Zheng He (Cheng Ho) in Calicut

Posted by Maddy Labels:

A towering seven footer Mongol Hui Muslim, who entered the Ming King’s (Yongle emperor Zhu Di – the third Ming king) service, Zheng He, is immortal for his astounding navigational quests. When the Ming army captured

the Yunan province, the 11 year old Ma Sanpao was one of the many castrated and put into the palace servant team. For his service in helping the new emperor win the throne (helping with the coup where the palace was burned) after three years of vicious warfare, Zheng He was promoted in 1404 to the position of Director of Eunuch Affairs and given the surname Zheng (Zhu Di renamed Ma Ho as Cheng Ho because the eunuch's horse was killed in battle outside of a place called Zhenglunba – Cheng Ho became Zheng He to The West)

Between 1405 and 1433, the Ming government sponsored a series of seven naval expeditions. Emperor Zhu Di designed them to establish a Chinese presence and impress the foreign people in the Indian Ocean basin. Much is written about his seven voyages and his exploits reached the world’s public media with
Gavin Menzis announcement after the 1421 project that concluded Zheng He discovered America. Great historians debated and ridiculed the Menzis suggestion. The discussion goes on.

Zheng He, newly promoted as Admiral oversaw the production of the ships and headed these voyages. I hope you can watch the truly wonderful PBS documentary “1421 – the year Zheng He reached America”, I did, just fascinating.

It was the time when the Zamorin of Calicut was powerful and well known, a time when the pepper trade was in the hands of the Moors of Calicut. The Zamorin apparently ordered craftsmen to draw fifty ounces of gold into hair-like fine threads, and weaved them into ribbon to make a gold girdle embedded with pearls and precious stones of all sort of colors (basically a nice Kasavu Mundu or PONNADA I presume), and sent his envoy Naina (Narayana) to present the gold girdle to the Ming emperor as tribute. The Ming Zhu Di returned the favor by deputing Zheng He with a shipload of presents.

Zheng He was appointed as the admiral in control of the huge fleet and armed forces that undertook these expeditions. Zheng He's first voyage consisted of a fleet of 317 ships holding almost 28,000 armed troops. Many of these ships were mammoth nine-mast’ed "treasure ships" which were by far the largest marine craft the world had ever seen. If the accounts can be taken as factual, Zheng He's treasure ships were capable of accommodating more than 500 passengers (Marco Polo and Ibn Batuta have stated 500-1,000 passengers & private cabins in these junks), as well as a massive amount of cargo.

Now imagine this 7’ tall chap dressed in majestic silk robes coming off the majestic Chinese junk berthed at Calicut’s historic harbor in 1405…I have taken the liberty to slightly reword the National Geographic article for effect (the person who sees it in the NG article is in Srilanka)

Viewed from the Calicut Shores, the first sighting of the Ming fleet is a massive shadow on the horizon. As the shadow rises, it breaks into a cloud of tautly ribbed sail, aflame in the tropical sun. With relentless determination, the cloud draws ever closer, and in its fiery embrace an enormous city appears. A floating city, like nothing the world has ever seen before. No warning could have prepared officials, moors, or the thunderstruck peasants who stood near the beach for the scene that unfolds in front of them. Stretched across miles of the Indian Ocean in terrifying majesty is the armada of Zheng He, admiral of the imperial Ming navy.

In Zheng He's time, China and India together accounted for more than half of the world's gross national product, as they had for most of human history. Even as recently as 1820, China accounted for 29 percent of the global economy and India another 16 percent, according to the calculations of Angus Maddison, a leading British economic historian.

When the Chinese sailors reached Calicut, India, their giant ships certainly created a stir. The Chinese were entertained with music and songs. Zheng He’s four latter expeditions were recorded by a Chinese scribe named Ma Huan, who was attached as a translator to the fourth armada, which sailed in 1413 with 63 ships and 28,560 men. The book is titled The Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shore (Ying-yai Sheng-tan).Fei Xin another writer/translator who accompanied Cheng Ho. Ma Huan wrote that the Indians' musical instruments (Veena) were "made of gourds with strings of copper wire, and the sound and rhythm were pleasant to the ears."

What did the Chinese do at Calicut? They picked up spices of course, but only on the Journey eastwards back to China. They did stop over in Calicut on each of the 7 voyages, recuperated, replenished their stores and continued on frequently to the west. For the westerly trade, they bartered in Calicut with gold coins, spices from SE Asia and mainly rice that they had picked up at Orissa, to purchase Silver for the trip to Zanzibar. Ian Blanchard gives the reasons in detail in his book on Mining. Curiously in Zanzibar, they bartered the Silver for Rhodesian native gold and more spices!!

After the Ming - Yongle Emperor died in 1424, China endured a series of brutal power struggles; a successor emperor died under suspicious circumstances and ultimately the scholars emerged triumphant. They ended the voyages of Zheng He's successors, halted construction of new ships and imposed curbs on private shipping. Soon after Zheng He's death, the Ming Dynasty officials burned most of his charts and writings. By 1500, the Government ordered the destruction of all oceangoing ships and made it a capital offense to build a boat with more than two masts. Basically officials took control and decided that the outside world had nothing to offer them. Upon returning to China, Zheng dead at age 62, Zheng's crew found that the expeditions, rather than being celebrated as heroic, were slandered by the Confucian court officials as indulgent adventures that wasted the country's resources. Zheng He's trip logs were "lost" by officials seeking to suppress further overseas travels.

Some say he brought in Chinese fishing net technology to Cochin, some say Kublai Khan did….He introduced Chinese culture in what is today’s SE Asia and many believe they have the Zheng He lineage in Indonesia & Malacca. India was known to produce very fine quality steel and produce skilled metallurgists. It appears Indian miners & artisans traveled back with the treasure fleets of Zheng He. See my earlier blog about some of people who accompanied him.

Zheng He’s giraffe – It is said that it came either from Somalia or Bengal/Orissa. While logic says Somalia, PBS in their article mentions Bengal. The Chinese persuaded their hosts to part with the giraffe as a gift to the emperor and to procure another like it from Africa. A splinter group under Yang Min went to Bengal during the 4th voyage, and returned to China with the new king of Bengal, who presented to the emperor a giraffe which he had received from the ruler of Malindi (in Kenya). The giraffe was thought to be a mythical qilin, and auspicious. The giraffe arrived at the court in Nanjing in 1415. Check this link for details of how the Giraffe got to China.
Stone in N African Verde islands –Left by Zheng He with Malayalam inscriptions.
Gavin’s presumption - Found a large, free-standing stone near the coast at Janela.. The author then faxed a copy of his picture to The Bank of India, and they advised it was Malayalam. Does this make any sense at all; the Chinese would erect a stele on Cape Verde and carve the inscription in Malayalam? Who would read it? What would it say?

Or was it left by sailors from Kerala who halted at Janela, Cape Verde, and they carved the stele in their own language.

Here is a link with the pictures of the stone. I did not see any Malayalam on it!

The routes of Zheng He's voyages and A stunning computer animation of the Treasure Junks

Cheng Ho died at Calicut and was either buried there or at sea. His shoes and a braid of his hair, at his request, were thought to have been brought back to Nanjing and buried near Buddhist caves outside the city according to Fei Xin. To day Zheng He is revered in China, there are museums and you can see his tomb as well.


