Nov 24, 2008

The Story of La China Poblana

Some days ago I had written about the Damon slave and the Portuguese and VOC slave trade in the 17th century Malabar. Later, when I stumbled upon this story, it literally took my breath away. While much of it is legend, study of a number of texts enabled me to extract the gist from them, though the passage of many hundreds of years have tainted the story quite a bit.

Now will you forget all that gory stuff (relating to the slave trade) for a moment and imagine a story line that goes thus? A Rajasthani girl and her brother are walking on a beach, the girl is abducted and sold to Portuguese slave traders in Cochin. The girl is purchased and taken to Philippines from Malabar. The Spanish bring her to Puebla, Mexico. Well – that is the story of Catarina de San Juan (1606-1688), whose real name was Meera and who almost became a saint.

Meera (La China Poblana) kept her name and her unique and ‘provocative’ Rajasthani dress sense (some even say Saree that got adapted to a skirt-blouse-shawl combination later in her life) all through her life. Her pious nature and her dressing sparked a craze for her dress – which is now popularly known as the China Poblana (Chinese from Puebla) dress of Mexico. Look at the similarity in the pictures of the Rajasthani dress and the Poblana dress and you can see how fascinating a route this story takes.

There are at least three versions to this story. The first that I will recount is based on a biography (Yes there are more than three varying and voluminous autobiographies and countless articles and she is still so popular, revered in Mexico to saintly proportions!) written by Jose Del Castillo Grajeda and outlined by Gauvin Alexander Bailey in his study ‘A Mughal princes in Baroque New Spain’. The other and more popular biography is based on the lengthy (considered surprisingly big and a very expensive sponsorship by the Church) book written by Padre Alonso Ramos in 1689.

According to these accounts, Meera belonged to a Mughal royal family in Agra (contradicts Meera’s own words recounted later in this article), and her family had converted to Christianity early in life from Islam, but when persecuted, moved to Surat around 1615 from where she was abducted in 1616 when she was walking along a seaside with her brother. The Portuguese who snatch her, fight with each other in order to molest her, but she manages a miraculous escape with some stab injuries, is thence rebuffed by her Mughal fiancé and after more difficult travails end up in Cochin (or the whole disgraced family had by then moved to Cochin by then which is more likely).

There, Meera takes refuge in a Jesuit mission, where she is baptized by Xavier with the name Catarina de San Juan, but she gets kidnapped again and is taken to the slave market at Philippines. There she spends five miserable years as ‘hot female property’ till she is purchased by the rich Puebla Captain Miguel de Sosa. During this period, she is even courted by a Japanese prince intent on marrying her, but she is whisked away by her jealous owners.

She lands up in Acapulco in 1621 on board the ship “Nao de Manila” or ‘Nao de China’ (dressed as a boy during the 9 month voyage to escape the sex starved sailors). Miguel Soso, some say, purchases her for 10 times what she was being quoted (the original indenter was the Viceroy Marquess of Gélves who wanted a ‘chinita’ – one that was as exotic as the papayas in his garden, but then it appears he lost his job after some riots and could not buy her!) and takes her home to Puebla some 300 miles away.

Sosa and his wife Margarita Da Chavez take a liking to her and treat the ‘nina’ Meera more as a daughter. Meera, a curiosity in town, wore funny clothes and always covered her head with her ‘shawl/dupatta’. This made the people of Puebla feel that she was a demure & saintly one! And thus they started to revere and worship her.

Meera gets manumitted after the death of Sosa, is betrothed in 1626 to a man called Domingo Suarez (A Chinese or Asian slave himself), on a precondition that they will not have sex (One cannot but agree with her total distaste for sex after the Manila horrors). Meera does in time learn to speak poorly & highly accented Spanish. The story takes an interesting route now, Suarez tries to force himself on her but she places a cross on her bed and Suarez becomes impotent as he reaches the bed! The relationship thus remained celibate for 14 years. Meera in compensation works as a seamstress (making & selling localized versions of China Poblana dresses skirt, blouse and shawl as it is known and seen today) and provides the returns to Domingo. He sets up his own business and has a mistress (with whom he begets a child) but goes bankrupt & eventually dies (Women in Iberian Expansion Overseas, 1415-1815 By Charles Ralph Boxer).

