Cover Image

Larger ImageView Larger

The Saint in the Banyan Tree

Christianity and Caste Society in India

David Mosse (Author)

Available worldwide
READ AN EXCERPT

Paperback, 408 pages
ISBN: 9780520273498
October 2012
$34.95, £24.95
Other Formats Available:
The Saint in the Banyan Tree is a nuanced and historically persuasive exploration of Christianity’s remarkable trajectory as a social and cultural force in southern India. Starting in the seventeenth century, when the religion was integrated into Tamil institutions of caste and popular religiosity, this study moves into the twentieth century, when Christianity became an unexpected source of radical transformation for the country’s ‘untouchables’ (dalits). Mosse shows how caste was central to the way in which categories of ‘religion’ and ‘culture’ were formed and negotiated in missionary encounters, and how the social and semiotic possibilities of Christianity lead to a new politic of equal rights in South India. Skillfully combining archival research with anthropological fieldwork, this book examines the full cultural impact of Christianity on Indian religious, social and political life. Connecting historical ethnography to the preoccupations of priests and Jesuit social activists, Mosse throws new light on the contemporary nature of caste, conversion, religious synthesis, secularization, dalit politics, the inherent tensions of religious pluralism, and the struggle for recognition among subordinated people.
List of Illustrations
Preface
Acknowledgments
Note on Transliteration

Introduction
1. A Jesuit Mission in History
2. A Culture of Popular Catholicism
3. Christians in Village Society: Caste, Place, and the Ritualization of Power
4. Public Worship and Disputed Caste: The Santiyakappar Festival over 150 Years
5. Christianity and Dalit Struggle: 1960s to 1980s
6. Hindu Religious Nationalism and Dalit Christian Activism
7. A Return Visit to Alapuram: Religion and Caste in the 2000s
Conclusion

Notes
Glossary
References
Index
David Mosse is Professor of Social Anthropology, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. Among his books are The Rule of Water: Statecraft, Ecology and Collective Action in South India (2003) and Cultivating Development: An Ethnography of Aid Policy and Practice (2004).
“This is a powerful and exciting work. Mosse has produced a work of scholarship that is lively and readable without any loss of subtlety and sophistication. It is a ground-breaking study, of critical importance to the ways we understand religious nationalism and the anthropology of postcolonial experience.”—Susan Bayly, author of Asian Voices in a Postcolonial Age

Best Book in Hindu-Christian Studies, Society for Hindu Christian Studies

1

A Jesuit Mission in History

The experience of religious conversion is always caught within a "matrix of motives and representations" (Hanretta 2005, 490). Whatever the inner experience, conversion to Christianity in Tamil history was an irreducibly social process that involved change of allegiance given significance by prevailing social relations. Yet regardless of its political import, new Christian affiliation came to be narrated within missionary discourses that construed the change as a matter of spiritual transformation. Inevitably, then, the history of Christian conversion is an account of the incompatible logics and mutual effects of missionary intentions and the exigencies produced by the intentions of others (cf. Hefner 1993). The Tamil convert communities who are the subject of this book were brought into existence in such circumstances. The message of missionaries was assimilated into existing categories of understanding and relating (Robbins 2004a), although south Indian history shows just how diversely Christianity was communicated-and how different was its reception, for instance, by Brahman philosophers, warrior kings, and "untouchables." There is also no doubt that Christian practices and agents altered existing arrangements, but since the social or religious disjunctures involved were defined by existing categories and sets of relations, it makes little sense to talk of Christian conversion as rupture per se. Christian conversion, as argued in the Introduction, is a long-term historical and institutional process of continuity and discontinuity.

The aim of this chapter is to explain in broad terms the historical conditions that shaped Catholicism in a particular Tamil region up to the twentieth century, and so to set the scene for later chapters. I begin by returning to the circumstances-south Indian and European-of Roberto Nobili's mission in the early seventeenth century, drawing a contrast between his Brahmanic perspective and the kingly politics through which Catholicism (mission, churches, affiliations) was actually drawn into Tamil society. The chapter shows how Christian centers were party to processes of precolonial state formation, and how Tamil sociopolitical relations became constitutive of the character of the Christian sacred . Indeed, while Nobili tried to separate Christianity from empire, the logics of mission and of rule were again intertwined, albeit in indigenous form within Tamil strategies of statecraft. I turn then to the external impacts on this politically and culturally assimilated Christianity: first, that of the Roman Church, which eventually suppressed the Jesuit order; and second, that of British rule in south India, which helped institutionalize religion apart from indigenous politics. It will become clear how the changed arrangements of power under colonialism brought new conflicts and new opportunities for a Jesuit mission reconsolidated in the mid-nineteenth century. Among the most significant conflicts were those with Hindu rulers and rival missions-Padroado and Protestant-which intersected in interesting ways with local caste politics. The chapter turns finally to what was the most dramatic turn of events for a mission that had sought Brahmanic emulation and eschewed the dishonor of association with inferior castes-namely, mass conversions to Christianity by subordinated dalits. We will see how the missionary response-Catholic and Protestant-to this social movement profoundly rearranged the language of caste and its position astride the social and the spiritual by putting in place the modern notion of caste as a Hindu religious institution and conversion as a religious rather than a political-economic act.

The Jesuit Madurai Mission

When in 1606 young Roberto Nobili (1577-1656) settled in Madurai, center of the ancient Tamil Pandyan kingdom, as an "ambassador" under the protection of the Nayak ruler, he signaled a change in the course of Roman Catholicism in the region (Županov 2005, 233). As noted in the Introduction, Nobili imagined Christian mission to the Tamils less as a spiritual conquest than as the restoration of a lost truth-the fourth veda of salvation-and he viewed indigenous theological texts not as heathen religion but as a sort of defective Catholicism. His mission would "'sacrilize' Tamil society in the Augustinian sense of giving a visible form, the Catholic Church, to the invisible grace of God" (Županov 1999, 115, 133, 154).

The Pandyan kingdom (fourth century B.C.E.-fifteenth century C.E.) had been the site of earlier Christian encounters, being the transit ("mahbar") between the ancient Christian centers of Kottayam (Kerala) and the tomb of the Apostle Thomas at Mylapore (Chennai). But at the start of the seventeenth century, Christianity was largely confined to low-status Portuguese-protected fishing and pearl-diving castes baptized by Francis Xavier (see S.B. Bayly 1981, 1989; Frykenberg 2008). Christian identity was fused to European culture and social inferiority. In the eyes of the elite groups that Nobili hoped to influence, baptism meant joining the ritually impure community of parangis (firangi, aliens, or Westerners) whose social and bodily practices (meat eating, alcohol drinking, alleged lax bodily cleanliness) were judged morally inferior, and whose Eucharist ritual involved the use of polluting wine and an interpretation-eating blood and flesh-that "would suggest to the agamic thought the bloody and polluting 'pariah' rites of darkness" (Hudson 2004, 215; cf. Neill 1984; S.B. Bayly 1989, 389-92; Irschick 2003).

Nobili sought to redefine and render honorable the Christian faith, while at the same time revising the European view of Indian paganism. This was to be accomplished by carving out a mediating space for "culture" in the mutual confrontations of civilization and barbarism (cf. Eagleton 2009), beginning with cultural work on himself. Nobili dissociated himself from the Portuguese. He devoted his mind to the study of Sanskrit and Tamil sacred texts, while expecting that his "body covered in the right signs" would be the "passport into the world of the other" (Županov 1999, 126). He dressed in layers of ochre robes, wore the sacred thread, separated himself from polluting substances and persons, and lived in a simple thatched hut. He combined behavioral codes of the Brahman with renunciation of the sannyāsi to test a culturally acceptable Tamil model of Christian holiness, while drawing on the devotional and epic traditions of Saivism to develop a Tamil Christian vocabulary (1999, 3, 25-27, 116-17). Nobili presented himself as a Brahman renouncer of royal (Kshatriya) birth, the guru of a devotional tradition "based on privileged knowledge (ñānam) as a way of approaching and understanding the transcendent" (1999, 161). He likened himself to St. Paul, becoming Brahman in order to convert Brahmans, following Jesuit founder St. Ignatius of Loyola's injunction to "enter by the door of the other in order to make them come out" (1999, 126-27).

At a time when pagans and Christians were regarded as absolutely different and Christian doctrine hardly translatable into pagan languages (Županov 2005, 232 et seq.), Nobili framed the relationship between Tamil culture and Christianity as "form" and "content," signifier and signified. As Županov (1996, 1203-5) puts it, he replaced a theological articulation (of Brahmanism) with a sociological one. His was an ethnographic perception: where superstition and paganism had hitherto been seen, he discovered Hinduism as a universe of social practice onto which Christianity would graft the light of true religion.