Starting with the first Zamorin envoy to China Mr. Narayanan in 1405, many of the future diplomats in China even in the near past have been Malayalis ( KPS Menon (Sr & Jr) , KM Panikkar, Shiv Sankar Menon, KR Narayanan, Vijay Nambiar, to name a few).
Coincidence or by purpose, I am not sure. In any case it was relations with China that got Eminent Malayali VK Krishna Menon into lots of trouble.

The Chinese explorer Zheng He (Cheng Ho) arrived to get the Buddha's tooth relic but left without it in 1406. Zheng He came back five years later, abducted Vira Alakasvera, and took him to China. By the time the captives were brought back, Parakramabahu VI (r. 1411-65) had taken power; he sent envoys to China with tributes five times. In 1960, Chou en Lai returned the Buddha tooth to Sri Lanka.

At first eunuchs were in large supply because captured enemies - Since the eunuchs were often the only males in close daily contact with the emperor and top government officials, they gained vast political power and were able to sway the policies of the day. The Confucian bureaucrats who ran the government were in constant struggle with the eunuchs for supremacy. Over time, the eunuchs took part in imperial power plays at the highest levels, sometimes even effecting a change of emperor or running the show from behind the throne. Their power waxed and waned throughout the different dynasties, running strong in the Tang, weaker in the Song, and again quite strong in the Yuan (Mongol) and Ming dynasties
Pics – various sites acknowledged, Thanks

When fingers talk

Posted by Maddy Labels:

During the days of the radio, we used to have a perfectly boring period when a program called Kambola Nilavaram (Market situation) was aired. They droned out the prices per quintal of spices, and all kinds of commodities. Then I heard from my Badagara friends about how these prices were set or fixed in the first place and how huge transactions were carried out on the streets using fingers under a towel. I was amazed, but having nothing much to do with these things, promptly forgot the whole thing…till I started the Zheng He (Cheng Ho – my Chinese friend tells me Ho is pronounced as hu or hm) research.

It is stated in Chinese texts that the system was taught to the Malabari traders by the Chinese, some say by Cheng Ho or Zheng He in particular. As he and his trading entourage had no clue about Arabic or Malayalam, they figured out a new method. But I am sure now that the system existed before Cheng ho. So effective was it that since 1407, the system has remained unchanged!! Even today go to the markets out there in Calicut and the process uses fingers under a towel…The language that withstood the test of time has been around for over 600 years!!!

This Time article
provides details as recounted by a Calicut trader to A Ghosh - In a sudden, unexpected gesture of generosity, Harikant inducts me into a secret ritual, practiced by spice traders for over a millennium: the bargaining of prices. Buyer and seller clasp right hands under a towel or handkerchief and, thus hidden, make offers and counteroffers with a system of finger signals. If I grasp all of your fingers under the towel, I'm offering either 5 or 50, depending on the context of the transaction. If I tug at your index finger, it means I'm offering 1 or 10; two fingers indicate 2 or 20, and so on. There are more complex signals, but these are not to be shared with prying journalists. Buyer and seller use combinations of this code at lightning speed—without exchanging a word—to do business worth millions of rupees.

This undoubtedly is how the admiral's minions conducted negotiations while they were here. (Ma Huan's account, Triumphant Visions of the Ocean's Shores, cites deals sealed by the clasping of hands.) The finger-code system was devised to allow traders from all over the world to do business here without having to learn Malayalam, the local language. The towel keeps the deal-making under wraps, a useful precaution in an overcrowded bazaar where the next man might try to undercut you. For added secrecy, the codes are commodity-specific: rice traders have different signals from spice traders. In an era of handheld computers that can exchange data by infrared beams, no spice merchant in Calicut would dream of giving up the old way. "It's a perfect system," Harikant beams. "There's no need to change what's perfect."

Now how could I check if this practice existed outside India, especially China? So I Googled quite a bit and finally hit pay dirt. This is exactly how gems, especially jade is traded in China & Hong Kong.

VB Meen who attended an auction
at the Tai Tung Hotel in 1962 stated - Presently, the auctioneers appeared and placed a boulder on the table... He gave the number of the specimen and a brief description of its appearance... Then he gave the price the owner was asking for it. Remember that this was probably many times what the owner really expected to get. Then the auctioneer draped a towel over his hand and walked through the group. If somebody wished to bid, he attracted the auctioneer's attention and they clasped hands under the towel. By appropriate pressures on the auctioneer's fingers, the bidder indicated his offer. Each bidder, in turn, did this until all had been taken care of. Then, the auctioneer went to the owner, who all this time was seated in his rooms with his stock of jades. If the owner did not accept the highest bid, the auctioneer returned... and started taking new bids... Eventually, of course, the sale is made or the piece is withdrawn by the owner and then a new one is offered for sale

Ma Huan explains the honor of this deal in his accounts on Ku-Li (Calicut) - Ying-Yai Sheng-lan or The Overall Survey of the Oceans’ Shores Circa 1433 - The chief and the Chetti with his Excellency Zheng He, all join hands together and the broker then says “in such and such a moon on such and such a day we have all joined hands and sealed our agreement with a hand clasp, whether the price be dear or cheap, we will never repudiate it or change it”

On the other hand, it chould also have been a Calicut ritual taken back by Chinese traders…Who knows for sure??? What makes me think it went to China from India?

This paragraph from the above Ma Huan account states thus, proving that it existed before Cheng Ho's arrival - In their (Ku-li) method of calculation, they do not use a calculating plate abacus, for calculating, they use only the two hands and two feet and twenty digits on them and they do not make the slightest mistake, this is very extraordinary.

Other references

PHILLOTT, D.C. (1906) A note on the mercantile sign language of India. J. Asiatic Soc. Bengal new series, II (7) 333-334. Notes that various covert buying and selling codes could be used by two parties in the bazaar, who grasped hands under a covering drape and indicated their price and offer by the number of fingers given or taken, or by the section of a finger, or other manual codes, according to a well-known practice. This reduced the level of interference from idle bystanders.

PYRARD, Fran├žois [1619] The Voyage of Fran├žois Pyrard of Laval to the East Indies, the Maldives, the Moluccas and Brazil, ... from the third French edition of 1619, ed. and transl. Albert GRAY & H.C.P. BELL (1888). 2 vols. London: Hakluyt.II: 178-179, silent, concealed bargaining amidst the vast crowds buying and selling at Goa around 1608: "they are wont to make signs under their silk or cotton mantles, which are worn like our cloaks: so touching the hands thus privily, they give one another to understand by the fingers at what price they are willing to buy or sell, without the others knowing or being aware of anything."

