Inside India #19: Christian missionaries in India – churches, cartridges, and the clap.

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

Anywhere else in the world a religious community of some thirty million would be considered numerous. But in India, a country of 1.4 billion, it is very much a minority. Such is the status of Christians in India.

Picture attribution: This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom. Source: Creative Commons 4.0.

The exact arrival of Christianity on the subcontinent is a matter of some debate, with perhaps the most popular tradition holding that it was introduced to the country by Thomas the Apostle, who (supposedly) reached the Malabar Coast (modern day Kerala) in 52 AD, and established the ‘Seven Churches’. In 57 AD, he is said to have overseen the construction of India’s oldest church – a building that some claim to be the world’soldest existing church structure – in Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu. (It is called St Mary’s Orthodox Church, known locally as Thomaiyar Kovil.)

There is, alas, little in the historical record to underpin much of this. What is reasonably well established is that by the sixth century Christianity was flourishing in the region. 

The next major injection of Christian doctrine came almost a thousand years later with the arrival of Portuguese Jesuit missionaries, accompanied by Irish and Italian priests. This Roman Catholic invasion left an indelible imprint on India that has lasted into the modern era. Innumerable schools, hospitals, convents, and charitable institutions were established by these tireless (some say overzealous) missionaries and add to the country’s rich mix of nomenclature by continuing to bear the names of Catholic saints.

The final wave of Christian influence to wash over the subcontinent came with the Raj in the 18th and 19th centuries and Anglican Protestantism. 

Unlike earlier forays, this latest invasion was met with opposition from an unexpected quarter. 

At the time, the East India Company was the de facto power on the subcontinent. Operating on the basis that Indians would be easier to govern if allowed to persist in their millennia-old traditions, they eschewed a muscular approach to the dissemination of Christianity.Alas, the Company’s flagbearers hadn’t counted on the lobbying power of the Evangelical movement back in England. 

In 1813, the British government made it a condition of renewing the Company’s Indian charter that they grant the Church’s missionaries full and free access to the subcontinent. 

These missionaries arrived buoyed by a spirit of holy enterprise with the aim of ‘rescuing’ the natives from their primitive, superstitious ways. Their actual success was limited, with relatively few recorded conversions, but achieved much in terms of alienating local populations, so much so that history now suggests that their extraordinary zeal helped provoke the 1857 Indian mutiny. (New ammunition introduced to the Enfield musket required soldiers to bite into a cartridge to release the powder before loading it into the rifle. The grease used on these cartridges was rumoured to include tallow derived from beef – offensive to Hindus – and pork – offensive to Muslims. Already primed by the belief that missionaries were seeking to undermine their faith, this proved to be the flashpoint that ignited the insurrection.) 

It was at this time that Anglican missionaries were also accused of helping spread the clap – by forcing the closure of regulated brothels. Aside from the angst this caused to both those who worked in the flesh trade and their customers – many of whom were Europeans – the medical impact of the Church’s moral crusade was widely felt.

Perhaps the most egregious crime ascribed to these modern apostles was that they managed to instil the idea in locals that white Christians were racially superior to the ‘heathen’ races of the subcontinent, pagans operating beyond the one true God’s grace. The shadow cast by this demeaning characterisation persisted for generations, causing Indians to doubt the legitimacy of their own ancient socio-religious heritage – a heritage that predated Christianity by at least five millennia. Some even argue that this undermining of the Indian psyche delayed the advent of the independence movement.

Not everything Christian missionaries did in India was to the detriment of the locals. 

Protestant Christian missions campaigned on many fronts to improve the lives of natives in line with the tenets of their own faith. For instance, they helped abolish the practise of sati (widows immolating themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres), campaigned against female infanticide, and pushed through a modern English-based education system.

Today Christianity makes up barely two per cent of India’s population. But its oft-times tortured history on the subcontinent means that it retains a place of prominence in modern India, alongside the country’s other major religions. 

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.

One thought on “Inside India #19: Christian missionaries in India – churches, cartridges, and the clap.

  1. Very much looking forward to your book. Years ago, too many to say, I signed up for a course in Indian history soon after I left school, hoping to learn about ancient Indian culture only to find I was going to learn about Clive. I didn’t mind our Indian teacher was demonising rather than admiring him – it was the same old stuff that bored me.

    Liked by 1 person

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