Nobili's innovations were forged not in the abstract, but through contests within a specific social and ecclesiastical context; his ideas were conceived in order to contradict opponents and to persuade and enroll supporters, whether in Cochin, Goa, or Rome, and it was to them (rather than to Tamils) that his arguments were first communicated. There was more than one ecclesiastical conflict into which the controversy over Nobili's methods was drawn, but as Županov's brilliant analysis of Jesuit correspondence argues, the most immediate foil for Nobili's peculiar mix of ethnographic argument and inquisitorial investigation (1999, 84) was an older Portuguese missionary, Goncalo Fernandes, who served the small enclave of Paravar and European Christians in Madurai. Folded into and shaping an epistolary contest between these two missionaries were frictions of class, national rivalries, and a tension between the Holy See and the Portuguese royal Padroado (patronage), which itself revealed the struggle of the time between the papacy and rising nation states (Županov 1999, 114; Wright 2004, 56). Nobili was a highly educated self-fashioned Italian aristocrat well connected in Rome, while Fernandes was a lower-class, locally recruited ex-military man, loyal to Padroado and resentful of Nobili's anti-Portuguese elitism and Brahmanic claims, which would have recalled for him precisely the kind of social hierarchy from which his career as a Jesuit had promised escape (1999, 34, 54). Typical of European subaltern agents, insecure in their social position and threatened by alterity, Fernandes's letters adopt what Županov calls a proto-etic approach-that is, a descriptive ethnology that positioned him firmly outside the object of study in order to enumerate and classify observed diversity and to record a rejected outer world of pagan idolatry. Nobili's approach, on the other hand, involved a proto-emic "participant observation" concern with the inner hidden world, an ideal Brahmanical textual order that was generative of the manifest world (its imperfect residue) open to theological speculation and reinterpretation with the "eyes of the soul" (Županov 1999, passim).

The significant social implication of Nobili's position was not only that converts could retain caste identities and separations, but also that parallel divisions were required among missionaries themselves in order to minister to those of different rank in separate churches. The Brahmanic Jesuit sannyasis distanced themselves from the priests serving lower castes, restricting contact and commensality, and from c. 1640 a second category of Jesuits, known as paṇṭāracāmis (from paṇṭāram, a low-caste Saivite mendicant and ascetic), was created to work among non-Brahmans (Ponnad 1983, 5; Dumont 1972, 250-51, 272 n102g). The only way Jesuits imagined they could preach to the most inferiorized "Pariahs" without jeopardizing the whole mission was covertly, at night, in separate locations, without visible churches. Even then this provoked violent reactions: the demolition of converts' shrines and the arrest of priests (Manickam 2001).

The Brahmanic necessities of Nobili's mission might seem strange in the light of recent scholarship suggesting that rigid rules of caste became prevalent only in the nineteenth century as the result of British colonial rule and the unprecedented prominence it gave to Brahmans and their codes (Dirks 2001; Inden 1990). However, Nobili's missionaries worked at a time when south Indian society was already becoming more susceptible to Brahman influence and more "castelike" in a manner that would, for sure, be intensified under British rule. As S.B. Bayly (1999) argues, in the seventeenth century caste identity and rank became a strategic asset. Self-made warrior rulers of successor states thrown up as the Mogul polity fragmented invoked caste norms, idioms of purity-pollution, exalted blood ancestry, courtly styles. and titles to legitimize their rule and to forge upward links and downward domination. And Brahmans (and other literate groups) themselves gained social power with the growing importance of trade and revenue systems as "men of pen, lamp and ledger" (S.B. Bayly 1999, 66).

Nobili's sociology may not have been mere Brahman fantasy (although the centrality of caste rank and regulations was likely exaggerated to serve the end of defending his mission in Europe), but his goal of winning over the intelligentsia in the expectation that the rest of society would follow in a process of "global conversion" was doomed by the elitist failure to accept the heterogeneity of Tamil society (Županov 1999, 175). By the 1630s there were still very few Brahman converts. Jesuits were losing trust in Sanskrit as a missionary tool for recreating sacred texts, and by 1673 the missionary model of Brahmanic dialogue was probably abandoned (ibid., 235), leaving the Madurai mission to expand through the work of its pantaracamis who catalyzed large-scale conversions, not so much among exteriorized "Pariahs" (for whom a separate category of missionaries was appointed [Rajamanickam 1972, 49-50]), but rather among the politically high-profile warrior castes (such as Maravars), especially in the southeastern coastal plains known as "Maravar country" (maravar nāṭu)-that is, the kingdoms of Ramnad and Sivagangai.

Warrior Conversion and Plains Politics

The mid-seventeenth century is widely regarded by historians as a period of considerable social upheaval in south India. Population movements and political competition accompanied the often unsuccessful attempts to resist invading Mogul armies after the 1565 Battle of Talikota. With the militarization of the southern region, the kingdom of Ramnad itself gained importance as a source of troops and military supplies for Nayak rulers of Madurai (viceroys of the Vijayanagar emperor), who "exploited a pre-existing system of decentralised Maravar martial-political authority, obliging a set of auxiliary powers or pāḷaiyakkārars ('poligars' or chiefs of a pāḷaiyam 'fort') to build garrisons, organize levies and push forward cultivation in return for regional political autonomy" (Baker 1984, 36). The ruling Maravar Cētupatis ("lords of the causeway" to the pan-Indian pilgrimage of Rameswaram) maintained a degree of independence from the Nayak overlords. This was jealously guarded against the constant threats from Dutch and Portuguese powers on the coast, and assertions by lesser chieftains within this loosely structured and decentralized polity.

This was a time of shifting power, secessionism, and royal succession disputes that opened up spaces for new forms of religious leadership offering legitimacy and status to competing warrior chiefs aspiring to become sovereign rulers. Christianity took root in Ramnad as a dissident but not markedly foreign "Brahmanic" sect, spreading through caste and kinship networks, accelerated by the baptism of members of the royal lineage and those with high office in the army (S.B. Bayly 1989, 394, 398; Županov 1999, 74). Between 1640 and 1690 the Jesuits Antão de Proença (Paramandarswami) and then João (John) de Britto (Arulanandaswami) claimed tens of thousands of converts often arranged through mass baptism ceremonies. Baptism signified affiliation to a sect that allowed an ambitious but culturally marginal caste or lineage to enhance its standing. Warrior clans had already promoted the cults of their own non-Sanskritic goddesses and warrior deities that dramatized martial power and honor. Thus Christian religion, Bayly suggests, was easily incorporated into the caste lifestyle of the martial Maravars, facilitated by the existence of two well-known soldier groups who were Christian: the Syrian Christians; and the Eurasian Christians or "Topasses," commonly recruited into the armies of the south Indian "poligars" (S.B. Bayly 1989, 395).

Christian affiliation also helped build constituencies or demarcate autonomous domains. Conversion, Bayly argues, was "conceived and understood as an act of statecraft" through which political alliances were forged or fissured. This might involve a "strategic tightening of the ruler's open-ended alliance system," but it could equally dramatize political challenge as individual "poligars" joined Christian churches "to define and stabilise their [own] domains" and to mark these off from the ruling Cetupati (S.B. Bayly 1989, 396-97, 400-401; cf. Dirks 1987, 48). For example, late-seventeenth-century challengers to ruling Raghunatha Tevar ("Kilavan") Cetupati-including influential Maravar chiefs and village headmen, kinsmen of the ruler, members of his court, and contenders for the throne-regularly turned to the Jesuit mission along with their dependents and followers, some perhaps expecting links via the missionaries to the foreign coastal powers.

The Portuguese Jesuit de Britto, who moved into the Ramnad kingdom in 1685, missionized amid such turbulent politics. Regarded as a political or military threat by the Cetupati, he was arrested later that same year allegedly after interception of correspondence with a missionary linked to the Dutch (Nevett 1980, 1969-70). He was imprisoned and tortured, first at the temple town of Kalaiyarkovil and then at Ramnad before being deported. Much about de Britto remains contested and in need of further research, but the emphasis in the various hagiographic narratives of the saint's life is then focused on his return to Maravar country as a fugitive in 1691. He lives in the forests and is protected by pāḷaiyakkārars opposed to the Cetupati. One of these, Tadaiya Tevar of Siruvalli and rival to the throne, converts to Christianity in 1692 after a miraculous cure. Conversions follow among his retinue and dependents and en masse in the villages of his domain. Britto insists that on being baptized Tadaiya Tevar keep only his first wife, divorcing all others including Kadalai, his youngest spouse and Kilavan Cetupati's niece. Enraged by this dishonor to his kin, Kilavan rearrests Britto and banishes him to the frontier fort of Oriyur with execution instructions, sealed to avoid the uprising that the preacher's public death might provoke among the considerable Christian population. De Britto was indeed beheaded on 4 February 1693 and his body impaled on a stake-like his Lord, tortured and murdered as a political criminal.