VARTHEMA, Ludovico di [1510] The Travels of Ludovico di Varthema in Egypt, Syria, Arabia ..., in Persia, India, and Ethiopia, A.D. 1503 to 1508, ... from the original Italian edition of 1510, transl. John W. JONES, ed. George P. BADGER (1863), 2 vols, London: Hakluyt.I: 168-169, description, with footnoted additions, of Indian bargaining conducted by finger signs hidden under a cloth, at Calicut
Two accounts for those who want to read the details of the pepper trade from Malabar

Ammini Ramachandran’s brilliant site – Peppertrail.com
Where the pepper grows – Saudi Aramco World

De Nobili-The Roman Brahmin

Posted by Maddy Labels:

Madurai – The last time we passed Madurai was on 31st Oct 1984, the day Indira Gandhi was assassinated by Beant Singh and we were en-route Kodaicanal for our honeymoon, bussing through the trouble prone and riot hit streets of Calicut & Madurai. But that was a stray incident; in general, as you hear the name of tranquil city called Madurai, you picture correctly a vast temple city of Tamil Nadu, an ancient one with towering temples, and a center of many historic traditions. An important cultural and commercial center since 250AD, the capital of the Pandya kings, Madurai hosts the very famous Madura Meenakshi temple. The story I will now tell takes you to the 17th century, when Madurai was ruled by the popular Telugu speaking Nayak Emperors.

The Portuguese had arrived in India in 1498 and were busy since then in taking over the roaring spice trade by hook or crook, and force, fighting battles with the Zamorin and his troops. They were also busy in enforcing Christianity where they could, making them a very unpopular lot, except as in the case of the Paravas,
whom I wrote about earlier. The word Parangi (the person from Portugal) was a dreaded term and synonymous with forced Christianity.

It was into this turmoil in South India that his Lord’s calling led Robert De Nobili, and as he was soon to realize, specifically, to Madurai where he ended spending many years of his life. Madurai, the capital of Nayak kings at that time was also a center of Vedic learning, and Hindu philosophy and science were extensively studied. His story, like that of
Dom Joao Da Cruz who I wrote about recently, is fascinating.

Sometime you wonder at the sheer audacity and sagacity of certain people, how they risk life & legacy, in order to achieve their higher goals or godly calling. Such was the effort of Robert De Nobili that he managed to carry it on for close to 50 years. Can you imagine a chaste Italian Jesuit priest, dressed in ochre robes, with a ‘ponool’ (sacred thread) around his body and the sacred sandalwood marks on his forehead and arms, conducting extensive religious debates and promoting his religion to the Iyers & Iyengars of Madurai in all the three languages, Tamil, Sanskrit and Telugu, mastered in a couple of calendar years (In his life he is said to have mastered 32 languages) at Tuticorin, Goa & Cochin? Unbelievable, eh? Well, I was taken aback when I encountered him in history books, close on the heels of Joao De Cruz and St Xavier in timeline. So confident was this young upstart, all of 28 years of age that he promised the Roman clergy that he will start from the top of the Indian caste ladder and that he would have the South of India converted in no time.

Let us start with some basic information. Robert De Nobili, born at Montepulciano, Tuscany, September, 1577; died at Mylapore, India, in Jan 1656. Born in a family which claimed noble descent and distinguished relations. Ran away from home at the age of nineteen to join the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) at Naples and after a brilliant course of studies sailed for the Indian mission in October, 1604, arriving at Goa on 20 May, 1605. After a short stay at Cochin (where he fell gravely ill and nearly died) and the Fishery Coast, he moved in November, 1606, to Madurai.

The policy until then by the Portuguese clergy was to try and achieve conversions of the downtrodden lower classes, sometimes forcefully, hardly making contacts with the upper castes. Parangi’s had strict rules after conversions, getting the new recruits to eat meat, change their entire ways of life etc which earned them no good will, and then again, the converts were still considered lower class. The revised priority in India, therefore for the Jesuits, was to free Hindus from the stranglehold of the Brahmanas as set by St Xavier. The resident Jesuit priest in Madurai was making no headway with conversions and not a single Brahmin had converted thus far.

De Nobili had other ideas (fashioned on his colleague Matteo Ricci’s methods of acting as a Confucian scholar in China). He would persuade the nobility to accept his way and start from the top of the caste ladder. First he had to understand the terrain and its constraints. As it goes, De Nobili learnt the first lessons about Hinduism from a teacher he met at Fr Fernandez’s school for the Parava fishermen in Tuticorin.

Having ripened his design by thorough meditation and by conferring with his superiors, the Archbishop of Cranganore and the Provincial of Malabar, who both approved and encouraged his resolution, Nobili planned his arduous career to visit Madurai in the dress of the Hindu ascetics, known as sanyasis. The permission came in 1607, and he exchanged his black cassock for Kavi (saffron) colored robes, shaved his head and put on a linen turban, a triple strand poonool across his shoulder, broad sandalwood paste ‘kuri’ on his forehead, and his leather shoes were exchanged for wooden sandals.

He carefully avoided meeting with Father Gonsalvo Fernandes the resident Jesuit priest as he took his lodgings in a solitary abode in the Brahmins' quarter obtained with the benevolence of a high officer in Madurai. He then engaged a Brahmin cook and ate vegetarian food consisting of rice, vegetables, fruit and milk, eating just once a day. He later employed a Telugu Brahmin Sanskrit scholar Sivadharma to teach him the Vedas, hoping & preparing to meet the Brahmins on their own higher ground. He operated as a `saint' from an `ashram' and offered `pujas.' At the end of the `pujas,' De Nobili distributed `prasadam.' All this while, he studiously avoided any contact with lower caste people. By 1610 he had mastered the Hindu scriptures and the three languages. He wrote two books ‘Dialogue of Eternal life’ and ‘Inquiry into the meaning of life’ in Tamil and used them to draw the local Brahmins to debates. Soon he came to be known as the Tattuwa Bhodhacharia Swamikal or the Roman Brhamin.

J. N. Ogilvie in his work, Apostles of India says "It was told how a strange ascetic from some far land had arrived, drawn to the holy city by its great repute, and that he had taken up his abode in the Brahman quarter of the city. Soon visitors flocked to the house of the holy man to see what they should see, but only to find that the Brahman's servants would not permit their entrance. 'The master,' they said, 'is meditating upon God. He may not be disturbed.' This merely helped to whet the people's desire and increase the fame of the recluse. The privacy was relaxed, and daily audiences were granted to a privileged few."

It was this willingness to adapt to Indian customs coupled with asceticism that won him some converts. In that year, he could convert 63 people, starting with his first Tamil teacher (who was later named Albert, according to Stephen Neil’s Christianity in India), but they were not required to break their caste or change their dress, food or mode of life except in the matter of idolatry. They could also retain their sacred thread and tuft of hair on their head.

Nobili’s teachings did not go all plain sailing. When a large assembly of 800 Brahmins once demanded his expulsion from Madurai, Nobili defended himself, saying that he was not a Parangi, but a ‘Twice born’ sanyasi from Rome, and that the version of religion he taught did not abolish the caste system. To lend credibility, he produced a certificate from Rome that called him a ‘Romaca Brahmana”. A version of this was also nailed to the door of his house. He went on to say ( apparently) that he was a descendant of Brahma and that he was in possession of the lost 5th Veda, the Yesurveda or Veda of Yesu (Jesus) and that his teachings were based upon that scripture. Sivadharma, his Brahmin teacher then defended him strongly at the meeting and this proved the clincher. Nobili remained in Madurai and preached his Yesur Veda for the next few decades.

