Crossing Boundaries: The Indo-Portuguese Religious and Cultural Encounter

Chandra R. de Silva, aka “CR”, being the Inaugural Tessa Bartholomeusz Memorial Lecture, Department of Religion, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL, delivered on March 4, 2002

Let me begin by thanking the Department of Religion and Florida State University for inviting me to deliver the inaugural Tessa Bartholomeusz Memorial Lecture. As many of you are aware, Tessa and I worked together in two academic projects in the last few years and we were part of a group that worked hard and successfully to set up an American Research Center in Sri Lanka. I miss her both as a scholar and a friend and thus, my appreciation for all you have done in her memory is immense.

When your invitation to deliver this lecture arrived, I considered what topic would be best, and after some deliberation, I decided on “Crossing Boundaries.” Indeed, crossing boundaries is what Dr. Bartholomeusz did best; crossing boundaries between the country of her birth Sri Lanka, and the country of her adoption, the US, crossing linguistic boundaries from English to Sinhala to Hindi and Pali and crossing boundaries between history, religion and anthropology. However, as subject matter for the lecture today, I go far away from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries on which we worked together, back to the interaction between the peoples of South Asia and the Portuguese in the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries.

This lecture has two main themes. First of all, I seek to explore how Portuguese saw the peoples of the Indian subcontinent when the first encountered them in the sixteenth century, and how the peoples of South Asia saw them. I would like to state at the outset that when I use the term India, I include not just the lands encompassed by the modern state of India, but that wider area that includes India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Indeed, with your indulgence, I will spend a disproportionate time showing slides on the neighboring island of Sri Lanka from where I come and on which area Dr. Bartholomeusz and I researched together.

Secondly, I will try to give you an idea of the nature of the impact of this encounter on some Indian communities, noting that some aspects of this encounter last to the present day.


Before I embark on the first of these two areas, I need to state my theoretical viewpoint. In his book on the Marquesas Islands, Greg Dening, a well known historian and anthropologist, pointed out that beaches are beginnings and endings This imagery of beaches as frontiers and boundaries is particularly useful for the Portuguese who were a seafaring and exploring nation. If you think about it broadly though, for all human beings, beaches often divide the world between here and there, between the familiar and the strange, between good and bad. Crossing boundaries is always dramatic.  After a long voyage the voyager comes as an outsider, a foreigner; and looking across the beach there is a different land, perhaps savage, perhaps romantic but always uncontrollable. The signs, the gestures and the codes that the voyager was accustomed to in the past, cannot be relied upon any longer.

   Slide 2 = Island of Sri Lanka – map in Livro de Lisuarte de Abreu, 1558-64, Pierpoint Morgan Library, New York

On the other hand, in deciphering new information, the visitor can only process information in the light of his or her own preconceptions. When he looks at the Asian ‘other’, in terms of language, color, gender, religion and so on he comprehends what he sees only in terms of what he knows. This is why Greg Dening says that the visitor ‘does not see the islander’s colors or trees or mountains. He sees his’. The people visited go through the same process, looking at the visitors with their own preconceptions.

But the encounter is a complicated process. The encounters themselves cause people to make readjustments in thinking and to reformulate ideas about themselves. Thus, we have changing understandings and the crossing of beaches becomes complete only when each party becomes immersed in parts of the others’ culture. Often, the colonial encounter results in violence and brutality. One needs to think only of Vasco da Gama’s treatment of the pilgrim ship Meri. Encountering the ship on open seas, da Gama captured the vessel and burnt it with several hundred men women and children aboard. He saved a few merely to ensure that the story would become known and strike terror in the hearts of his opponents. This is why when the old Portuguese colony of Goa was incorporated into India in 1961, the Indians renamed the old Vasco da Gama Institute as the Institute of Menezes Bragança and this is also why some Indians protested at the quincentennial celebrations of the da Gama’s arrival in the East. However, today I would like to concentrate on some of the positive and lasting results of the encounter for South Asia.

Portugal in the sixteenth century was one of the least developed countries of Western Europe with a population of a little over a million. We know that in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, using their seafaring skills, the Portuguese developed a trade in gold and ivory, spices and slaves along the West African coast.  During this period they clearly developed notions themselves.

 Slide  3 — 15th Century depiction of Portuguese Society by Nuno Goncalves

They also developed stereotypes about the peoples of Africa. The Africans were clearly different in in color.

 Slide 4 Blacks from Codex 1899 of the Casanatense Library, 16th century

They wore fewer clothes and this was significant for a people for whom difference in dress was a way of indicating status as you will see from comparing the next illustration with the depiction of Portuguese Society by Nuno Goncalves shown earlier.

