What British colonial histories said of India was not true!

Ethnology and travel in Renaissance Europe visitors to South India 1250 – 1625

This is a very important  publication for all  Indians who are interested to know the India as it evolved in the last 700 years. The development of knowledge in Europe as arose in the European (Italian) Renaissance  to  the  18th century European Enlightenment. How the European travellers to South India,Tamil Nadu, as missionaries encountered the Hindu religion, how the Christian belief system encountered the Hindu customs like sati,caste hierarchies, how the Indian languages. Sanskrit contained new wisdom,  how  the  missionaries Renaissance experiences led them to learn the local languages,write treatises on Christian faith and in the process wrote first the  Indian  languages grammar, then develop the prose writing. They printed Tamil books in Tamil character as early as 1576.

So also Malayalam, Kannada and Telugu got them letters, grammars and first prose books  prices. All these experiences help to see how Indian mind and character evolved under these foreign conquests, impacts. Modern Indian history  is largely belong to what we should call the colonial period.That is the European colonial period, verymuch earlier even to the Vasco da Gama period.

In fact, the period covered in the book covers from the 13th century, well two centuries before Vascoda Gama. The book starts with an account of how the South Indian Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagar came to be established,even when  the Northern India was getting captured by the Central Asian adventurers because of their superior cavalry military strength. The  new Turkish rulers had come as far South as the Pandyan kingdom of Madurai in 1310. While the Muslim dynasties settled down in the North,in the South there were several Hindu,Dravidian rulers speaking several Dravidian languages,the chief one being Tamil language. Vijayanagar rulers were Telugu speaking warrior caste.

The chief merit of this book is that we Indians do not know how the non-British Europeans saw India. Our colonial history knowledge itself is given to us by the colonial rulers. Most of the colonial history we read is by what is written by the colonial officials, mostly British ICS officers and also by other English writers, as travellers or as scholars.

Indians, present day mind too is very much conditioned by what the Euroepan colonial administrators and scholars have provided. The very facts are as given by the colonial administrators, experts, the archeologists, (like Sir John) Cunningham or the literary scholars (like William Jones) or even the best of writers and historians like Smith were all in one way or other had their own viewpoints and prejudices.

When we come to even as recent as the turn of the 20th century we see our Indian upper class, that is the ones who became ICS officials or judges or even the university professors were all very much influenced by what they read from these English writers and English sources. This book makes all the difference.This a book entirely based on sources other than British.This itself is a great gain for Indian readers and scholars. The next best gain  is the sources are all taken from languages other than English.The language sources here are all from Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, French and Latin. The sources are all mostly in the original, manuscripts,some published works in the above languages and quite unavailable to the Indian readers.

Certainly readers of this generation, including university scholars and researchers woud find here the sources surprising. I have written this piece only to draw the interest of the very general intelligent readers only. The sources traced here are the Vatican libraries in Rome and elsewhere, in Lisbon, Madrid, Venice and Paris. The book gives for the first time a wide ranging and really an ambitious analysis of how European travellers to India, in particular to South India developed their perceptions ethnic, political and religious diversity over seven hundred years.

The South Indian Vijayanagar  kingdom is the focal point. The Jesuit religious missionaries  started coming to India and the Fast East,under Layola, to convert the non-Christians, Hindu. India was at the mercy of these adventurers. Ours is a tragic history. First we lay bare helpless under the repeated attacks of the Muslim adventurers.This was a military and territorial conquest, more for India’s materuial wealth. So,India lost her material  wealth  in the process of Muslim conquests, Moghul rule came to stay. This starts from the  13th century onwards, though there was this process starting from the 10th and 11th century definitely.

There were also the other developments.The trade in the then known world was all pervasive.With the opening of the seas first by Colombus,in the West,by Vasco da Gama in the East, trade routes opened.Along with the opening of the trade,came the Catholic missionaries.  Now the missionaries were interested only in conversion.In the South there were the Jesuit missionas in Vijayanagar. Even before that mission the original Portuguese mission was located in Chennai, in San Thome, later in Madurai(1606) and Calicut.  After the Vijayanagar defeat,there was a strong mission at Chandragiri.I was more intrigued and fascinated by the many interesting detils about Chandragiri mission,as I had not long ago gone to visit this now desolate fort  on one of my  visits to Tirupathi.What an impact this now abandoned fort in a wild mountain view created on mind?  This book helped me know the desolate fort and its surroundings with so many names and events! In 1606 there was a strong presence of three Jesuit missionaries here.

There were also ambassadors from Akbar”s court. The many small bits of information are collected from the letters of these Jesuit missionaries, from the book authored by Heras, one of the distinguished Jesuit scholars who worked in our time in India. The other more interesting piece of information is at Madurai under Roberot de Nobili whose first grammar in Tamil language laid the foundation for the rise of modern Tamil.

He also wrote a book on Christ, a kavya whose literary value is not much but Nobili,an Italian aristocrat who took to the noble task of spreading the Gospel. What he did in his Madurai mission was quite revolutionary. He watched his fellow missionaries in other parts of India and he went to radical change of his dress, lifestyle, he became a sanyasi, lived like Indian brahmins, he read Tamil and Sanskrit and wrote a treatise on Hinduism and it was his books that exposed the peculiarities of Indian religion, Hinduism and the social customs.

However, what is  interesting here is the fact,that ultimately the Christian missionaries couldn’t convert the Hindu India! Indian high caste people, brahmins or other military castes like the rulers didn’t succumb to Chrsitianity. Muslims stayed back as rulers,the European succeeded as conquerors.  Portuguese, Dutch, French and finally the British succeeded in establishing their empires.  The important point I want to convey here is that it is time we Indians should know that India was not all that a dark continent as the colonial rulers or the missionaries found.

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