Ines Zupanov, a contemporary historian contends - Armed with theological theories developed in Europe by both Catholic and Protestant thinkers, Nobili devised an ingenious strategy - based on theologically framed resemblance and analogies – of how just about everything in Indian paganism can be converted into Christianity. The politics of acceptance of the Nobili method in Rome is explained in the book Heroic Leadership (Jesuits & JP Morgan) by Chris Lowney.

Francis Ellis, in his contribution to the 1822 Transactions of the Asiatic Society, explained that Nobili presented to the group an old, dirty parchment in which he had forged, in the ancient Indian characters, a deed, showing that the Brahmans of Rome were of much older date than those of India and that the Jesuits of Rome descended, in a direct line from the god Bhrama. However, Stephen O Neil provides a translation of the parchment he nailed to his door, which actually stated what he was, and what his aims truly were. Max Mueller said - "A man who could quote from Manu, from the Puranas, nay from the works such as the Apasthamba Sutras, which are known even at present only to those few scholars who can read Sanskrit manuscripts, must have been far advanced in the knowledge of the sacred language and the literature of the Brahmins." But many others contend that he learnt just enough to dazzle, not ever to exude in depth…Andrew Steinmetz in his book ‘History of the Jesuits Vol II’ says – So skillfully was the fifth Veda or Yesur Veda prepared, written in the same style as the first four that many Brahmins received it as authentic and Voltaire went on to translate it into L’Ezour Vedam.

Ronald E. Modras in his book Ignatian Humanism: A Dynamic Spirituality for the 21st Century, states – Nobili argued with his superiors in Rome that Brahmins should not be required to get rid of their tuft of hair or their sacred thread before converting. He tried to explain that the term Brahmin meant Doctor or scholar and not priest. Nobili was an excellent orator and an even better writer; it was his persuasive writing that won over the Jesuits of Rome & Lisbon when his superior Fr Trancoso of Goa complained about him. Pope Gregory XV undertook a special tribunal to examine the validity of his work. But after a long inquisition covering 14 years, the Pope decreed on behalf of De Nobili. This furious exchange of letters between Goa, Rome, Cochin and Madurai resulted in the Malabar rites declaration where Christians of India were allowed to follow their customs within their new religion.

His success as a missionary was that the Christian population swelled from around 30,000 in 1656 to over 100,000 in 1706. In Church lore, he is credited with having secured among the largest harvest of converts for Jesus. But it was not to be, the initial successes reversed their course and dwindling numbers of Nobili's converts eventually lead to the closure of his mission in Madurai.

During his final years, he was banished to Jaffna, where by then; he had lost much of his eyesight and eventually moved to Madras as he was not allowed back to Madurai by the Jesuits. Thus it was in Mylapore that the former count of Civitella died after his last eight painful years, in the year 1656, a broken, penniless and blind man.


1. This was a particularly difficult topic to research as the religious parts were of no particular interest to me. I persisted as I found De Nobili’s character interesting and audacious, to say the least. No disrespect is meant to any religion involved, with any part of the text of this article, all events are sourced from historical accounts.

2. Most of the authors who wrote about those times were against Nobili’s methods of mingling with the populace and for not taking a superior western stance. So their writings termed him a fraud, an imposter and a person who diluted the gospel and brought in Paganism to Christianity. I referred & read most of the author’s books mentioned, but only to the extent of Nobili’s involvement in their books and for the basic purpose of writing this article. Only two of the books provided, in my opinion a fair understanding of the times and the person. They were Stephen Neill and Chris Lowney. These accounts of Robert De Nobili’s life can be found at A History of Christianity in India: The Beginnings to AD 1707 By Stephen Neill and
Heroic Leadership (Jesuits & JP Morgan) by Chris Lowney. There could of course be other more complete & authoritative books…

3. It is difficult to determine if much what he did was fraud, especially the stories of the rewritten Vedas and his documentation on the lineage to Brahma. One must realize that there were many Jesuits out to discredit him and to this date many Christians agree with those Nay Sayers, so such stories still run their course. To read a critical Hindu version, refer to
Arun Shourie’s article.

4. One should also not imagine that De Nobili enjoyed living like a Sanyasi or accepted the principles of asceticism. He bore it painfully and frequently complained of his poor lifestyle in his letters to Rome.

5. At
least one article details that he actually lived and preached from Salem - Senda-mangalam (in Namakkal Taluk), and not Madurai. It also talks about the support he received from the heir apparent to the Salem Throne – one Tirumangala Nayaka who eventually converted.

The torn earlobe and the horse trader

Posted by Maddy Labels:

A friend of mine recently changed names from Jayan to John, after five decades of existence on this planet…There was some talk amongst us classmates as to why, how etc especially since it involved just that, a change of name…and that reminded me of a fascinating character from the old times, one who hobnobbed with the gentry of Portugal, Malabar, the Vatican and what not…A boy from Calicut who later changed his name…

Here my friends is another pearl from Malabar history – the story of how a scorned Malayali changed the course of history, starting from a lowly position as the son of a trader Chetty in Calicut, then to a lofty position as the Zamorin’s envoy to Lisbon, a drop to becoming a lowly horse trader in Travancore, to involvement in an incident of a torn earlobe, then providing salvation for the pearl collecting Paravas of Tuthukudi, lending a big hand in the attainment of sainthood for St Xavier, and speeding the decline of the suzerainty of the once powerful Zamorin of Calicut..

When I first read 20000 leagues by Jules Verne, I stopped for a while at the description of the fisher folk south of India, fishing for pearls. Verne tells us of the way Capt Nemo saves the poor chap from a shark attack and that part stuck in my mind. Later on, while reading MGS Narayan’s book Calicut Revisited, I read briefly about Da Cruz, a very interesting but rather unpopular guy in Malabar history. Only later did I get more details about how this guy’s path crossed with these fishermen that Verne talked about. Later I read that Dimitri Mascarenhas a Brit cricketer, whom I used to enjoy watching, is of Parava extract.
In Chapter 6, Verne tells us - It was a man, a living man, a black Indian fisherman, a poor devil who no doubt had come to gather what he could before harvest time. I saw the bottom of his dinghy, moored a few feet above his head. He would dive and go back up in quick succession. A stone cut in the shape of a sugar loaf, which he gripped between his feet while a rope connected it to his boat, served to lower him more quickly to the ocean floor. This was the extent of his equipment. Arriving on the seafloor at a depth of about five meters, he fell to his knees and stuffed his sack with shellfish gathered at random. Then he went back up, emptied his sack, pulled up his stone, and started all over again, the whole process lasting only thirty seconds.

So who are these fishermen? They are the Bharatar or the
Paravas. Parava pearl (incidentally pearl fishing was done only for 20-30 days in March, every year) fishermen inhabited the sandy coast from Kanyakumari to Rameswaram in South India, concentrating around Thoothukudi - Tuticorin. Early in the 16th century, they were virtually reduced to slavery by Muslim rulers who took over the pearl fishing rights, and the Hindu rulers who did not quite support their cause, till finally the Portuguese came to their salvation. They were the first to embrace Christianity in the 16th century, and the path to their conversion by St Xavier was laid by a horse trader John (Joao) Da Cruz. The story is interesting.

