The Portuguese may have left the shores but they still occupy the mind.
As a 13 year old, I used to attend tuitions to supplement my low-quality school education — as is the norm in India’s ‘pressure cooker’ education model. The tuitions were held in the house of a Catholic tutor located in an entirely Catholic neighbourhood, while I used to live in a largely Hindu upper caste housing society.
One evening as I was returning from my tuition session, an acquaintance, a sexagenarian man from the Catholic locality, asked me to come over to his house for snacks. He followed it up with an assurance that doing so will not make me an outcaste. Although at that time, I did not understand the historical context this statement stemmed from, it got me thinking about the social relations in my hometown and a number of questions popped into my mind — answers to some of which I am still clueless about.
Entry into teenage is always a confusing and chaotic time for an individual. On one hand, you have to deal with the gradual loss of childhood but on the other hand, adulthood is still far away. This intermediate no man’s land is also the time when one grapples with questions regarding his/her identity: social, communal, religious, linguistic, economic, etc. With this, comes the consciousness of one’s own place in the society and where he or she fits in these more or less natural or artificial constructs.
This incident was the catalyst for the start of my search for this consciousness. Following it, I started reading books about the history of my hometown and also started gathering oral history about it by talking to elders in my family and outside. My amateur investigations revealed information not only about my own identity but also about the intertwined nature of these identities and the problematic history behind them.
Vasai-Virar, my hometown, is marked by contrasting areas of villages with lush green horticultural plantations and urban cement jungles of low-cost housing apartment blocks. Affluent Catholics, Vadvals — a landed Hindu intermediate caste, and Samavedi Brahmins dominate the villages. The city is populated mostly by middle-class migrants earning their bread in nearby Mumbai.
The villages remain highly segregated socially and communally, while this segregation is largely absent in the urban areas. Despite the segregation in the villages, communal harmony and amicable relations have largely sustained for the past hundreds of years. To understand this peculiar dynamics, a crash course in Vasai-Virar’s history is in order.
The History Of Inquisition In Vasai-Virar
The Portuguese captured Vasai through the Treaty of Bassein in 1534 and Virar, which was a part of Vasai, became a part of the larger Portuguese colony of Vasai. With this, the reign of colonial terror started. Inquisition arrived in Vasai and the colonisers started conversion of people to Christianity through force and deceit. During the initial period of this era, 200 temples were destroyed and 10,000 people were converted.
An interesting method employed for this purpose made use of bread. At that time, bread was considered by the local population as an alien and impure food. Anyone consuming it was considered to have become an outcaste and was banished from the community. Exploiting this ignorance, the missionaries would throw pieces of bread in drinking water wells.
People ignorant of this fact would drink water from these wells and when this was discovered, they would be banished and socially boycotted by their own. Missionaries would then approach these alienated individuals or families and convert them to Christianity. These new Christians were encouraged to wear specific dresses like a red cap for males and a red saree for females to distinguish themselves from the non-Christian folk. Thus seeds of social division were being sown.
The exploited classes, especially non-Christians, also experienced marginalisation in socio-cultural relations. The Portuguese followed specific policy regarding social and criminal justice and protected their Christian subjects against any law. Christian culprits, including the newly converted, were not kept in the prisons while non-Christians were severely punished for even minor crimes.
The non-Christians were denied the observance of any religious rites. Idols were destroyed and idol worship was banned. Strong action was taken against the defaulters. All social ceremonies including wedding were prohibited in Vasai while organisers of other types of ceremonies had to pay heavy taxes.
Gradually, it also started becoming clear that the Portuguese were more rigid with the Hindus than with the Muslims. Unlike Hindu temples, mosques were not destroyed and only had to pay commission or taxes. The people tired of this oppression and colonial exploitation appealed to Bajirao I, Peshwa (prime minister) of the neighbouring Maratha empire to liberate Vasai.
In 1739, he sent an army contingent under the leadership of his brother Chimajiappa to liberate Vasai. After a bloody battle, which became famous as the Battle of Vasai, the Portuguese were defeated and Vasai came under Maratha control.
The Arrival Of The Chitpavan Brahmins
The victorious Marathas promptly started reconversion activities and Catholics who wanted to reconvert were allowed to do so (against the opposition of orthodox local Hindus). Unlike the inquisition, this process was not done by force. People who wanted to maintain their Christian faith were allowed to do so.
It is because of this tolerant policy that Vasai-Virar today has a thriving Catholic community. Some vestiges of formerly Christian villages which reconverted under the Maratha rule can be found in the names of these villages like ‘Fatherwadi’ — which has been a largely Hindu village for the past couple of hundred years.
With the Maratha army, came their revenue officials and other bureaucrats from Pune. These were mostly Chitpavan Brahmins. These new Brahmins considered themselves superior even to the local Brahmins and established separate localities exclusively for themselves. These separate localities exist even today and are largely dominated by this particular community. Until the recent past, marital relations between the local Brahmins and these migrant Brahmins were not common.
The Catholic community per se does not exist as a monolith. It is further divided along the caste lines of their original faith so much so that these caste groups have their own community organisations. There is a community called Samvedi Christians (colloquially referred to as ‘Kuparis’) which comprises of Samvedi Brahmins, who converted to Christianity.
These caste groups generally do not intermarry with each other and have different rituals and customs. An interesting case is that of a group, which is the product of intermarriage between the Portuguese and Indians. Members of this group prefer to marry only among themselves or with their counterparts in Goa and Portugal.
It is important to ask why despite such stark social and religious segregation, Vasai-Virar has been a beacon of communal harmony. At least in my lifetime I do not recall any incident of communal significance, not even a minor scuffle. Nor do I recall hearing such stories from elders in my family. People of diverse communities maintain cordial and brotherly relations with each other. Answer to this question can only be speculative.
One explanation for this paradoxical situation could be that the people who converted were a part of the same pool as the ones who did not and thus followed the same rituals and customs and had the same culture and traditions. They were shaped by the same social reality and experiences and they maintained these even after conversion. There was enough common ground between these communities, for them to understand each other’s actions.
More study on this needs to be undertaken by cultural anthropologists.
Coming back to my conversation with the elderly gentleman, it is evident now that a rich and complex historical and social context surrounded our conversation. The historic sense of hurt over being disowned by one’s own brethren was evident. It was this historical and social context that informed his statement. I was a Hindu and he was a Catholic. A history of hundreds of years was impacting our social dynamics. And this social dynamics played out in our conversation.
Centuries of religious and social segregation have prevented a person from Vasai-Virar from rising above these narrow hierarchies and co-creating an all-encompassing common identity instilling a sense of brotherhood. The trauma of colonial intervention in changing the social reality of Vasai-Virar is still visible about 400 years later. The Portuguese may have left the shores but they still occupy the mind.