India’s first anti-colonialist uprising predates Mangal Pandey’s by 274 years? – Mayabhushan Nagvenkar

Festival of Sontreo (Procession of Umbrellas) at Cuncolim

Mayabhushan Nagvenkar“Congress Rajya Sabha MP Shantaram Naik, who has been a part of the campaign to put the Cuncolim revolt as the first landmark on the map of India’s nationalist history, said he was confident eventually the central government would formally acknowledge the event as India’s first recorded revolt against a European power.” – Mayabhushan Nagvenkar wisdom has it that lowly-ranked sepoy Mangal Pandey became the catalyst for India’s first uprising against Western rule in 1857 after he revolted against the alleged use of cattle and pig lard smeared on bullet cartridges used in Enfield rifles issued by the East India Company.

But here’s what you perhaps do not know. 

Jesuits at Akbar's courtA sustained campaign is on to haul back the date of India’s first rebellion against Western colonialism by a good 274 years—from Barrackpore in eastern India to what is now Goa.

The campaign, which is endorsed by historians, freedom fighters, elected representatives and local residents, wants the central government to officially endorse as the first real rebellion the prolonged, defiant struggle of five south Goa villages—Cuncolim, Ambelim, Assolna, Veroda and Velim—against the Portuguese colonists which saw bloodshed and non-payment of taxes.

“The residents of the five villages, led by Cuncolim, had, beginning from 1583, defied Portuguese taxes after Christian missionaries destroyed five temples in the area to bring the villagers into submission and also killed over a dozen of our chieftains,” Oscar Martins, who traces his lineage to one of the slain chieftains, told IANS.

Many of the claims made by Martins find echo in Church records and historical accounts of the time.

The struggle, in which several lives were lost, dates back to 16th century when early Christian missionaries along with their Portuguese armed escorts tried to convert the residents of these five villages to Christianity.

Jesuit priests killed at CuncolimWhen the attempts largely failed, the missionaries destroyed nearby temples, which enraged the villagers, resulting in the massacre of some priests including Fr. Rodolfo Acquaviva—an Italian Jesuit who had also held position at Emperor Akbar’s court and has since been beatified—and their colleagues on July 15, 1583.

In retaliation, the colonists proposed a parley, which ended in yet another bloodbath.

“Sixteen chieftains from Cuncolim were called for a truce to (nearby) Assolna fort. They were ambushed and shot to death by the Portuguese soldiers as retaliation. One of the chieftains managed to escape and tell the story,” said Martins, who now heads the Cuncolim Chieftain Memorial Trust.

After the bloody feud, the five villages stopped paying taxes to the Portuguese rulers for eight years from 1583—centuries before Mahatma Gandhi started his “no tax” campaign against British colonists.

Congress Rajya Sabha MP Shantaram Naik, who has been a part of the campaign to put the Cuncolim revolt as the first landmark on the map of India’s nationalist history, said he was confident eventually the central government would formally acknowledge the event as India’s first recorded revolt against a European power.

Shantaram Naik“For that, the state government will first have to include this incident in our history books to convey Goa’s formal recognition of the event. We also need to give the central government rigorously researched material to back our claim. We are confident that the  will get its place in history that it richly deserves,” Naik told IANS.

The Bharatiya Janata Party-led ruling coalition had promised three years ago to appoint a committee to study the matter for the Cuncolim revolt to be included in school books, but Martins claimed it would need persistent lobbying and reminding because history “cannot be hidden for a long time even if the government neglects it”.

The Trust has engaged a documentary maker to produce a historical film on the subject. “We did not want to wait for the government to take a decision. We do not want to lose time in giving the Cuncolim revolt its rightful place in history,” Martins said. – The News Minute, 19 July 2015

» Mayabhushan Nagvenkar is a journalist in the Panaji area of Goa who writes for various media. He can be contacted at

Our Lady of Health Church in Cuncolim

The J. B. P. More Interview – Shobha Warrier

Shoba WarrierNothing much has changed since Vasco da Gama’s time, says historian J. B. P. More.

That is why he holds the view that the Clash of Civilisations, between the West and the rest of the world which started in the 15th century with Vasco da Gama traveling to India and Christopher Columbus stumbling upon America, has continued till today and will continue for many more decades to come.

“I am sure Samuel Huntington [who proposed the clash of civilisations theory in a memorable 1993 Foreign Affairs essay] will agree with me,” he said in an interview conducted over e-mail.

Born and brought up in Pondicherry, More, moved to Paris to pursue a BA degree. He later did his PhD in history at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (the School for Higher Studies in Social Sciences) where his thesis was on the Muslims of Tamil Nadu.

He has published more than a dozen books with quite a few on the Muslims of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. In his interview to, he provides insights into the Muslims of Kerala and the consequences of Vasco da Gama’s arrival in India. — Shobha Warrier

J.P.B. More• Do you feel Indian (and Third World) history is seen always from the Western perspective?

Yes. Indian history is seen most of the time from the Western perspective. It is a colonial legacy.

Even after the colonial period, many Indian historians continue to work within the Western ideological frameworks and methodologies. They have not evolved anything worthwhile of their own, which is not Western. Therefore, they are bound to look at history from a Western perspective.

Besides, even after decolonisation, Western scholars continue to work on Indian history and society in greater numbers. They produce innumerable books from the Western perspective.

They have even resorted to collaboration and cooperation with like-minded Indian scholars and institutions after Independence in 1947, (which is part of the globalisation agenda of the West), thus ensuring their hegemony in the Indian intellectual and historical world even after decolonisation.

This has contributed largely to look at history greatly from the Western perspective, which is thought to be universal.

Most Western scholars never adopt a completely neutral attitude towards history and society and the Indians largely follow it.

A historian has to view history as an outsider, standing above all group interests. He needs to be uncommitted.

• You have written a book on the origin and early history of Muslims in Kerala. How did you get interested in the subject?

My PhD thesis was about the Muslims of Tamil Nadu. I had worked and published extensively on them and the Dravidians.

I was also interested in French colonial history in India, particularly Mahe on the Malabar Coast.

I went to Mahe. This led me to write a book on the history and freedom movement in Mahe.

From Mahe I got the idea to write a book on the Muslims of Kerala, their origin and early history. I worked on it for several years before it was published in 2011.

• What revelations came to light when you started your study on the origin of Muslims in Kerala?

The Muslims of Kerala owe their origin to peaceful Arab traders, unlike North Indian/Pakistani Muslims who are the result of invasions by Arab, Turkish, Afghan and Mongol armies.

They were a peaceful community, subjects of the Zamorin of Calicut and other Kerala kings until the arrival of Vasco da Gama and the Portuguese, followed by other Europeans.

The policies and values of the Portuguese and later the English transformed this peaceful community into a largely militant community during the colonial period.

They were probably the first among the Indians to realise the colonial implications of European arrival in Malabar and resisted it ferociously tooth and nail.

Sheikh Zainuddin’s work Tohfut ul Mujahdeen of the 16th century, which is the first historical work of South India, is a standing testimony of that.

It is a rare and pioneering, foundation document of resistance to colonialism and slavery, though written from the Islamic standpoint.

It must be included in the list of UNESCO heritage documents, rather than the recent inclusion in that list of the travel account of Vasco da Gama’s first voyage to India, replete with factual errors, which remains nevertheless the foundation document of colonialism.

• Did Arabs travel to the Malabar Coast and spread Islam as early as the 7th century?