It was in the year 1534 that an incident occurred which threatened to throw the coastal people into the throes of a violent religious conflict. In a scuffle between a Muslim and a Parava at Tuticorin, the Parava had his ear torn out by his adversary, who out of sheer greed for the earring it bore, carried it away with him. The incident sparked off a civil war between the Paravas and the Muslims, and it was soon apparent that the Paravas would be beaten in the struggle. The local Muslims, rich and mighty, now swore to exterminate the Paravars. The distraught Parava leaders chanced on a person called John Da Cruz, who was waiting to get paid for the horses he had sold, at Cape Comorin. Da Cruz, considered a local due to his ancestry, but important due to his Portuguese connections, convinced them that they could get Portuguese aid should they convert to Christianity, which the Parava leaders agreed to do as they had no other resort.

About 80 Paravas were initially baptized by the clergy in 1535-36 at Cochin. They also had to pay out 60,000 Panams to Portuguese as protection money. The Portuguese moved their ships to the Cape & Tirunelveli, the matters came to head with the Muslim army soon retreating, fearing fierce punishment by the Portuguese.

Dom Joao Da Cruz then went to Goa to convince St Xaveir (it was 6-8 years later that St Xavier arrived - in 1542 – to carry out the mass conversions) who traveled on to the south coasts and began the conversion of some 20,000 Paravas, some days baptizing so many (over a period of 15 months) that he could not raise his arm from fatigue. The Paravas later became known as the Fernando’s.

So, let us now get to Da Cruz. John Cruz was a fair skinned Malayali Chetty according to Damiao Da Gois a Portuguese historian (it is mentioned by the Portuguese historian Gaspar Correa however, that Cruz was a relative of the Zamorin and a Nair) from Calicut, whom the Zamorin deputed to Portugal in 1512-1513 as his envoy and emissary to sign a treaty with Albuquerque. He was 15 years old then. At Portugal, he decided to become a Christian, changed his name to Joao Da Cruz and by 1515 he was raised to the Knighthood with the insignia and privileges of a Chevalier of the Order of Christ, becoming the first of the ordained ‘fidalgos’. He learnt Portuguese, married in Portugal and returned to Calicut in 1515-16. The Zamorin was furious about the whole affair, especially Da Cruz’s conversion and disowned the newly ordained Cruz and banished him from Malabar. Da Cruz moved his field of operations to Cochin and the south coast of Travancore, far away from the powers of the Zamorin, vowing revenge in his mind.

After a series of misfortunes thenceforth at Cochin and Chaliyam, where he lost his trading stock, boats and his family, Cruz got arrested by the Portuguese authorities themselves owing to nonpayment of heavy debts. King John III of Portugal pardoned him and he then became a horse trader who went to Cape Comorin with 12 horses to trade. There it was that he met the Paravas who told him their tale of woe…Cruz brought the first batch of 15 people to Cochin for conversion, and another 70 later since the initial group and Da Cruz himself were not taken seriously at first. Da Cruz pleaded the case of the Paravas before Nuno da Cunha, the Governor, and it was decided that they be helped against their Muslim opponents. Accordingly a Portuguese squadron appeared before Cape Comorin (Kanya Kumari).

Following all this a fierce naval battle was fought on 27th June 1538 (A History of Christianity in India: The Beginnings to AD 1707 By Stephen Neill) between the Zamorins, his moor supporters and the Portuguese at Vedali in which the Zamorin and the Kunjali moors were defeated. With that defeat the final vestiges of power that the Zamorin held, receded like the tides from those shores….The king of the seas, the Zamorin, never wielded the immense power he once had, ever again. After this event, the Zamorin’s position was largely ceremonial and secondary to the Dutch and the English rule that followed in Malabar..

What became of Dom Joao Da Cruz? Having used every opportunity from 1515 onwards to get back at the Zamorins who had once ridiculed him, he had finally obtained his revenge. Da Cruz had in the meantime persuaded St Xavier of Goa to go in 1542 to Tuticorin for the mass conversions (some 20,000) and thus recorded his name in history books and Christian folklore. Xavier went on to attain sainthood for the efforts over 15 months in converting the Parava lot and others in Asia & SE Asia.

But was Da Cruz the eventual Jati Thalaivan of the Paravas (1543-1553) according to Susan Bayly? If so, he headed the long line of Thalavar descendants that the Paravars had after this him. It is stated in the book ‘A History of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, 1450-1990’ that the Paravas actually borrowed his family name in gratitude and used it thenceforth for their leaders and nobles.

Just like his early childhood days (even his real name is unknown), no reliable information is available about Cruz’s days after the events at Tuticorin and Goa. The problems faced by the fishermen and the eventual conversion of the pagan Paravas by St Xavier was big news in Europe and this was how Jules Verne knew about them.

But well, the wheel turned again - Curiously it was a Malayali from Calicut who finally erased the last vestiges of Portuguese rule and heavy handedness in South India. It was VK Krishna Menon who moved his army to liberate Goa from the Portuguese in 1961 thus closing the Portuguese chapter in Indian history. Krishna Menon was however, not related to the Zamorin’s.


1. The one person who studied Da Cruz the most was VB Nair when he presented his article ‘A Nair envoy to Portugal’ (Indian Antiquary 1928) and there was Georg Schurhammer – Letters of D Joao Da Cruz (Kerala Society papers). The original Da Cruz letters are available at Goan or Lisbon archives. I have not seen these letters or VB Nair’s article. If somebody can help me obtain copies of these I would be obliged.

2. The Zamorin is a title. Roughly 139 Zamorins ruled between the 826AD and 1940. The Zamorin during 1513- 1522, Elankoor Nambiathiri Thirumalpad who was supported by the Portuguese, after he (disputed fact) poisoned his predecessor, sought peace with the Portuguese and deputed the said Da Cruz as his envoy to Portugal.

3. Joao Da Cruz is considered to be a Chetty. What is a Chetty? Is it Seth, Shettu, Shetty, one of the Waynad castes or the Chettiar community? Who were those that existed in Malabar in those days? Was he of North Indian Vaisya extract? Could very well have been. Could also have been a trader Tamil Chetty, but well, he mastered Tamil, Malayalam and Portuguese, looked very South Indian, and was of fair complexion. His original name and ancestry are unknown.

Enterprising Malayalees

Posted by Maddy Labels:

It is joked today that every corner of the world or even the moon has a Malayali tea shop to welcome you. You will find Nair messes or tea stalls all over India, you will even find a Nair hotel in Ginza Tokyo, you will find many of them in the Middle East, but by and far the other Malayalis you encounter around the world, many still maintaining their unique spoken accent, are employed in diverse trades or disciplines, it could be engineering, Nano technology, advanced rocket sciences like ramjet applications, cutting edge medicine or even as suave diplomats and peace keepers.