The martyr became incorporated into the regional pantheon as a warrior embattled with the demonic in a way that overflows this political analysis (see chapter 2), and Britto would likely have seen his own vocation within the contemporaneous Jesuit narrative of mission as suffering on distant shores for the salvation of others' souls, and through martyrdom winning the prize of sainthood (Wright 2004, 73). The Brahmans meanwhile considered the Christian practice Britto was propagating as socially and ritually degrading as well as politically dangerous. As competing "professional ideology makers" (Županov 1999, 20), they offered intense opposition, spreading suspicion of Christians' unclean association with Parangis, accusing them of the heinous act of trading cows for slaughter and advising the ostracism of converts to cēris (untouchable settlements) (Nevett 1980, 151; Manickam 2001, 197-98, 200-201).

Immediately following Britto's execution, Christians were in fact repressed, their houses and churches burned, and their rites outlawed, but within ten years the faith had become politically tolerated and more widely adopted. Christian affiliation still signaled challenges to the Cetupati (as when his brother Thiruvalavar Tevar was baptized), enacted insubordination (as when Christian soldiers escorting the Cetupati's Rameswaram pilgrimage refused sacred ash), or marked opposing alliances, such as when between 1708 and 1711 twenty Maravar headmen (ampaḷakkārars) around the village of Ponnalikkottai came to Pierre Martin for baptism (Hambye 1997, 162; Ponnad 1983, 137). Read as a political act, Christian conversion still provoked attacks on missionaries and churches. But after 1729-30, when the new Cetupati, Kattaya Tevar became a supporter and patron of the Jesuit mission, Catholicism ceased to be only a cult of dissidents. In the following decades, rulers constructed churches in what remain the key Catholic centers of Ramnad, and granted land and other rights to their Jesuit gurus, as well as to powerful Christian Maravar chiefs with influence over Maravar and non-Maravar Christians (Khadirvel 1977). In 1734, Kattayar Tevar built a shrine at the site of de Britto's martyrdom, which was by then a popular pilgrimage, and in 1770 another was established at the place where his body had been impaled (which today preserves a two-foot length of the stake).

The royal patronage of Christian centers followed a particular political and economic logic that I turn to later on. But compared with temples, Brahman communities (brahmadēyas), or pilgrim houses (cattirams), the political position of Christian centers were nonetheless precarious. They remained a focus for insurrection. For example, it was to gain support from dissident Christian members of the royal family settled in the village of Sarukani (below) that contenders to the Ramnad throne made grants of land in 1710 and again in 1762 (Kadhirvel 1977, 53, 143). The patronage of Christian shrines represented competitive bids for scarce agricultural, demographic, or trade resources, or threatened links (via missionaries) to foreign coastal powers. As such they continued to attract acts of persecution in what amounted to a reversal of royal patronage: intimidation, the confiscation of lands, or the transfer of land grants (niyams) to Brahmans, for example, from the churches of Oriyur, Pulial, and Tiruvadanai in 1721 (ibid., 52n85). One thing is clear: Christianity on the Tamil plains was not faith "assimilating" to some stable Brahmanic social order. Christian affiliation had become part of a set of political-religious relations and was being drawn into a globalizing economic system in the late precolonial context of instability, warfare, and large-scale internal displacements (cf. Waghorne 2004).

In this political mélange, Jesuit missionaries were not just objects of patronage mimicking Brahmans or temples but were themselves power-holding "big men," building domains and attracting endowments from royal overlords (Županov 1999, 220). The Church developed here as a personalized institution around individual Jesuit gurus as heads of communities with networks of followers expanding or contracting according to a missionary's charisma and his ability to distribute honors (see below) and "integrate local communities into a larger, galactic Hindu polity" (ibid., 220). To sustain their domains, these Jesuits needed money, mobility, a territorial basis, vertical linkages, and divine authorization (ibid., 182); and they were always at risk of according themselves "more sovereignty than [local opponents] thought appropriate" (ibid., 180). In any case, with few missionaries, weak institutionalization, and limited dissemination of formal Christian knowledge or liturgy, these followings could fragment after the death of the guru (ibid., 29). The patronage of rulers and local overlords was crucial to success. In general, however, Jesuit domains were diffuse. Their letters suggest a spiritual leadership as renouncer-teachers, recruiting through conversion, administering the sacraments, and presiding over ceremonies (Correia-Afonso 1997), giving primary agency to the Jesuit-appointed catechists, as recorded in a significant body of Tamil Christian literature (S.B. Bayly 1989, 385). As visiting functionaries or ritualists. they could not assert much authority over the churches and their festivals, in which regional chiefs, local headmen, or serving caste groups and catechists held recognized rights. What they did control, however, was access to ritual honors, and from this they acquired a significant role in local politics (see chapter 4).

The Jesuit annual letters of the eighteenth century give a vivid picture of the alternating political fortunes of Ramnad mission centers; but sacred power, too, is woven through these "theatrical mode" narratives of miraculous and spectacular manifestations of a superior Christian divine (Županov 1999), over which, for Protestant mission historian Stephen Neill, there "hangs an atmosphere of cloying piety" (1984, 301). More significantly, however, these narratives were constructed out of local legends and involved, as Županov (1999, 165) puts it, "dialogic bridges between Tamil oral and Jesuit written history." Christianity became a successful social project in Ramnad not primarily through the preaching of a handful of Jesuit priests, but through incorporation into the mission structure of existing popular devotional saint cults that had filtered inland following networks and nodes of trade and pilgrimage from established Coromandel coastline Catholic communities (S.B. Bayly 1989, 380). Such cults and pilgrimages, some initiated by "low"-caste devotional leaders with limited exposure to Christian doctrine or liturgy, were attracting large and diverse followings and thence political patronage (1989, 389). The cult focused on the sacred tree of Santiyakappar (St. James) at Alapuram was one such.

It was in the late 1600s that Santiyakappar, an established tutelary of the Paravar fishing caste (ibid., 382), was brought to the village in the form of a miraculous banyan-tree cutting from his shrine at Verkatu. From the 1730s onward Jesuit annual letters blend folklore into the accounts of the Santiyakappar cult at Alapuram, "where every Friday crowds of people [pagans and Christians] come ... to fulfill some vows in return for favors asked or to ask for new ones." They describe tremendous "prodigies" at the shrine, brought about by the sacred tree and its leaves, prominent among them being the saint's punishment of perjurers making false oaths (poy cattiyam) in front of his statue. The Jesuits tried to make Alapuram the focus of their mission in the Maravar country under the patronage of Cetupati Kattaya Tevar, but were overtaken by political events when the area was annexed to the Maratha king of Tanjavur (who first granted then withdrew land for the saint). Instead they centered on Sarukani village (see below) under the patronage of Nallukkotai Utaiyan Tevar, raja of Sivagangai (a kingdom independent from Ramnad after 1730). Jesuit priests traveled from Sarukani to Alapuram to minister the sacraments and preside over the annual Santiyakappar festival, which by the 1740s attracted large crowds and a considerable income. A church was constructed in 1731 under the protection of the new raja of Sivagangai (who the letters tell us received a miraculous cure). However, it was local Maravar headmen (ampaḷārs) or chiefs of the nāṭu microregions (nāṭṭampaḷārs)-including one Yagappa ("St. James") recalled as the powerful chief of the Mankalam Natu-who would have become protectors or trustees of the shrine, receiving first "honors" from the priest[0] at the annual festival. It was they who erected a new church for a miraculous statue of St. James in the 1770s, although in 1792 the shrine again received royal patronage in the form of a land grant (niyam) from the Cetupati Mutturamalingam (Ponnad 1983, 200).

The rationales of popular religiosity, Jesuit mission, and Maravar statecraft intersected at such Christian shrines. They attracted royal patronage because they were centers of power, recognizable within the region's sacred geography (S.B. Bayly 1989, 9). At the same time, mission building created ritual systems that enabled popular shrines to be incorporated into the regional political system. This produced equivalence between Catholic and Hindu divinity in signifying and validating political orders. Sovereignty became constitutive of the character of saints such as Santiyakappar, making their shrines the focus of political and social struggle (see chapter 4). There was an underlying conception of divine power as localized, material, and not clearly distinguished from the secular power of the king, a power that is focused on the kōvil-the deity's "seat," shrine, or royal palace (Ludden 1985, 30-31; S.B. Bayly 1989, 48). It is not difficult to see how the cult of the miraculous banyan tree of St. James, himself portrayed as divine warrior and protector (in fact, slayer of the "Moors"), was compatible with prevailing notions of power among gods and men. I return to the cultural definition of "warrior" saints in the next chapter, but first the role of Catholic churches in the political order of the region in the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century needs further exploration.