There is no evidence in Arab, Persian and Chinese travel accounts and other literature, not to speak of Sanskrit or Tamil literature that the Arabs frequented the Malabar Coast in the 7th century.

But there is evidence of their presence in Malabar from the 9th century.

In my book on the origin of Muslims of Kerala, I have proved convincingly on the origin of Muslims that there was no conversion of the Chera king, Cheraman Perumal, to Islam in the 7th century or in the 9th century as claimed by some scholars or in the 12th century as claimed by M G S Narayanan.

• You say Samuel Huntington got it wrong to say that the Clash of Civilisations, essentially Western and Muslim, started after the Cold War ended.

• You say it began with Vasco da Gama setting foot in India and Christopher Columbus in the Americas.

• Are the conflicts in the world from the 15th century onwards a continuation of this theme?

For Huntington, the ideological clash is over with the fall of the Soviet Union. This has brought about a clash of civilisations on the basis of culture and ethnicity.

Huntington attributes a very restricted meaning and time-frame to the notion of the clash of civilisations.

I think the Clash of Civilisations, which involves all aspects of the life and existence of people, started way back in the late 15th century with the arrival of Vasco da Gama in the Indian Ocean region and Malabar and Columbus in the Americas.

We know about the tragic atrocities that fell upon the Red Indian civilisations due to Columbus’ intrusion into America.

Whole peoples and civilisations, which were a legacy of humanity, were wiped out by the European colonisers in favour of their own civilisation.

In the East, with the arrival of Vasco da Gama, we know that the largely peaceful Indian Ocean region was turned overnight into an arena of conflict and tension, which led to the colonisation of India and much of the Eastern world.

Eventually, the European colonisers had an upper hand in this tussle due to the sophisticated and superior arms and ammunition and the better developed navigation vessels that they possessed, with which they could impose their will on the high seas or bombard or raze to the ground any coastal town, as it was the case with Calicut in 1502.

They did not win India or the Red Indian continent with their values or way of life. Samuel Huntington himself accepted this and had held that the West won the world not with their values, but due to their superiority in applying organised violence.

Thus, the Clash of Civilisations where the Europeans held the upper hand due to superior arms at their disposal started in the 15th century.

This clash continued during the colonial period when the civilisation of the coloniser in the political, economic and cultural fields was imposed upon the colonised.

India became part of the globalised capitalist economy and power structure, dominated by the West.

Nothing much has changed even after decolonisation. India may be independent politically and it may even become an economic power like Japan, but it still remains and will still remain part of the global capitalist economy and system, dominated and controlled by the West.

India still revolves around the economic, political and ideological structures put in place by the colonisers, where power is concentrated in the hands of a few.

Naturally Western culture has become more and more pervasive in every field.

One might think that the dominance of the Western powers ended with decolonisation. Nothing is more erroneous than this thought.

The Western powers still dominate the oceans by the force of their arms and ammunition, their nuclear bombs, fighter jets and navigation vessels.

This, more than their values and ideas, assures their dominance in the world and the continued predominance and existence of the globalised capitalist economy, dominated and controlled by them and their ideological allies.

In this respect, nothing much has changed since Vasco da Gama’s time.

That is why I hold that a new era of Clash of Civilisations, between the West and the rest of the world started in the 15th century with Vasco da Gama coming to India and Columbus stumbling upon America, and has continued till today and will continue for many more decades to come.

I am sure Samuel Huntington will agree with me.

Coming to Western values, ideas and ideologies, I would say that many of them are fundamentally irrational and unfounded. If they had been truly rational and just, there would not be so much confusion and conflict, killings and massacres, injustices and inequalities, not just in India, but all over the world. –, 6 August 2013

• You have stated elsewhere that Darwin’s theory of evolution is a highly controversial speculative theory and that Darwin even thought that the Europeans were the fittest to survive; that this theory justified slavery and colonialism.

• Did it change colonial history after 1859 when The Origin of Species was published?

Slavery, colonialism and the new era of clash of civilisations had started long before Darwin enunciated his theories of struggle for existence and survival of the fittest.

If we follow Darwin’s logic, European or Western civilisation has to triumph ultimately at the expense of all other civilisations.

Coming to the question of whether Darwin’s speculative theories change colonial history after 1859, I would rather say that they were used to justify colonialism, slavery, competition, violence and inequalities in society, more and more thenceforth.

Colonialism was increasingly considered by many Western intellectuals as a service to humanity.

It was also thought to be an inevitable step towards the progress of humanity, according to a particular strait-jacket economic pattern and political belief system, idea or ideology, which are inherently violent, intolerant and aggressive.

All ideas and ideologies, however global or universal or progressive they may appear to be, are inherently violent and aggressive. They were conceived by some power-hungry megalomaniacs, stricken by the pathology of the urge to dominate.

• You say Vasco da Gama’s voyage round the Cape of Good Hope to Calicut was no achievement at all as Barthlomeu Diaz had documented the route to Cape of Good Hope along the West coast of Africa and Indians, Arabs and Persians have been criss-crossing the Arabian Sea all the time.

• Was it not an achievement to connect the two routes, when no European had ever rounded the Cape till then in the then level of knowledge of the earth and oceans?

Portuguese missionary pirate Vasco da GamaIs it an achievement when you follow the route traced by another?

Vasco da Gama simply followed the route traced by Diogo d’ Azambuja, Diogo Cao and Bartholomeu Diaz up to the Eastern Cape Province, where the Indian Ocean lay wide open to him. This is definitely not an exploit.

The Portuguese and Vasco da Gama knew that the Arab traders and others were criss-crossing the Arabian Sea to India from the East African coast. So he sailed still further up the coast to the sultanates of Mozambique and Melindi.

Here he began to scout for some Muslim pilot who would guide him across the Arabian Sea to India. It is with such help that Vasco da Gama was able to cross the Arabian Sea.

This cannot be deemed as an exploit of the first order as he did not venture out alone without guidance into the ocean.

Of course, Vasco da Gama was the first to connect the two routes. But this cannot mean that Vasco da Gama had connected East and West first and was the pioneer of globalisation.

This is not historically and factually correct.

The discovery of the Malacca Straits — whoever discovered it — was a greater discovery that connected East and West and permitted the transportation of goods from the Far East to the Far West (Western Europe), which was only in the outer fringes of the then known world.

Nevertheless, this had laid the foundation for the globalisation of the economy long before Vasco da Gama.

Necessity is the mother of invention. The Arabs, Persians, Indians and Chinese never felt the necessity to find an oceanic route to Western Europe around Africa, because the sea route up to the East African coast and then the land route to the lands that lay beyond as far as Western Europe were more practicable, safe and economical.

Besides, Western Europe was not a big market for their goods in those days. As a result they were content with the sea-land route. But this was not the case with the Europeans.

They were literally blocked by the Turks and the Arabs from reaching India by the land route. So they were literally pushed into the ocean to find a sea route to India.

The question inevitably arises: Why did the West Europeans wait till the 15th century to take to the oceanic route?

• What was the first clue that pointed you in the direction?

The facts related to Vasco Da Gama’s first voyage have always been obvious. A closer and more attentive look into history had revealed to me these facts.

What made me sit up and think was when I realised that Vasco da Gama was on the lookout for a pilot in East Africa to take him across the Arabian Sea to Malabar.

Historians have failed to look at such facts impartially without bias or prejudice due to their nationalist, cultural and racial conditioning.

That is why Vasco da Gama became greater in their eyes than a Zheng Ho who led vast fleets consisting of several ships and men several times to the Indian Ocean and East Africa through the Malacca Straits.