It was after Sosa died that the divine apparitions first started in Meera’s life (though some write that it started even earlier in India). After Suarez’s death Meera is left out virtually on the streets. Priest Pedro Suarez rescues her, inducing her to live a humble ecclesiastic lifestyle as an anchorite(religious hermit) confined to a small room, but her fame starts to grow with news of her visions and she is visited by all the gentry and the populace for spiritual discussions, advice, prophecies etc. All through her life she has visions of Jesus and Mary, painting or describing those incredible scenes of an evangelical nature. She is said to have performed many miracles, like turning a hurricane away once from the lands of Mexico. Originally when she wanted to join the convent of Immaculate Conception, she was not granted admission as she was not virgin (apparently after her horrors in the Manila slave camps which at one time housed over a hundred thousand slaves) but she later worked there though never becoming a nun as Spanish law forbade a non white from becoming one. Meera’s fame grew and hundreds of thousands of people came to see her regularly till her death on Jan 5th 1688 aged 82 years.

During her later years when troubled by illness, she started to teleport (paranormal bilocations) on spiritual journeys around the world (including China and India) and the heavens. “At the hour of her death she was nearly paralytic because she suffered from respiratory complications and many other physical problems. The diseases were as much due to her age as because of her unfortunate and difficult existence”.

Now why was she called the beauty from China? In this sense it appears that this generic term ‘Chino’ also means servant, concubine or country girl according to Bailey. So it was a corrupted usage in the real sense. How about the contention that Meera was a Mughal? Very unlikely that she was a Muslim as Meera was not a name that came from Mirr, Maria or Miram (‘bitterness’ in Arabic/Hebrew as believed by Bailey) as no parent, in my opinion, would name an offspring so. It most definitely was Meera as in a Hindu family (means light, merriness, prosperity or saintly woman. Almerah means princes, aristocratic lady or food in Arabic and Meera also means ‘Mine’ in Urdu. Meera as a person and name is very popular in Rajasthan or Rajputana?). In any case Meera herself stated that she is a Kshatriya or a Brahmin by birth.

"For her part, Meera remembers that her father was the lord of a certain principality, and, besides, a physician and seer, who knew how to quieten the tempests. In these remembrances of hers, distant and blurred, Meera categorizes her parents as much as belonging to the ruling caste or Kshatirya or to that of the priests or Brahmins."

Some say she came from Indraprastha, some others mention Bangladesh or Cochin (Cochin is unlikely due to the colorful dress that Meera wore. In the 17th century women in Kerala did not wear such patterns or bright colors). It is also said that Meera’s skin was almost white; she had dark hair, ample forehead, lively eyes, sultry nose, twin braids of hair and a classy walking style. She looked virginal & saintly according to the written notes. However the pictures that I could find do not quite present a beautiful countenance.

The dress style now known as China Poblana, a white blouse and colorful embroidered red and green shirt, has evolved to include the national symbols of Mexico - an eagle clutching a snake, and prickly pair cactus. A woman who wears the dress usually braids her hair on two sides, tied with red, white and green ribbons.

Not only did Meera introduce Indian colors and dressing in Puebla but it is said (By Ramos) that she also introduced the ‘Mole’ an Indian curry where the spices & chillies are roasted with chocolate, ground together and cooked to be served as a brown paste with chicken! (I do not quite believe this though; Fish Mole was introduced to the Malabari’s by the Portuguese themselves and is more a bland stew with coconut milk). Today you can still find the famous China Poblana Chicken Mole in Puebla.

I understood that much of the Mughal element in this story comes from biographer Ramos’s embellishment after his reading Kircher’s ‘China Illustrata’. He wove what he picked up from Kircher’s book into Meera’s story, a1000 page edition titled ‘Prodigios’. Rev Ramos apparently recommends sainthood for Meera due to her huge popularity sand saintly life and hoped to gain considerable popularity for himself in publishing this work. He collected the information from Meera over the course of their 15 year relationship as confessor and Padre. However, during the Spanish inquisition the book was banned, considered blasphemous, indecent and unbelievable and Meera was thus not considered Saint material.

In Puebla de los Ángeles she was thus venerated as a saint until 1691, when the Holy Inquisition prohibited open devotion to her. Today, the Templo de la Compañía, in Puebla, is known as La Tumba de la China Poblana because in its sacristy lie the remains of Catarina de San Juan.

Herein lays a tantalizing possibility - Was Meera’s name, life story and story of origin itself a clever creation by Ramos and was Meera the original Meera bai (1498-1547)of Rajasthan whose story & fame were used here for good lasting effect? The stories are rather similar, but other than Kircher’s contemporary book that talked of China, Delhi and Mughals, the story of Mirabai may not have reached Ramos at all.

