The paintings are from the archives of the Linnean Society in London and are based on the pioneering work Buchanan did in 1802-1803 when he came to Kathmandu on an East India Company mission to the Nepal Court. The exhibition was inaugurated last week by British ambassador, John Tucknott, and on hand to introduce the exhibition was Mark Watson of the Royal Botanic Garden in Edingburgh.
The history of plant exploration of Nepal goes back to antiquity through ayurveda, but there hadn't been any specimen collection and taxonomical studies. Buchanan collected over 1,000 plants and many turned out to be new species. He pressed his specimens between papers that absorbed moisture, a technique still used by collectors, and stored them at the British Museum. The Linneau Society also archived his manuscripts and drawings.
Buchanan placed great importance on local plant names and frequently incorporated them into their new scientific Latin names, even distinguishing Nepali names from Newari ones. A large part of this work was included into David Don's Prodormus Florae Nepalensis in 1825. But the drawings at the Linneau Society remained a hidden treasure until they were discovered by Mark Watson, who was fascinated by the quality of the paintings.
Most botanists hired artists to draw valuable specimens, but we don't know the identity of Buchanan's artist. We also don't know what Buchanan looked like because, unlike other explorers from the 18th and 19th century, he left no portraits for posterity.
The exhibits at the Siddhartha Art Gallery are beautifully framed, the illustrations are fine and capture the details of flowers and leaves with natural freshness. Most illustrations are life-size and the gallery almost looks like a herbarium.
'Sungava', the Nepali orchid, is pictured as Epidendrum damunsuttea using the Newari name, 'Damunsutta' which Buchanan collected from the forest below Swayambhu. The orchid doesn't survive there anymore, and nor does the Newari name for it. Sungava was later renamed Dendrobium densiflorum, and is depicted on a Nepali postage stamp and its trade is restricted.
The painting of the 'Chilaune' plant depicts a small twig with fresh green leaves that appear leathery, and flowers have pure white petals opened to a small cup, disposing a bunch of stamens that surround the central pistil. It is typical of a tea family flower. Another member of the tea family, Camellia kissi, known as 'Hingua' in Nepali is the chief ingredient for Tibetan tea prepared with salt and chauri butter. For Buchanan this plant was new to science, and he inscribed it as Camellia hengua.
Buchanan's use of Newari 'Lukuli Swa' for his wild cinchona as C. luculia survived in botanical jargon as the genus Luculia, and the pink flowering shrub is now known as Luculia gratissima. Unfortunately, the name 'Luculi Swa' is no more in use in Newari. Its drawing is somewhat incomplete, the artist having left the lower leaves unfinished in order to save time and conserve paint material.
One Indian artist of the time employed by botanists was Vishnupersaud (Vishnuprasad), but it is unlikely he was Buchanan's artist because a Luculia plant he drew for another collector in Tentamen flora Nepalensis (1824) has different draughtmanship than the one in the Buchanan collection.
Buchanan later changed his name to Hamilton for inheritance purposes and a large number of plant names bears his double-barrelled name: Buchanan-Hamilton, shortened to Buch.-Ham. In Nepal, Hamilton is known also as a historian and traveller. He also studied the fresh water fish in Nepal's rivers.
Buchanan was perhaps the first one to discover, collect and draw Nepal's incredible biodiversity, which Kipling later eloquently described as: 'The wildest dreams of Kew are the facts of Kathmandu'.
Tirtha Bahadur Shrestha is a noted Nepali botanist, who has extensively studied Nepal's endemic plantlife.
Till Sunday 1 April at Siddhartha Art Gallery, Baber Mahal Revisited
From portrait to self-portrait