Josephus Indus or Joseph the Indian

Posted by Maddy Labels:

Joseph was perhaps the first Malayali Syrian Christian, a Nestorian Friar to visit Europe in the 16th Century. Even though he had travelled to Aramea & Syria in the previous years, it was with Alvares Cabral that he embarked to the European cities. Some months ago, I had explained the circumstances under which Joseph and his brother boarded Cabral’s ship bound for Europe.

In Europe he was viewed with much fascination and admiration – He was after all, in their eyes, their brother from the East. He was the first Malabari Christian in their midst and an ordained person at that, so one who could be trusted and taken seriously, at face value. The Italians, Spaniards, Venetians, the Portuguese, and all others viewed him with much curiosity and he even spent a while with the Pope. Joseph’s narrative was recorded and published in many versions & editions (17 at last count) from 1507. 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. We have none of these first editions in India save a comprehensive book written by Fr Antony Vallavanthara titled ‘India in 1500AD’ which I now possess. The analysis provided by Fr Anthony on the various versions & works is brilliant and exhaustive, but let us now try to find out what Joseph has to recount, first hand about Malabar. One must note that the account has been transliterated and reached the English form after many changes. For many years his words were taken very seriously but of recent, some like Stephen Neil, the author of ‘A History of Christianity in India’ considers his statements as romanticism. From a history point of view it is invaluable, for it is a record of the times from a Malayali point of view.

The two travelers Joseph & elder brother Mathias planned to go to Portugal, Rome, Venice, return via Armeinia and finally Babylon to meet the Patriarch of Mosul. Mathias died enroute or at Lisbon. Joseph is stated to have been born in 1461, was around 40 years of age when he started off with Cabral, of dark complexion, a benevolent disposition and belonged to the ancient St Thomas Christian community of Cranganore. The ships and Joseph reached Lisbon in 1501, and Joseph was considered by people who talked to him as highly truthful, sober and serious person, high in integrity and remarkably friendly. People of high standing stated him to be unimpaired and unwavering in faith. He had been originally ordained in Mesopotamia by the Church of Babylon. This adventurous and courageous man had gone there in 1490 via the island of Ormuz (traveling on a ship with Arab traders). One who liked travel, he went again with Bishop Thomas in 1492. Until it came to their notice that Cabral was visiting and starting his journey back to Europe. The brothers decided to accompany him to Lisbon on a pilgrimage to Sao Thome (This confuses me for Sao Thome is around the Ivory coast in West Africa and these days it is actually the term for St Thomas Mount in Chennai).

Faced with the news that the Zamorin’s navy was after him, Cabral beat a hasty retreat with his fully loaded ship from Cochin with the two brothers from Cranganore and other hostages. They reached Cannanore on 15th, loaded up more spices, stopped over at the Cape of Good Hope on 4th April and Lisbon towards the end of June. Joseph was by then known as Jospehus Indius. 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), discussing the socio economic conditions of Malabar. Some say he came back to Lisbon from Venice.

Some may question why he was of such interest. The reasons were notes by many other travelers of the mysterious Prestor John and the other Christian communities of the East who were willing to take up the fight against the moors & heathen. While some held his statements under high authority, It is also obvious that his language (What did he speak while at Lisbon – Malayalam, Arabic, Latin, Syriac or Portuguese) was not well understood by the people who documented his short commentary of 12 chapters. One writer Thomas Astley notes – His account mainly covers Cranganore and its inhabitants, is very short and not satisfactory. Nor is this any wonder for Grynaeus or whoever took the relation from Joseph’s mouth tells us he could scarce understand him.

In 1518 or sometime later, the rector (apparently) returned to Cranganore after his visit, and was incensed when asked by Pentaedo to conform to Roman Catholicism.

Let us now get briefly to some of the important observations documented from the interviews with Fr Joseph.

Nestorians of Cranganore (Kodungallur area near Cochin)
The priests shaved their heads (or just the upper part). They summoned the faithful for prayers by voice, in Greek fashion, not the bell (disputed – some say it was actually by the sounding of the board). Easter is their greatest festival. Baptism & Confessions were administered. At that time there was a supreme head Summus antistes who had under him 12 cardinals, 2 patriarchs, many archbishops and bishops. Under them priests, deacons and sub deacons. They had churches like in Rome (disputed). They did not drink wine, but used raisins soaked in water, the raisins came from China. Widows went back to their father’s house, taking back the dowry. Widows did not remarry within the first year of widowhood. Priest led celibate lives and were barred from mass if found guilty of incontinency. The day had 60 hours and the year had 12 months. They had a few male only monasteries in the region, no nunneries. Learning very much thrived among them, there were many experts on the old & new testament

The city is 90 miles from Calicut, and the town is some 15 miles away from the sea. The city is long, 30 mile sin length. Many rivers flow through the city and houses appear to be built on water. Christians, Jews, Arabs & Hindus lived there. The Hindus were of three categories, Nairs, dogs (pulayas) and Nuirinam (Fishermen-Mukkuvar). The lower classes had to flee when gentlemen approached. Women has separate temples from men.
The ‘velichapad’ is dutifully described. The King of Cochin has many wives. Sati was practiced. Marumakkatayam was in vogue. Writing was with an iron nail on palm leaves.