Slide 5 Angolans in Historia Geral Angolana by Anthonio de Oliveira Cadornaga, 1680-81

Beyond the limits of their knowledge the Portuguese envisaged a world full of strange things.

  Slide  6 =Fantastic creatures of Ethiopia depicted in Charles dAngoulemes Les Secrets de lHistoire Naturelle, 1480

In 1498, the Portuguese sailed round the Cape of Good Hope and came into the Indian Ocean. Clearly, this was a different world with cities, trading ships and rich trade goods.

Slide 7 = Map of Portuguese Activity in the Indian Ocean

The Portuguese were initially at a disadvantage as traders because the goods they brought were poor – copper, woollen caps and beads. But they had one clear advantage – they had cannon on their ships and thus could sink the largest of the ships of the Indian Ocean. Therefore, they decided to use force to get control of the trade. The Portuguese justified this decision on the grounds that the traders of the Indian Ocean were not Christian and the Pope by his approval of the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, had clearly granted the Orient as a Portuguese sphere of conquest Moreover, many of the traders in the Indian Ocean, though not all, were Muslims and the Portuguese, who had struggled for several centuries against the Muslim ‘Moors’ in the Iberian Peninsula to gain independence, thought of the Muslims as their national enemy. Indeed, they called all the Muslims they met in Asia ‘Mouros’, and some of them, not remotely related to the Moors of North Africa actually adopted that name and are still known by it.

The Portuguese thus saw themselves as dominating the Indian Ocean by right and by might. All they were able to do, however was to set up a few forts at strategic ports and occupy the areas around them.

SLIDE 8 = Portuguese fort at Malacca from Bocarro’s Livro das Plantas, 1634

They did not have a land empire except for some areas around Goa, and in Mozambique but conquered parts of the island of Ceylon in the 17th Century.

They saw themselves as people who lived in forts and cities.



So, how did these Portuguese see the people who lived around the Indian Ocean? The people of East Africa were seen as not very different from those of West Africa.

SLIDE 10- 

But then distinctions begin to be drawn. Christians are seen as fairer, more like Europeans, and also more fully clothed. Religion does make a difference in perceptions. The non-Christian Sindhis are seen as darker.

SLIDE 11 – Nubians on the coast of Ethiopia from Codex 1899 of the Casanatense Library, 16th century.

Sindhis in Codex 1899 of the Dasanatense Library 16th century

  SLIDE 12 –Sindhis in Codex 1899 of the Dasanatense Library 16th century

The Christians of South India look like the Portuguese; the man wears Portuguese clothes and does not carry weapons and the woman is dressed in Portuguese long sleeved blouse and a skirt and ostentatiously carries a rosary.

  SLIDE 13 – Christians of South India in Codex 1899 of the Casanatense Library, 16th century

What about the Hindus of India? An illustration from the same source seems to show that they are a people with strange rituals with the cart carrying pagan images drawn over humans who are presumably hurt or die.

SLIDE 14 = Hindus of South India in Codex 1899 of the Casanatense Library, 16th century

How did the Portuguese see the Sinhalese people of Sri Lanka, my own ancestors? The women are obviously without shame for they do not cover their breasts. These people are different. They too climb coconut trees. They are armed and dangerous.

As you will see from the next illustration, by the mid-16C the Portuguese had met with considerable armed resistance in the island.

(SLIDE 15)


   SLIDE 17

Obviously all images were not negative. This slide of Indian goldsmiths illustrates their skill in their craft.

 (SLIDE 18)

The Portuguese view of the people of the Indonesian archipelago – the Malays who were not yet Islamic is favorable. So is their image of the Burmans of whom they knew little.


  SLIDE 20

The Portuguese encountered great riches and luxury in India. They received some images of wealth and cultivation among their ‘enemies’, the Muslims. Their observations of the Muslims of Gujarat show how they were intrigued by the Islamic practice of the seclusion of women.



But that was not what the Muslims of India would have emphasized; they would have perhaps emphasized their civility and generosity. See, for example, the sight of Prince Khurram being weighed against gold and silver to be given for charity in a Mughal painting of around 1615 now in the British Museum.

