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Book review 'The First Firangis': Travellers to an antique land


Published on: May 15, 2015 | Updated on: Invalid date

The First Firangis by Jonathan Gil Harris, Aleph, Rs 495

Some books grab you from the first page; others grow on as you turn the pages, slowly enveloping you in a seductive embrace and revealing layer after layer of a fascinating saga — or set of sagas, as happens with The First Firangis — till the reader realises he has moved quite beyond what he had imagined. The use of the word "moved" is apposite for Jonathan Gil Harris, an expatriate who has found a home in India and has affectionately and meticulously recorded the lives and experiences of the earliest known Europeans to have moved to India.

A few caveats need to be entered here. History does record an ancient Indian-European intercourse — in more senses than one — in the form of Greek and Mediterranean traders, ambassadors and occasionally warriors coming to the subcontinent. There is evidence to suggest that this preceded Alexander’s invasion in 326 BC.

Stories of that engagement are lost in the mists of time. There is more evidence, however, put down in books and documents, memoirs and biographies, of the Europeans who came when the Mughal empire was at its peak — in the 16th and 17th centuries — and the Bahmani sultans were ruling substantial and wealthy kingdoms in the south. Additionally, there was the powerful Hindu empire of Vijayanagara, with its capital in Hampi — a city frequented and praised by European travellers who routinely described it as one of the world’s richest metropolises. Finally there was the Portuguese outpost in Goa.

Leading Indian urban centres, including Delhi and Agra, dazzled the European tourists. Many of them had come in search of economic benefit or social refuge from the poverty and difficult life in Europe.

Harris’ book is about these Europeans. Most of them didn’t know each other and their stories are very different. Yet, the common thread is all of them were European and reached India in the period just before India became a colony, roughly between the 15th and 17th centuries. As Harris points out, these Europeans were usually at the lower end of the power hierarchy, or perhaps somewhere in the middle.

Since Portugal was the first European imperial power in India, a few of them worked for Portuguese administrators in Kerala and Goa. Most of the others tried to find employment or patronage from local rulers, princes and feudatories. The luckier ones ended up in the court of the Mughal emperor, Jahanpanah himself.

There were many motivations for these Europeans to make that long and arduous voyage to India, whether by sea or over land. As Harris tells us, at a time when the Reconquista left its impact on Europe, culminating in the Christian reclaiming of Granada in 1492 — the very year in which Columbus set off in search of a new route to the East — many of the verities and certitudes of the period began to fall apart.

As Christian cultural and religious identity re-asserted itself in Europe, the former Arab rulers retreated. Left at a loose end were those who had prospered from the long stability of the Moorish era in the Iberian Peninsula, including Jews, Near Easterners and all types of ethnic and sectarian minorities who suddenly found themselves dissidents in a Catholic kingdom. In search of a new refuge, some of these people turned to India.

It should be noted that Firangistan — as Europe and the greater Eurasian continent was known to Indians of the time — and the firangi (Westerner) were expansive identities. They incorporated anybody who was white skinned enough to qualify and were not limited to northern Europeans, as seemed to happen in succeeding centuries. Indeed, Harris writes of Ayaz, a "mamluk of Georgian origin", and the "beautiful slave boy" who Mahmud of Ghazni fell in love with. He cites Ayaz "as an early instance of what the Mughals would call a firangi — a foreigner from a putatively Christian land who had come to live in India".

Admittedly Mahmud and Ayaz lived four or five centuries before the majority of those who find place in Harris’ book, and Ayaz was a slave, rather than an economic migrant or self-driven refugee or even a charlatan with an eye for the main chance. Nevertheless, anticipating the opportunities that were to come to later firangis, Ayaz "rose to the rank of general in the sultan’s (Mahmud’s) personal Army, and was eventually awarded the governorship of Lahore".

Ayaz, as Harris tells us, was audacious and a bit cocky, clever with words, and made deft use of his sexuality. These were to serve him well. Six hundred years later, these very attributes were to prove the nemesis of Sarmad, or Hazrat Sarmad Shaheed, "the yogi-qalandar of Hyderabad and Delhi". A friend of Dara Shikoh and executed by Aurangzeb, Sarmad was Delhi’s once-and-forever maverick hero. "Born an Armenian Jew, possibly to parents of European origin, in a Persian city", he characterised himself as "a follower of the Furqan, a priest, a monk, a Jewish rabbi, an infidel, and a Muslim".

Between Ayaz (early 11th century) and Sarmad (late 17th century) came a whole host of compelling characters. Sample some of them. Thomas Stephens, "born into a merchant family in the small hamlet of Bushton in Wiltshire", moved far from his rural English origins to become a Jesuit priest in Goa in 1579. He "wrote an 11,000-stanza Marathi poem — in the traditional local styles derived from the Hindu Puranas — on the life of Christ".

Stephens had one God; Garcia Da Orta, a doctor and biologist whose botanically-diverse garden in Goa has inspired a public park in today’s Panaji, had several. He was a servant of the early Portuguese administrators in India. They rewarded his services by granting him a lease of the island then known as Bombay. As a doctor, Da Orta was also among the first Westerners to study Indian medicine, and the use of herbs for healing.

Yet, Da Orta was not quite the uncritical envoy of Portugal’s Catholic monarch, not even the "patriotic Portuguese Christian he seemed to be". "He was in fact a Sephardic Jew named Avraham ben Yitzhak", looking for breathing space as anti-Semitism began to resurface in an Iberian region where Moorish customs were giving way to resurgent Christian doctrines.

Among those who suffered were Jews who "spoke, wrote and dreamed in Arabic", "their cultural reference points, even the translations they read of Greek philosophy, were Arabic; and their gastronomic preferences were also profoundly influenced by their Moorish neighbours." Was Da Orta’s family among these culturally dispossessed Jews? Did this cause him to relocate to India? It is a fascinating question.

While Da Orta’s biography is intriguing, it is not alone. Harris has put together a compelling set of characters, from warriors to vagrants, merchants to mercenaries, who comprised the first Europeans to arrive in India at the cusp of the modern age. Read The First Firangis to meet them. You won’t regret the experience.

Ashok Malik can be contacted at