• You said the first man to set foot upon the Malabar Coast was not Vasco da Gama, but a ‘deadly convict’ by the name of Joao Nunes who was sent by Vasco da Gama on a reconnaissance mission.

• Is that not a matter of detail of sending forth a scout, and how does it detract him from being the first man from Europe to figuratively set foot in India?

It is unfortunate that a deadly convict had set foot on the Malabar soil first.

One cannot expect civilised dealings from a deadly convict.

Vasco Da Gama had all the makings of a ruthless pirate. He had orders from the Portuguese king to wrest wealth and fame by the force of arms from the hands of the ‘barbarians, Moors, pagans and other races.’

What happened to Malabar, the Zamorin and his Nair and Marakkar warriors stand testimony to this fact.

India entered the unfortunate phase of colonialism from the time the deadly convict stepped into Malabar. It was sponsored by the Portuguese king and the Church.

Colonialism is an improved version of slavery where the coloniser remains the master while the colonised becomes the ‘petted slave.’

• Why do you ask, what was actually so great about Vasco da Gama that many historians highlight in their numerous books?

I have told you on the basis of evidence that the arrival of Vasco da Gama was not a great exploit from the navigational point of view. Vasco da Gama came to India definitely with the idea of proclaiming Jesus Christ.

Christianity had reached Malabar several centuries before Vasco da Gama. So bringing Christianity to India cannot also account for the greatness of Vasco da Gama.

Vasco da Gama had orders to capture the wealth and land of the barbarians, Moors and pagans. He and his successors implemented these orders to the best of their ability on the Malabar Coast and the Indian Ocean region.

They acquired and captured land on the Malabar Coast, built formidable forts at vantage points, indulged in proselytisation and forcible conversions, mixed with the local populations to create a hybrid race that would be loyal to them and their values, imposed passes on Indian ships and monopolised trade.

Vasco da Gama himself indulged in some of the most heinous crimes. He was the inaugurates of gun-boat trade and politics in the Indian Ocean region.

On October 1, 1502, he mercilessly ordered the killing of 700 innocent Malabar pilgrims, returning from Mecca. Half the pilgrims were women and children.

Vasco da Gama issued orders for the ship to be set on fire by gunpowder, after looting it. Not one pilgrim escaped. He remained insensitive to even the wailing women holding their babies in their hands on the deck, imploring for pity.

On October 27, 1502, he seized 50 Malabaris at sea, got their heads, legs and hands cut off and sent ashore in a boat with a message in Arabic, asking the Zamorin to make curry out of the severed limbs.

Not satisfied with this, he bombarded Calicut from the sea for three consecutive days and razed it to the ground, killing several hundred people in the process.

All these crimes have been recorded by Portuguese chroniclers and have gone unpunished.

For these heinous killings Vasco da Gama needs to be tried for crimes against humanity.

The Portuguese royalty and the Church must also be held accountable for these crimes and also colonialism, for Vasco da Gama was acting under their orders and blessings.

It was this domination and power by the force of superior arms, capable of exterminating hundreds of people in one blow, which accounts largely for the greatness of Vasco da Gama and his successors and not because of their values or intentions to trade or their navigational exploits, as it is made out to be generally by many modern historians. –, 14 August 2013. This is the complete two-part interview.

» Shobha Warrier is a journalist with based in Chennai. She tweets at

Caste and other factors which checked the Islamization of India – K. S. Lal

Indian Muslims Cover“Now, if the components of growth of Muslim population were many, Muslim losses comparatively few, and fecundity among them high, the problem that needs investigation is why Muslims have remained a minority in this country and why India, unlike many other countries in the medieval period, could not be completely converted to Islam.” – Prof. K.S. Lal

Vastness of the Country

The vastness of the country and its natural and political division into regions and kingdoms made the task of its complete subjugation and conversion extremely difficult. In fact throughout the medieval period at no time was the whole of India under direct Muslim rule. Even in the regions where Muslim rule was firmly established it was thought expedient to leave the countryside alone. Victories provided the Muslim ruling class the luxuries of the city cultured life, and their interest in rural areas remained confined merely to the collection of land revenue. In the words of Kingsley Davis, “although there were mass conversions, the country was too vast, the invaders too few, and the volume of immigration too small to change the social complex.” India, therefore, never became a Muslim nation, but remained simply a Hindu country in which Muslims were numerous”.[1] Henry Blochmann puts it more explicitly. He writes: “The invaders were few and the country was too large and too populous. The waves of immigration from Turan were few and far between, and deposited on Indian soil adventurers, warriors, and learned men, rather than artisans and colonists. Hence the Muhammadans depended upon the Hindoos for labour of every kind, from architecture down to agriculture and the supply of servants. Many branches they had to learn from the Hindoos, as, for example, the cultivation of indigeneous produce, irrigation, coinage, medicine, the building of houses, and weaving of stuffs suitable for the climate, the management of elephants, and so forth.”[2]

KabirHindu “Protestant” Movement

Another reason for India remaining a Hindu majority country was the resistance of the people to conversion to Islam. Before the advent of Islam India had seen the birth and growth of many religions and sects like Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Jainism, Buddhism, Shankara’s neo-Hinduism, etc. People had freely “converted”, “reconverted” and at times conformed to more than one religious belief at one and the same time. For all this was a matter of conviction brought about by peaceful methods.

But the Hindus could not have liked being converted by conquerors and rulers by force. In fact, as seen in Sindh after the return of Muhammad bin Qasim and in Karnataka after the death of Tipu Sultan, many Hindus, who were converted to Islam, returned to their former faith on the first opportunity. Harihar and Bukka, converted to Islam by Muhammad bin Tughlaq, reverted to Hinduism and founded the kingdom of Vijayanagar to resist the expansion of Muslim power in the South. Although any return of converts to the Hindu fold was frowned upon by the Muslim rulers, and some Brahmins encouraging converts to return to Hinduism were put to death by Firoz Tughlaq and Sikandar Lodi,[3] yet there did exist some mechanism which facilitated return of converted Hindus back into their old religion. Else, with what actually happened in medieval times, Hindus would have been completely submerged under the onslaught of unmitigated proselytization. The Hindus did not believe in converting others to their faith, but the tenacity of the Hindu social order “lapped away at any intrusive system as the sea laps away at a sand bank.”[4] Yet in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in particular there were conversions on such large scale throughout the country, that for once “the bleeding soul of the Hindus” rose in revolt.[5] The Bhakti saints were the leaders of the Hindu “protestant” movement.[6]

Garib DasIt must be said at the outset that there is no recorded evidence to show that the Bhakti saints of the fifteenth century made any deliberate attempt to put a stop to conversions to Islam, or to reconvert people to Hinduism. Still there is good deal of circumstantial evidence to show that their reform movement did help check Muslim proselytizing activity. It is significant that the socio-religious reformers associated with the Bhakti movement of the fifteenth century were all Hindus. There is some doubt about Kabir’s parentage, but then, “the whole background of Kabir’s thought is Hindu.[7] Indeed Kamal, the son of Kabir, who “probably had greater leaning towards Islamic ways of thinking,” is remembered in the Adigrantha by the disparaging line: “the family of Kabir foundered when Kamal the son was born”.[8]