We keep the ever unhappy neighborhood Kerala store owner busy, by buying plantains, Puttu podi, Chinese yam, Pappadams etc and it is also because of this nomadic lot that companies which make Parachute Coconut oil or Chandrika soaps continue to flourish…

The first Malayali who took up a short job in Greece dates back perhaps to the days of Ptolemy (115BC). Half dead, he was washed up on the Red Sea shores after a shipwreck. He did not know any other language (Malayalam and a smattering of Arabic maybe) and the Cyzicuian, Eudoxus who found him, decided to teach him the Greek language in order to learn his secrets. He was the man from ‘The land of the Ophir’ After a full year of teaching Greek, the man explained about Muziris and the wonders of Malabar to the astonished Eudoxus, who had been eagerly trying to find the sea route to Malabar and break the stronghold that the Arabs had on the Malabar spice trade. The Malayali did eventually guide the Greek ship together with Eudoxus, not once but twice to Malabar. Later, Starbo wrote about the expedition, Ptolemy Eurgetes II profited from the wealth they brought back and thus started a lucrative trade, though much later after Hippalus (the Greek pilot of the Eudoxus ship) wrote about the monsoon winds.

That tells you a lot about the travel bug which bit the people from a world known even to the ancient…the people from Malabar. There are many such stories and when I read the following in Wikipedia, I decided to investigate

According to Ming dynasty Imperial Guard Recruitment Record, Nanking area town guard chief Shaban was a native of Calicut. He was recruited to join Zheng He’s expedition, and was promoted on his return. Another officer Shasozu from Nanking military division was also a native from Calicut, who joined Zheng He’s expedition and too was promoted.

Let me start with the relation Calicut had with ancient China. While it is a story by itself, trade flourished between the two countries and big Chinese ships (junks) were always found moored in the Calicut harbor during the 14th and 15th Centuries. In return for expensive gifts from the Zamorin, the Chinese king returned favor by deputing Zheng He with a shipload of gifts in 1407. Early journeys by this great Eunuch Chinese sailor Zheng He are well documented by Ma Huan. Calicut or Guli (Ku-li) went on to become a favorite destination for Zheng He who rose to an admiral’s position in the royal navy. After Zheng He’s fleet arrived in Guli and associated with the local people and officials, he was attracted to the simple and kind customs and people in Guli. Since then, every time Zheng He navigated west, he would stop by Guli. Zheng breathed his last at Calicut and was either buried there or his body was given a sea burial. His tomb in China has only some clothes and is mostly ceremonial. Zheng he is also known as Admiral Chengho.

Wang Tai Peng’s research establishes the following

Among the elite of the Zheng He crew, there were navigators both Chinese and foreigners. The Chinese navigators were simply called huo-chang. Foreigner navigators were called fan huochang or fanren huochang instead to be distinguished from the Chinese navigators. We don’t know how many of them were among them. But they were of considerable number for sure. Their mission was also to recruit those foreign navigators who were capable of ocean navigation by reading the sea-chart with compass points, cross-referencing stars and landmarks. In 1407, for example, foreign navigators were rewarded with monetary notes equivalent to 50 silver taels and a roll of embroidered silk each for their valuable contribution made to the success of the mission. While they were not entitled to official promotion, they got more material rewards in exchange.

Then there were the naturalized foreigners. There were quite a number of middle ranking naturalized-foreigner military officers under his command. Prominently among them was a military commander (zhihui) named Haji, who was a naturalized foreigner.

And a deputy battalion commander (fu qianfu) Shaban, originally named, as Sheban was a man of Calicut from India in origin. Because of his great admiration of China, Sheban came to live in China and joined the military. He served as a sergeant (zhengwu) of the Nanjing an embroidered-shirt guard. In 1430 he joined the seventh naval expedition of Zheng He mission. After his return, Xuande emperor promoted him to the rank of deputy battalion commander and conferred his name as Shaban in acknowledgement of his contribution to the mission. Sheban was a Chinese translation from the Arabic word which means August in the Islamic calendar. Arab people also commonly used it as personal name.

Silk Street – The Chinese of Calicut used to trade from the silk street. In bygone days, Silk Street was the hub of commercial enterprise in Malabar. Trading ships from far off lands, bearing the finest marble, carpets, and tiles docked at Calicut. The wealthy merchants of the areas in and around Silk Street bartered ships laden with silk calico, ivory, and spices for these foreign treasures. Even now, Silk Street is the popular hill-produce trading centre of Malabar.The Chinese are now gone, but the silk street remains. There was also a Chinese street in the past. The China street near Tagore Centenary Hall and Silk Street in Valiangadi bear testimony to the Chinese connections of yore, here was where Zheng he lived and even constructed a pavilion of sorts!!

But we do have today, a China Bazaar, behind the Corporation library where you can find deals such as a dozen batteries for Rs 10/- and the such …

MORE ABOUT ZHENG HE IN ANOTHER BLOG, It is a fascinating story!!

Pics - Wikipedia & other sites

Vivekanada's Lunatic Kerala

Posted by Maddy Labels:

Watching a totally loony & horrible movie ‘Bharghava Charithram Moonam Kandam’ scripted by Srinivasan and based loosely on the fantastic ‘Analyse this’ starring Robert De Niro & Billy Crystal, I was wondering about the comment Sreenivasan makes during the opening scene. He refers to Swami Vivekananda’s statement about Malayalis being lunatics. I thought I must be crazy one to be watching this miserable movie…First & foremost – Do not see Bharghava charithram…It is probably the worst movie you can see, but then you should watch ‘Analyse this’…

Kerala today - is a tropical paradise, God's own country, recommended by the National Geography Magazine as one of the 50 destinations in the world that one should visit. Kerala is a land of great natural beauty, one of the smaller states of India. From the majestic heights of the Western Ghats the land undulates westward presenting a vista of silent valleys clothed in the richest green. A place
Bill McKibben describes thus in National Geographic – The real reason to visit Kerala, which lies at the southwestern tip of the subcontinent, is for the intellectual adventure: Kerala is a bizarre anomaly among developing nations, a place that offers real hope for the future of the Third World. Consider: This small state in India, though not much larger than Maryland, has a population as big as California's and a per capita annual income of less than $300. But its infant mortality rate is low, its literacy rate among the highest on Earth, and its birthrate below America's and falling faster. Kerala's citizens live nearly as long as Americans or Europeans. Though mostly a land of paddy-covered plains, statistically Kerala stands out as the Mount Everest of social development; there's truly no place like it.

Now what exactly did Vivekanada feel or see to say what he said, when he visited Kerala some 100 years ago?? “I have wandered into a lunatic asylum!' Swami Vivekananda concluded after touring the princely states of Kerala (See exact remarks at the end of this note!!). He was appalled by the horrors of the caste system practiced in Kerala at that time. This was some 100 years ago, when Hindu society in India were divided into several castes and sub castes. The many groups bickered & quarreled about rights and privileges and argued over who stood higher on the caste ladder. The miserable custom of untouchability existed and a large majority were denied entry into temples. Vivekananda was horrified by these terrible practices that were imposed on lower caste people prompting him to call Kerala a "lunatic asylum".

The other day I read about a
Dr Bahuleyan in America, also a Malayali, who was giving back many millions of dollars to his village in Kerala. He mentioned that in his younger days, he had to take a circuitous route to school since the temple was on the main route and he as an untouchable could not go near the temple.

