba
  • Basa
  • Anila
  • Baruna
  • Kinara
  • Vekunta
  • Magadha
  • Usana
  • Kosalya
  • Drona
  • Vivaha
  • Devadanda
  • Jivatma
  • usuma
  • Varma
  • Jagannata
  • Brahmaloka
  • Vishnuloka
  • Givaka
  • Tatva
  • Devagama
  • Narayana
  • Sivaloka
  • Sudasina
  • Nilalohita
  • Detya
  • Pisacha
  • Danavara
  • Satapa
  • Gomeda
  • Pulastya
  • Chaturbuja
  • Tejasa
  • Ketumala
  • Anaya
  • Gaja
  • Purohita
  • Upachara
  • Sogata
  • Nilaparvata
  • Kalpa
  • Smara
  • Bochara
  • Mahisa
  • Navarrus
  • Agunga
  • Kanigara
  • Uzza
  • Hybanda
  • Telingana
  • Dograna
  • Nilautama
  • Periaman
  • Ebhul
  • Gargara
  • Demanga
  • Yasa
  • Kanada
  • Thoodzata
  • Jembrana
  • Sounama
  • Mandesa
  • Daha
  • Abidama
  • nagasana, Cosmoscarta
  • samudra, Cosmoscarta
  • raja, Cosmoscarta
  • Chatura
  • Balocha
  • Chunra
  • Moonia
  • Busonia
  • Bhandara
  • Kolla
  • Bundera
  • Mainda
  • Pisacha
  • Tambila
  • Haranga
  • Balala
  • Preta
  • Soibanga
  • Mileewa
  • Ujna
  • Kalasha
  • Assiringia
  • Bhooria
  • Sudra
  • Hatigoria
  • Namsangia
  • Vangama
  • Traiguma
  • Gurama
  • Chudania
  • Mukaria
  • Buloria
  • Mohunia
  • Kutara
  • Kana
  • Pugla
  • Mukwana
  • Soortana
  • Varta
  • Dusana
  • Dharma
  • Guliga
  • Arya
  • Kunasia
  • Bhatia
  • Homa
  • Kartwa
  • sudra, Typhlocyba
  • jaina, Typhlocyba
  • Haidra
  • Haidara
  • Akbaratus
Frederic Moore (1830 - 1907)
Francis Walker, another entomologist, infamous for describing the same species under different names (a motivation possibly being that he was paid on the basis on numbers of descriptions), uses names that seem to be more inspired by previous workers and often made use of anagrams. His taxon names include examples like Anitha, Asura and Baratha.

Frederic Moore was a curator of lepidoptera at the East India Museum, an establishment that was shut down (late 1870s) and its contents moved to the V&A museum with zoological specimens going to the British Museum (NHM). He was also an accomplished artist, as was his namesake son. His truly wonderful work can be seen in the volumes of Lepidoptera Indica. This work however required him to put names on many of the specimens and it is believed that he too, like Walker, was paid on the basis of the number of specimens described. The result was that he did not spend much time grouping similar looking species into proper genera and he gave many generic names for very similar butterflies - for instance the Euploea genus had been redescribed under numerous other names making it "fun" for subsequent entomologists to decide which genus name had priority. A truly remarkable case of dictionary flipping, he picked a range of names with no meaningful association. Here are some:

  • Abisara
  • Abrota
  • Acharya
  • Bamra
  • Camadena
  • abiasa, Parathyma
  • Adisura
  • adara, Neptis
  • adara, Pantana
  • adita, Chionaema
  • Agastya
  • agna, Charaxes
  • agnicula, Polygonia
  • Agnibesa
  • Agnidra
  • agniverna, Ixias
  • amara, Bibasis
  • amba, Neptis
  • ambasa, Unkana
  • ananta, Neptis
  • anarta, Limenitis
  • andasena, Euploea
  • anila, Asura
  • anjana, Neptis
  • anjira, Cirrochroa
  • anna, Caligula
  • annada, Callerebia
  • antara, Pantoporia
  • Appana
  • apsara, Gazalina
  • Apsithra
  • Apsaras
  • Arasada
  • arbela, Indarbela
  • aruna, Argyreus
  • asita, Parathyma
  • asoka, Praezygaena
  • asthala, Symbrenthia
  • asthipa, Parantica
  • asura, Parathyma
  • asvata, Olene
  • aswa, Melanitis
  • avanta, Ypthima
  • avatar, Nepheronia
  • Babula
  • bada, Parnara
  • Badamia
  • badra, Hasora
  • bahula, Parathyma
  • bajadeta, Cirrochroa
  • bala, Sarbanissa
  • baladeva, Lethe
  • Balanga
  • balarama, Tanaecia
  • baldiva, Satyrus
  • baruna, Ilema
  • baralacha, Lycaena
  • baswana, Pantana
  • baya, Charaxes
  • beelinga, Erites
  • beema, Agylla
  • bela, Agylla
  • bhagava, Daimio
  • Bhagadatta
  • bhairava, Lethe
  • bhascara, Lymantria
  • bhavana, Apatura
  • bhira, Lebeda
  • Bimbisara
  • Bidaspa
  • Bindahara
  • birupa, Chrysozephyrus
  • bisma, Episteme
  • Brihaspa
  • buddha, Calinaga
  • byasa, Parides
  • Calinaga
  • Calidosa
  • cama, Pantoporia
  • Capila
  • cartica, Neptis
  • casyapa, Lobocla
  • casyapa, Papilio
  • Chabula
  • chalana, Ilema
  • Chalinga
  • champa, Trichosea
  • Chamunda
  • Chandrana
  • charaka, Mycalesis
  • Chatamla
  • Charala
  • Checupa
  • chaya, Pelopidas
  • Chendrana
  • Cheritra
  • Chilasa
  • chola, Panchala
  • Chogada
  • Chobera
  • chumbica, Satyrus (toponym?)
  • Churinga
  • colaca, Borbo
  • Cupitha
  • Curubasa
  • Cusuma
  • Dabasa
  • Dadica
  • Dalapa
  • Dalima
  • Dalchina
  • daksha, Callerebia
  • danava, Limenitis
  • Darpa
  • darma, Parasa
  • darana, Amblypodia
  • Dasaratha
  • dasarada, Parides
  • Davendra
  • Devanica
  • desa, Charaxes
  • deva, Elymnias
  • devaca, Delias
  • dhanada, Celaenorrhinus
  • dharma, Asura
  • Diduga
  • Digama
  • Dilipa
  • divacara, Chionaema
  • divikara, Chionaema
  • Dodanga
  • Dodona
  • Dophla
  • Dravira
  • drataraja, Prosopandrophila
  • Doranaga
  • Drupadia
  • Dura
  • Durdara
  • durga, Euthalia
  • durvasa, Appias
  • duryodana, Neptis
  • Gamana
  • gana, Tagiades
  • Gandaca
  • Gandhara
  • ganesa, Panchala
  • ganga, Abrota
  • Gangara
  • garuda, Euthalia
  • Garudinia
  • gautama, Calinaga
  • Ghoria
  • Gomalia
  • gomata, Bibasis
  • gokala, Melanitis
  • gola, Oriens
  • gopala, Satarupa
  • gopara, Spilosoma
  • gotama, Mycalesis
  • govindra, Papilio
  • Hantana
  • Harita
  • Harapa
  • Haridra
  • Harimala
  • Harita
  • Hesudra
  • Hemadara
  • Hathia
  • Hastina
  • Himala
  • Hingula
  • hira
  • Hysudra
  • indra, Appias
  • indrani, Cogia
  • indrasana, Cystidia
  • ira, Euthalia
  • Iramba
  • Iraota
  • jahnu, Tanaecia
  • jaina, Bibasis
  • jainadeva, Fabriciana
  • janaka, Papilio
  • Janarda
  • janardana, Mycalesis
  • jayadeva, Capila
  • jehana, Tajuria
  • jumna, Abrota
  • kala, Euproctis
  • kalinga, Melanitis
  • kamadena, Periergos
  • kamala, Fabriciana
  • kamarupa, Neptis
  • kanda, Euthalia
  • kansa, Lethe
  • Kaniska
  • Karanasa
  • karsandra, Zizeeria
  • Katha
  • kausala, Ixias
  • Kerala
  • Kerrata
  • kesava, Euthalia
  • Kolasa
  • Korawa
  • Kosala
  • kresna, Parathyma
  • krishna, Papilio
  • kumar, Caltoris
  • kurava, Nacaduba
  • Labranga
  • Lachana
  • linga, Miltochrista
  • Locharna
  • lodra, Perina
  • Lohora
  • Mahanta
  • Mahasena
  • Mahavira
  • mahendra, Neptis
  • mahesa, Parathyma
  • mahintha, Bibasis
  • mangala, Parnara
  • Martanda
  • maruta, Calliteara
  • mata, Limenitis
  • Mithuna
  • mithila, Cirrochroa
  • munda, Celaenorrhinus
  • Murlida
  • Nagasena
  • Nagoda
  • Nagunda
  • nanda, Lebeda
  • nandina, Neptis
  • nara, Euthalia
  • nakula, Apatura
  • narada, Daimio
  • narayana, Neptis
  • narindra, Lymantria
  • Narmada
  • Niganda
  • Nirmula
  • Nishada
  • nivaha, Miresa
  • Nikara
  • Norraca
  • Palanda
  • Padraona
  • Pandita
  • Panchala
  • Pandassana
  • Parasarpa
  • Parata
  • Parbattia
  • parinda, Papilio
  • parivala, Phalera
  • Patala
  • Pathalia
  • Pindara
  • pingasa
  • phisara, Daimio
  • Pitama
  • Pitasila
  • Pitrasa
  • Prabhasa
  • prabha, Myrina
  • pralaya, Mooreana
  • Pramila
  • prasana, Cerura
  • Pratapa
  • pravara, Parathyma
  • Putlia
  • radha, Neptis
  • Radhica
  • Raghuva
  • raja, Eterusia
  • Ramadasa
  • Rajendra
  • ranga, Parathyma
  • ramdeo, Thaumantis
  • ravana, Cirrochroa
  • Rohana
  • roona, Arhopala
  • Runeca
  • Sadarsa
  • Sadarga
  • sadana, Tridrepana
  • sahadeva, Euthalia
  • Samanta
  • samatha, Polyura
  • sambara, Nishada
  • samudra, Polyommatus
  • sancara, Euthalia
  • santana, Curetis
  • Satarupa
  • Sarangesa
  • scanda, Lethe
  • Satoa
  • sastra, Artaxa
  • sasivarna, Matapa
  • sena, Bibasis
  • Senadipa
  • sikandi, Euthalia
  • Sincana
  • sindura, Melitaea
  • sipahi, Pericallia
  • siva, Ochlodes
  • soma, Neptis
  • Sonepisa
  • Sonagara
  • sura, Odontoptilum
  • sumitra, Celaenorrhinus
  • surya, Cirrochroa
  • susruta, Neptis
  • suttadra, Arctia
  • Tarika
  • Telicota
  • Telinga
  • Thaduka
  • Thamala
  • Tirumala
  • Tiruna
  • Trilocha
  • Trilochana
  • Tripura
  • Trisula
  • vamana, Melanitis
  • Vandana
  • varaha, Melanitis
  • vasanta, Euthalia
  • vasudeva, Elymnias
  • vinata, Arguda
  • Vindusara
  • vipasa, Pontia
  • vira, Nordstromia
  • Virachola
  • viraja, Lasippa
  • vishnu, Delias
  • yama, Neope
  • Zabana
  • Zarima
  • Zeheba
  • zennara, Capila

