Sailor, soldier, spiceman, saint: Origin of Christianity in South Asia

BODY OF FAITH: Christianity, for much of the first millennium and a quarter, flourished only in pockets in Kerala and the Northeast. Photo: iStock
The last two general elections in India have, arguably, been fought on the issue of religion, or the threat to one of them by barbaric aliens.

An interesting pastime for a world traveller would be to sit on a stool in the marketplace in any small town from Quilon to Bharuch on the west coast, or Delhi’s Shahjahanabad, and watch the world go by. On the west coast, the nose bridge would rise and fall, the tip would hook or the nostrils unfurl, the skin would change texture and tone, the hair would curl, curl some more or lie long and flat. 

Without being a geneticist or a social anthropologist it would be clear that India, at the lower tip of the Asian continent, has a people who are a heady and wholesome mix of major race groups, mostly more than two. The north sees traces of genes originating in eastern and central China, Central Asia, the amorphous Macedonia and, of course, WANA, as the Indian foreign office used to call the West Asia-North Africa region of Persian- and Arabic-speaking, largely Islamic, people inhabiting a swathe of desert and coast ending around the Yemens. 

Camel caravans, armed horse cavalry that began with curved sword and bow and arrow and ended with the first canons to be seen by friend or foe, truth-seeking savants and sailors and tradesmen sailing in wind-driven dhows made it possible. Driving them all were the pressures of commerce as much as the exigencies of empires, big and small, expansionist by design and compulsion. This was a universal pursuit, one can say in historical hindsight. 

Religion itself was a parasite, riding the winds with its accompanying dower of culture, the arts, and literature — and superstitions and persecution. There were no innocents in race and creed. The Hordes of Ghenghis seem more dramatic in 3-D cinemascope, but the Tamil kingdoms’ sailors left as deep a mark wherever they went, overcoming or overwhelming local peoples and cultures. Temples in Indochina speak of the tides of Hindu and Buddhist struggles for power with inerasable marks on temple walls. Small tracks remain relatively untouched, the Chhotanagpur religion in Central India where the political confrontation now is whether to call them Adivasis, conceding their antiquity and ownership of the land, or Vanavasis, forest dwellers, consigning them to a vassal status, so to speak, denying them identity outside the majoritarian superstructure.

AN ANTIQUE LAND: Syrian-Christian women in Kerala in 1912. Photo: Wiki Commons

Which is perhaps why it will be politically setting the cat among the pigeons if ever there was to be a national genome project — the ones that are quoted in newspapers are flexi-data that can be interpreted to appease whichever political ideology is in power.

And that is why it becomes important — irrespective of the difficulty — to squelch all attempts to fabricate a hierarchy of religion and culture with a design and intent to enforce a political establishment where “old” and ageless majority groups have a controlling interest whereas young, perhaps intruding, faith entities ought to know their place as vassals on sufferance. 

The government-assisted project to conflate mythology, oral history and cultural nuances with the modern nation-state of India that is Bharat bakes it into a hair-trigger indigenous explosive device.  Islam can only be equated, therefore, with the Mughals and Christianity with the Raj. They are collectively derided as non-Indic, aggressive, faiths. The latest term for its followers, particularly in Assam, is Termites. The Buddha, born in what is today Nepal, is Indic because Gaya, his place of Nirvana, is in India. Parsis and Jews, with hoary histories of their own in India, are conveniently not part of the “Other” narrative. The hundreds, if not thousands of native faiths of the indigenous, or tribal, people don’t matter, apparently, in the nation-state argument, and the Constitution, when it does confront religion, as in the National Commission for Minorities Act, talks of them as within the Hindu fold. The Supreme Court of India has consistently refused to define Hinduism.

Siddhartha Sarma’s Carpenters and Kings does not purport to be a definite history of Christianity in India, and it certainly is not a hagiography of the belief and its founder. But the book comes at this critical time to shed some light on the origins — or rather the lack of a sharply defined date of birth of when a certain religion first entered the pristine holy landscape of South Asia.

Sarma’s wide academic sweep and his consummate journalistic prose captures the maelstrom of wars, great generals and ambitious conquerors in a military history of religions, Christianity and Islam specifically. His is an innovating mapping of the rise and fall of empires, and kings, from the Great Khans of the east to the Caesars, the Caliphs and the Crusaders.

The message of Christ had reached the resident Jewish communities of the western coastline possibly within his lifetime. Christianity, as we know it, flourished from the beginning, its ecclesiastical structures changing with developments in the Levant and the Mediterranean coast. For much of the first millennium and a quarter, it flourished only in pockets in Kerala and the Northeast. Its antiquity in the region finds a fresh echo in the Pope vesting the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholic churches with the same authority as the Latin Catholic Church brought in by the marine fleets of the Iberian Peninsula and Western Europe. 

Sarma makes a point for peaceful co-existence of peoples of differing faiths. This is integral to democracy in India, guaranteed by its secular Constitution, and makes the book a worthwhile read, especially for the people at large targeted by the mass media and fake news on the internet.
The reviewer is an editor, author and occasional documentary film-maker whose People of Peace on Christianity in India was widely screened in the 1990s. He was national president from 2004 to 2008 of the century-old All India Catholic Union, and member of the National Integration Council, Government of India

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