Can you imagine that temples, wells, eating halls were all out of bounds for the lower classes? Can you imagine a scenario where lower class women were not allowed to cover upper part of their bodies or wear jewelry? That "Untouchable" Hindus were required to maintain a prescribed distance from the upper-castes at all times so as not to pollute them. The distance was at least 64 feet from the priestly Brahmin caste and 30 feet from artisans. The untouchables belonged mainly to the Pulaya, Paraya or Nayadi community.

I still remember days as a child at Pallavur, when during midday or dusk a sharp howl would be heard on certain days. It was a Nayadi announcing his arrival. We children would rush out despite dire threats not to, by the elders, but there would be nobody at the gate. All we could see was a pot into which old rice gruel was poured by the maid servant for the Nayadi beggar, sometimes it was old clothes. We all had to leave and then the Nayadi would come and pick up his bowl. One day I did see the chap, he was no different from anybody else…A bit darker from all the wandering around in the sun and rather disheveled in looks & attire (a single tattered towel round the waist) that was it. However, we did not have any ill luck seeing him, ever, if one wondered about that..

How did Vivekanada land up in Kerala? Well, it all started in 1892 when Vivekananda stayed at the house of a
Dr Palpu in Bangalore, just before his trip to USA. Dr Palpu an Ezhava from Kerala, was forced to move to Madras for medical studies due to the fact that he could not do so in Kerala (even though he passed the entrance exams, he was not given a seat) and was later educated in Europe with a Mysore government scholarship. Even after becoming a doctor with a European degree he was not allowed to practice in Kerala!!

It was Palpu who explained the horrors of the caste system to Vivekanada.
Vivekanada replied Dr Palpu that they should find their own leader and not look up to somebody else. Palpu went along to rally support with a signature campaign in Kerala, created an association with Sree Narayan Guru & the starting of SNDP plus raised the matter to Sr Nivedita in England, who using her connections passed it on to the British government for action. Thus started the mass awareness phase.

During 1924-25, Gandhiji got involved in this uprising, starting with the Vaikom Satyagraha. Sree Narayana Guru who spearheaded the cause rallied to convert it to a mass movement. This forced the Maharaja of Travancore to issue the 'Temple Entry Proclamation' on November 12, 1936, throwing open all temples to all Hindus.

PJ Cherian puts it perfectly - During the last years of 1930s tremendous changes occurred both in the political and cultural spheres of Kerala. In that period anti-imperialist, anti-feudal, national, democratic movement strengthened in an unprecedented fashion all over Kerala. Modern value concepts which was confined to the upper strata of the society in the early phase, now began to spread to the lower layers of society. In addition to the middle class, various other sections consciously entered into the mainstream of public life. Consequently political and cultural spheres became more popular based and it acquired democratic character.

Thus started the renaissance in Kerala. Since then, Malayalis got involved in public work and politics in an effort to rebuild their disintegrating society. Women, who have long comprised over half the state's population, began working in fields such as teaching, as early as the 1920s. Unlike the Indian north, where knowledge has mostly been the privilege of the upper castes, Kerala experienced an even spread of education thus becoming highly literate and today a place where 90% of people own land. Today, ten decades thence, Kerala is an egalitarian state, perhaps the only place in India where castes and religious discrimination are relatively absent. It is also the only state where women outnumber men 1090:1000.Paul Zakariah adds - Today caste is no more a tool of social domination in Kerala. In fact, lower caste status is shrewdly used as a tool for social bargaining. But Kerala continues to be a sociological madhouse of unparalleled dimensions. For example, perhaps this is the only society in India where ideology has got so intertwined with culture that people have ceased to understand the difference.

Exact text of Vivekanada’s statement (Text obtained from Colombo to Almora – Vivekanada’s notes 1904) Note that Vivekanada mentions Malabar, though I believe he meant Travancore & Cochin as Dr Palpu referred Vivekanada to those Kingdoms during his discussions.

In 1897, Vivekanada remarked in a public address – Was there ever a sillier thing before in the world than what I saw in Malabar? The poor ‘Paraiah’ is not allowed to pass through the same street as the high caste man, but if he changes his name to hodge-podge English name or to a Mohamedan name, it is alright. What inference would you draw except that these Malabaris are all lunatics, their homes so many lunatic asylums and they are to be treated with derision by every race in India until they mend their manners and know better. Shame upon them that such wicked and diabolical customs are allowed.

The comment about the name is interesting – If you were a non Hindu trader such as an Arab, a Christian, an Englishman or a Jew (As you know Malabar was a trading capital in the world for many centuries and we had people of many religions and cultures inhabiting the coastal lands) you were classified as a Vaishya and were in the touchable-seeable class!!

For those who don’t know – Nayadis are mountain people who came from the Western Ghats. They were lowest in the social strata and were not even allowed to use the public road and had to use side roads (This I did not know, I learnt
this from Gandiji’s notes). They were apparently also not allowed to come out before sunset, this I am not in agreement with.

PJ Cherian explains the system in detail in Essays on the Cultural Formation of Kerala (the situation which infuriated Vivekanada) - Nayadi is the caste which has to observe the farthest distance from the Namboodiri Brahmans to avoid the polluting effect caused by it. If a Nayadi pollutes a Brahman the latter can regain his purity not only by a ritual bath but after the ritual bath he has to change the sacred thread and to eat the five products of the cow (milk, curd, butter, liquid and solid excreta used in the rituals of purification). For this most abhorred Nayadi the food polluted by a Pulaya or Paraya is forbidden but this Pulaya and Paraya are castes mutually polluting by touch and have to be themselves purified through a bathing by immersion. If an Ullada pollutes a Pulaya he can only be relieved from it by a seven course bath and by trickling out a few drops of blood from his little finger. But this Ullada is one who considers himself as holy as to abandon the food touched by a Pulaya.

Pic – courtesy Wikipedia

Cabral's Hostages

Posted by Maddy Labels:

Idakkela Menon and Prangoda Menon were two hostages that Portuguese commander Pedro Alvarez Cabral took back with him to Lisbon after a fight with the Zamorin’s troops on 16th Jan 1501, or so I read in the Cochin state Manual.

Whatever happened to them? The quest for an answer proved to be a very interesting research and took all my experience from reading Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes in finally arriving at a plausible explanation.

As the story goes, Idakkela Menon returned to Cochin and was employed as a chief interpreter, obviously learning the Portuguese language during the voyage and the short stay at Lisbon. But Parangoda Menon vanished from the records. Some books mention that these two were originally employed by the then Cochin Raja Unni Goda Varma. (‘Ships of Discovery and Exploration’ by Lincoln P. Paine P.8 and ‘The Career and legend of Vasco Da Gama’ Sanjay Subramaniam P.181)

I wondered - This seems unlikely as Menon’s were honorary positions given by the Zamorin and usually remained in the employ of the Zamorin, and not his rival the Cochin Raja, but well, I guessed they were probably Nair’s and not Menon’s in the first place. Logan confirmed in Malabar Manual (p.305) that they were indeed working for the Cochin Raja, who incidentally was indignant that his subjects were ported away to Lisbon. Cabral later stated that they were accidentally taken by him into the ship

Further study of the Cabral voyage revealed that he had two other Malayalees and that these two were Joseph and Mathai, two Nazrani’s from Cranganore. The waters were muddled though. Most other books mentioned only Joseph and Mathai. Some confused the priest Joseph with a converted Yogi. Some books said that Mathai died on the ship, some said he died at Lisbon. But the story of Joseph is well recorded. He is none other than the illustrious Joseph the Indian.