A striking feature of the Bhakti movement was that it gave to the backward class Hindus a respectable position in the society. Indeed some of the leaders of this movement like Sain, Raidas, and Dhanna belonged to the lowest classes of Hindu social order. Because of this “revolution” in which the lowest classes of people, even the untouchables, had not only got an equal status with the highest, but were even revered as saints,[9] there could have been no incentive for the low classes of people to renounce their faith, if they ever had any before “because of Hindu tyranny,” and go over to Islam. As Aziz Ahmad puts it, “like other Bhakti poets his (Kabir’s) denunciation of the caste-system was as much an inspiration of Muslim example as a response to its pull of conversion.”[10] When Kabir denounced caste and ritual of the Hindus, he also denounced the superstitions and rituals of the Muslims: or, conversely, the idea is best expressed in the words of his disciple Naudhan (whom Sikandar Lodi executed): Islam was true, but his own religion was also true.[11] This was an open challenge to Muslim propagandism and proselytization. No wonder that Bhakti reformers were disliked by some Sufi Mashaikh, who looked upon them as competitors.[12] For, under the influence of these saints many Muslims were converted to Bhakti Hinduism. Namdeva,[13] Ramdas, Eknath, Ramanand, Kabir, Nanak and Chaitanya and several other saints had Muslim disciples, many of whom converted to the Hindu Bhakti cult. Chaitanya openly converted Muslims to Bhakti Hinduism.[14] The Bhaktamala relates many instances of conversions that Pipa effected.

Dara Shikoh's bookThe effects of the mission of the socio-religious reformers with regard to conversion of people to Hinduism were significant. They themselves had adhered to peaceful methods but not their followers in later years. Kabir’s disciples spread out throughout North India and the Deccan. Jiwan Das was the founder of the Satnami sect which took up arms against the Mughals. The Sikh disciples of Nanak’s successor Gurus, for varied reasons, fought against the Mughals and many times converted people by force. So did the Marathas. Manucci and Khafi Khan both affirm that the Marathas used to capture Muslim women “because (adds Manucci) the Mahomedans had interfered with Hindu women in (their) territories.”[15] Chaitanya’s influence in Bengal as of Nanak in the Punjab is still great. According to Abdul Majid Khan it is because of Chaitanya’s influence that large-scale conversions to Hinduism took place at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of nineteenth century.[16]

Thus whether it was their motive or mission or not, the work of the Bhakti reformers helped in checking conversions to Islam and reclaiming many converted Hindus back to their former faith.

Mayan caste systemCaste System

The Caste System also contributed its mite to the preservation of Hindu social order, indirectly checking proselytization. Some modem writers think that it was the degraded status of low caste Hindus and the social democracy of Islam that were responsible for large-scale conversions to Muhammadanism in medieval times. Many others give the caste system all the credit for saving India from becoming Islamised.

But neither caste was so oppressive nor Muslim society so democratic. Within the framework of the caste system some sort of vertical and horizontal mobility was always permitted. There was also a sense of pride in belonging to one’s caste whether high or low. However, for any error caste did not fail to punish, and sometimes even ostracized the delinquent whether or not the act of omission or commission was due to his own fault. In a few such cases conversion was a welcome way out. Therefore some conversions would have taken place because of the rigid caste rules although contemporary accounts are silent on this point. On the contrary this very rigidity served as a bulwark against proselytization and to this contemporary accounts bear witness. To the majority caste was synonymous with religion, and so there was a general reluctance and often resistance to conversion to Islam both by the high and the low caste Hindus.

Let us study the case of the lowest classes first. Alberuni writes at length on the caste system. About the lowest castes, or the so low as to be casteless, he has this to say:

Alberuni“After the Sudra follow the people called Antyaja, who render various kinds of services, who are not reckoned amongst any caste, but only as members of certain craft or profession. There are eight classes of them, who freely intermarry with each other, except the fuller, shoemaker, and weaver, for no others would condescend to have anything to do with them. These eight guilds are the fuller, shoemaker, juggler, the basket and shield maker, the sailor, the fisherman, the hunter of wild animals and of birds, and the weaver. These guilds live near the villages and towns, but outside them.

“The people called Hadi, Doma (Domba), Candala, and Badhatau (sic) are not reckoned amongst any caste or guild. They are occupied with dirty work, like the cleaning of the villages and other services. They are considered one sole class, and distinguished only by their occupations. They are considered like illegitimate children: they are degraded out castes.

“Of the classes beneath the castes, the Hadi are the best spoken of, because they keep themselves from everything unclean, the Doma play on the flute and sing. The still lower classes practice as a trade killing and the inflicting of judicial punishments…”[17]

Vis-a-vis Alberuni’s list of backward castes in the medieval period, is the Table 18 of backward castes in modern times prepared on the basis of U.P. Census Report of 1931:

The Table clearly shows that most of the lowest castes included in Alberuni’s list from Chamar downwards have not only continued to remain Hindu, but, even their caste subdivisions have multiplied. Alberuni has been quoted at length, not because his study of the caste-structure in India is precise, but because he provides the clue to the non-conversion of low caste Hindus to Islam. His notice shows that (a) the caste-system denied equality to the low classes, (b) that it was based on craft or profession, and (c) that it was hierarchical.

Table Showing Some Hindu Low Castes of U.P.[18]

Castes Per cent of caste Members adhering to Hindu Religion  Per cent of each caste
in Total Religious Membership
Chamar 99.7 15.1
Ahir 97.7 9.4
Kurmi 99.7 4.2
Pasi 100.0 3.5
Kahar 99.1 2.8
Lodh 99.7 2.6
Gadariya 99.6 2.4
Kori 99.9 2.2
Kumhar 98.7 1.9
Teli 74.8 1.8
Kachi 99.9 1.7

Caste-system was bad, but it had two redeeming features. One was that since the low classes were “distinguished only by their occupations” and they intermarried, there was occupational and vocational mobility and also perhaps some sort of social Sanskritization. Another is that it had (and has) an hierchical structure, and even low caste people feel proud of being superior to some other lower castes. Thus a Teli feels himself superior to an Ahir. an Ahir to a Chamar, a Kahar to a Pasi, and so on. In Bengal, the land of mass conversions, caste pride among low caste Hindus was as pronounced as elsewhere. About the Dom, sometimes also called Chandala, H.H. Risley says that he will eat the leavings of others, but “no Dom will touch the leavings of a Dhobi, nor will he take water or any sort of food or drink from a man of that caste. Pods or Chasi, a fishing, cultivating and landholding caste of lower Bengal will eat the leavings of Brahman, but Vaishnava Pods abstain from all kinds of flesh. Rajbansi, a synonym for Koch, wear sacred thread in Bihar.”[19]

Doms manIn fact the lower class people are more particular about “caste preservation” than even the higher caste ones, and “the Hadi” keep themselves free from everything unclean. A significant point to note is that even the lowest classes had an importance of their own in Hindu society. In Hindu marriage, for example, the cooperation and services of Nai, Dhobi, Kumhar, Kahar etc. were and are as important as that of the Brahmin Purohit. The higher castes depended as much on the lower as the lower on the higher. All castes and non-castes were an essential part of the Hindu social and economic order. Therefore, and in spite of the discrimination, low caste people have been as unwilling to convert as the high. That is how most of Alberuni’s Antyaja, as the Census Table above shows, have not converted – the fuller (Dhobi), shoemaker (Chamar), Juggler (Nat), Fisherman (Kachhi, Macchua), hunters and bird catchers (Gadariya), Doma (basket-maker, street dancer, singer). That there are, about 60 million “untouchable” Hindus to-day is the greatest proof of their ancestors’ unwillingness to convert in medieval times.

