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Christianization of Goa

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Christianization of Goa

The indigenous population of the erstwhile Portuguese colony of Goa underwent a large-scale conversion to Christianity after its conquest and occupation by the Portuguese Empire, led by admiral Afonso de Albuquerque in 1510. After conversion to Roman Catholicism, they were usually granted Portuguese citizenship. Almost all the present-day Goan Catholics are descendants of these local converts to the religion. They constitute the largest Christian community in Goa and account for 25 per cent of the total Catholic population in India. The Mangalorean Catholic and Karwari Catholic communities of the Indian state of Karnataka are also largely descended from these Goan converts.


Conversion to Christianity

During the mid-16th century, the Portuguese colony of Goa, especially the city of Goa, was the center of Christianization in the East. Christianization in Goa was largely limited to the four concelhos (districts) of Bardez, Mormugao, Salcette, and Tiswadi. Furthermore, evangelisation activities were divided in 1555 by the Portuguese viceroy of Goa, Pedro Mascarenhas. He allotted Bardez to the Franciscans, Tiswadi to the Dominicans, and Salcette, together with fifteen southeastern villages of Tiswadi, including Chorão and Divar, to the Jesuits. The city of Velha Goa was shared among all, since all the religious orders had their headquarters there. Prior to that, the Franciscans alone Christianized Goa till 1542. Other less active orders that maintained a presence in Goa were the Augustines, Carmelites, and Theatines. The first mass conversions took place among the Brahmins of Divar, and the Kshatriyas of Carambolim. In 1534, Goa was made a diocese and in 1557 an archdiocese. The Archbishop of Goa was the most important ecclesiastic of the East, and was from 1572 called the "Primate of the East". While the Portuguese rulers implemented state policies encouraging and even rewarding conversions among Hindu subjects, it would be false to ascribe the large number of conversions solely to force. On the contrary, the rapid rise of converts in Goa was mostly the result of Portuguese economic and political control over the Hindus, who were vassals of the Portuguese crown.

Name changes

This process of Christianization was simultaneously accompanied by Lusitanisation, as the Christian converts typically assumed a Portuguese veneer. The most visible aspect was the discarding of old Hindu names for new Christian Portuguese names. The 1567 Provincial Council of Goa—under the presidency of the first Archbishop of Goa Gaspar Jorge de Leão Pereira and after his retirement under that of George Themudo, Bishop of Cochin—passed over 115 decrees. One of them declared that the Goan Catholics would henceforth not be permitted to use their former Hindu names. Consequently, the converts typically had to adopt the surnames of the Portuguese priest, governor, soldier or layman who stood as godfather for their baptism ceremony. For instance, the Boletim do Instituto Vasco da Gama lists the new names of some of the prominent ganvkars (Konkani: Freeholders). Rama Prabhu, son of Dado Vithal Prabhu from Benaulim, Salcette, became Francisco Fernandes; Mahabal Pai, son of Nara Pai, became Manuel Fernandes in 1596. Mahabal Kamati of Curtorim became Aleisco Menezes in 1607, while Chandrappa Naik of Gandaulim became António Dias in 1632. In 1595 Vittu Prabhu became Irmão de diago Soares and the son of Raulu Kamat became Manuel Pinto in Aldona, Bardez. Ram Kamat of Punola became Duarte Lobo in 1601, while Tados Irmaose of Anjuna became João de Souza in 1658. Since in many cases, fathers and sons were not necessarily baptised in the presence of the same godfather, this would lead to them having different surnames. For instance in 1594, the son of Pero Parras, a ganvkar from Raia acquired at baptism the new name of Sebastião Barbosa. Later in 1609, another of his sons converted and took the name of João Rangel. As a result, members of the same vangodd (clan) who initially all shared a common Hindu surname ended up adopting divergent Lusitanian ones.

Impact of Christianity on the caste system

However, the converted Hindus retained their mother tongue (which in most cases was Konkani) and caste status, even after becoming Christian. Based on their previous caste affiliations, the new converts were usually lumped into new Catholic castes. The converts from the priestly Brahmin class were Bamonns (Konkani: Brahmins). All Brahmin subcastes such as the Goud Saraswat Brahmins, Padyes, the Daivadnyas, and especially the goldsmiths and a few merchants, were lumped into the Christian caste of Bamonn. The converts from the Kshatriya and Vaishya Vani castes became Chardos (Kshatriyas); and those Vaishya who couldn't become Chardos formed a new caste Gauddos. Those converts from lower castes were grouped together as Sudirs, equivalent to Shudras. The Bamonns, Chardos, and Gauddos have been traditionally seen as the high castes in the Goan Catholic caste hierarchy.

