The East Indian community is one of the earliest to have inhabited Bombay (Mumbai), Salsette and Thana (Thane). Their ancestry can be traced from the first century CE onward according to their caste designations from the 11th and 12th century CE. The earliest known native Christians from the first century CE were found in the north Konkan districts of Bassein (Vasai), Thana (Thane), North Salsette and Chaul. The original East Indian villages stretched from Dahanu in the north to Chaul in the south of the north Konkan region including those in the Bombay Metropolis. Many of these villages were completely destroyed during the Maratha invasion and the villagers fled never to return.
The East Indians were converted to Christianity, either by St. Bartholomew or the missionaries who came in from the Persian Gulf from the first to the fourth century CE. The first converts were the Samvedi Brahmins who had settled between Agashi and Nalasopara on the banks of the Vaitarna River. The later converts were from South Salsette and the Bombay islands from 1534-1538. In 1542 the natives converted to Christianity through St. Francis Xavier, the Franciscans and the Jesuit Priests.
Christianity was brought to the shores of the north Konkan by the Portuguese in 1498 when they arrived in India. The Portuguese came to India with two objectives in 1498 – to ‘evangelise and trade’. The conversion policy of the Portuguese was not merely to draw the ‘heathen’ to the Christian fold but also to extend their influence on their conception of civilisation. The Portuguese imposed on their converts Portuguese patronymics, the Portuguese language, initiated them into the European dress and weaned them into a mode of living and thinking which conformed to their own habits. Uprooted from their traditional rhythm, the westernised Indian Christians, in the course of time, disowned their native culture, customs and traditions.
The King of Portugal, who made no distinction between the Church and the State, wanted to impose religious uniformity upon his Indian subjects. Towards this end, all political and economic preferment was bestowed upon the Christians who were treated as the chosen subjects of the King. Those who refused to accept the new faith were harassed and suppressed. Thus in Bassein no ‘infidel’ was allowed to serve in public office as clerk, solicitor, broker, etc. Nor were Christians permitted to rent their property to the ‘pagan’. Hindus were taxed; Christians were not.
The worst blow was struck when Hindus were not allowed the freedom to worship in public. Many Hindus fled the mainland and took refuge with the Marathas. The Christians were thus left in undisputed possession of Salsette and Bassein. Lands were freely distributed between the Portuguese nobles and the Christian converts. The introduction of the feudal system contributed largely towards a settled state of existence. The nobles and landlords were wealthy and the tenants, though they had little freedom, seemed to be well off. By order of the King, all government employment was reserved for Christians. Moreover, Christians were strictly prohibited from living with non-Christians, lending them money or giving them shelter in their houses.
The language of the Church in India, which was Syriac, was replaced by Latin. The Indian Church was ruled by Eastern prelates but during the Portuguese regime, Episcopal honours were reserved for the Portuguese clergy. The oriental rite of the Indian Church was suppressed as it was considered heretical and the Syriac language of the Indian Church was painted as ‘a channel for heresy to flow’. In this process of ‘Europeanising’ the Indian Christians and ‘Latinising’ their Church, all traces of primitive Christianity in north Konkan were obliterated.
To separate the Indian Christians from their own people as a distinct religious and cultural group they were designated as ‘Portuguese Christians’. The attitude of the Portuguese to those groups who were engaged in cultivation, fishing and other rural occupations, handed down to them by their ancestors, was different. They were given neither education nor proper instruction in the dogmas and doctrines of the Church. They were allowed to continue their old cultural life and even today, they strictly adhere to their old customs and beliefs.
Between the fall of the Portuguese dominion and the rise of the British power in the North Konkan, there was an interlude of the Maratha regime, covering nearly half a century. The Marathas, in their war against the Portuguese, destroyed many churches and other edifices in Bassein and Salsette. This attack was not against the Indian Christians but against the Portuguese who had inflicted great hardships on the Hindus who had refused to convert. Most of the Portuguese priests were forced to leave, and only five churches, three in Bassein City, one in Bassein District and one in Salsette were permitted to remain. The remainder of the Christian population was left to the native clergy under a vicar general in Kurla.
After the Portuguese were expelled, the Indian Christians were treated with more tolerance than expected by the Marathas. They, however, ceased to be the chosen subjects and no more enjoyed the former prerogatives and privileges. The more advanced of them drifted to the British political camp in Bombay.