There is also recorded contemporary evidence of the unwillingness of the backward people to voluntarily convert to Islam. Mahmud of Ghazni used to convert people by force, but his contemporary Alberuni (eleventh century) nowhere mentions voluntary conversions of Hindus. Writing about the backward class Hindus called Govis (now called Paraiyar) Marco Polo (thirteenth century) says: “Nothing on earth would induce them to enter the place where Messer St. Thomas is – I mean where his body lies. Indeed, were even twenty or thirty men to lay hold of these Govis and to try to hold them in the place where the Body of the Blessed Apostle of Jesus Christ lies buried they could not do it.”[20] This is the testimony about the South. About North, Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya (fourteenth century) at many places admits that Hindus “do not embrace Islam”, and that “the heart of these people is not changed through sermons.”[21] In the seventeenth century Manucci wrote that the backward caste people were proud of their caste and were reluctant to convert.[22] Caste gave them freedom and dignity of the kind which no other system did.

Amir Khusro & Nizamuddin AuliyaIn short, contemporary evidence does not speak of low caste as a factor contributing to conversions to Islam. The presence of a large number of vocational groups among Muslims is due to the fact, mentioned earlier, that Muslim regime and society provided people with new avenues of employment. Those who lacked resources of self-defence during war or those who could not make both ends meet without a change of religion, converted. Among these surely the people of low caste predominated. But caste system as such had little to contribute to conversions.

Conversions of high caste Hindus were also few. Hindu religion and philosophy were ancient, vast and deep, and Hindu intellectuals. intelligentsia and high castes were proud, as Alberuni points out, of a highly developed philosophy of their own. He writes that “The Hindus believe that there is no country but theirs, no nation like theirs, no king like theirs, no religion like theirs, no science like theirs.”[23] It was no easy matter to induce such people to convert.[24] It is true that prospects of employment under Muslim government would have provided some incentive for conversion even to high caste people, and a few instances of conversion for acquiring economic and status benefits are on record.[25] But in the early medieval period job opportunities being limited and high offices being monopolised by Turks or Muslims of foreign extraction, infiltration of and competition by Hindu converts in government service was resented. Cases of Imad-ud-din Rahyan, Nasiruddin Khusrau and Ain-ul-Mulk Multani are instances in point. They are referred to with contempt by the Turkish ruling class. Minhaj Jurjani asserts, rather bluntly, that “Turks of pure lineage and Tajiks of noble birth could not tolerate (Imad-ud-din of) the tribes of Hind to rule over them.”[26] Thus the attitude of the foreign-extraction Muslims repeatedly expressed in the diatribe of Muslim chroniclers who usually call them “low born” would have discouraged Hindus to convert even for the allurement of jobs.

Niccolao ManuccIn the Mughal period Hindus began to be appointed to high posts but for getting these there was no need to convert. Power sharing by the Mughals was not due to liberal Islam. It was prompted by exigencies of the situation, and in the power-equation conversion stood ruled out. Manucci states that under Aurangzeb three Rajas embraced Islam against promises and temptations offered by the emperor, but later they regretted their conversion and remained unhappy[27] because Hindu converts to Islam commanded little respect.[28] Needless to add that lower Hindu castes could not get equality with the other Muslims in the “democratic” Muslim social order. They carried their caste and social status with them even after their conversion and high class Muslims would not mix or even eat with them if modern practices are any indication for the medieval.[29]

From the modem census figures it appears that not many high caste people voluntarily converted to Islam in medieval times. Bohras, Khojas, Ismailis and Mopilahs were, by and large, converted by peaceful methods from high caste Hindus except perhaps the Mopilahs. But their statistics in modem times show how small their numbers would have been in medieval. According to the census of 1921 there were about 5 million Shias; a little over one million Mopilahs; 382,000 Labbes; 153,363 Bohras; and 146,000 Khojas in India (now India and Pakistan).[30] Keeping in view the patronage Persian officers had in Muslim courts in India, it is certain that a good number would have come from outside in the medieval period. But even with local converts and with centuries of growth in numbers their small figures in modem times point only to a few voluntary conversions in medieval times. The 1931 Census Report of U.P. presents the following picture of Muslim and Hindu high castes.[31]

Table Showing High Castes of Hindus and Muslims

 Castes Per cent of Members Caste Per cent of Total Religious Membership falling in each caste.
Muslim Castes    
Shaikh 100.0 ?
Saiyyad 100.0 4.2
Mughal 100.0 0.8
Pathan 100.0 21.4
Rajputs 4.4 2.2
Hindu Castes    
Brahman 99.4 10.9
Rajput 94.2 8.5
Vaishya 92.7 2.8

It is probable that not all high caste Muslims are of foreign extraction, but the percentage of high caste Hindus clearly indicates that their ancestors were disinclined to convert in medieval times so as to bring out the above picture in modem times.

Akbar the GreatAkbar’s Regulations

It has been seen in the earlier chapter that the largest number of converts were obtained during wars through enslavement. Many people embraced Islam to escape death; and captive women and children “used to be converted to Islam.”[32] But early in his reign (1562) The Mughal emperor Akbar (1556-1605) abolished the custom of enslaving helpless people in times of war.[33] These humanitarian but revolutionary steps would have put a check on large-scale conversions. Akbar did not give any economic inducements for conversion. On the contrary he removed all modes of economic pressure which sometimes led to conversions. He abolished the Jiziyah in 1564. Firoz Tughlaq is witness to the fact that its strict enforcement brought many converts to Islam. Akbar was determined to see this tax go, and probably finding that it still lingered in some places issued, in 1579, another declaration reiterating its abolition.[34] Earlier in 1563 he had abolished the Pilgrim Tax on the Hindus.[35]

Thus in Akbar’s time, because of the above mentioned and several other similar measures, conversions to Islam by force, through enslavement, or economic pressure, seem to have been restricted. Even the Mullahs and Mashaikh could not have received any encouragement from the government for the work of proselytization. The hope “of obtaining mawajib and ghanaim” (rewards and booty) was perhaps still there, but for this conversion was not necessary as posts were thrown open to all without prejudice to religion or creed. Besides the effect on Muslim numbers of the conversions that might still have taken place, was offset by Akbar’s order permitting such Hindus as had been forcibly converted to Islam to reconvert to their original faith.[36] All restrictions on Hindu worship and building of temples were also lifted.[37] Although contemporary accounts are silent as to the numbers that went back to Hinduism as a result of this permission; yet the facts that Jahangir severely punished those who adopted Hinduism of their own free will, Shahjahan once again made apostasy from Islam a capital crime, and Aurangzeb did his best at Muslim proselytization, show that people were taking advantage of Akbar’s order. Probably Akbar had only removed obstructions in a practice which was probably always prevalent, but his measures removed pressure on the Hindus to embrace Islam. Obviously conversions should have become rather scarce.

Francis XavierChristian Missionaries

The arrival of Christian missionaries also helped check Muslim proselytization. Vasco da Gama landed in India in 1498. In 1510 the Portuguese captured Goa, in 1531 Diu, and in 1534 Daman. In the triumphal entry into Goa, “the clergymen were at the head of the procession.”[38] Muslim proselytizing activity not only received a check but a challenge at the hands of these Christian missionaries.