Hindu Temples, Catholic Churches, and Political Order

Historians agree that religious institutions, specifically temples, had a key role in integrating and extending the loose domains of authoritative control of the little kings and warrior chiefs of plains areas such as Ramnad in the precolonial period. A system of pyramidal political patronage gave autonomy to regional chiefs and village headmen who organized local systems of production and redistribution, while ensuring an upward flow of resources and recruits to rulers like the Ramnad Cetupati as their political and military head (Baker 1984, 45). Power at every level resided in the capacity to direct ritual and material systems of distribution rather than on outright domination, resource control, or collecting taxes. In practice this meant the capacity to allocate both shares in agricultural produce and rights to various insignia-titles and honors that conferred both status and legitimate authority. It is here that religious centers had a critical role. There was, as Appadurai (1981, 64) puts it, an exchange in which rulers gave material resources to the temples and in return received not only ritual honors but also political constituencies from the religious leaders who "were crucial intermediaries for the introduction, extension and legitimation of warrior control."

Practically, the royal gift involved the transfer of the overlord's fiscal share of the produce of whole villages as an endowment to religious institutions. In fact, by the nineteenth century over half of the villages of the old Ramnad kingdom were recorded as so gifted, 85 percent endowed to temple establishments, to priests and ritualists, for the support of communities of Brahmans, pilgrim rest houses, monastic institutions, and other charitable gifts. The patronage of Christian churches and their missionary priests fell within this system of gifting as a "mode of statecraft" (Dirks 1987). Politically it forged alliances and built constituencies by integrating socially diverse and immigrant groups, some of whom were already Catholic-Pallar agricultural laborers, Shanar (Nadar) palmyra workers from the south, and (Utaiyar) peasant cultivators from regions to the north. Economically, endowing churches and settling productive groups opened up new areas for dry-land or irrigated cultivation. Churches, like temples, were a way of incorporating social groups into an expanding surplus-generating economic system that established "charters of entitlement" for cultivators, artisans, and others as well as a fiscal grain share for the royal overlord (see Mosse 2003, Breckenridge 1985).

Consider the case of Sarukani, the Jesuit mission center of "the Maravar" in the eighteenth century. In the 1790s Marudu Pandiyan (one of two Cervai caste brothers and ministers of the kingdom of Sivagangai who had become de facto rulers) advanced his royal standing by granting the resources of the village of Sarukani to support the Catholic priest and to maintain cults and festivals of the church, especially the major "temple car" processions that culminated the Easter celebration. Ultimately, the Marudu brothers were unsuccessful in their efforts to claim the throne (being executed as rebels by the British in 1801). The royal gift to the church was nonetheless confirmed by Periya Vodaya Tevar (a Maravar), who assumed rajaship in 1792 as British control took hold. The copper plate inscribing the gift closely paralleled royal grants to Brahmans. The same term (carvamāniyam) was used, and there was a similar emphasis on the merit attached to the king in protecting the shrine and its presiding divinity (cf. Dirks 1987, 121). The inscription states that the village of Sarukani, including rights to the king's "upper share" (mēlvāram) of the produce of the village, is granted to "the manager for the time being of Carvēcuran kovil-'temple of the supreme being':

for lighting, incensing and other such religious worship forever and ever, to the end of the world (until the extinction of the sun, moon ... so long as stone and water, grass and land exist), let all the rights and properties mentioned above be fully possessed and enjoyed. To those who protect this donation more and more, let there be as much merit as those who help with free gifts the marriage of [a] thousand crores and lakhs of Brahmans, who light crores of sacred lamps in one hundred thousand temples. Should anyone dare damage or destroy this donation, let him be guilty of the heinous crime of killing the sacred black cow, the mother, the Guru on the bank of the Ganges. May God help.

As holder of the granted land or īnām, the priest (the īnāmtār) took the part of the ruler in overseeing a local system of agricultural production and controlled the distribution of shares both in material produce and in the symbolic resources of the church. The first included hereditary rights to grain shares of the harvest held by village cultivators, officers, artisans, and village servants (see chapter 3) that were linked to obligations in relation to village common property (irrigation systems) and church ritual, especially the preparation and dragging of the great festival chariot (tēr). Shares also included honorary "gifts" of grain (kaipiccai or makamai) received by the serving catechists on behalf of the church (kovil) and the revenue half-share of the inamtar overlord (the priest/deity) himself. Second were the shares in symbolic resources: essentially, caste-specific privileges in the worship of the church-ritual services and publicly allocated "church honors" (kōvil mariyātai) at the magnificent annual festivals including St. Xavier's feast, Easter, and the feast of the Holy Sacrament. Such church honors, summing up and expressing rights and rank, became central to forming and contesting caste orders throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (see chapter 4).

There are two points to stress here. The first is that this redistributive system integrated diverse social groups; including Christians and Hindus; different specialist castes; and incoming migrant groups, from the village and its microregion into a publicly enacted hierarchical social order. The "rituals of unity" (Spencer 1990) involved were necessary precisely because of the highly fluid, incoherent, and conflict-ridden social situations that they disguised. Second, while overseen by the missionaries, the system was instituted by and made explicit reference to the king as chief patron of the church. From the eighteenth century and well after their demise in the twentieth, the (Hindu) rajas of Sivagangai (or their representatives-the "palace people," araṇmanaikkārars) arranged the final Easter procession of the image of the risen Christ in a huge ceremonial "car." The raja was paraded to the festival at its climax with the Maravar regional chiefs to receive "first honor" marked by prestations of cloth and betel nut from the hand of the presiding Catholic priest. Important churches-the seats (stala) of powerful divinities-were thus shaped into pivotal institutions that, like Hindu temples, symbolized political connections upward to the chiefs and king, and downward to the putative village caste social order. Like Muslim cult centers (S.B. Bayly 1989), Catholic churches were integrated into a Tamil political-religious system. They were incorporated into the geography of regional temples, and their honors mapped the reach of chiefly domains. Powerful or aspiring Maravar big men could hardly afford not to be recognized in the honors of popular churches and saint shrines.

Jesuit mission building in eighteenth-century Ramnad revealed a politics of culture and caste quite foreign to that conveyed to Nobili by his Brahman interpreters of Tamil tradition. It involved power articulated through rights and honors in Christian divinity, worshipped (like local gods) as the paradigmatic sovereign. The shape of the mission reflected the political circumstances in which Jesuit pantaracamis operated, which required their participation in an existing economy of exchanges between religious leaders and warrior overlords. They received protection and resources in return for public "honors" in Christian festival systems that signified legitimate political power, and in relation to convert groups, the Jesuits established the same link "between recruitment to the sect and the rewards for new recruits in the form of shares of some sort of temple service and temple honours," as Appadurai describes for medieval sectarian leaders (1981, 77 [author's emphasis]).

Missionary collusion in the prevailing system also involved adopting its ritual and aesthetic (Bate 2009) forms. In Ramnad, the festival of Dasara (Tam. navarāttiri, or "nine nights") was the principal occasion for the ceremonial "great gift" (mahādāna) from the king to the deity as ultimate sovereign with whom the ruler was identified (Dirks 1987, 37-41). This ritual form rooted in the devotional tradition of Puranic Hinduism was merged with the Catholic "novena" (nine-day devotion) to provide a model for public worship, reproducing the role of the king (or local headman) as principal donor-devotee. Symbols of Tamil royal power were carved alongside Gospel themes into the wooden processional chariots, just as eighteenth-century churches adopted architectural details of the regional royal palaces (Waghorne 2002, 22).

At the time when Nobili's Indianizing method of theological reinterpretation, dialogue, and reasoned cultural mimesis was collapsing under growing pressure from Rome (and from difficulty in raising funds for this most expensive of experiments; Županov 1999), Catholicism in regions such as Ramnad was becoming tactically embedded within the existing social order as a politically effective and emotionally satisfying form of popular religiosity, "whose external pomp and shew," Abbé Dubois considered, was "so well suited to the genius and dispositions of the natives" (1977, 10).

Implanting Christianity within a regional culture of power-human and divine-rested on, but also breached, the Jesuit separation of "the religious" and "the secular" in a way that "worked to undermine the Jesuit project of global conversion as envisaged by Nobili" (Županov 1999, 29). By acting on ritual form as much as content, converts turned Christian rites and spaces to their own political ends, making Christian churches into political institutions (see chapter 4). But such political incorporation of Christianity was not stable, either, because the pragmatic effort of missionaries to reinstate a separation between "the religious" and "the political" always unsettled the arrangements of power around their churches. This ambiguity and dynamic gave Catholic centers a particular salience as sites of challenge or resistance to domination and gave their socioreligious orders a distinctive contestability. This was especially so as the relationship between the religious and the political-between Christian priests and Hindu kings-was altered by the circumstances of colonial rule. Just as the British power was consolidating in south India, however, the Jesuit mission faced a more immediate challenge from within the Church.