The houses are made with wooden walls in different floors. A conflict can be seen here that the longest day was stated to be 13.5 hrs and the shortest as 10 hrs (note that it said 60 hrs as the length of the day earlier – that must be the Malayalam 60 nazhika). Ships traversed the waters to Persia, Arabian red sea, China, Sumatra and Ceylon. Ships have matted palm leaf sails and big ships have canvas sails. The large ships have 12 sails and an infinite number of sailors. The small ones come from the Laccadive islands. The boats apparently were constructed of wood, caulking and used iron or wooden nails.

The three types of money used were Sarapho (gold), parante (Silver) and Tare (Silver). All the gold comes from the mountains (250-300 miles away – was it Wynad hills, then it was only 100 miles away – Perhaps Kolar - Mysore) where fair skinned holy men lived. Swords were made of iron and some weapons were made from hard fish (shark?) skin. Hens and other domesticated animals existed. Rice and sugar other than spices were the main produce. Wheat came from the islands. Most of the spices produced such as pepper went to Arabia & China.


Countless Moorish merchants engage in trade, dealing with corals, zanbeloti, carpets and other merchandise. The other traders were Gujarati’s. In this city all of India comes together as well as Chinese, to trade. Around 1450 of so, the Chinese (also Christians like the Nestorians) had a factory in Calicut. They had a fall out with the Zamorin and left after destroying the city. They went to mailapatanam (Masulipatanam, Melacca or Mulapore). The Chinese traded Silk, 5 kinds of cloth, led tin porcelain and musk. They wore caps on their head. The Zamorin had a huge palace which housed 7000 men. 300 of them guarded the palace at night by taking rounds as it was not fortified. In the Zamorin’s palace there are four halls, one each for Hindus, Mohammedans, Jews & Christians. If a Hindu has to travel by sea he is not allowed to eat or else he loses caste. Men also practiced Sati, but I think from the wordings and references to Starbo that it was a feeling of the writer, not fact uttered by Joseph. Finally he mentions the great annual fair (mamankham) which is attended by Chinese, Syrians, Arabs etc

India in 1500 AD- Antony Vallavanthara
Christianity in Travancore - Gordon Thomson MacKenzie
The accounts of Priest Joseph (Cabral’s voyages – WB Greenlee)
Lingerings of light in a dark land - Thomas Whitehouse
Travancore manual – Nagam Aiya

The Syrian Nestorians have been in Cochin & Travancore for a very long time. St Thomas arrived in the year 52 AD. The earliest records indicate that a merchant named Sabareso and two Syrian bishops Mar Chaboor and Mar Apprott came to Malabar in 825 AD & dwelt at Quilon. At that time the Jews and Arabs of that country were at war. The Jews and Nestorians were friends and the Arabs had commenced the war. They destroyed the city, slew two kings raja Vilyanvattale and burnt their bodies (lingerings of light –p75).

Europe 1500 – FIU
India 1500 – Columbia, Ptloemy
Mosul monastry - Wallis Budge paper, Monks of Kublai Khan


  1. P.N. Subramanian

    From this account may be some inferences could be drawn but cannot be fully relied upon. For instance the distance of Kodungalloor from the sea is stated to be 15 miles! The length of the town (30 miles) by that account might have included land south of Cochin as well. Amongst the Hindus who lived there, Brahmins have been excluded. There were temples exclusively for women!
    We learn that Buddhism and Jainism existed in Kerala till the advent of Hindu revivalism and then they perished. How could Christianity survive if you too believe in the 72 AD Syndrome.

  1. Anonymous

    may you have same document about the church of nestorian at the fansur or barus sumatra.

  1. Maddy

    let me check around. i will get back on this..

  1. Maddy

    Hi PNS - sorry i forgot to reply you on this. Indeed Joseph's narratives had curiosity value at that time, but much of it is tainted by the people who transcribed what they thought he said. or they wrote what they felt like, in Latin of whichever language the first interview was recorded..

  1. Calicut Heritage Forum

    Maddy- This is a rather belated post. I had ignored Joseph of Cranganore till recently when I notice that serious academic historians have started quoting from him. I strongly feel that the character is an invention of the Portuguese who wanted to appropriate the St.Thomas tradition by trying to merge the Syrian orthodoxy with the mainstream Catholicism. In other words, this is a precursor to the Diamper Synod. Look forward to hearing your views.

  1. Maddy

    Thanks CHF..
    That Joseph went with cabral and through parts of Europe is relatively clear. His testimony and its contents are however a little murky for it is known that he talked in a form of malayalam and the people who listened made up their own translations, presumably as they saw fit. So a certain amount of leeway has to be given to his accounts.Certainly not good enough to be considered fact..