It is exceedingly interesting to note that the agencies of conversion to the Semitic religions, Islam and Christianity, were, the same – inter-communal marriages, force and enslavement, and missionary endeavour. Portuguese missionary activity was well organised and quite effective. In Goa, Albuquerque encouraged his soldiers to marry in the families of Turkish officers.[39] To promote mixed marriages, Portuguese with Indian wives as well as neo-converts, were treated as a privileged class for appointment to petty offices.[40] Force was also openly used for obtaining converts.[41] In 1560, the year the Inquisition was set up, 13,092 Hindus were forcibly converted. In 1578, the “missionaries pulled down 350 temples and converted 100,000 people.”[42] Similar, and in some cases worse, treatment was meted out to Muhammadans. Consequently by 1583 Goa had by and large become Christian, while Salsette had a Christian population of 8,000. After Goa, Cochin was the next mission centre. By 1570 there were more than twenty-five Christian stations in Travancore and about 15,000 converts. In 1600 Mission Centres in Travancore had risen to fifty. Converts on the Fishery Coast alone are estimated from 90,000 to 130,000.[43] Christian Missions made successful efforts in converting low caste people. Appreciative of the attitude of the Indian people, Henrique advised Loyola: “It is better in India to baptize all those of one caste than different individuals taken from various castes.”[44]

In times of famine they bought children, and even men and women, and sold them at high prices, but “Portuguese under pain of severe punishments, are forbidden to sell heathen slaves to Muslims, since heathens are converted more easily to Christianity under Portuguese and to Islam under Muslim ownership.”[45]

The capture of Goa by the Portuguese was facilitated by Hindu cooperation. Some Hindu chiefs of Goa invited Albuquerque to help them relieve “the Hindu population from the fanatical oppression of Adil Shah‘s governor at Goa.[46] In the Vijayanagar empire relations were generally good between Hindus and Christians, who were united if for no other reason, by the common hostility to Muslim.[47] All this facilitated Christian missionary activity in the South. In the North, the Mughal Emperor Akbar invited Portuguese missions and permitted Jesuit Fathers to convert people to Christianity. They had their Mission Centres in as important places as Lahore, Delhi, and Agra.[48]

It hardly need be asserted that wherever the Portuguese went, the Muslim proselytizing endeavour received a severe blow. Muslim numbers even were depleted. Barbosa gives a graphic account of Rander in Gujarat with its rich Muslim merchants, their high style of living, and their richly decorated mansions. Danvers narrates its destruction by the Portuguese. Muslim trade and population were so adversely affected by arrival of the Portuguese that Barbosa laconically comments: “Now (the Muslims that) there are do not live independently.”[49] What Barbosa says about Malabar, may be said about India as a whole. Barbosa contends that the coming of Portuguese alone prevented Malabar from becoming a Moorish state.[50] It may as well be said that the coming of European nations and the establishment of British rule prevented India from becoming a Muslim land.

AurangzebMuslim Cult of Violence

It was not only because of Hindu and Christian attitudes and actions that rise of Muslim population received a check; aggression and violence which was their natural trait even remained directed against themselves too. Of the ten Sultans of the so-called Slave Dynasty (1206-1290), at least six were deposed, poisoned or murdered. In each such case many Muslim lives were lost. Many dynasties changed during the Sultanate period. With every change of dynasty, scions of Muslim royalty, nobility and commoners were killed with abandon. The Khalji royal family was completely liquidated in 1320. The princes and slaves of the Tughlaqs were systematically massacred after the death of Firoz Tughlaq in 1388. Sword was the ultimate arbiter in Muslim political life. Writing about the warfare among the states into which Bahmani kingdom had been divided, Nuniz says: “There is little faith among the Moors and they bite one another like dogs, and like to see one after the other destroyed.”[51] Mughal princes rebelled and more often than not fought pitched battles with parents. Shahjahan waded through blood to the throne. Aurangzeb killed all his brothers with great loss of Muslim lives. After his death in 1707, centrifugal forces were let loose in northern India. The Mughal princes got busy in wars of succession, and in one battle alone, fought between Shah Alam and Azam Tara, “one hundred and eighty thousand horsemen lay dead,” without speaking of the “infantry or the elephants.”[52] Too much violence and aggressiveness on the part of the Muslims turned out to be a death-wish. As if killings among themselves were not enough, they invited the enmity of Jats, Sikhs and Marathas which resulted in great Muslim losses. They all directed their wrath against Delhi. “It is significant that the chief gateway of every Maratha fortress is Delhi Gate.”[53] Nadir Shah and Ahmad Shah Abdali killed their co-religionists without compunction.

ZulfiqarThe surest evidence of the decline of Muslim population in the eighteenth century is to be found in the decline of the three capitals of the Muslim empire – Lahore, Delhi and Agra. Lahore was ever very populous. Monserrate and Finch had written about its large population late in the sixteenth century. According to Sujan Rai in the time of Shahjahan its population increased daily.[54]

To Bernier Delhi (in 1663) was as great as Paris in beauty, extent and inhabitants.[55] Sujan Rai enumerates people of almost all nationalities as living in Delhi.[56] Fatehpur Sikri had been gradually abandoned after 1585 and most of its inhabitants seem to have shifted to Agra, so that Coryat (1612-17) found it larger than Rome.

 Great MoghulManrique, who visited Agra in 1640, estimated its population at 660,000 inhabitants, “besides the large number of strangers who continually fill ninety caravanserais and other private houses.”[57] Thus the population of Agra rose from over two lakhs at the close of the sixteenth century to about seven lakhs by the middle of the seventeenth century. And this was the position after the plague of 1616-24 had earlier devastated the city. In the seventeenth century the population of Sikri-Agra-Sikandara had probably touched the million mark.[58]

But internal wars and external invasions, had a devastating effect on Muslim population. W. Franklin, who travelled through the major parts of northern India between 1793 and 1796,[59] and wrote an eye-witness account of Delhi, says that ever since the massacre of Nadir Shah, Delhi was “but very thinly populated.”

About the close of the eighteenth century, when he wrote, “the Bazars of Delhi are at present but indifferently furnished, and the population of late years miserably reduced.”[60] The population of the cities of the Punjab was decimated by the invasions of Abdali. No wonder that in the eighteenth century no foreign or Indian writer compares the population of prestigious Muslim cities with those of London, Paris, Rome, Constantinople or Cairo. – Excerpted from Indian Muslims: Who are They?, Voice of India, New Delhi