The Malabar Rites Controversy and Suppression of the Society of Jesus

Nobili's cultural experiment had always been controversial. It was approved by Pope Gregory XV in 1623only through a papal bull that permitted rites such as wearing the sacred thread, applying sandalwood paste to the forehead, ablution before mass, and various distinctions of caste. Of course, delayed communication and local reinterpretation of orders gave Nobili and others considerable latitude in allowing local practices in their churches, but they also felt caught between innovation and obedience (Bugge 1994, 48; Županov 1999, 12; Wright 2004, 54-56).

At the beginning of the eighteenth century various complaints came to Rome against the method followed by the Jesuits in their missions of Madurai, Mysore, and the Carnatic. In 1704 the papal legate Carlo Tomaso Maillard de Tournon issued a decree that tried to "restandardize" mission practice by restricting the list of permitted indigenous customs. These were later known as Malabar Rites and were repeatedly condemned by following popes, and definitively in Benedict XIV's papal bull of 1744, the Omnium sollicitudinum, which was the first major move taken against Jesuit overseas missions (Ballhatchet 1998, 8; Bugge 1994, 49). Among the everyday Tamil Catholic practices that were forbidden were puberty ceremonies, "pagan" forms in weddings and festivals, and drumming (by converts) at temple festivals. Remarkably, missionaries themselves were now forbidden from reading books on heathen religion without special permission, and certain Catholic rites that were offensive to converts, such as the use of salt, saliva, and insufflation by priests in the pre-baptism exorcism of demons, or the admission of women to the sacraments during menses, had to be observed (1994, 49; Hambye 1997, 214).

Jesuits went to Rome to defend the Malabar rites, made appeals, sought exceptions or time extensions, and played on ambiguities in the letter of the decree or in the words of papal audience (viva voce oraculum). The Catholic hierarchy's focus on "rites" of course entirely overlooked the way in which Catholic identity and practice was being incorporated wholesale into indigenous socioreligious orders. Meanwhile, for converts the form of this or that rite was of minor concern, but the expectation that priests enter the dwellings of "Pariahs," or that "Catholics whatever their birth should hear Mass and receive communion in the same church and at the same time" was an entirely different matter (Ballhatchet 1998, 8; Hambye 1997, 218-19).

In the area of caste, Jesuits had to work out practical compromises: the provision of separate entrances in the same church for "upper" and "lower" castes, or walls erected to keep them apart while still being included in the sacraments. In some cases Jesuits equivocated, saying that they came close to "Pariah" houses "in a moral sense" without entering them (Hambye 1997, 218-19). The provision of missionaries exclusively for the "Pariahs" itself was actually an order contained in the Omnium sollicitudinum. As one nineteenth-century writer imagined the scene: "One missioner would be seen moving on horseback or in a palanquin, eating rice dressed by Brahmans, and saluting no one as he went along; another, covered with rags, walked on foot, surrounded by beggars, and prostrated himself as his brother missioner passed, covering his mouth, lest his breath should infect the teacher of the great" (Strickland and Marshall 1865, 57-58). At the time, the revolt of upper-caste Catholics against gestures made toward Pariahs only confirmed a view that breaking caste barriers would entirely ruin the mission (Hambye 1997, 231-33; Ballhatchet 1998, 8).

The Indian Malabar rites controversy caught a rising tide against the Jesuits in Europe, culminating in the suppression of the Society of Jesus by Pope Clement XIV in 1773 and the expulsion of their priests from India, clapped in irons if within reach of a Portuguese official (Strickland and Marshall 1865, 59-60; Wright 2004, 15). To their critics, the Jesuit "all-things-to-all-men" mutability amounted to lax moral theology, the error of aggrandizing human will over divine grace, and the indulgence in "baser instincts" that turned worship into carnival (Wright 2004, 146, 160-62). However, the Society of Jesus was really a victim of changes in Europe that (differently in France, Spain, and Portugal) set secular national governments against Rome as "a rival hub of power in their domains" (2004, 201; 2008). Jesuits were an obvious target for anti-Rome sentiment, stereotyped as "designing political agents," disloyal, masters of disguise and intrigue (2004, 229). Wright concludes that Clement XIV had to destroy the Society of Jesus "because the secular powers of Catholic Europe left him with little choice" (2004, 204). But beyond dynastic politics were changes in the status of the Catholic Church itself within a new culture of secular modernity-one that Jesuits, in particular, had actually helped to create through their mission work, their enlightened account of other cultures, their observational empiricism, optimism about human nature, their emphasis on free will, the power of education, and, of course, the separation of human life into "social" and "religious" aspects (2004, 184).

Disbanding the Society of Jesus meant that the "fragile system of authority which the Madurai Jesuits had only just installed was suddenly deprived of its focus" (S.B. Bayly 1989, 421). Unlike eighteenth-century Protestant missions, Jesuits had not developed an indigenous priesthood. All 122 Jesuits who worked in the Madurai mission between 1606 and 1759 were Europeans (Rajamanickam 1987; Manickam 2001, 261). The ex-Jesuit priests who continued to work in the area came under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the See of Goa, and from the late 1770s until the return of the Jesuits in the 1830s it was the Padroado priests-apparently mostly Goans of Brahman origin (Hambye 1997, 168-69, 180-85)-who administered the churches of Ramnad. However, missionary resources were scarce (and made scarcer by the French Revolution), and pastoral care irregular in remote rural parishes (Strickland 1852). It was a popular Catholicism focusing on shrines, pilgrimage centers, and festivals that thrived under so-called Goanese jurisdiction, as it had under the Jesuits. In 1788, a bull of Pius VI transferred the Madurai Mission to the French Vicar Apostolic of Pondicherry, although the "Goanese" priests holding keys to centers such as Sarukani organized resistance to attempts by the French Propaganda Fide clerics of Pondicherry to enter the area. Then in 1814 the Society of Jesus was reestablished by Pius VII. In 1836 after a papal bull that entrusted the (New) Madurai Mission entirely to the Jesuit Province of Lyon, French Jesuits arrived in the Tamil country, and in Ramnad. Here these Propaganda Fide Jesuits were truly appalled at the condition of the old Padroado Jesuits parishes under Goa. In 1838, mission superior Joseph Bertrand camped in the tiny village of Calladitidel (near Alapuram) and began a "guerrilla" war to recover parishes where, he reported, no confessions had been heard for decades, no catechism given, where apostasy was widespread and the new threat of Protestant "heresy" was growing.

Jesuits, Kings, and Ecclesiastical Competition under Colonial Rule

The suppression of the Jesuits coincided with the consolidation of British power in the Tamil country. In 1792, British military successes left the Maravar kings and palaiyakkarars disarmed, and facing punitive tribute demands. From 1803, under a "permanent settlement," rulers of kingdoms became gentleman landlords (Zamindars) of estates defined by eighteenth-century British ideas of landholding under the authority of the civil government of the East India Company. Channeling segmentary political relations of warrior states into "the new domain of proprietary law" under the British Raj (Dirks 1986, 313) had important implications for the field of Catholic mission. This was not because there was a radical break with indigenous political life, but because (as chapter 4 will explain) British rule reallocated power, causing changes within. Catholic festival systems were still a language of power and rank-perhaps even more so since they were able to articulate the shifting economic, political, and caste relations brought about by colonial rule. Indeed, churches were the focus of intense conflicts in the nineteenth century when the struggle between the old and new orders, as Dirks puts it, "took place in the old regime form in temples over honours" (1987, 373).

This continuity of ritual forms disguised important changes in the political functioning of religious institutions, both Hindu and Catholic, brought under British rule. Hindu temple systems in Ramnad as elsewhere gradually came under the control of the bureaucracy (Presler 1988). The Devastanam Department (a branch of the revenue bureaucracy) replaced the rajas as the arbiter of religious disputes over honors, although it struggled (and failed) to apply consistent principles (Price 1996; Dirks 1987; Appadurai 1981). The administrative and judicial systems that weakened Maravar royal control over temple systems (Price 1996, 114; Mosse 2006b, 83) also gave power to the French Jesuits who returned the Society of Jesus to Ramnad in the 1840s, enabling them to wrest control of Catholic shrines from rajas, local chiefs, and village headmen. French priests slowly acquired an ecclesiastical realm and took up the functions of state that, in the case of Hindu temples, had passed to the bureaucracy. (The British regarded Hinduism as insufficiently "religious"-by comparison with Christianity-to comprise a separate and self-governing domain). During the second half of the nineteenth century Catholic priests set about erasing "royal" claims, rights, and honors in Catholic churches, and to this end occasionally even demolished old church buildings (cf. S.B. Bayly 1989, 430-31). They merged within themselves the sacred and the political in order to forge the Catholic Church as a separate realm of religious governance demarcated within Tamil society. In particular they appropriated the royal functions of endowing shrines, patronizing key festival processions, receiving first respects, and becoming the arbiters of caste rank-all of which brought them into conflict with elements of the old political order.

