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The history of the Mangalore Christians by Alan Machado

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[EXCERPT] A fragment of the birth register at the Church of the Holy Family at Mermajal (Omzur), 16 km from Mangalore, records the birth of Isabella, daughter to João Macedo and Rosa Braga, on June 19, 1801. João is my great-great-great-grand father.

This is the only record of his existence; the family’s history has forgotten him. It remembers, however, that the family was one among most of Kanara’s Christian population deported to Srirangapatna in 1784 on Tipu Sultan’s orders, and that their entire property was confiscated by the state. It also attests that the family originally came from Halldonnem (Aldona) in Goa where they were ganvkars of the Prabhu clan. If João had not returned from Srirangapatna, the family would have passed into history with nothing to record it ever existed.

This Prabhu family of Aldona descended from the original founders of the ganvkari or comunidade, the governing body at the village level which also maintained the main temple. This ancient institution existed from centuries before the Portuguese arrived in Goa with, as one of her viceroys said, the sword in one hand and the cross in the other. Both were effectively used as a means of establishing Portugal’s legitimacy to govern Goa.

Employing a combination of incentives and coercion, Portugal’s Estado da Índia succeeded, within a short time and to a large extent, in imposing Christianity as the state religion. Sometime at the beginning of the 17th century, the Prabhus of Halldonnem became Macedos of Aldona and when, towards the end of that century adverse conditions forced them to join the general exodus to Kanara, they carried that legacy with them. Barely a century later they had become victims of another state’s policies: Tipu’s saltanat-i-khudadad. [1] Here, their younger generation was converted to Islam and incorporated into the lashkar-i-ahmadi, the army division composed of military slaves. João (c. 1770) could have been one of them. With a change in name and place, his story is repeated in the histories of Goan Christian families who settled in Kanara before 1784.

Religion influenced every aspect of an individual’s life then, from before birth to beyond death. Assuming an authority deriving from an invisible, but ever palpable, divine power that was more dominant than the ruling state, it offered a ruler, in collaboration with religious authority, tremendous potential for controlling his subjects. A successful ruler buttressed his authority by projecting his guardian deity as his partner in kingship, in effect claiming his legitimacy to rule from a supernatural source, by a very visible and public patronage of the deity’s idol and centre of worship. Such temples and deities became inextricably linked to a particular ruler or dynasty and, therefore, became targets in times of conflict with rival states.

In Mysore, the Wodeyars patronized a number of prominent temples and emphasized the divine source of their legitimacy through the grand nine-day celebration of the dasara festival. Shrewdly, Haidar Ali, the Muslim ‘usurper’ who seized power from the Wodeyars, avoided the complexities of acquiring normative legitimacy by acknowledging the raja’s nominal authority while confining him within his heavily guarded palace with a meagre allowance. The raja became the focus of dissent which erupted in a near fatal coup, months after Tipu assumed the musnad and was preoccupied with the frustrating siege of Mangalore fort. It was possibly the most influential event that set Tipu on the path of establishing his own normative legitimacy based on the pattern of Indo-Muslim rulers, while also adopting the tiger insignia, a royal emblem of the ancient Chola and Hoysala rulers. Tipu’s tiger was widely portrayed devouring the Wodeyar insignia, the gandabherunda.

The most potent threat to Tipu, however, came from the increasingly voracious aggression, and growing economic and military power, of England’s East India Company. Its three widely separated territories in Bengal, Bombay, and Madras linked to each other and distant England by a powerful navy, gave it an invulnerable territorial base. Four bitter wars were fought for domination of south India. The conclusion of the second war coincided with Tipu’s quest for legitimacy as ruler of the legacy bequeathed to him by Haidar. That process required that he decisively and conclusively demonstrate his superiority over the English, portrayed simultaneously as European and Christian, threat to his state and its primary legitimizing religion, Islam. Tipu classified all Christians, European and Indian, as nasrani, belonging to the ferangi mazhab. [2]

Christianity was first brought to India by merchants and traders from west Asia, some centuries before Arabs followed with Islam. Their version of Christianity belonged to various sects of the Eastern Orthodox Church. As merchants, they were readily welcomed by local rulers of port cities and towns whose main source of revenue derived from overseas commerce. Their primary objective being trade, their interaction with local communities was dictated by persuasion, negotiation, and accommodation. As Arabs began to dominate this trade, smaller Christian communities disappeared from most coastal settlements. Only the Syrian Christians of Malabar remained as a strong and vibrant community. The existence of Asian Christians was known vaguely to the Portuguese court.