  1. Davis, op. cit., p.191.
  2. Blochmann, “A Chapter from Muhammadan History” in The Calcutta Review, No. civ. 1871 cited in Bernier, p.40 n.
  3. Afif, op. cit., pp. 379-81. Dorn, Makhzan-i-Afghani, (London, 1829), pp.65-66. Ferishtah, op. cit., I, p.182. Also Lal, Twilight, op. cit., p.191.
  4. K. Davis, op. cit., p.195.
  5. Indian Heritage, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Vol. I (Bombay, 1955), p.227.
  6. Kabir declared: “I have come to save the devotees. I was sent here because the world was seen in misery.” Tara Chand, op. cit., pp.150-151.
  7. G.H. Westcott, Kabir and the Kabir Panth (Cawnpore, 1907), p.118. “The contrast,” observes Ahmad Shah, “of Kabir’s intimate Hindu thought, writings and ritual with the purely superficial knowledge of Moslem belief revealed in the Bijak is too striking to be ignored.” Ahmad Shah, Bijak of Kabir (Hamirpur, 1917), p.40.
  8. Tara Chand, op. cit., pp.182, 185.
  9. Ibid, pp.179, 181.
  10. Aziz Ahmad, op. cit., p.146.
  11. Dorn, History of the Afghans, I, 65; Ferishtah, I, 182.
  12. S.A.A. Rizvi, op. cit., pp.57-58.
  13. M.G. Ranade, Rise of the Maratha Power (Publications Division, Delhi, 1961), p.75.
  14. D.C. Sen, Chaitanya and His Age (Calcutta, 1922), p.14. Abdul Karim, op. cit., Social History of the Muslims in Bengal, pp.150, 202-204; M.T. Kennedy, The Chaitanya Movement (Calcutta, 1925), p.213. Tara Chand, op. cit., p.219; D.C. Sen, History of Bengali Literature, pp.228-29; Indian Heritage, op. cit., I. p.249.
  15. Manucci, op. cit., II, p.119; Khafi Khan, op. cit., II, pp.115-18.
  16. Abdul Majid Khan, Research about Muslim Aristocracy, op. cit., pp.23-25.
  17. Alberuni, op. cit., I, pp.101-102.
  18. Complied from the Census Report of India, 1931, Vol. 18 (United Provinces), Part 2.
  19. H.H. Risley. The Tribes and Castes of Bengal, Bengal Secretariat Press, (Calcutta, 1891).
  20. H. Yule and H. Cordier, Ser Marco Polo, 2 vols. (New York, 1903), II, p.341.
  21. Amir Hasan Sijzi, Fawaid-ul-Fuad (Delhi, 1865), pp. 150, 195-97.
  22. Manucci, op. cit., III, p.173. Also II, p.238.
  23. Alberuni, I, p.22.
  24. See the way of Raja Man Singh’s refusal to convert in M. Mujeeb, op. cit., p.360.
  25. Sadharan of Thaneshwar married his sister to Firoz Tughlaq, accompanied him to Delhi, and later became Wajahat-ul-Mulk (distinguished man of the State); Sikandar bin Muhammad, Mirat-i-Sikandari (Bombay, 1308 H), pp.5-8. Also S.C.Misra, Rise of Muslim Power in Gujarat, pp.137-39, and Mahdi Husain, Tughlaq Dynasty, p. 408.
  26. Minhaj, Raverty, op. cit., p .829
  27. Manucci, op. cit., II, p.436.
  28. Ibid., p.451.
  29. A.K. Nazmul Karim, “Muslim Social Classes in East Pakistan”, op. cit., pp.120-130,138-143; Also E.A. Gait, Census of India Report, 1901, VI, pp.439-442, and Ibid. II, p.544.
  30. Also Titus, op. cit., pp.40, 41, 87, 99, 103, 106.
  31. Adopted from the Table prepared by Kingsley Davis, op. cit., p.165, complied from Census of India Report, 1931, Vol.18 (United Provinces), part 2.
  32. S.R. Sharma, The Religious Policy of the Mughal Emperors, p.21.
  33. Du Jarric, Akbar and the Jesuits, pp.152-59. Oral orders for the abolition of this practice were given much earlier; See Du Jarric, pp. 28, 30, 67, 70, 87, 92.
  34. R.P. Tripathi, Some Aspects of Muslim Administration, p.318.
  35. Akbar Nama, II, p.190; Smith, op. cit., pp. 47-48.
  36. Badaoni, op. cit., 11, 317.
  37. Du Jarric. op. cit., p.75.
  38. R.P. Rao, Portuguese Rule in Goa, p.34.
  39. T.B. Cunha, Goa’s Freedom Struggle, p.11.
  40. Rao, op. cit., p.31.
  41. Ibid., p.42.
  42. Ibid., p.44.
  43. Lach, Asia in the Making of Europe, I, pp. 264, 265, 271.
  44. Henrique to Loyola from Bombay, October 31, 1548. J. Wicki (ed.) Documenta Indica (Rome, 1960), III, p.599, cited in Lach, I, p.443.
  45. Lach, I, pp.239,487.
  46. Rao, op. cit., p.29.
  47. Lach, op. cit., I, p.370, on the authority of Danvers.
  48. Smith, op. cit., pp.189-190, 209-210.
  49. Barbosa, op. cit., II, p.78.
  50. Ibid., p.74.
  51. Cited in Robert Sewell, A Forgotten Empire, Publication Division (Delhi, 1962), p.326; Also H.K. Sherwani, The Bahamanis of the Deccan (Hyderabad, n.d.) p.51.
  52. Manucci, op. cit., IV, p.403.
  53. C.H.I. IV, p.397.
  54. Sujan Rai, Khulasat-ul-Tawarikh, ed. Zafar Hasan (Delhi, 1918), p.81. Also Thevenot, Indian Travels of Thevenot and Careri, ed. S.N. Sen, (New Delhi, 1949). p.85, and Manucci, op. cit., II, p.186.
  55. Bernier, op. cit., p.282.
  56. Khulasat-ul-Tawarikh, op. cit., p.5.
  57. Manrique, op. cit., II, p.151.
  58. In comparison the population of London in 1593-95 was 152,479 and in 1666, 460, 000 (Ency. Brit. XI Ed., XVI, p.965). The population of Paris in 1590 has been estimated at 200,000 and under Louis XIV (d. 1715) at 492, 600 (Modern Cyclopaedia, London, 1901, VI, p.305.). Shahajahan probably transferred the capital to Delhi from Agra (1649) because of too much congestion in the latter. Arch. Sur. Rep. 1911-12, p.2, and contemporary authorities cited therein.
  59. W. Francklin, The History of the Reign of the Shah-Aulum, (Allahabad, 1915: First published 1798), Preface, p.i.
  60. Ibid., pp.199-200. 

St. Thomas in India: True or False? – N. S. Rajaram

N.S. RajaramHere is the substance of the St. Thomas story: First, if he existed he was a twin brother of Jesus which is unacceptable because Jesus was the Only Son of God. Next, he could not have preached Christianity in 52 AD because Christianity and the New Testament came into existence only in the fourth century, after the Council of Nicaea called by Roman Emperor Constantine in 325 AD. The first Christians came to India with the Syrian merchant Thomas in 345 AD escaping persecution in Persia. Lastly, the Namboothari Brahmins settled in Kerala only after the fourth century AD, so could not have been converted by Apostle Thomas in 52 AD using the Bible from three centuries later. – Dr. N.S. Rajaram

St. ThomasAccording to Christian leaders in India, the Apostle Thomas came to India in 52 A.D., founded the Syrian Christian Church, and was killed by the fanatical Brahmins in 72 A.D. His followers built the St. Thomas Church near the site of his martyrdom. Historians however say this apostle, even if he existed, never came to India. The Christian community in South India was founded by a Syrian (or Armenian) merchant Thomas Cananeus in 345 AD. He led four hundred refugees who fled persecution in Persia and were given asylum by the Hindu authorities.

This story was too commonplace to attract converts. So Christian leaders identified the merchant Thomas with Apostle Thomas and created the dramatic story of the Apostle’s persecution and death at the hands of the “wicked” Brahmins of South India. This became current in the 16th century when the Portuguese gained control of the west coast of India and forced the Syrian Christians to follow the Catholic faith. The Portuguese also destroyed the Kapaleeswara Temple that originally stood on the site now occupied by the San Thome Cathedral on the beach.

Kapali TempleThe creation of this myth and the history is told in detail by the Canadian scholar Ishwar Sharan in his famous book The Myth of St. Thomas and the Mylapore Shiva Temple. The purpose of the myth was to create a local martyr. Christianity depends heavily on the appeal of martyrs who are projected as victims like Jesus Christ. Then as now, Church leaders liked to pose as victims to generate sympathy and propaganda. But no matter how much they tried, the Hindus of India refused to supply the Portuguese with martyrs. So they were forced to create their own. So they turned the merchant Thomas into the Apostle Thomas killed by the Hindus.

