Every day, social media confidently declares that Abrahamic religions were in some way unable or unwilling to ‘compromise’ with Indians throughout history. We might like to believe that Indians only converted away from Hinduism by force after many acts of valiant ‘resistance’. As appealing as this narrative is, it ignores Indian Christian voices to fuel a story of imaginary heroes and villains. It is completely isolated from real, complex historical dynamics.
The art and records of Indo-Portuguese Christians, produced century after century, tell us a story that is not without violence. But it is also a story that is not without faith, devotion, understanding, and brilliance.
How the Indian Ocean transformed the Portuguese
In the 15th century CE, it appeared that exchanges through the Indian Ocean had reached a triumphant culmination. Although many superpowers had attempted to control the flow of trade between the Indian Ocean’s hundreds of ports and diverse peoples, none had truly succeeded. In the 11th century, the Cholas of Tamil Nadu were unable to mobilise resources consistently and at sufficient distances. The Ming dynasty in China, in the early 1400s, could and did do so, rearranging the movement of animals, goods, and embassies from Aden to Africa, Bengal to Malacca, and Indonesia to China. But this was unprofitable in the long term. A more isolationist strategy took hold in China by the end of this century, creating what historian Kirti N. Chaudhuri describes in The Portuguese Maritime Empire, Trade and Society in the Indian Ocean as a “dangerous vacuum” in maritime networks.
It was at this crucial juncture that the Portuguese finally discovered how to bypass the gunpowder empires that controlled West Asian gateways to the Indian Ocean. Within mere decades, they implemented a leaner, meaner version of earlier grand strategic doctrines. Instead of periodic raids and tribute missions, they worked with permanent fortresses on land and moved warehouse fortresses to the seas — galleons, a new kind of cannon-bearing craft completely unlike the dhows that once dominated the Indian Ocean trade. They were optimised for moving goods alone. The Portuguese could execute raids and demand tributes at will, demands for which would only cease if a pass or cartaz was purchased at exorbitant prices.
Situated in the estuary of the great river Mandovi, toward the centre of India’s West Coast, Goa was a natural target for Portuguese attention. Formerly Gopakapattinam—a 12th-century emporium where the Kadamba and Silahara dynasties had indulged in piracy, diplomacy, and investments with the Arab and Deccan worlds—Goa had, by then, become a province alternately dominated by the Sultanate of Bijapur and its rival, the Vijayanagara Empire. The Portuguese fortified and transformed it into a sprawling city, half-European and half-Indian. Their traders expanded into the East Asian void left by the withdrawal of the Ming, creating a booming Goa-Macao-Nagasaki trade that catapulted tiny Portugal—with a coastline the size of Kerala’s—into a global superpower.
As Portugal’s power grew, so did Goa’s. Within the century, Goa had become one of Asia’s largest cities, larger even than distant Lisbon, and was declared the seat of the Archbishopric of all Asia in 1557. The Portuguese were clear that they were here to stay. The diaspora fanned through India — when Gujarat was conquered by Mughal emperor Akbar in 1573, 60 families had already been living there. Portuguese gun merchants and mercenaries could be found in every South Indian kingdom, writes historian Pius Malekandathil in Maritime India. Portuguese men often married Indian Muslim women and “made use of the mercantile networks of their Muslim relatives”. On many occasions, they also converted to Islam.
Nor was this a one-sided process. The Indian Ocean World rapidly incorporated the Portuguese. The cartaz system failed despite the best attempts of the Portuguese crown because — Prof Chaudhuri writes — “the Portuguese possession of Goa, Malacca, and Hormuz had officially opened the door towards an active participation in a highly profitable branch of inter-Asian trade and making private fortunes.” Portuguese sailors and merchants simply found it more profitable to work with the peoples of the Indian Ocean. These peoples weren’t defenceless either — by 1520, Arab and Indian merchants were producing Portuguese-style galleons of their own. In 1521, even the isolationist Chinese had defeated a Portuguese armada. By the late 16th century, writes historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam in The Portuguese Empire in Asia, 1500–1600, reinvigorated early modern states from Golconda to the Tokugawa Shogunate had decimated the Portuguese Estado Da India.
In the blink of an eye, the Portuguese had transformed and been engulfed by the Indian Ocean.
Also read: Did the Mauryas really unite India? Archaeology says ‘no’
Goa’s own Christianity
Although the Indian Ocean had brought Christianity to the subcontinent, within decades of the death of Jesus Christ, the arrival of the Portuguese had introduced a new strand: Roman Catholicism, tied deeply to the turbulence and religious beliefs of contemporary Europe. As much as the Portuguese became part of the Indian Ocean, they were also the first to introduce an early modern European concept—that it was Europe’s destiny to rule and Christianise the world.
In practice, Portuguese people made many compromises on Indian shores. But the Portuguese Crown was not exposed to the multicentric world of the Indian Ocean and approached it with an extremely rigid policy. Missionary organisations—the Franciscans, Jesuits, Dominicans, and Augustinians—expanded rapidly in Goa, finding that ‘lower’ castes were amenable to promises of social equality as well as missionary spending on charity and education. However, as historian Angela Barreto Xavier shows in Religion and Empire in Portuguese India, dominant castes, especially Brahmins and landowners, had much less to gain from conversion—often fleeing en masse when they faced discriminatory measures by the Portuguese and persecution from the Goa Inquisition. Their eventual conversion required changes in Portuguese approaches — the education of lower castes gradually ceased, thus retaining the older social order. Converted dominant castes and groups of Indo-Portuguese descent also began to be seen (and to see themselves) as more completely “Portuguese” rather than “Indian”.
Yet, even within these dynamics, there were variations. Conversions were not always forceful. Professor Xavier writes that locals might have seen the Virgin Mary (for instance) as yet another local goddess. There are also records of them using Catholic rituals such as the sprinkling of holy water and Confession; it is unclear how much of this was due to being converted and how much because of a conviction that these were potent new rituals akin to those that were constantly being developed by the subcontinent’s existing religions. And despite repeated attempts by authorities to prevent non-Christian craftsmen from making religious objects, art historian Francesco Gusella suggests in Behind the Practice of Partnership that they continued to do so informally till well into the 17th century. By this time, official attitudes became far more accommodative and relaxed, supported by generations of Indian Christians in important church and State positions, growing geopolitical pressures on the Portuguese Empire, and the incorporation of new, primarily non-Christian territories into the metropole of Goa.
The Museum of Christian Art, now in the Convent of Santa Monica in Old Goa, contains many objects revealing how complex these processes were. It is a collection that I’ve been studying and developing as a podcast for over a year. The Christian Pelican, used as a metaphor for Jesus, is represented as an Indian hamsa or mayura bird. The Virgin Mary, carved in ivory imported from Portuguese holdings in Africa, is depicted with sari-like drapes with thick, Indian ornamented edges. Nagas are carved on wooden candlesticks that once decorated church altars. The infant Jesus, in a uniquely Indian variation, is depicted sitting and dozing, head resting on his palm in a motif likely derived from the sleeping Vishnu. Such ivories were tremendously popular in Europe and exported in large numbers. As much as religiously-coloured violence was a reality in Portuguese India, objects like these remind us that it was just one aspect of a complex, colourful world.
Anirudh Kanisetti is a public historian. He is the author of Lords of the Deccan, a new history of medieval South India, and hosts the Echoes of India and Yuddha podcasts. He tweets @AKanisetti. Views are personal.
This article is a part of the ‘Thinking Medieval’ series that takes a deep dive into India’s medieval culture, politics, and history.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)