On May 11, 1661, the marriage treaty of Charles II of England and Catherine of Braganza – Catarina de Braganca, daughter of King Joao IV of Portugal, made Bombay part of the British Empire given to the British as dowry.
The natives who converted to Christianity were the Yajurved and Palshikar Brahmins, Prabhus, Pathare Prabhus, the Panchkalshies who were the Suryavanshi and Somavaunshies Kshatriyas, Panchals, Agris, Vadvals, Bhois, Thakurs, Bhandaries, Modhs, Sonars, Khatris, Kumbars, Nahvis, Dhobis, Kolis, Mahars, Chamars, Muslim weavers from Thana known as Koshtis, Kunbis and finally the Indo Portuguese called Nortes or Norteirs (this word is derived from the Portuguese word meaning north after the post of Captain of the North was established at Bassein when it was made the northern capital of the Konkan).
Over the years there has been a modification in the social grouping of the community. Today we have five broad cultural groups and a few isolated families of Kumbhars (potters), Parits (washermen), Nhavis (barbers) and Buruds (basketmakers). The five groups are the Samvedi Christians, Koli Christians, Vadvals, Salsette Christians and the urbanised section.
The Samvedi Christians are largely farmers but they were once very successful forest contractors. They were the only people in Bassein who received Jesuit education as a result of which they were able to secure employment in the city.
The Kolis were exclusively engaged in the fishing trade. Their sea-faring activities brought many of them in close touch with the Portuguese which gave the missionaries an opportunity to spread Christianity among them. Today the Kolis are not so numerous in the city but are found in greater numbers in rural areas, having been driven northwards due to the expansion of the city and harbour. They played a prominent part in the church-building activities initiated by the ecclesiastical authorities. They also enriched the churches they built with vestments, jewels, and ornaments. St. Andrew’s Church in Bandra was originally built by the Kolis.
The Vadvals were originally a warrior class but owing to the political revolutions they were forced to take up agriculture and carpentry. The agricultural section settled in Bassein called themselves ‘Vadvals’, or the managers of vadis (fields) and the carpenters remained in Salsette and were known as ‘Sutars’. They are non-vegetarians but they avoid eating beef, they, however, rear pigs and are fond of eating pork. The Vadval women wear red sarees while the men don red caps. An important function of the village council is to safeguard the customs of the group relating to death and marriage. The group has assigned to individuals certain functions which are to be performed on the occasion of a marriage or death in the village. It is obligatory for the whole village to render every possible help to the member of the family.
When a death occurs the whole village abstains from work and places itself at the disposal of the household of the deceased. They inform the relatives of the departed and make all the arrangements for the funeral. Every adult male joins the funeral procession; any individual who evades these obligations and duties he owes to the group is fined by the village council. It is regarded as a sacrilege to shirk this as they believe the group transcends the individual. There are similar duties and obligations with regard to marriage. Failure to do so entails a fine.
The name ‘Salsette Christians’ was given by the Europeans to the Christians of the ‘upper classes’. They were highly influenced by Portuguese culture and civilisation. They were educated in Portuguese and adopted it as their mother tongue. They have remained as a separate cultural group, mid-way between the caste groups in the north and the ‘anglicised’ urban section in the south for two reasons. Firstly, the British influence had little impact on their villages and secondly, they were deprived of the higher education that the Jesuits imparted liberally to the Christians in Bombay. Besides, the clergy, who were Portuguese subjects, encouraged the Salsette Christians to retain whatever culture they had imbibed from the Portuguese.
Though Portuguese has become a dead language for them there has been very little change in their dress, food, marriage customs, celebration of feasts, and in their attitude toward the administration of their churches and outlook of life. The skilled boat-builders and wood-carvers of the group are now found in Salsette and Bassein while the weavers of K-villa are in Thana, who till about fifty years ago were engaged in weaving the finest silk fabrics and gold and silver lace. Sonars (goldsmiths) were found in and around Papri (Vasai).
The urbanised East Indians constitute the apex in the social hierarchy of the community. During the British period, the Portuguese culture of the ‘Salsette Christians’ living in Bombay underwent great modifications. While the aim of the Portuguese missionaries was to convert and initiate the Christians into their faith, the policy of the Jesuits was to intellectualise and internationalise their outlook on life in accordance with the social philosophy of Christianity by imparting to them the highest form of education prevalent in Christian Europe. This education not only changed their mode of living but also their mode of thinking.