Vasco da Gama sailed to find and ally with them in Portugal’s aim to encircle the Muslim states of west Asia. When he finally reached Malabar, he initially mistook non-Muslims for Christians, and temples as their churches.

The Portuguese brought a different face of Christianity to India, that of the Western Catholic Church which had been adopted by European states to promote their own legitimacy and control over their subjects. They used it very effectively to impose their rule over the Estado da Índia. Through immigration and missionary activity, Christianity had established itself in the saltanat-i-khudadad.

Tipu could not establish his credentials among his Muslim clerics and court elite on whom his durbar almost exclusively depended, without effacing it from within his borders. Court rhetoric would trumpet this achievement as a total triumph over the nasrani.

So it was that in a brief span of three centuries, the crushing force of two states, with different state religions, attempted to consolidate their precarious hold over their subjects by overriding a community’s religious beliefs, to impose their own. Sadly, the history of that imposition mostly ignores the trauma and tragedy of the victims.

In quiet moments of reflection, as in a dream, I see my last Prabhu ancestor passing the ruins of the temple where he once worshipped, and feeling a twinge of guilt for abandoning the gods of his forebears. Then I see a teenaged João, circumcised and at drill in the distinctive bubry uniform of the lashkar-i-ahmadi, on the grand parade ground at Srirangapatna. I see him look sadly toward the palace and the minarets of the Great Mosque of the state that enslaved him, and weep, at night, bitter tears for the family and home that were taken away from him. That vision fades and another appears: a young man hardened by 15 years of loss and exile standing before the house that was once his home and now occupied by others, and again before the ruins of the church that once stood on the little hill at Omzur, staring silently. Then the obscuring mists of time return and blanket it all. And I brush away a tear that wells up and blurs the sight and begin to write in order to exorcise the ghosts of yesteryears still hovering overhead.

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[1] ‘God-given state’. Also referred to by Tipu as ahmadi (of the Prophet) and asad-i-ilahi (Lions of God) sarkar or government.

[2] In the Greek gospels, Jesus, being associated with the town of Nazareth (an Nasirah in Arabic), was given the epithet ‘Nazarene’. In the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 24: 5), Paul is described as the leader of the sect of the Nazarenes, the term being first applied to all Jewish followers of Jesus. The Greek name, Christian (followers of Christ), was first used in Antioch to designate non-Jewish followers of the new religion, while ‘Nazarenes’ was already used in Palestine to describe Jewish adherents to the new sect. As non-Jewish Christians began to dominate the early Church, the term ‘Nazarene’ began to be applied increasingly in a derogatory manner to the Jewish element condemned as heretics. Both co-existed in the early Church though a distinct cultural gulf existed between them. The Nazarenes clung tightly to old Judaic traditions and the Mosaic laws, and believed that Jesus was the Jewish messiah.

Irenæus, in the second century, observed that they practiced circumcision, persevered in observing Judaic customs, and believed that Jerusalem was the house of God. This distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish Christians was recognized in other parts of the ancient world. A Persian inscription of the third century boasts of having suppressed seven hostile faiths, among them Jews, sramanas (Buddhists) and bramanas (Brahmans), nasray and kristiyan (Blois 1998: 1-6; Pritz 1988: 11-13; Schonfield 1936: 36).

The Malayalam term nasrani, applied to Syrian Christians is of great antiquity.
It is borrowed from the Arabic nasrani, which has been applied to designate
Christians from very early times (Blois 1998: 11-12).

ferangi mazhab: Christian (European) sect (Punganuri 1849: 36 footnote).

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