(SLIDE 23)

As for themselves, they were the people who maintained Portuguese customs and civilization. Thus, the Portuguese men and women see themselves wearing hats and long sleeved dresses even in the summer heat at Ormuz, a heat so intense that to keep cool, they had to keep their feet in water while dining. As for the Portuguese gentry (as you see from the illustration below), they live like in Portugal, and travel on horseback with their retainers and in addition have natives who accompany them and shelter them from the sun with a parasol. Portuguese women live in style, carried by natives on sedan chairs. The Portuguese clearly see themselves as masters. This slide of the main street in Goa which is an illustration by a Dutchman is clear as to who is a Portuguese and who is not. The boundaries are clearly depicted by dress and color. They are clearly marked off from the Indians.

  SLIDE 24


    SLIDE 26

  SLIDE 27



We have much more limited evidence about how the Asians saw the Portuguese though there are several Mughal paintings depicting Portuguese missionaries in the court. I will just show you a couple of illustrations. This is a carving of a Portuguese soldier from a Buddhist temple outside Portuguese territory in Sri Lanka and it seems to show the Portuguese horseman as a figure of power.


But there is much in Sinhala literature that also has a negative view of Portuguese Christians. Some twentieth century masks from Sri Lanka depicting the Portuguese as comic figures, figures to laugh at.


The picture I show next comes, not from the Indian Ocean, but from Japan but it is fascinating in that while the Japanese draw Portuguese dress reasonably well they depict the Portuguese as a dark people, as indeed they were when they arrived suntanned after a long sea voyage.


However, the Portuguese encounter with India was not merely one of looking across the beach. The Portuguese, as we know crossed the beaches and occupied land. The peoples of India crossed their beaches too, to absorb Portuguese influences and these crossings, though accompanied with much violence and brutality, left their impact. I will spend the second part of my talk the legacy of this mutual interaction. Let us start with religion.

The Portuguese brought Roman Catholicism into the Indian Ocean region and Roman Catholic converts remain a significant minority in many areas where the Portuguese once held power. We can see the absorption of Portuguese architectural styles in terms of Church building.

The first picture I will show is one of Bardez Church in Goa and the second shows a Church in Quilon, South India.


(SLIDE 34)

Next, we see an abandoned seventeenth century Church in Diu, Gujerat. Finally,  here is a photo of the Cathedral Church in Goa.

 (SLIDE 35)

(SLIDE 36)

All of these buildings, in plan and structure, are not very different from Churches in Portugal. However, when you look at some of the detailed ornamentation, Indian influences appear. Here we see the windows of the Church of St. Paul, at Diu, the carvings, certainly done by Indian workers, drawing from the local tradition.

(SLIDE 37)

The development of an Indo-Portuguese tradition is clearer in religious ornaments. Here is a picture of a 16th century reliquary of the True Cross found in the Cathedral of Old Goa. It is made in silver with a gold leaf and studded with precious stones.

-SLIDE 38  –  This cross reliquary in now in the National Museum in Porto in Northern Portugal. It is made of jade encrusted with rubies and gold and is said to have a piece of the True Cross, encased in crystal in the center. It was made in India in the late 17th century.

  SLIDE 39 

SLIDE 40 – This small casket with gold filigree work was gifted to the Convent of Graça by the wife of Mathias de Albuquerque, Viceroy of India in the late 16th century. This filigree work, though also done in Europe is probably Indian.

SLIDE 41 – Such work is also seen in this seventeenth century Portuguese cross currently in the Padua Ramos collection in Portugal.

SLIDE 42  This silver covered teak lectern, now in the same museum is also from sixteenth century India, shows St. Peter and St. Paul but the decorations of foliage are linked to Mughal Indian carpet designs of the time.

SLIDE 43 –  This monstrance, or vessel which holds the consecrated wafers for Mass, is from the 17th century, silver gilt from the Church of S. Thome, Goa”

SLIDE 44  —“This silver processional lamp from the Church of Santa Cruz, Verna, Goa is very ornate and definitely in the Oriental tradition. This small rock crystal image of Jesus was made in Goa or Ceylon and is richly decorated in gold.

SLIDE 45  

SLIDE 46 –– This is a silver and eagle wood rosary made in 17th Century India.

  SLIDE 47 – This small rosary of coral and gold was probably used for a seventeenth century image.

   SLIDE 48   This 17th century cross of silver on lacquered wood is thought to have come from a Franciscan monastery.

  SLIDE 49 This 17 century silver aureole was made in Goa.

  “This monstrance, or vessel which holds the consecrated wafers for Mass, is from the 17th century, silver gilt from the Church of S. Thome, Goa” and place it before 

      SLIDE 50 This is silver casket of the 17th century.