These contests bring to light quite different understandings around particular Catholic churches. For example, the raja of Sivagangai held that the royal grant had been made to the kovil at Sarukani as the "seat" of the divinity (Carvēcuran). The government's Inam Commission of 1864, however, recorded the grant as made to the Catholic priest in charge of the church. What the raja understood as a royal gift to support the ceremony and ritualists of the kovil (a political-religious institution), the missionaries had taken to be their appointment as sole managers of the shrine, its property, and associated rights under exclusive control of the Catholic Church. In a series of court cases (in 1811, 1829, 1845, and 1849) the raja challenged the Catholic priest's right to the overlord's "upper share" of the harvest that should be consecrated to the church and its festivals under separate management save 5 percent for the priest (Cramam, p. 7). The raja also challenged the priest's right to interfere in matters concerning the hereditary rights of village servants, to make or terminate the appointment of village officers such as the headman, or to arbitrate disputes over festival honors. To the raja, the Catholic priests were-as old Jesuit pantarcamis had been-serving ritualists, not "little kings." On this matter, however, the British court in Madurai consistently ruled against the raja and in favor of the missionary priests, confirming the latter as de facto rulers (if not bureaucratic managers) of their Catholic domains.In asserting their control over a religious realm separate from politics, the new Jesuits began to prize church honors and obligations of service from the bundle of rights that, under the old regime, had been linked to the overarching political authority. But this did not make Catholic festival honors socially irrelevant. As Dirks (1987) argues for honors in nearby Hindu temples, once separated from their political context, they became "fetishized" objects of intensified competition (Dirks 1987, 359,369, 378).

Despite these colonial transformations, until the last quarter of the nineteenth century the power of Jesuit missionaries was in practice limited, and they were often forced to operate within the parameters of the existing political-religious system. Jesuits were thin on the ground, faced mission rivals and a state power with an ambivalent attitude to mission. In the early years of the new Jesuit mission, foreign priests covered large areas, traveling frequently between scattered congregations to preach, hear confessions, and administer sacraments. Conditions were so harsh that in the first ten years after 1837, twenty-one out of sixty-four priests died, most before the age of thirty-five (Strickland 1852). However, the constraint on their agency most forcefully portrayed in their letters and diaries was their battle over jurisdiction of Ramnad parishes with the sitting Padroado "Goanese" priests. In chapter 4 it will become clear how conflict between these Catholic mission agencies came to a head in 1850s ceremonial confrontations at major saint festivals that intersected with caste politics. By the end of the nineteenth century Jesuits in Ramnad had successfully consolidated their religious domains against both political elites and ecclesiastical rivals. However, they had won the allegiance of local Catholics at the cost of being deeply implicated as actors within a local socio-ritual system. We will see how over several decades priests strove to assert what locally was a quite novel kind of religious authority that involved new attempts to discipline popular religious practice and caste honor, and thereby brought about significant social and religious changes.

Although Jesuit priests' religious authority was made possible by the conditions of colonial rule, the attitude of the British administration to their mission was equivocal-simultaneously supportive and distancing. Roman Catholic missions had been regarded as part of the environment into which the East India Company had settled. At times they were patronized as an extension of support to indigenous (Hindu) religious institutions (whose endowments the company protected [Kooiman 1989; Waghorne 2004]), or in order to maintain relations with Portugal, as well as to provide priests for their own soldiers (Ballhatchet 1998, 13-22). The mostly non-British Catholic missions were in any case largely confined to the fringes of the company's territories (Kooiman 1989, 27-28; Oddie 1991, 40-46). It was the evangelistic Protestants rather than the pastoral Catholics that preoccupied the minds of company officers as a threat to the social order necessary for commercial interests. The distancing was mutual. Still worried about maintaining their status in indigenous society, Jesuits kept apart from "parangi" British officers and their "Pariah" servants.

The Jesuits of the New Madurai Mission and Caste

Despite a sense of mission continuity, the French priests who arrived in Tamil country in the 1830s were themselves quite different from their seventeenth- and eighteenth-century forebears. Coming from the Jesuit province of Lyon (or Toulouse after its separation in 1852), these men were of a Europe much changed by events. When the Society of Jesus was reinstated in 1814, the Roman Church was under siege, not just from the immediate secularism and anticlericalism of the French Revolution, but also from a barrage of godless enlightenment ideas-liberalism, rationalism, capitalism, democracy, and pluralism (Wright 2004, 212-30). The postrevolutionary crisis facing the Church was institutional as well as ideological. At the start of a century that would see disestablishment in Europe, the Catholic Church was already experiencing exclusion from some of its traditional areas of control such as education and marriage (2004, 184). Its centralized hierarchy was being questioned, the pope was rapidly losing temporal power, and the wedge between church and state had thickened. Rather than accommodate liberalism and modernity, Rome's response was to challenge the modern, revive Catholic devotionalism and papal authority, and "rivet medievalism on the neck of the Church" (2004, 238). Jesuits, Wright shows, were central players in this turn against the modern world (2004, 241-43), nowhere more clearly than in the field of Indian mission.

For the postsuppression Jesuits, the mission in south India recalled their glorious past. When they arrived there, they did so in a spirit of restoration rather than experimentation, in an effort to put everything "back to the point it was before the disasters of the late-eighteenth century fell on the church" (Neill 1984, 306). Influenced by a post-Napoleonic feudal-monarchical reaction to the revolution, missionary societies were conservative, evangelical, and under a supervision and control from Europe that was "detailed and harassing" (ibid.). Parish administration, liturgy, and worship were to be "carried out in Roman fashion" (ibid.). While Nobili's adventures into Brahmanism were now somewhat out of place, Jesuits had not lost their admiration for hierarchy and found no reason to launch an attack on caste as a way of organizing society.

The highly conservative priests from rural southern France who landed in Pondicherry in the 1830s were less disturbed by the extreme social inequalities of the peasantry than they were to find themselves, as Europeans, judged as socially inferior by the upper castes of the town. They quickly set about building their status by linking with upper castes and royals (using horses and palanquins) as well as distancing themselves from the beef-eating English officers served at table by the "Pariah," and especially from these "low" castes themselves. While Nobili aimed at honor by association with Brahmans, these French Jesuits did so by disassociation from Pariahs, neither mixing with nor being served by them; avoiding their settlements; or conducting mass in their chapels, which were invariably built outside of towns and villages (Manickam 2001, 278).

These nineteenth-century missionaries emulated their Jesuit predecessors in approving of caste and reviling Pariahs. "We can picture what would become of the Hindus," wrote Abbé Dubois, "if they were not kept within the bounds of duty by the rules and penalties of caste by looking at the position of the Pariahs, or outcastes of India, who, checked by no moral restraint, abandon themselves to their natural propensities [ ... ] a state consisting entirely of such inhabitants would not long endure and would not fail to lapse before long into a condition of barbarism" (Dubois 1906, 29). French Jesuit correspondence adopted such exteriorizing and racializing language, typifying "Pariahs" as obstinate "hommes sauvages" to whom preaching would be a waste of time, in relation to whom the French peasants were "angels of light," and who could easily be bought for money by the (now growing) Protestant missions (Manickam 2001, 275, 280). Indeed, Jesuit criticism of the upsurge in Protestant conversions (see below) and their degradation of "the Pariahs" were linked. For Jesuits of the time, "Pariah" conversions, like the people themselves, were inferior and of little value: Protestants would be judged by the social standing of their converts (Manickam 2001, 280-81). Unlike the Irish Catholics, French missionaries "thought it was quite proper that low castes would be excluded from any seminary and from schools for that matter" (Ballhatchet 1998, 9-10), long after the British had made schools open to all. Where they were admitted, they faced separation and discrimination. The same was true in Tamil convents, first formed to deal with the problem of widows socially prohibited from remarriage (Manickam 2001, 299). Even the slightest infringement of the ubiquitous caste separation of washing or dining arrangements in seminaries or boarding schools provoked protest and led to the periodic closure of institutions, reminding Jesuits of the inescapability of caste (Manickam 2001).

The new Jesuits assumed that preserving caste etiquette was necessary to attracting a better caste of convert-above all Brahman. They hoped to win access to Zamindaris and Princely States where Brahmans now held administrative influence, or at least to win elite groups back from the Padroado mission. In consequence, "low castes" were not to be given significant roles in the churches: they could not join choirs, take readings or prayers, or approach the altar. When low-ranking Shanars (Nadar or Nāṭār) brought candles for the Virgin Mary at Vadakkankulam, they had to be given to Vēḷḷāḷar (upper-caste) choristers to place on the altar (Manickam 2001, 288-89). But Jesuits did not wish "low"-caste converts to be excluded from worship entirely. The compromises between inclusion and exclusion produced some extraordinary architectural and social arrangements in new or enlarged churches where Christians of different castes were installed in different places according to rank. These included the cathedral of Tiruchirappalli with its caste-dividing wall and the "trousers church" at Vadakkankulam with its two separate naves meeting at a shared altar. It was common in cruciform churches for low castes to be seated apart in the transepts, and not unusual for "Pariahs" to hear mass only from outside, at the door, or under an exterior maṇṭapam (veranda), exactly as in a Hindu temples (ibid.).