Persistence of the caste system

Bound by their rigid caste rules, these local converts (particularly the Brahmins) retained pride of caste and race, and very seldom inter-married with the Portuguese. The Portuguese initially attempted to abolish caste distinctions among the local converts and homogenise them into a single entity, but soon found this to be an impossible task and were consequently forced to recognise them. Caste consciousness among the native Christians was so intense that they even maintained separate Church confraternities dedicated to the perpetuation of the existing caste hierarchy. In church circles, the Bamonns and Chardos were rivals and frequently discriminated against each other. Caste discrimination even extended to the clergy. For instance, while there is evidence of Chardo priests since the late 17th century, only Bamonns, Mestiços and foreigners were allowed to join the priesthood till then, and even from that period onwards, members of the clergy continued to hail overwhelmingly from the Bamonn caste. However, some non-Bamonn priests did achieve distinction. For instance, it was Fr. Estevão Jeremais Mascarenhas, a Gauddo by caste and member of parliament elected several times by public demand; who spoke of self-determination in 1853. The Portuguese church authorities decided to recruit Gauddos and Sudirs into the priesthood, to offset the increasing hostilities of the Bamonn and Chardo clerics. At least three Sudir priests trained by the Jesuits are known to have been condemned by the Inquisition in 1736. The church authorities initially used the Bamonns and following the example of St. Francis Xavier, Chardos as Konkani and Marathi interpreters in their parishes and missions.

Theories for the persistence of the caste system

Historian A.B. Bragança Pereira attributes the continued maintenance of the caste system to the mass conversion of entire villages, which led to the religious complexion of the whole village being Christianized without affecting the existing caste structure. He posits that had the conversions taken place in individual instances, the converts would have formed into a homogenous community and the caste system would have disappeared among the Christians due to their inability to find marriage partners from the same caste.

According to historian José Gerson da Cunha:

"The spread of Christianity in the Southern Konkan was not a caste levelling process. It simply conciliated old prejudices with new privileges. A converted Brahman became a Christian in faith alone, retaining all the social rights of Hinduism, and transmitting all caste prerogatives, untainted by any admixture of foreign or low caste blood, through generations to his current aristocratic posterity."

To this, historian C. R. Boxer adds:

"Nothing is more erroneous than the common perception that all Goans have a considerable dose of Portuguese blood in their veins. The great majority are ethnically Indians, though their centuries-old adoption of the Roman Catholic religion, and of the Portuguese language and mores, together with their assumption of Portuguese names, have firmly ingrained them in the Portuguese cultural orbit."

Discrimination against native Christians

While the Portuguese intermarried with some locals and spawned a Mestiço class in Goa, they desired complete acculturation of the native Christians into Portuguese culture. The retention of the caste system and Hindu customs by the converts was contemptuously looked down upon by the Portuguese, who desired complete assimilation of the native Christians into their own culture. Consequently, they considered the native Christians to be inferior and practised social discrimination against them. The social attitudes of the Portuguese towards the native Christians is exemplified in a memorandum submitted by the Christians of Salcette to the Portuguese monarch João IV in 1642:

"It is very painful to realise that when our people were Hindus, they were better honoured and respected in the courts of Hindu and Muslim rulers, but after conversion we have lost much of our self-respect. A Portuguese nobleman or Minister shows greater respect to a low caste Hindu than to a Christian of high caste. It happens quite often that a Hindu is given a chair to sit and a native Christian stands. This attitude of the Portuguese had moved many Christians in the recent years to go to the city with the headgears and the tunic of the kind the Hindus wear. There is no way of talking to Hindus about conversion any more, because they reply that they are not in a hurry to lose their self-respect."

The Portuguese clergy generally bore racial prejudices against their Goan counterparts. In their letters, they made frequent references to the fact that the native clergy were dark skinned, and that the parishioners had no respect for them as a result. The Franciscan parish priest of Colvale Church, Frei António de Encarnação, excommunicated for striking a Goan assistant, wrote a bitter and virulent essay against the native clergy wherein he called them ' negros chamados curas ' (Portuguese: blacks called curates) and termed them as 'perverse' and 'insolent'. The Jesuits—with some exceptions, and Franciscans did not bother to learn the native language Konkani. The Franciscans further expanded on the viceregal decree of 1606 regarding making the natives illiterate in Konkani, and literate or semi-literate in Portuguese to qualify for receiving sacraments. The Archbishop of Goa Ignacio de Santa Theresa is known to have respected the native Goan clerics more than the Portuguese ones, whom he considered to be insolent and overbearing.