  SLIDE 50a

But religion was not the only area in which crossing of beaches could be seen. This pendent, with a religious theme, made of gold rock crystal, sapphires, gold and ivory was based on a Portuguese model, but was clearly crafted by an Indian goldsmith.

SLIDE 51 – salt cellar from Sri Lanka is made with rock crystal, gold, rubies and sapphires, and dates from around 1600.

SLIDE 52 – This ivory fan from Sri Lanka shows how local craftsmen adapted their skills to produce what was in demand. It is now in a museum in Vienna.

SLIDE 53 – Sri Lankans were good at ivory carving.  Look at this ivory box decorated with gems and pearls that was gifted by a king of Sri Lanka to King Joao III of Portugal in the 1540s. The first box shows the local ruler’s grandson being symbolically crowned by the Portuguese ruler and many figures of Indian mythical animals and goddesses and the other box shows the two rulers, Portuguese and Sri Lankan sitting together while the side panels show Portuguese cavaliers.

SLIDE 54    SLIDE 55  – These ivory combs are also part of the same collection.

  SLIDE 56

There were other areas where Indo-Portuguese craft traditions grew. Here are  examples of  fine silver and tortoise shell caskets, from late sixteenth century and  the seventeenth century.




 (SLIDE 61)

There are other areas that illustrate the same skills Look at this fork and spoon, made in Sri Lanka in the mid sixteenth century of crystal with gold, rubies and other precious stones.  (SLIDE 62)

The people in India also adopted new styles of building. Look at this picture of the former Academy of Music Building in Goa or that of the former State Bank of India or these Portuguese style houses .

 (SLIDE 63)

 (SLIDE 64)

(SLIDE 65)

(SLIDE 66)

Indo Portuguese furniture styles with elaborate carving continued well into the 20th century

(SLIDE 67)

The crossing of beaches was also in the adoption of music, dress and food.  Here we have some singers of African descent brought by the Portuguese across the Indian Ocean to Sri Lanka, singing ‘baila’ songs which have a Luso-African drumbeat.

 (SLIDE 68)

And here we see the descendants of people who crossed the beaches in more ways than one – these are Luso-Indians who live in Eastern Sri Lanka.   (SLIDE 69)

Throughout this lecture I have concentrated on illustrating ways in which the religious encounter enriched those who crossed the metaphorical beaches and I did so partly because historical literature on the colonial encounter is filled with analyses of conflict and confrontation.

However, it is important to remember that there were those who resolutely refused to cross the beaches. The Portuguese missionaries of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, by and large, refused to learn about Hindu and Buddhist beliefs and practices, dismissing them as superstitions. Robert de Nobili, who in the seventeenth century adopted a sacred thread reminiscent of the Brahmins, was an exception. The colonized groups, being the weaker, had less autonomy of action. Even those who sought to resist change in the face of the coming of Christianity by their very refusal to accept the new religion and its culture, began to be aware of their own religious traditions in new ways.  In this sense, even those who refused to cross the beach, were transformed in unanticipated ways. That transformation and its consequences is a large topic: perhaps a topic for another lecture at a different time.

I wish to end this talk with a final reflection. The Portuguese came to the East with their own preconceptions–expecting fascinating things. I find some of the things they left behind equally fascinating, fertile products of cultural inter-mixture. Indeed, the legacy they left behind is sometimes seen in unexpected places. This is a street sign from the former Portuguese quarter of the city of Madras now called Chennai. Few people in Chennai even think of the Portuguese but there are always silent reminders of their former presence.

 (SLIDE 70)

It is important that I do not leave you with the impression that Indo-Portuguese art is at the center of Indian art. India and Sri Lanka produced a number of beautiful buildings and artifacts before the Portuguese arrived. I will show you a few slides of some of these to give you a glimpse of what you could see when you visit the Indian subcontinent as some of you will.  Here is a picture of a Buddhist stupa from Anuradhapura dating from the 3rd century BC and next is better-known stupa, the Ruwanvelisaya from the 1st Century BC.

(SLIDE 71)

  (SLIDE 72)

This is a 19th century photo of the same stupa before it was restored.  (SLIDE 73)

These are 6th century paintings on a rock fortress in Sri Lanka.    (SLIDE 74)

  (SLIDE 75) This is a 12th C image of the Hindu god Siva, now in a museum in Colombo, Sri Lanka.         (SLIDE 76) This is a gilt bronze image of Avalokitesvara of the 9th or 10th century from Sri Lanka.

We need to recall that with the production of many beautiful artifacts, the Portuguese colonial enterprise also resulted in the destruction of many Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic works of art.


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