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The Italian ‘brahmin’ of Madurai

When Roberto de Nobili was born in Montepulciano, Italy, in 1577, nobody in his family could have guessed that the boy would spend most of his life oceans away, dressed as a sanyasi

A portrait of Roberto de Nobili by Baltasar da Costa. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
A portrait of Roberto de Nobili by Baltasar da Costa. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In 1623, a venerated sanyasi arrived at the court of the poligar (governor) of Sendamangalam, now in Tamil Nadu. On the face of it, he was like other divines of his time: One acolyte held up a parasol, while another carried the tiger skin on which the holy man reposed. Yet another cradled his books and a fourth a vessel with sacred water to be sprinkled wherever the party made a halt. Ramachandra Nayaka, lord of Sendamangalam, received them warmly, washing the guru’s feet in reverence. In the conversation that followed, a grant of land and other favours were discussed so that the holy man might establish a branch of his mission at this important urban centre. After spending some time in the area, the visitors carried on with their travels, going to Salem, where too the provincial administrator received the old man with deference. He was assigned lodgings in “the finest quarter of the town", receiving also a promise of that useful thing: the governor’s sincere friendship.

When Roberto de Nobili was born in Montepulciano, Italy, in 1577, nobody in his family could have guessed that the boy would spend most of his life oceans away, in the dusty plains of the Indian peninsula, dressed as a sanyasi. The Nobilis were a military set—they claimed descent from the Holy Roman emperor Otto III, and were related to cardinals, saints, and even a pope or two. As the eldest son of his house, Roberto was expected to carry on the line, but by his adolescence had already quarrelled with his parents, announcing his desire to serve the Catholic church. He fled in disguise to Naples and obtained a theological education, before setting sail, in 1604, for India. The journey was not smooth—the Sao Jacinto was shipwrecked and months were lost in Mozambique. But at last de Nobili arrived in Goa, quickly thereafter moving to Kochi. And then, to get even further away from the Portuguese colonial government, the Italian Jesuit orchestrated a transfer to the mission in Madurai—a mission that in 15 years had made a grand total of zero conversions.

As a missionary, de Nobili’s objectives were clear. “I long most keenly," he declared, “to travel about these vast spaces, staff in hand, and to win their innumerable peoples for Christ Our Lord." But what made the man stand out was the manner in which he went about his business. Soon after he arrived in Madurai in 1606, de Nobili grasped what his colleague, a Portuguese soldier-turned-Jesuit, 36 years his senior, had failed to see. European missionaries were dismissed as unclean parangis (a variant of firangi) who ate beef, kept no caste distinctions, and reaped most of their converts from “polluted" communities. Their message, then, was tainted as one for the inferior orders. The older man had no qualms about dealing with the low, given his own working-class origins; de Nobili, however, with his exalted family credentials, his sophisticated education, and a desire to make the Gospel attractive to more than the peasantry, decided on a new way going forward. As he announced to a superior, “I will become a Hindu to save the Hindus."

What followed was a fascinating experiment. De Nobili acquired not only a staggering knowledge of Tamil, but also Telugu and Sanskrit—a Brahmin convert even gave him access to the Vedas, though prejudice prevented him from seeing in them anything beyond “ridiculous legends and stories". Soon, de Nobili began to live like a “native": The Jesuit’s cassock was discarded for the garb of a sanyasi, and only food cooked by Brahmins was served to de Nobili on his leaf. He began to keep a distance from his colleague, establishing a veritable caste system between them—indeed, in 1619, when summoned by angry seniors to Goa, de Nobili refused even to eat with them. A new church was constructed (a coconut ceremoniously smashed at its founding) and there, seating was on the basis of status, so that low-born converts had to wait by the threshold while the high-born sat in the front. De Nobili preached the Bible, meanwhile, as a kind of lost Veda, all the time also building up connections with the high and mighty of the land.

Shrewd as this adaptive strategy was, it was also successful. Many Brahmins converted, as did a brother of Ramachandra Nayaka of Sendamangalam. In 1610, the Madurai mission had 60 converts, but, by the time he died, de Nobili’s flock numbered 4,000. The process was not altogether devoid of problems though. The Italian’s high-handedness provoked complaints from his colleague, and in Goa he was firmly told to suspend his controversial methods. Not only did de Nobili not listen, he made more enemies by going behind Goa’s back, leveraging connections in Rome and getting, in 1623, the Pope himself to declare support for the Madurai mission. In Madurai, meanwhile, Brahmins were not ignorant of de Nobili’s strategy, and while he was treated well in general by local rulers, a conservative backlash meant there were also times when he had to bear the brunt of their wrath, as in 1640, when he was thrown in prison.

De Nobili’s style provoked a debate about how Eastern peoples ought to be converted. He claimed that the tuft on the head (kudumi) and the sacred thread were merely social symbols, and converts could continue wearing them. His opponents, however, argued that conversion meant conversion into a European frame, in spirit as well as its outer manifestations. In the end, as it happened, they were the ones who succeeded, and de Nobili’s aristocratic overconfidence led to his downfall: In 1646, he was transferred out of Madurai, dying blind and upset 10 years later in Mylapore. It was a lonely end for a clever man with an insatiable zeal, and though his successes lingered for some decades, soon enough the taint he had tried so hard to expel came back to haunt the missionaries: They were parangis, defiled folk, and theirs was a faith only for the poor and weak.

Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne: Chronicles Of The House Of Travancore.

Manu S. Pillai tweets @UnamPillai

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