IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 19 | Institutes

Religious Conversion, Cultural Translation
In Early Modern South India

The role of Christian missionaries has become a bone of contention in the contemporary Indian political arena. In the heat of the argument, missionaries are literally equated with 'foreign' mind and body snatchers, with the fifth column geared at denationalizing and denaturalizing the indigenous, territorially rooted social, ethnic, and cultural 'essences'. Without going further into a discussion about the origins of what appears a dangerous overreaction, a task which I leave to sociologists, as a historian all I can and want to do, is to 0conjure up those past events and actors who, at one point or another, faced and responded to similar, though not identical, historical challenges.

By Ines G. Županov

My research into a century and a half (1500-1650s) of efforts at Christianization in India under Portuguese padroado (patronage), persuaded me to conceptualize religious conversion (1) as a rational decision, even when the original moment of conversion occurred under the coercion of the Portuguese secular arm, as in Goa, and (2) as an ongoing process of cultural, social, and economic exchange and differentiation. As a product of multiple cross-cultural encounters, unavoidable, accelerated and globalized from the beginning of the 16th century, conversion is not purely religious at all times. If the relationship between power and hegemony plays a prominent part in conversion practices, the same can be said about most of the early modern 'rationalizing' institutions.

Cultural or linguistic translation is in many ways analogous, even homologous, to the process of conversion. 'Turning' the meaning embedded in the system of signs of one language into another follows the same heuristic protocol that underscores religious conversion: identifying points of similarity, adapting or overwriting unacceptable differences, and the creation of a new coherent and englobing field of references. Inherent permeability of social and cultural (and individual) bodies ensures that the flow and circulation of translation/conversion never stops. More often than not, imperial intentions resulted in a typical conqueror's illusion of total conversion or total translation. The fragmented Portuguese Asian 'empire' sent home not only spices and exotic riches, but also a plethora of new foreign words (peregrinos) which were rapidly indigenized. Nevertheless, the early military and maritime success inspired some waning (armchair) Portuguese humanists of the middle of the 16th century, such as Joăo de Barros, to imagine that the Portuguese vernacular - which he considered to be one of the most perfect of the Romance languages - would one day replace 'defective' Asian languages. Similar ideas about linguistic imperialism were in vogue in the Spanish New World. Antonio de Nebrija (the author of the first Spanish grammar of 1492) clearly stated that the language was the partner of empire., A few centuries later, the linguistic policy of the British imperialism left an equally ambiguous legacy to the independent states that emerged from its dismemberment.

Tamil preaching

Portuguese linguistic imperialism, prophesized by Barros, never materialized in Asia. Nor did the empire, for that matter. However, linguistic issues became and remained closely interwoven with the larger problem of conversion and proselytism. With the arrival in India of the most efficient missionary order, the Society of Jesus in 1541, the formula of teaching Portuguese to the imperial subjects, supported by Barros in his Portuguese Gramática (1540), was turned upside down. Within a few years of their intensive missionary fieldwork in far away and solitary places, often with no Portuguese military presence to back up their apostolic work (e.g. in South India, the Moluccas, Japan), the Jesuits concluded that the Europeans should learn Asian languages in order to preach and translate the basic Christian tenets. Jesuit linguistic enthusiasm was often interpreted by the Portuguese colonial administration and rival missionary orders as a plot to capture and monopolize access to the local population (i.e. to its economic resources, such as, for example, the pearl fisheries in the Gulf of Mannar). One of the first languages that the Jesuits encountered and subjected to a detailed linguistic scrutiny was Tamil, the language of the Parava pearl fishermen who inhabited the sandy coast from Kanniyakumari to Ramesvaram in South India. The apostle of India, St. Francis Xavier, was the first to preach to his local converts in Tamil, although there is a doubt that he learnt the language well, if at all. What he did understand was the importance for the missionary enterprise of 'speaking in tongues', of becoming 'Indian to Indians'. It was through his encouragement that the Jesuits who remained in the Parava mission after his departure organized the first continuous Tamil language course for the missionaries, working at it uninterruptedly for at least half a century. It was an in-the-field training, although the documents and language manuals written for the school were most probably also available in Goa and Lisbon. Henrique Henriques (born into a family of converted Jews at Vila Viçosa in Portugal; died in Tuttukkuti in India in 1600) was a Jesuit whose missionary career of almost forty years was closely linked with the Paravas and the teaching of Tamil. Besides translations into Tamil of Lives of the Saints, the Confession Manual, and two Catechisms, he also wrote the first Tamil grammar (almost two centuries before the famous grammatical works by another Jesuit, Giuseppe Beschi), which became the model for all future grammars used by foreigners to learn the language. Sophisticated, speculative Tamil-language treatises such as Tolkappiyam (ca. first century AD) and its numerous commentaries were neither accessible to Henriques nor are they useful for teaching or learning the elementary spoken Tamil. Henriques's linguistic procedure closely follows that of Joăo de Barros, to whose Gramática he refers his readers before they embark on learning Tamil, especially, he warned them, if they did not possess a solid grounding in Latin grammar. The result was that, for the first and not the last time, Tamil was 'harnessed' by and 'reorganized' into the rules of conjugation and declension defined by the Latin grammarians. Every single verbal form was assigned its Latin or Portuguese analogue, whether it fitted perfectly and seamlessly or not. Even today, some of these verbal forms are considered as 'defying' the grammatical classification applied to Indo-European languages. Faced with such inexplicable differences, Henriques simply described and relegated them to the category of acrescentamentos (additions or excresences).


