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Asia Today ISSN 1861-4604 Saturday, August 18, 2018

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Changing ideas of India

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Europe’s complicated relationship with Asian knowledge traditions in the early modern period

When Portuguese explorers first rounded the Cape of Good Hope and arrived in the subcontinent in the late 15th century, Europeans had little direct knowledge of India. The maritime passage opened new opportunities for the exchange of goods as well as ideas. As Professor Sanjay Subrahmanyam, who teaches at the University of California, says in his preface to Europe’s India: Words, People, Empires (1500-1800), “... the Europeans gradually were transformed, albeit in fits and starts, from marginal coastal players to substantial territorial conquerors.” Traders were joined by ambassadors, missionaries, soldiers, and scholars from Portugal, England, France and other countries, all hoping to learn about India for reasons as varied as their particular nationalities and professions. Prof. Subrahmanyam tracks Europeans’ changing ideas of India over the entire early modern period. An excerpt:

We can say that beginning in the sixteenth century, the process of representing what India was in Europe became linked in a variety of ways to collecting objects and written materials on that part of the world. Furthermore, the objects that were collected were sometimes of sufficient cultural density and complexity that they had to be interpreted and translated in the sense that a sheaf of cinnamon or a sack of pepper might not (although other, lesser known “drugs and simples” sometimes required a form of translation for a European audience). The entire process can be seen as a multiple unfolding of different dimensions of a knowledge complex. It is also important to underline the fact that the participants in the process were many and varied; if some of them were Asian traders, intellectuals, and courtiers who spoke to the Portuguese and gave them knowledge, they also included a whole gamut of social and professional categories within Portuguese colonial society itself: missionaries, trading representatives of the Portuguese Crown (who were called feitores or “factors”), physicians, mariners in search of sailing directions, military specialists, and others including painters and printers.

Two specific examples from the mid-sixteenth century can give us a sense of the diversity of such actors and their projects. One of these was the “New Christian” or converted Jewish physician Garcia da Orta, who was born in Portugal into a family of Jews of Spanish origin around 1501, and who came to India around 1534 after having studied medicine in various universities in Spain. Orta’s activities as a trader and physician eventually took him out of Goa into the Deccan, and he also appears to have held a property in the islands around what eventually became the territory of Bombay. He certainly knew Arabic quite well before arriving in Asia, and he added to this some knowledge of Persian, probably while working at the Muslim courts of the Deccan, which welcomed “Frankish” (that is to say, Portuguese) physicians as well. This distilled theoretical and practical knowledge was eventually put by him into an extremely important work entitled Coloquios dos simples e drogas e coisas medicinais da India (Colloquies on the Simples, Drugs and Medicinal Products of India), which was printed in Goa in 1563, a few years before Orta died. Though he was eventually denounced posthumously to the Inquisition for having secretly been a practicing Jew, this work remained a major reference on Indian plants and other medicinal products.

A more complicated relationship with Asian knowledge traditions can be seen in the case of his contemporary, the aristocrat Dom Joao de Castro (1500-1548), who was not merely an accomplished military commander and navigator, but was also interested in pursuing theoretical investigations regarding such subjects as cartography and terrestrial magnetism. Castro was also a good draftsman, and a number of his maps, sketches, and rutters (mariner’s handbooks, or roteiros) have survived. It is possible that they too built in part on the local knowledge that he gained while navigating the Indian Ocean in ships where the crews were made up in a large proportion by Indians and other Asians, though this is less evident than in the case of Orta. At any rate, the influence of the work of men like Castro was passed on to the great mapmakers of Portuguese Asia, like the somewhat shadowy figure of Fernao Vaz Dourado (d. 1580), who produced a set of spectacular representations of the lands of Asia in his Atlas, which became the basis for later printed maps in the Netherlands. These representations were important for turning the page definitively on the Ptolemaic vision of that part of the world. Though these maps of India depended, for example, on knowledge based largely on coastal navigation (so that most of the place names were located on the coast, rather than in the interior), they produced an approximate vision of the regions of India with which the Portuguese had the most dealings from west to east, Sind, Gujarat, the Konkan, Kanara, Malabar, the Coromandel coast, Orissa and Bengal. They would also serve as the basis for the knowledge of the first Dutch and English merchants who arrived in those regions at the turn of the seventeenth century.

Of course, Portuguese curiosity extended much beyond such “secular” subjects as medicine, botany, navigation, and cartography. They were also anxious to know as much as they could about the “religions” that were practiced in India, for which they often used the word “law” (lei), as was common in Europe at the time. The Portuguese who arrived in Asia in the first half of the sixteenth century certainly had some notions regarding Islam or the “law of Muhammad” as they called it, though these were often quite crude. They had to rediscover the difference between Sunnis and Shi’is in the course of their dealings in the Deccan and the Persian Gulf, but this eventually became an abiding trope in their representation of political alliances in the Indian Ocean. They saw one network, a Sunni one, that was oriented toward Istanbul and the Ottoman Empire, and another, a predominantly Shi’ite one, that drew inspiration from the newly emergent Safavid dynasty in Iran. So far as we can discern, no Portuguese intellectual of the time seems to have gone to great lengths to collect copies of the Qur’an, or other more obscure texts from any Muslim tradition. However, by the end of the sixteenth century, some European visitors to Asia — such as the Vecchietti brothers from Florence, Giovan Battista and Gerolamo — became interested in Judeo-Persian materials as well as Persian translations of the Gospel. The materials collected by them are among the earliest Indian (or Indo-Persian) manuscripts to appear in European collections, and which still survive.

It was the other religious beliefs and practices in India and (South Asia, more generally speaking) that posed a far greater conceptual problem so far as the Portuguese were concerned. The people to whom these pertained were classified by the Portuguese as “gentiles” (gentios), and they included what we today might call Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains.

Source Courtesy: The Hindu - Author: Sanjay Subrahmanyam

 

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