Christianity in India was not always imposed. Just look at its Portuguese art

Ethe same day, social media confidently declares that Abrahamic religions were somehow unable or unwilling to ‘compromise’ with Native Americans throughout history. We would like to think that Indians converted away from Hinduism by force only 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 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 15thth century AD, exchanges across the Indian Ocean seemed to have reached a triumphant culmination. Although many superpowers had tried to control the flow of trade between the Indian Ocean’s hundreds of ports and various peoples, none had really succeeded. In the 11thth century, the Cholas of Tamil Nadu were unable to mobilize resources consistently and over sufficient distances. The Ming Dynasty in China in the early 15th century could and did by rearranging the movement of animals, goods and embassies from Aden to Africa, Bengal to Malacca and Indonesia to China. But it was unprofitable in the long term. A more isolationist strategy took hold in China at 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 time that the Portuguese finally discovered how to bypass the gunpowder empires that controlled the West Asian gateways to the Indian Ocean. Within mere decades, they implemented a leaner, narrower version of earlier grand strategic doctrines. Instead of periodic raids and tribute missions, they worked with permanent fortresses on land and moved stock fortresses to the seas – galleons, a new kind of gun-carrying vessel quite unlike the dhows that once dominated Indian Ocean trade. They were optimized for moving goods alone. The Portuguese could raid and demand tribute at will, which demand would cease only if a passing or poster were bought at exorbitant prices.

Situated at the mouth of the great river Mandovi, towards the middle of the west coast of India, Goa was a natural target for Portuguese attention. Earlier Gopakapattinam – a 12thcentury emporium where the Kadamba and Silahara dynasties had indulged in piracy, diplomacy and investment with the Arab and Deccan worlds – Goa had by then become a province alternately dominated by the Bijapur Sultanate 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 after the Ming retreat, 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 the largest cities in Asia, larger even than distant Lisbon, and was declared the seat of the archdiocese of all Asia in 1557. The Portuguese were clear that they were here to stay. The diaspora abounded throughout India – when Gujarat was conquered by the Mughal emperor Akbar in 1573, 60 families had already lived there. Portuguese arms dealers and mercenaries could be found in all South Indian kingdoms, 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 it a one-sided process. The Indian Ocean World quickly incorporated the Portuguese. That poster the system failed despite the best efforts of the Portuguese crown because – Prof Chaudhuri writes – “the Portuguese possession of Goa, Malacca and Hormuz had officially opened the door to an active participation in a highly profitable branch of inter-Asian trade and providing private fortunes.” Portuguese sailors and merchants simply found it more profitable to work with the peoples of the Indian Ocean. These peoples were not defenseless either – by 1520, Arab and Indian merchants were producing their own Portuguese-style galleons. By 1521, even the isolationist Chinese had defeated a Portuguese armada. At the end of the 16th century, writes the historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam in The Portuguese Empire in Asia, 1500-1600revived early modern states from Golconda to the Tokugawa Shogunate had decimated the Portuguese Estado Da India.

In an instant the Portuguese had been transformed and swallowed up by the Indian Ocean.

Also read: Did the Mauryas really unite India? Archeology 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 thread: Roman Catholicism, deeply tied to the turbulence and religious beliefs of modern 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 Christianize the world.

In practice, the Portuguese made many compromises on the Indian coasts. The Portuguese crown was not exposed to the multicentric world of the Indian Ocean and approached it with an extremely rigid policy. Missionary organizations—the Franciscans, Jesuits, Dominicans, and Augustinians—expanded rapidly in Goa, finding ‘lower’ castes receptive to promises of social equality as well as missionary spending on charity and education. But as the historian Angela Barreto Xavier points out Religion and Empire in Portuguese India, ‘upper’ castes, especially Brahmins and landlords, were much more resilient – ​​often fleeing en masse when faced with discriminatory measures by the Portuguese and persecution by the Goa Inquisition. Their eventual conversion required changes in Portuguese approaches – the education of lower castes gradually ceased, thus maintaining the older social order. Reverse upper castes and groups of Indo-Portuguese descent also began to be seen (and to see themselves) as more fully “Portuguese” rather than “Indian”.

But even within this dynamic there were variations. Conversions were not always powerful. Professor Xavier writes that local people may have seen the Virgin Mary (for example) as 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 due to a belief that these were potent new rituals similar to those constantly being developed by the subcontinent’s existing religions. And despite repeated attempts by the authorities to prevent non-Christian artisans from making religious objects, art historian Francesco Gusella suggests in Behind Practice for Partnership that they continued to do so informally well into the 17th centuryth century. At this time, official attitudes became far more accommodating and relaxed, supported by generations of Indian Christians in important church and state positions, growing geopolitical pressure on the Portuguese Empire, and the incorporation of new, primarily non-Christian territories into the metropolis of Goa.

The Museum of Christian Art, now in the Santa Monica Convent in Old Goa, contains many objects that reveal how complex these processes were. It is a collection that I have studied and developed 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 possessions in Africa, is depicted with sari-like curtains with thick, Indian ornamented edges. Nagas are carved on wooden pillars that once decorated church altars. The baby Jesus, in a uniquely Indian variation, is depicted seated and dozing with his head resting on his palm in a motif probably derived from the sleeping Vishnu. Such ivories were hugely popular in Europe and were exported in large numbers. As much as religiously colored violence was a reality in Portuguese India, objects like these remind us that it was only one aspect of a complex, colorful 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 part of the ‘Thinking Medieval’ series that takes a deep dive into India’s medieval culture, politics and history.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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