In his foreword to Ishwar Sharan’s book, the Belgian scholar Koenraad Elst wrote: “In Catholic universities in Europe, the myth of the apostle Thomas going to India is no longer taught as history, but in India it is still considered useful. Even many vocal ‘secularists’ who attack the Hindus for relying on myth in the Ayodhya affair, off-hand profess their belief in the Thomas myth. The important point is that Thomas can be upheld as a martyr and the Brahmins decried as fanatics.”

San Thome CathedralTargeting Brahmins to undermine Hinduism was a favorite tactic among missionaries. Elst gives the true picture: “In reality, the missionaries were very disgruntled that the damned Hindus refused to give them martyrs (whose blood is welcomed as ‘the seed of the faith’), so they had to invent one. Moreover, the church which they claim commemorates St. Thomas’ martyrdom at the hands of Hindu fanaticism, is in fact a monument of Hindu martyrdom at the hands of Christian fanaticism. It is a forcible replacement of two important Hindu temples (Jain and Shaiva) whose existence was insupportable to the Christian missionaries.”

Another motivation for the myth was to erase the unsavory record of the Catholic Church’s close association with the Portuguese pirates and even worse, the Goa Inquisition inspired by St. Xavier. But serious scholars including Christians have rejected this myth as we shall soon see.

Who was this Apostle Thomas and why was his name invoked? The main sources relating to Apostle Thomas are two Gnostic (non-Biblical) texts known as the Acts of Thomas and the Gospel of Thomas. According to them Thomas was the twin brother of Jesus. For this reason the Thomas myth is not accepted by the Vatican because of a doctrinal problem: Jesus as the Only Son of God cannot possibly have a twin brother. (Greek for Thomas is Didymus, which means twin brother.)

Christians in South India who identify themselves as St. Thomas Christians claim that their ancestors were blessed by Apostle Thomas in 52 A.D. who preached from the Bible. This has no historical basis as we shall see. In fact, there is no evidence that Thomas even existed. His “history” is full of contradictions as will become apparent.

Marco PoloAs just observed the Portuguese missionaries who came to India in the 16th century found that they could not do without a local martyr and created the myth of St. Thomas claiming that he was martyred in India. They gave no explanation as to how they discovered it more than 1500 years later. Marco Polo is supposed to have mentioned it but there is no authentic manuscript that can be attributed to him. Then there is the question of how he discovered it more than a thousand years later.

There is even a tomb that is supposed to contain his martyred remains in Mylapore in Chennai. But the problem is there are several such memorials spread across Persia, Acre (Israel) and a few other places dating to different times, all laying claim to be the place where Apostle Thomas was martyred and buried!

After examining all the evidence, the late Father Heras, former Director of the Historical Research Institute, St. Xavier’s College, Bombay, said in 1953 that he was convinced that the tomb of St. Thomas was not in Mylapore. He had earlier said, quite emphatically in The Aravidu Dynasty of Vijayanagara, that the Portuguese account of their discovery of some relics was “a most barefaced imposture [with] all elements of a forgery.” Heras was himself a Jesuit father but also an eminent historian.

Henry HerasThis is not the end of the story, for while denying the myth because it challenges Jesus as the “Only Son of God” the Vatican wants to have it both ways. On September 27, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI gave a speech at St. Peter’s in Rome in which he recalled an ancient tradition claiming that Thomas first evangelized Syria and Persia, then went on to Western India, from where Christianity also reached Southern India. Syrian Christians derive status within the caste system from the tradition that they are converted Namboothiris (Brahmins), who were allegedly evangelized by St. Thomas after he allegedly landed in Kerala in AD 52.

There are serious problems with this theory: the Namboothiris started settling in Kerala only from the fourth century onwards, which means they did not exist at the time the alleged St. Thomas allegedly came to Kerala. So we have a possibly non-existent apostle preaching in the first century from a text, the New Testament, dating to the fourth century, to a people, the Namboothiris who settled in the fourth century or later. In reality the Pope’s original statement at St. Peter’s, reflected the geography of the Acts of Thomas, i.e. Syria, Parthia (Persia / Iran) and Gandhara (Afghanistan / Northwest Pakistan) — all far removed from Kerala in the southernmost tip of India.

Bleeding CrossThis is not the end to the contradictions. If Thomas landed in Kerala in 52 AD, he could not have taught from the Christian Bible (New Testament) with its four gospels which came into existence only in the fourth century. In fact Christianity did not exist at the time because there was no Christian scripture! In addition, the famous St. Thomas Cross supposedly brought by him made its appearance in Kerala only in the fourth century, about the same time as the Namboothiri Brahmins. So it is quite possible that the highly ornate St. Thomas Cross [with Hindu motifs carved in it] was borrowed from the Namboothiris, having nothing to do with St. Thomas or even Christians. The Church borrowed its cross from the Egyptians and the oldest so-called St. Thomas Cross is a pagan Persian symbol.

Prof. Francis Xavier Clooney, SJAs if this were not confusing enough, Father Francis Clooney, a theologian with the Harvard Divinity School has stated that St Thomas had preached in Brazil, no matter that Brazil as we understand today was unknown in his time. According to Clooney, one Ruiz de Montoya, writing in Peru in the mid-seventeenth century, thought that since God would not have overlooked the Americas for fifteen hundred years, and since among the twelve apostles St. Thomas was known for his mission to the “most abject people in the world, blacks and Indians,” it was only reasonable to conclude that St. Thomas had preached throughout the Americas:

“He began in Brazil – either reaching it by natural means on Roman ships, which some maintain were in communication with America from the coast of Africa, or else, as may be thought closer to the truth, being transported there by God miraculously. He passed to Paraguay and from there to the Peruvians.”

St. Thomas Book CoverSo here is the substance of the St. Thomas story. First, if he existed he was a twin brother of Jesus which is unacceptable because Jesus was the Only Son of God (born to a virgin). Next, he could not have preached Christianity in 52 AD because Christianity and the New Testament came into existence only in the fourth century, after the Council of Nicaea called by Roman Emperor Constantine in 325 AD. The first Christians came to India with the Syrian merchant Thomas in 345 AD escaping persecution in Persia. This was probably because Roman and Persian empires were great rivals. The Namboothiri Brahmins settled in Kerala only after the fourth AD, so could not have been converted by Apostle Thomas in 52 AD using the Bible from three centuries later.

Finally, the myth was created by Portuguese missionaries in the sixteenth century with the help of pirates. They destroyed also the Kapaleeswara Temple and a Jain temple building the church known as San Thome Cathedral in 1504. It acquired its present status and recognition as a cathedral (grand church) under British patronage in 1893. It was also the Portuguese who converted the Syrian Christians to the Catholic faith.

So, all these contradictions have to be reconciled before the myth of St Thomas can be taken seriously. – Folks Magazine, 7 November 2009

» Editor’s Note: Historians do not agree about the date for the coming of Namboothiri Brahmins to Kerala. Marxist historians make their arrival as late as the sixth century AD. However with the identification of the Namboothiri priest Mezhathol Agnihothri (b. 342 AD), the date can be moved back to the fourth century. Namboothiri historians themselves do not give a date for the arrival of their community in Kerala from North India.

» Dr. N.S. Rajaram has referred to the second (1995) edition of The Myth of Saint Thomas and the Mylapore Shiva Temple for this article. The second edition is now out of print and not available on-line. However the third (2010) edition, which contains everything in the second edition, revised with corrected dates and many new references, is available on The Ishwar Sharan Archive.

See also


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