Note that these names are included here by just a casual examination. I have specifically dropped cases where the name comes via the name of a place (toponyms). There may be errors but it should give an idea. Note also that many are not valid names and the combinations might be outdated. The full list can be readily checked by examining names used by Moore via LepIndex. Whatever Moore used was either a book or one or more books that included names from the Hindu Pantheon, the epics of the Mahabharata, Ramayana and some history as well. When I provided this list to some friends, I got a suggestion that the source book that Moore might have used would be something like this by Dowson. (This suggestion is thanks to Anna Dallapiccola via Henry Noltie. email: 16 May 2012)

Modern taxonomists resorting to Sanskrit are far more careful. The genus Sweta described by Professor C A Viraktamath for instance is white in colour and a frog like Nasikabatrachus has something to be said about its nose.

The strangest cultural artefact that got into taxonomy however is the name of a shade of grey that goes by the name of Hathi gray (Hathi is elephant in Hindi) - and is used as a standard in describing colours in zoological descriptions. I have seen no explanation of this phenomenon, particularly since this one was invented in America (yes, gray and not grey) by someone who had little to do with India. Based on some news reports from the period when Ridgway wrote his book, it appears that Hathi was an elephant that was popular at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago (not far from where he lived). Hathi's name would probably have been inspired by Kipling's Jungle Book.

"Hathi gray" in a taxonomic description

The definition for Hathi Gray in the color guide by Robert Ridgway (1912)


Postscript: Nancy Jacobs, Brown University, wrote (31 March 2015) suggesting that "dictionary flipping" may have become more popular when the idea that Linnean binomials were merely expected to be unique labels rather than descriptors sank in. [See for instance Kirkaldy's comments ]
Dan Lewis, Ridgway's biographer, sent me two more mysterious colour names - Pleroma Blue and Skobeloff Green, which I suggested are based on Tibouchina elegans (formerly genus Pleroma) and a variety of apricot respectively.

An Indian pioneer of Sanskrit usage in scientific names was the entomologist T V Ramakrishna Ayyar who used such names for thrips species as Thilakothrips (thilak being an adornment on the forehead), Veerabahuthrips (for a long-armed thrips), Arrhenothrips dhumrapaksha (=cloud winged), and Mesothrips bhimabahu (a thrips with strong femorae).


  1. Great to read this! Very inspiring and informative to understand how the problem of language (and translation) can affect concepts in taxonomy :)

  2. Very good post. I'm impressed you managed to dig up the natural history exam excerpt. A few years ago I tried to find the maths and science entrance papers to the EIC and didn't get very far.

    Speaking of natural history, you might like this post on Edward Lear's sojourn in India and his watercolours, some of which were on Indian fauna. Some of the links have failed, though.

    1. Thank you Feanor! I am of course aware of Edward Lear and his travels in India including the Mysore region and the Nilgiris. Having recently seen some original hand-coloured lithographs of Lear's parrots at the ZSL I have to say that digital versions can hardly capture the sheen and texture of these works.

  3. Awesome work Shyamal. Thanks for letting us into the natural history path of naming.

  4. Fbulous research Shyamal.Now lets see if I can recall all of this!

    1. The reason for me to take up blogging was precisely that, failing memory and too much to read ...

  5. A great research. So much of knowledge packed in a short article which throws light on the western temperament in Scientific nomenclature. It really depicts your profound knowledge stock you have in store. A great consolidation of a rarely looked into segment, of natural history. Hats off.