Most historians however agree that the slave girl came from India. It is also to be borne in mind that there were many Rajput girls in the Akbar harem, so she just might have been in theory a Mughal princess. So why choose a royal lady with origin in India as the character for Catherine? If you recall from my blogs on Joao Da Cruz and De Nobili, you will note that the Portuguese wanted stories of major success in India, i.e. stories of conversion of the upper classes to Christianity and their resulting enlightenment as a need to further Christianity in those times.

But then, for Ramos, Meera was “the prodigious flower who tread the earth in the orient until she arrived at the pinnacle of perfection in this Occident, bestowing upon us a map imbued with virtue providing a sure path with which to guide our way”.

No! I am not finished – Roshni Rustomji recounts a meeting with a (imaginary or real, that I am not sure) living descendant of the child Suarez had with his mistress. Sofia Cruz the descendant runs a Mexican Chocolate shop in USA in Roshni’s short story – Black tea and Raw chocolate

So friends, this was the story of the Indian girl who lived her saintly, lonely and sad life in Mexico. Next time you plan a travel to Mexico, do not forget to put Puebla on your travel route, and when you reach there, let them know where you are from. If it is India, I am sure you will have a good conversation going, in no time.

In any case, this legend of Meera has withstood the test of time. Let it be so.

A Mughal princes in Baroque New Spain - Gauvin Alexander Bailey
Imagination Beyond Nation Latin American Popular Culture -By Eva Paulino Bueno, Terry Caesar
Outside Stories, 1987-1991 By Eliot Weinberger
Athanasius Kircher By Paula Findlen
Women in the Inquisition By Mary E. Giles
Times of India article
A poem on Catarina
A lovely short film on La China Poblana (in Spanish)

Puebla - The city of Puebla was founded on April 16, 1531 as "La Puebla de los Ángeles". With more than 20 universities, Puebla is second only to Mexico City in the number of universities within its borders. It was the first city in central Mexico founded by the Spanish conquerors that was not built upon the ruins of a conquered Amerindian settlement. Its strategic location, half-way between the port of Veracruz and Mexico City, made it the second most important city during the colonial period. Puebla's monument to La China Poblana, an enormous statue atop a tiled fountain, is located in the northern end of the city at the junction of Boulevard Heroes del 5 de Mayo and Avenida Defensores de La Republica.

Rajastani costume – Courtesy Indian costumes, dolls of India
Others from the web – thanks


Nikhil Narayanan said...

Interesting story.
I am going to ransack your library ;)


Sunil Deepak said...

Great story and very well told. Thanks

CKMadhusudan said...

Almost a fiction. I felt I was re-reading 'Circle of Reason' again.

Didymus said...

Well written... You are a good storyteller!

Anonymous said...

Quite a story. Excellent post.

Maddy said...

Nikhil - thanks a lot - except that my library is far away, but if you chance to come by you are welcome!!

Thanks Sunil, Madhusudhan, Didymus and Rajesh.

Madhu - Amitav Ghosh is a personal favorite even though i have not read 'circle of reason' as yet.

Héctor Arizmendi said...

Thanks. You have the best story about China Poblana on internet. I've enjoyed a lot. Congratulations.

Maddy said...

Thanks Hector...It took a good amount of work digging up the facts, but I enjoyed that

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Unknown said...

I actually believe that there is a chance that my family is tied to her bloodline, as my mother great grandfather was Sosa and from Puebla, and she looks Asian and I have many other clues that I can share about this if you are willing to talk. Contact me at

Unknown said...

The story is only half correct. Meera originated from noble family in Cochin. Secondly the Portuguese never went to Rajasthan. They were trading primarily on Kerala and goa coast. They wear skirt and blouse with pallu looking like a saree in Kerala. They have multiple colors and embroidery. The author is twisting facts here.

Maddy said...

Thanks - if you have anything to corroborate what you state, please let me know, it would be useful to add here. I have recounted the three legends, not facts. The place where they sailed away from was Surat and yes, the Portuguese did frequent the Mughal court and there were Jesuit missionaries in Rajasthan too. 17th century dressing in Cochin and Malabar did not include colored skirts or blouses which are commonplace today, they were white or off white dhoti or onnara and rarely an upper cloth.