Joseph the Indian…

In the Cabral ship that departed Cochin on 10th Jan 1501 was the 40 year old Joseph, ‘a man with a benevolent reception’ and his brother Mathias (Mathai). Fr Joseph was a St Thomas Christian Nazrani who hailed from Cranganore (Kodungallur). Mathias died enroute (or at Lisbon). After reaching Lisbon in June 1501, and meeting King Manuel, he stayed in Lisbon for 6 months as a royal guest (as the first Indian Christian to visit Europe) before proceeding to meet Pope Alexander VI in Rome. Then he left for Venice in 1502 and remained a guest of the Signoria of Venice and from there went on ‘probably’ to Jerusalem and Persia (Aramea and Babylon). Some say he came back to Lisbon from Venice. The various interviews he gave at Venice, Lisbon and Rome became known as the ‘Narratives of Joseph the India’, the very first accounts of India by an Indian. Strangely the identity of the person who recorded the interviews is unknown to history.

It appears that Joseph came back safe and sound and is identified as the Chief priest at Cranganore in the mentions of Pentaedo around 1518. Anyway Joseph is stated to be 40-ish, dark in complexion, of medium build, very ingenious, truthful and honest, remarkably friendly and of blemishless faith. Joseph himself had traveled extensively before, having been ordained at Babylon by the bishop of Babylon. In Novus Orbis the original account of his narratives – Joseph briefly describes Cranganore, Calicut, the customs of Kerala, the majestic war ships of China which had twelve sails and innumerable rowers etc for the first time from a Malayali perspective. The language people spoke in Kerala was termed ‘Malanar’ by Joseph!

All above Information from: India in 1500AD by Anthony Vallavanthara and Voyage of Pedro Alvarez Cabral – William Brooks Greenlee I consider the efforts of Fr Anthony Vallavanthara in providing an English translation after studying at least three versions of the narratives of Joseph, invaluable.

Eventually I came across a short book ‘Kerala Coast The Portuguese contributions’ by PJ Tomy, Retd professor of Kerala Agricultural University. He cleared up the story somewhat with a personal comment. The names were not Idakkela Menon and Parangoda Menon in the first place. They were according to him, Ittikoran and Peringodan, two typical Malayali Nazrani names!! He believed that Ittekkoran and Peringodan were perhaps the local names of Joseph & Mathai. Well quite plausible indeed. So that accounted for two Malabari’s in the ship, out of the total four we started with…or were there four?

But Prof Tomy helped clarify the case somewhat. He also transcribed the following from Padmanabha Menon’s Cochin Manual - about the people who aspired to go to Portugal on the Cabral ship in Jan 1501.

Attracted by information from the persons who returned from Portugal, an ascetic, (Some ascribe as a Brahmin Yogi) approached the friars while at Calicut, and expressed his desire to see Portugal. The friars said that he could be taken only if he embraced Christianity. The Yogi agreed to get baptized. He was baptized as Michael (Miguel) Vaz. It was the first Baptism by the Portuguese in Kerala.
The king of Kochi, pleased with the Portuguese, sent one of his relatives - a Nair youth, with Cabral to Portugal. He carried a letter from the king of Kochi to the king of Portugal written on a gold platter. During the journey the Nair youth studied Portuguese. Cabral presented him before the king in the costume of a Nair soldier. King Emmanuel was very much delighted and provided him a house to stay at Lisbon. The Nair youth desired to get baptized. The King arranged his baptism through Bishop Calcaditha. He was given the name of the king ‘Manuel’. Vasco da Gama and Cabral were his god fathers. Manuel was engaged in the palace of the King of Portugal as an interpreter and also to write letters to the king of Kochi. He was very zealous in religious matters and was a bachelor throughout. When he died, he was given a royal burial in a Cathedral. Manuel had left behind a good fortune. His wealth was divided between the churches and his associates as he had desired in his will. (Kochi Rajya Charithram - Padmanabha Menon, p. 132)
CP Achyuta Menon in the Cochin state Manual (p.79) states the following based on the MS translation of Gaspar Correa’s Lendas da India thereby corroborating Padmanabha Menon – There was a Nair youth as well, on the ship. He became friendly with King Emmanuel while at Lisbon and later became a Christian. A house was presented to him and he received a handsome pension. He lived like a Fidalgo and used to conduct correspondence with the King of Cochin regularly. He died in Portugal and was by the kings order honorably buried in the Cathedral of Evora, his wealth being divided between they churches and his servants as provided in his will.
Om Prakash concurs in his book ‘Encyclopedia history of Indian Movement’ that you can still see Manuel’s tomb at the Cathedral grounds. So much for Manuel, the first wealthy NRI!!!.

I then recalled that a Miguel Vaz, the Vicar General, based on a recommendation by Dom Jao da Cruz (see my previous blog) baptized many thousand Paravas in Cochin and Tuticorin around 1532. Later St Xavier came in 1542 to look after those Parava converts. So that is how the Miguel Vaz who went with Cabral reappeared in history books. Miguel Vaz rose up the ranks of Indian clergy and went to Goa while remaining a great friend of St Xavier.

It was this Miguel Vaz who continued his missionary work in Japan in 1563 after learning the Japanese language (correction – I discovered later, that this M Vaz was a later day abbot).
And that accounted for the Yogi convert.

The jigsaw puzzle of the Cabral hostages had finally been resolved; each hostage finding a proper niche in history except for the poor Mathais. My research on the Menon hostages from Malabar had reached a satisfactory conclusion. There were no Menon’s on board, in the first place, but the Malayalees were Joseph, Mathias, Miguel Vaz and Manuel. The only unknowns were the original names of Miguel and Manuel. It is also not clear why they were all termed hostages when all of them asked to accompany Cabral.

Pedro Alvarez Cabral – Succeeded Vasco Da Gama in establishing Portuguese links with the Malabar Coast. His commission was to establish permanent commercial relations and to introduce Christianity wherever he went, using force of arms if necessary. Starting with 13 ships he went on to formally (a clandestine operation, it seems) discover Brazil and Madagascar before reaching Calicut. Here he, if you ask me, made a nuisance of himself, bombarding various towns and creating mayhem in the pretext of establishing Portuguese supremacy. In this voyage, he lost 9 out of 13 ships and many sailors. Cabral got back to Lisbon in 1501 with the above Malayalees on board, little wealth, and soon fell out of favor with the King, never to be in the limelight again or commanding any ship. Cabral however was the first to manipulate the enmity between the Zamorin and the Cochin Raja to Portuguese benefit.

Another interesting snippet - Vasco Da Gama sailed off to Portugal on 28th August 1498 holding 14 (others say 4, 5 or 6) Malayalee captives on board. What happened to them? Food for thought.

Photos – Wikipedia and the Cabral ship pic from Guardian - A replica of the caravel of the 15th century Portuguese navigator Pedro Alvares Cabral sails past the Belem tower in Lisbon at the start of a regatta celebrating the 500th anniversary of the discovery of Brazil by Cabral.