The organization of space, level (height, plane), and time were used to differentiate access to the sacred-to the altar, the Eucharist, or scripture-and yet if the Superior General in Rome raised queries about the mission's policy, he was assured that these were simply social distinctions akin to those between nobles and peasants in Europe. Mission Superior Father Bertrand claimed that "deference to high castes [was] essential in view of their influence over Indian society as a whole," and that any attempt to fuse castes together would spell the end of the mission. Perhaps more to the point, caste provided "an ordered social hierarchy very different from the disorder of revolutionary France," which had threatened religion itself (Ballhatchet 1998, 10). This position of local bishops and Madurai mission Jesuits on caste would hardly be changed by the pressure coming from the Vatican with its history of conservative views on race or slavery, for example, but rather as a result of ideological innovation from within Tamil society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One important factor influencing the course of this unfolding anti-untouchability social critique was the presence of Protestant evangelical missionaries in southern India.

When they returned to the Tamil country after 1836, Jesuits found their opposite in the highly visible Protestant missions, whose approach to Indian religion and society could not have been more different from their own. Evangelical Protestants generally regarded Brahmanic Hinduism and its spawn, the caste system, as the principal obstacle rather than the means to Christian conversion. To create a space for Tamil Christianity they set out not to emulate but to break the hold they imagined the Brahman priesthood had on Indian society (Dirks 2001; Washbrook 2009). Even theories of civilization were opposed. Roberto Nobili's Brahmanical "golden age" model of Tamil society found its contrary in the Anglican missionary Robert Caldwell's Dravidian "golden age" theory in which an original Tamil race would rediscover its greatness by being released from the oppressive and decivilizing impact of the Aryans represented by Brahmanic ritualism and caste (Dirks 2001). Caldwell's theorizing in fact grew out of mission experience that gave him the notion that the vastly greater numbers of low-caste converts (and the very few Brahman ones) were a demonstration of the weaker hold of Brahmanic values on these Dravidian peoples (Dirks 2001, 135-36).

Jesuits not only considered Protestants foolish to devalue the "cultural capital" of upper-caste converts; they also took an immediate dislike to Protestant missionary style-"the irreverent gesture and vehement language" of their street preaching, the mass distribution of Bibles and tracts, and above all their ignorance of how to conduct oneself in Tamil society (Strickland and Marshall 1865, 148). Jesuits regarded direct attacks on pagan divinity and scripture, without having first won "respect from the heathen" and "before they have sown the seeds of Christianity in the heart," as a dangerous folly (ibid.). They also resented Protestant use of power and money for proselytizing, and their misinformed condemnation of "Romanism" as "on a level with Paganism" (1865, 63). Catholic defenders claimed that "the festivals of [Catholic] religion [are] attended by multitudes of the heathen, who proclaim aloud that here indeed God is truly worshipped, and men who assert that they would deem themselves defiled if the shadow of a Protestant minister fell upon them, daily stretch forth their hands to touch with reverence the robe of the Catholic apostle whose life of prayer, penance, and charity excites their honest admiration" (1865, 215). What did worry, impress, and influence the Jesuits, however, was the proliferation of Protestant schools.

The Evangelical revival in England, which was deeply critical of the East India Company's involvement in Hindu religious affairs and its opposition to missions, gradually won the British government over to the value of Christian education in India (Oddie 1991, 46). In 1792, Charles Grant, former Bengal civil servant, MP, and chairman of the East India Company's Court of Directors, advanced the view that missionizing was a necessary means to create orderly subjects freed from the influence of degenerate Hindu values and superstition (Kooiman 1989, 28). By the mid-nineteenth century Christianization had become part of the colonial enterprise, captured in Lord Macaulay's policy of extending Christian influence to wider society through education and promoting a pro-British mediating Christian administrative elite: "a class of person Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect," as he famously put it (Forrester 1980, 28-33, 57-59).

Jesuit missionaries developed an educational policy in the space opened up by these Protestant debates (see Dirks 2001, 131-32). An "education method" that Christianized an upper-caste elite, and through them the wider "conversion" of society, seemed a worthy inheritor of Nobili's historic mission, suited to the new circumstances of British India. First, novitiates and seminaries were founded that came eventually to produce more (Indian-trained but globally present) Jesuit priests and scholars than virtually anywhere else in the world. Tamil or Malayali priests began to have a presence in rural Ramnad from the 1930s and 1940s, and largely replaced Europeans in the 1950s. Second, prestigious Jesuit colleges and schools were founded in towns and cities that would produce a body of influential Catholic citizens, and in time a network of primary schools would spread into the remote parishes of regions such as Ramnad, where the emphasis was on literacy and training pupils for higher education, for government employment, or perhaps for religious vocations (Houtart et al. n.d., 73). Jesuits appealed to the government for grants commensurate with the Protestant institutions with which they competed, pointing (in the aftermath of the 1857 rebellion) to the "exemplary conduct of Catholic natives" and soldiers as well as favorably comparing the benefits of Catholic schooling with the secularizing effect of an Anglo-Protestant education (Strickland and Marshall 1865, 184 et seq.). While the divergent mission strategies of Catholics and Protestants came together in educational policy, something altogether different was happening on the ground.

Mass Conversions and "Low"-Caste Christians

In the later nineteenth century, throughout south India and across all denominations, a new form of Christian conversion was occurring: large scale, group rather than individual, and by members of "low" and especially "untouchable" castes (or dalits). Between 1851 and 1871 the number of Protestant Christians in the Madras Presidency increased from 74,000 to 300,000 largely as a result of group conversions from these groups (Richter 1908, 201), and Roman Catholic missions experienced similar increases with the Jesuit Madurai mission-for example, growing from 169,000 to 260,000 members from 1880 to 1901 (Bugge 1994, 143). Between 1871 and 1901 the population of the Madras Presidency rose by 22.2 percent, but that of Christians by 90.6 percent, largely as a result of dalit rural "mass" conversions. As Oddie notes, "[W]hat had been a multicaste [Christian] community in 1800 had become increasingly Paraiyar dominated by the 1890s" (1991, 153, 155). Such large-scale conversions continued in all Tamil districts and throughout India until Independence, such that of the 11 million Christians given in the 1961 census, over 62 percent were dalits from the southern states.

The nature of these conversion movements is a matter of unresolved historical debate, but there is some consensus that, regardless of the particular doctrines of the various denominations, for the low-caste converts themselves becoming Christian had something to do with the rejection of social inferiority and the affirmation of a positive social and religious identity. It involved self-betterment and self-respect through affiliation to missionary religion that gave previously denied access to sacred rites and texts, places of worship of their own-brick mission chapels standing amid crowded thatched huts-and eventually schooling. The dominant caste-class attacks against low-caste neophytes suggest that Christian conversion was indeed taken as a challenge to servitude, if not a mark of upward mobility. As Terry Eagleton (2009) says of faith in general, Christian conversion was performative rather than propositional; it was not a matter of signing up to new belief or an alternative description of reality, but of new allegiance and commitment that might make a difference to a desperate situation. Christian conversion was the hope for better patrons and protection at a time of crisis-particularly the crises brought on by the complex effects of British rule and the rupture and contradictions this produced within existing political and economic systems. These included deepening insecurity associated with agrestic servitude, manifest most acutely in widespread famine that targeted assetless dalits (Washbrook 1993; Hjejle 1967). Christianity might offer alliance with powerful people who alluded racially to the ruling government and had better access to power and resources. But mass conversion could be other things, too.

As Henrietta Bugge (1994) demonstrates, mass conversions were localized social movements that occurred in quite different ways in different contexts. Bugge compares the mass conversion to the Danish Missionary Society (DMS) of enslaved laboring Paraiyar communities in highly polarized wet-zone villages of Arcot with the similarly large-scale conversion of independent cultivating Paraiyars in the adjacent dryland area, this time to the French Catholic Société des Missions Etrangères de Paris (MEP). In the first case, the conversion of indebted (or bonded) laborers bereft of the partial protection of the old "moral economy" involved a transfer of allegiance to the missionaries as their new material and spiritual masters. Conversion did not express desired independence or upward mobility, even if through education this was the eventual outcome. In the second case, by contrast, dryland-cultivating Paraiyars with increased bargaining power from expanding groundnut cash-cropping did not convert to Christianity within an existing order of patronage, but as part of a modernizing means to get out of this order. These divergent responses to missions were amplified by opposed missionary styles. While the Danish Protestant missionaries' spiritual view of conversion made them poor patrons, unwilling to interfere in the social system and resistant to demands for temporal aid (famine relief, seed, loans, legal support), the MEP Catholic missionaries encouraged such support via their catechists. These French Catholic missionaries also fulfilled their rāja dharma, the duty of royal personages, through ritual and ceremonial honor or the grandeur of the bishop's visit, offering opportunities for social mobility to new Christians who could see themselves as belonging to "a larger network of spiritual authority" (Bugge 1994, 174).