Since the British found missionary schools and colleges useful institutions for recruiting personnel to serve in the administrative departments of the Government, the urban East Indians found it expedient to assimilate the culture of the rulers to the maximum limit. Their early Portuguese cultural tradition aided them in their change-over as they regarded the culture and civilisation of Europe as the universal standard of Christian culture and civilisation, which in their opinion were highly desirable.
The urbanisation of the East Indians was not merely an economic process. It was a wider cultural process of amalgamating conflicting elements such as culture, religion, economics and politics. This process of ‘Anglicisation’ meant that the Christians adopted English as their mother tongue and their dress, food, manner of eating, marriage customs, games, entertainment, social functions, club-life, social philosophy were all adjusted to fit in with European conventions and codes. All these traits have distinguished the urbanised section from all other groups in the community.
The converted Christians were not obliged by the Portuguese to give up their caste and hence retained them. They were encouraged to adopt, or compelled to take Portuguese names; hence we have clusters of them with the same surnames in the different villages and Gaothans of the native Christians. The Marathi dialect spoken by them played a very important role as they modified the Portuguese names to suit their language.
There were inter-marriages between the Portuguese and the Indian Christians drawn from the higher strata, which gave further impetus to this Westernising tendency. The scarcity of white women and the policies of assimilation of Church and State led to the mixture of the Portuguese and the Indian Christians. The converts were treated with honour and distinction by the Portuguese; they were recognised as men of rank and were admitted into the best Portuguese society and allowed to marry Europeans. They received grants of land in Salsette and were admitted in the administrative department of the government as officials, clerks, supervisors etc. as they were the only ones who were able to read and write the Roman script. The change in outlook came mainly due to education, tolerance and liberal mindedness. The Portuguese had thus prepared a Christian community to be of service to the British in the early days of their political adventure in western India.
The first Indian Saint, Gonsalo Garcia, to be canonised hails from the Salsette Christian group. Kaka Joseph Baptista, also from the Salsette Christian group, was the first Indian Catholic statesman, a staunch exponent of ‘Swaraj’, a colleague of Lokmanya Tilak and the first President of the Indian Home Rule League.
Christians from other parts of India are known by their territorial designations such as Mangaloreans, Goans and Kerala Christians, which help them to establish identity. The East Indians fail in this aspect as one cannot fathom as to why they are called East Indians when they do not belong to the East of India and their native place is in Maharashtra.
For Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, the Christians of north Konkan began calling themselves ‘East Indians’ to distinguish themselves from other Portuguese Christians to impress on the British government of Bombay that they were the earliest Roman Catholic subjects of the British Crown in this part of India. Bombay, by its cession in 1661, was the first foothold the British acquired in India. As the children of the soil, they urged the Government to acknowledge that they were entitled to certain natural rights and privileges as against the immigrant Christians. Their argument was that they should be given preferential treatment for appointments reserved for Christians in government service. These were the reasons for the designation ‘East Indian’ which they had adopted.
The change in the designation of the community was followed by the formation of an association known as ‘The Bombay East Indian Association’, to watch and protect the political, social, economic and educational interests of the community. They then formed an East Indian Joint Stock Company and launched a representative journal to protect the interests of the community as against the encroachments of the immigrant Christians. This was the first time in the annals of the Christians of north Konkan that they asserted themselves as a community distinct and separate from the rest of the Indian Christians.
The culture of the East Indians evolved and was adapted by their ancestors over the centuries. Their actions, their food habits, their dress were most suitable for the tropical climate in which they lived. The environment was the guiding force behind all these traditions. By the 19th century, the East Indian community had discarded their traditional wear in favour of Western clothing. Those who could converse in their Marathi dialect have forgotten their mother tongue.
The East Indian community, a minority today among the Christians of Maharashtra itself, a minuscule dot in the population of India, has produced a great number of stalwarts in public life. The community has also produced some of the finest educationists, lawyers, engineers, doctors and administrators. They have helped build over a hundred educational institutions, colleges, hospitals, and churches and also a number of technical institutions. This is not merely a contribution but an achievement unsurpassed by any community. The East Indians of today, are steadily and slowly losing many of their most cherished customs and cultural traditions in the name of modernisation, which will mean a complete severance forever from their precious and rich heritage.
Baptista, Elsie Wilhelmina. “The East Indians”: Catholic community of Bombay, Salsette and Bassein. The Bombay East Indian Association. 1967
Rodrigues, Teddie J. “Trace”: The East Indians of North Konkan. Horizon Printing and Publishing. 2005