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09 Portuguese and Syrian Christians

Chapter Nine

Vasco da Gama arrived at Calicut in 1498 with the help of an Arab pilot. He was a clever navigator and one of history’s most brutal men,[32] but he was not very bright when it came to religion. He thought Calicut was a Christian city and returned to Portugal with the impression that the temples he had prayed in were churches. Catholic historians still argue that he saw two hundred thousand Christians on his first visit to Malabar, when in fact he had seen only Hindus whose piety he had unwittingly praised and whose wealth he coveted for his own.

Vasco da Gama’s mistake was corrected when he returned to Malabar in 1502 and was met by a deputation of Syrian Christians. They identified themselves, surrendered their ancient honours and documents, and invited him to make war on their Hindu king.

George Menachery, a Catholic apologist and former adviser to the Kerala State Department of Archaeology, in Kodungallur: City of St. Thomas, writes, “They presented him a ‘Rod of Justice’ and swore allegiance to the Portuguese king and implored Portuguese protection. The Admiral received them very kindly and promised all help and protection. The significance of this event is variously interpreted by historians.”

Indeed it is―but only Catholic historians prevaricate on why this high-ranking community of merchants and soldiers had turned on their king in this perfidious way.

K.M. Panikkar, in Malabar and the Portuguese, writes, “More than this, they suggested to [Vasco da Gama] that with their help he should conquer the Hindu kingdoms and invited him to build a fortress for this purpose in Cranganore. This was the recompense which the Hindu rajas received for treating with liberality and kindness the Christians in their midst.”

The Syrians had of course acted on the exigencies of their Christian religion, which harbours in its heart a demon that divides mankind into friend and foe on ideological grounds. King Shapur II of Persia had not been mistaken about the allegiances of his Christian subjects in the fourth century.

The Syrian Christians would soon come to grief for their treachery. The Portuguese regarded them as heretics and schismatics who were no better in “true religion” than their Hindu neighbours. They had come with cannon and a papal mandate to instruct the inhabitants of the land in the Catholic faith and this included non-Roman Christians. Their arrival and that of the first Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier, in 1542, turned Christianity in India into a violent and destructive political force that continues to operate in the country till today.

After 1502, the Syrian Christians and Roman Catholic Church embarked on a confrontation. It went on for decades and was aggravated by the activities of the Jesuits. In 1653 a Syrian bishop was burned at the stake at Goa by the Inquisition―it had been invited into the country by Francis Xavier himself though he did not live long enough to savor the horror it unleashed in Goa. The confrontation only began to subside with the decline of Portuguese power, as the Pope and the Jesuits were both dependant on Portuguese arms to enforce their will. A compromise was eventually reached between the Catholic Church and the Syrian Christians, and various oriental rite churches came into being. But whatever the arrangements or relationship with Rome, the Jesuits, true to their evil genius, had succeeded in destroying the Syrian Christian community in India. There is some justice in this fate, for had the Syrian Christians remained true to their adopted country and Hindu king, they would have remained a happy, respected and united community.

The Portuguese had come to India to spread their religion and to trade―in that order, too, which is why Portugal is a poor country today even after ruling rich colonies. In the process they acquired the raw materials for a new cult, the St. Thomas legend, which would prove to be their most enduring “gift” to Mylapore―along with a large number of churches that have been built on temple sites around the southern coasts. The cult would also give imported Christianity the veneer of being an indigenous Indian religion, a political gift to the Roman Catholic Church in India more valuable than all the pearls and pepper that went to Lisbon.

32.  Sita Ram Goel, in Papacy: Its Doctrine and History, writes, “Vasco da Gama had bombarded Calicut when the Zamorin ruler of that place refused to be dictated by him. He had plundered the ships bringing rice to the city and cut off the ears, noses and hands of the crews. The Zamorin had sent to him a Brahmin envoy after securing Portuguese safe-conduct. Vasco da Gama had cut off the nose, ears and hands of the Brahmin and strung them around his neck together with a palm-leaf on which a message was conveyed to the Indian king that he could cook and eat a curry made from his envoy’s limbs.”

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