Relations between the Portuguese and their Hindu subjects

The Portuguese aimed to create a native citizenry loyal to their Empire, which they believed they could accomplish through mass conversions to Roman Catholicism. However, the converts largely turned out to be a useless citizenry as far as skills, trade, and ownership of capital were concerned. Instead, the Portuguese relied on the Hindus (who were not considered full citizens of their Empire) to fulfill their personal and official ambitions, as they were seen to possess the capital, skills, contacts, and shrewdness required to sustain the Empire and its ambitions. The Portuguese and Hindus were great business and military collaborators; religious affiliations did not matter. Therefore, many Hindus who did not convert or even those who consistently refused to convert and overtly opposed Christendom continued to receive from the Portuguese more honours, favours and jobs than the Christians. This was done with the view of gaining their collaboration, not necessarily their conversion, although conversion was encouraged. For instance, the duty of collecting taxes on the cultivation of tobacco in Goa was entrusted to the Hindu tax farmers, who were usually cruel to the native Christians while exercising their powers. With the support of the Portuguese government, they became the most feared and influential native class in the province. The tax farmers would unjustly levy fines on native Christians for the illegal cultivation of tobacco. They would ill treat the native womenfolk at the tollbooth on the pretext of searching for illegal goods. As a result, entire Christian village communities were deprived of considerable surplus income and many poor Christians were made into vagabonds or forced to flee Goa to the neighbouring kingdoms. The Portuguese colonial and church authorities did not employ politico-economic potentialities to achieve equality by raising the standard of living of the native Christians. The Jesuit report of 1686 stated thus: "They are very poor and surviving on the income of labour which brings in just enough for their sustenance."

In 1780, the Portuguese conquered from the Marathas the concelhos of Pernem, Sanquelim and Sattari. After a treaty signed on 29 January 1788 with the rajah of Sonda, they acquired the concelhos of Bicholim, Antruz, Sanguem, Quepem and Canacona. The influence of the clergy had significantly decreased by this time. The Jesuit order had been banned in 1759 and the political clout of the other religious orders had also considerably diminished. The Portuguese zeal for Christianization gradually died down, so much so that by the last quarter of the 18th century, with the acquisition of the Novas Conquistas, they officially permitted the construction of temples in the territory and agreed not to interfere in the existing religious and social customs. Furthermore, no conversion work was undertaken there. By then, the situation had also greatly improved for the Hindus and Christians in the Velhas Conquistas, with no more anti-Hindu decrees being passed. After 1835, many Hindu families from the Novas Conquistas were permitted by the authorities to settle in the Velhas Conquistas and some Christian families were in turn encouraged to take the reverse route with the lure of land for a small annual rent.

Reconversion of Catholic Gaudas

In the late 1920s, prominent members of Goan Hindu society requested Vinayak Maharaj Masurkar, the prelate of a Vaishnava ashram in Masur, Satara district; to actively campaign for the 're-conversion' of Catholic Gaudas to Hinduism. Masurkar accepted, and together with his disciples, subsequently toured Gauda villages singing devotional bhakti songs and performing pujas. These means led a considerable number of Catholic Gaudas to declare willingness to come into the Hindu fold, and a Shuddhi ceremony was carefully prepared. Their efforts was met with success when on 23 February 1928, many Catholic Gaudas were converted en masse to Hinduism in a Shuddhi ceremony, notwithstanding the vehement opposition of the Roman Catholic Church and the Portuguese authorities. As part of their new religious identity, the converts were given Hindu names. However, the Portuguese government refused to grant them legal permission to change their names. Around 4,851 Catholic Gaudas from Tiswadi, 2,174 from Ponda, 250 from Bicholim and 329 from Sattari became Hindus in this ceremony. The total number of Gauda converts was 7,815. The wider Hindu Gauda community refused to accept these neo-Hindus back into their fold, and they were now alienated by their former Christian coreligionists. These neo-Hindus developed into a separate endogamous community, and are now referred to as Nav-Hindu Gaudas (New Hindu Gaudas).

Decline of Christianity

Since 1851, the Christian population of Goa has been facing a continual decline. Consequentially, the percentage of the Christian population (once a majority) has been shifting in favour of the Hindus. As per the data available, Christians constituted 63.83 per cent (232,189 individuals), whereas Hindus comprised just 35.42 per cent (128,824 individuals) in the 1851 census. The next census was carried out in 1881, according to which Christians were 58 per cent, while Hindus were 42 per cent of the population. The percentage of the Christian population went on declining in the subsequent censuses for the years 1900, 1910, 1921, 1931, 1950, and 1960, with the percentage of Christians in the censuses being 54.83 per cent, 54.76 per cent, 52.29 per cent, 49.00 per cent, 42.18 per cent, and 38.07 per cent. The reason for this was the out-migration of Christians and the probable return of the descendants of Hindu migrants who had fled Goa as well as mass immigration of non ethnic Goans into Goa. In 1998, Goa's population was estimated to be just over 1.3 million persons, of which 62 per cent (806,000 individuals) were Hindu and 34 per cent (442,000 individuals) were Christians.


Christianization of Goa Wikipedia