Although Henriques's grammar remained unfinished because, in his own words his missionary duties were too demanding, it became a successful teaching tool. We are told that with the help of his grammar, learning Tamil was a matter of six months. Moreover, Henriques was confident that, with his linguistic method and with a help of one native speaker, he would be able to write the grammar of any other language - Japanese or Ethiopian, and it seems that he even made some efforts at 'deciphering' the grammatical rules of the Malayalam and Konkani languages. Well into the 17th century, Henriques's Tamil-language school-trained missionaries worked in the Tamil area and, in their turn, improved on his grammar. Some of them like Roberto Nobili, Giuseppe Beschi and others wrote important catechetical and literary works in Tamil. In fact, the Jesuit manuscript grammars of Tamil (signed or anonymous) of this period are available in various European libraries and archives, but have so far not attracted much scholarly attention, if any at all. Far from claiming that the missionary efforts at learning Tamil (or any foreign language, for that matter) were a counter-imperialist gesture (although the imposition of one's language on others is an 'imperial' or simply hegemonic gesture par excellence), ideally, it did lead to a better cross-cultural understanding and to a two-way cultural translation.
While the Jesuits were mastering this difficult language, which would be defined only later as belonging to a separate, Dravidian family of languages, their local male converts were learning Portuguese. Those who were destined to take holy orders were also instructed in elementary Latin. In the case of Paravas, even more important than Portuguese language, which faded away with the Dutch political ascendancy along the Fishery Coast in the 17th century, the Jesuits bestowed on the people the 'Christian' language which is only accidentally Christian and certainly more than a language. Not only was the Parava Tamil vernacular elevated to the rank of a written language through translations into Tamil and printed works such as Henriques's Confessionairo, these also equipped the Paravas with the tools for forging their own sense of community, honour (mariyatai), and identity. Initially with surprise and satisfaction, among the Paravas the Jesuits recorded an extraordinary attraction to confession and to displaying their devotion in acts, in oral and written poetry, and through voluntary financial support of Christian institutions - from churches and confraternities to the printing presses. By converting to Christianity, the Paravas succeeded in constructing and refashioning (not without internal inequalities) their corporate identity as a closely integrated social and economic body within the multi-religious and multi-ethnic landscape of the early modern South India. Cogently, the conversion did not lead Paravas to lose their Indian 'ethnicity' but to gain one instead.

While doing my research on the history of the Jesuit missions in Tamilnad in the 16th and 17th centuries, the questions of conversion and translation formed the core of my interest (Županov 1999). These and similar concerns motivated me to join the team of Professor Arokianathan and a handful of Tamil enthusiasts in creating the Tamil Summer School for Foreign Graduate Students and Researchers (for details about the Tamil Summer School, see page 17), launched by the Department of Social Studies of the French Institute in Pondicherry. The Tamil Summer School cannot compete with Henriques's Tamil school on the Fishery Coast, although one of the intentions is similar - facilitating the teaching and learning of this language which the Jesuit missionaries like Roberto Nobili called elegantissima et bellissima lingua - and which the Tamils themselves simply call sweet.

Županov, I. G., Disputed Mission: Jesuit Experiments and Brahmanical Knowledge in 17th-century South India, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 265, forthcoming.

Dr Ines G. Županov was a research fellow selected by the ESF Asia Committee and stationed at SOAS in London (1996-1998). She is also a member of CEIAS in Paris. E-mail: zupanov@giasmd01.vsnl.net.in)