Closer Look: Is it Asclepius or Mercury on the Padmanabhapuram Bed?

The central motif on the headboard of the Padmanabhapuram bed is a cornucopia of mixed motifs from European and Indian mythologies. You can take a closer look at the headboard in my photo essay; in this post, however, I am exploring the central icon of the serpent wound around the staff (or as I have argued elsewhere, the staff is actually a processional Christian cross).

 Central Motif of Padmanabhapuram Bed

Central Motif of Padmanabhapuram Bed

If you visit Padmanabhapuram palace, the staff there will waste no time in telling you that the bed in question is a "medicinal cot" made of 64 different types of Ayurvedic woods, and that the serpent wound around the staff is a "Greek symbol of medicine" used by medical and health institutions to this day. (If you stick around long enough on a slow day, the lovely palace guides will even show you some of the playful, hidden lizards sculpted on palace doors.)

A few years back, a professor of early modern Northern European art history suggested that the serpent around the staff is Mercury, the Roman god of trade, a mythological figure that was especially popular with the Dutch traders who spent their lives on maritime routes. This appears to be not the case, since Mercury, a Roman successor to the Greek Hermes, took on all of the latter's characteristics including the association with Caduceus, a staff around which are found two serpents (image on the right). 

 Left: Greek God of Medicine, Asclepius, with his Rod; Right: Mercury with his staff, the Caduceus.

Left: Greek God of Medicine, Asclepius, with his Rod; Right: Mercury with his staff, the Caduceus.

Mercury's Caduceus and Asclepius's rod have been confusing people forever perhaps, but in 1906, the United States Army Medical Corps adopted Caduceus as their emblem mistaking it for the rod of Asclepius the Healer. Ever since, medical institutions in North America have mistakenly adopted Caduceus as their medicinal emblem. (See images below.)

The helpful professor, however, insisted that, like the US medical institutions, early modern ndian artists who produced the bed, made a similar mistake, in reverse, misinterpreting the rod of Asclepius to be the Caduceus. It would make more sense for European traders, she said, to present a gift that symbolically represented trade than a gift of health to a rival "native" king. 

 Left: Emblem of United Nations World Health Organization (showing rod of Asclepius at the center); Right: Emblem of US Army Medical Corps from 1906 displaying Caduceus

Left: Emblem of United Nations World Health Organization (showing rod of Asclepius at the center); Right: Emblem of US Army Medical Corps from 1906 displaying Caduceus

I had nothing concrete at that time to counter her argument. But recently, upon examination of the bed, I have found that the bed is made of many different kinds of woods, some easily identifiable as tropical woods said to possess various medicinal properties, such as Neem (Indian Lilac), Arayal (Ficus Religiosa), and Kanjiram (Poison Nut Tree).* These woods also appear to be placed by design to affect and heal the user. For example, Neem is used at the very top of the cot and towards the middle were the abdomen of an average-sized user would rest. This would seem an appropriate placement of this wood as Neem tree's bark is considered a traditional diuretic and lauded for its ability to detoxify blood. 

Further, the Dutch, especially, were known to have had a strong interest in Kerala's horticulture. One of the earliest scientific enquiries of India was the Hortus Malabaricus (Garden of Malabar) produced by the Dutch East India Company under the leadership of Hendrik van Rheede, the Dutch Governor of Malabar from 1669 to 1676. I am inclined to argue that the reading of the bed as a "medicinal cot" is accurate given these associations.

(Although, this now poses a fresh problem: was the bed really made for Marthanda Varma, the ruler of Travancore in eighteenth century, who came into power around 50 years after Hortus became a best seller? More on my dating woes regarding the bed here.)

*The identification of woods that make up the bed is an on-going process. Some of them are more easily identifiable than others. I thank the palace manager and resident historian of Padmanabhapuram for his continued help in identifying wood-types.