Albeit in opposed ways, both Danish and French, Protestant and Catholic missionaries catalyzed mass conversions within rather than against existing moral and social orders, producing Christian identities that were both part of, and yet separate from, the old village order (Bugge 1994, 171). In the villages of the southern plains region of Ramnad, low-caste group conversions had in fact taken place as early as the seventeenth century. Some converted as part of the retinue and dependents of upper-caste Catholics; others were missionized through fringe and clandestine engagements that reinscribed "low born" Pariahs as an exteriorized and subordinated category. Rather than invoking new relationships, dalit Catholics found their servitude ritualized in the church order. Protestant missions were slower to penetrate this heartland of Catholic mission, but by the early twentieth century many Ramnad villages contained small communities of new Protestant dalit converts alongside ancient Catholic ones. The different ways in which Christianity was incorporated into projects of self-respect by these two groups, and the complex interaction of caste and denominational (Caplan 1980b) and interreligious (Christian-Hindu) rivalry underpinning strategies of social mobility, is the subject of chapter 5.The mass conversions of dalits also brought about a broader "conversion of caste" (Dirks 2001) that has to be explained. They had the effect of stabilizing a policy view of caste, not as a condition of socioeconomic servitude, but as a form of spiritual slavery-a Hindu religious system that Christian conversion would cut at its roots.

Making Caste Religious

By the end of the nineteenth century, many Protestant missionaries had come to attribute "mass movements" to their own strict policy against the Hindu caste system, and to see conversion as a struggle for freedom by the "outcaste," the "Panchama" or excluded "fifth varna." By the 1850s, Protestant missions in India (excepting Lutherans) had reached a broad consensus on the relationship between caste and Christianity very different from earlier pre-evangelical Protestant missions (Dutch, Danish, or English).Caste was a religious institution, and therefore fundamentally incompatible with the Christian gospel. As the conclusion to an enquiry by the bishop of Madras in 1845 put it, "[T]he distinctions [of caste] are unquestionably religious distinctions, originating in, and maintained by, the operation of Hindu idolatry," and as such, "caste is utterly incompatible with the very principle of Christian morals" (cited in Forrester 1980, 39). Conversion required the utter rejection of caste identity and practice. In areas of mass conversion, Protestant missions could look back at the effect of their stand against caste and deduce that while it had reduced or reversed the small trickle of individual "high"-caste converts, it marked the start of a dalit religious movement.

However, these conversions may in fact have had very little to do with missionary policy-Protestant or Catholic. Certainly those seeking conversion did not discriminate between missions with very different policies, and the evangelizing missionaries themselves neither expected nor desired mass group conversion. Their mission model, in which teaching led to personal conviction and then conversion, could hardly deal with conversion by caste panchayat, spread through kinship networks, or begun in areas where they were not even active. It was not a little disconcerting for Protestant and Catholic missionaries alike to discover that those to whom they had preached (the upper castes) rejected them, while all those whom they had ignored-the "Pariahs"-actively sought conversion (Viswanath 2010, 127; Manickam 2001). These conversions were unsettling in another way, too.

Mass movements again revealed conversion as a matter of affiliation and identity rather than belief. Moreover, as Viswanath ( 2008, 10; 2010) points out, the "Pariah" appeal for transformation presented the misery of the body and of the spirit as one. This undermined the missionaries' own bifurcation of the world into spirit and matter, since they saw that poverty made it almost impossible for Pariahs to convert only for reasons of conscience. This raised anxieties (and accusations) about "inauthentic conversions" or "rice Christians" (a missionary phrase later adopted against them) (Viswanath 2008, 10). The very lack of a separation between the spiritual and the material among converts made this distinction crucial to the missionaries themselves. Whatever the complex circumstances of conversion, Protestant missionaries were obliged to construe their actions and effects as spiritual (Viswanath 2008, 2010). That is to say, while they clearly intervened in local power relations as allies of dependent and subjugated Pariahs in ways that had economic effects (freedom from debt bondage or the acquisition of land), this action was represented as religious in ways that effectively denied significance to material change in favor of "the improvement of souls" (Viswanath 2008, 4). Religion was necessarily central either as consequence or as cause: on the one hand, meeting Pariahs' material needs ultimately had spiritual effects (perhaps a precondition for spiritual transformation); on the other, the social benefits (economic improvement) were the effects of Christian religion (Viswanath 2008, 12). A consequence of the Protestant response to mass conversions, then, was that caste itself-always a political-economic matter of agrarian servitude (see chapter 3)-came to be reconceived primarily in religious terms as a matter of moral degradation or "spiritual slavery."

Caste and "untouchability" thus entered political debate and colonial policy making as a Hindu institution and the target of missionary attack and religious conversion. While Oddie (1979) argues that new Protestant theological understandings in Europe had broadened spiritual interpretation of the gospels to a more world-affirming conception of Christianity that encouraged social action, the context of mass conversion movements demanded a "spiritualization" of social change. Viswanath's point is that regardless of the political-economic nature of missionary engagements, the construal of this action within missionary discourse contributed definitively to abstracting and ritualizing caste so that its connection to economic relations became incidental (2010, 131).

Missionaries' motivations were surely as varied as those of converts. A few missionaries were radicalized into social work and advocacy-for example, on land rights-by a people's movement of which their missions had become a part, but mostly, as Viswanath points out, their aim was to "raise [the Pariah] in his social state, not out of it." And Cederlöf shows that while missionaries might have repaid laborers' debts or supported them in court cases, they made a point of assuring the converts' landlords that they did not intend to provoke their laborers against them (2003, 349). Because caste became understood as spiritual servitude, the need was to alter mental attitudes or maybe habits rather than bringing about a structural change in socioeconomic relations (Viswanath 2008, 12, 19). The "Hindu excrescence" of caste could be stripped to leave a "rational core" of class. Even those within its system of relations would come to emphasize symbolic action or religious gestures, or to recall as most significant their freedom from religious obligations such as at Hindu temples (2010, 145).

Taken more widely, the mass conversion movements had an important impact on Protestant missionaries and government alike. Within the missionary movement, otherwise conservative men were transformed into fearless radicals and public campaigners, using the media to influence British public opinion and provoke public debate on the question of "untouchability" in the House of Commons (Oddie 1979, 249). The British government, despite a formal policy of noninterference in religious matters, in practice moved closer to the Evangelical view of Indian society as morally degenerate and profoundly corrupted by Hinduism (Oddie 2006). Adopting "the moral charter of Christian proselytization" in secular form (Dirks 2001, 150) then provided justification for British rule as a civilizing project to which Evangelicals, even more than administrators or businessmen, would acquire an intense moral commitment (Beidelman 1982, 6; Oddie 1991, 40-63; Kooiman 1989, 28). It was missionary discourse on untouchability and the disadvantages of "the Pariah" that drew attention to conditions of slavery from which officials had persuaded themselves India was exempt (Viswanath 2008). Moreover, it was through this missionary debate that subaltern groups (dalits) themselves gained access to the public realm, and eventually that interventions on behalf of the "weaker sections" were translated into an enduring state welfare regime (Viswanath 2008, 13). But having been framed by the "public problem" of conversion, public debate on untouchability consolidated caste as a matter of religion-of ritual subordination, exclusion from temples, and so forth-rather than as a question of economic relations, landlessness, or exploitation (Viswanath 2008).

It was in these terms that the Arya Samaj and other Hindu reform movements contending with Christian conversions set about projects for modernizing caste and offering Sanskritized Hindu identities and purificatory "reconversion" (suddhi) rituals to dalits (Heimsath 1964; Jordens 1977, 1981). These programs exemplify a shift in the public perception of Christian conversion from being a threat to dominant caste interests (for example, to their economic power/status by the removal of biddable labor) to conversion as a threat to "Hindu religion" that came from Hindu activists' appropriation of the Protestant theological norm of "authentic religious conversion" (Viswanath 2008, 15). In consequence, Viswanath points out, various conflicting interests get translated into religious differences, even though religion has rarely been important in defining relations across Tamil castes. We return to this theme in chapter 6; and before that, in chapter 5, it will become clear how the spiritualizing of caste by Protestants as much as its secularization by Jesuits impaired the social impact of mass conversion movements. Freed by conversion from spiritual servitude, dalit Christians remained an economic underclass. The post-Independence consolidation of Protestant church structures, the disappearance of the "away-from-home" radicalism of the foreign missionaries, and the reassertion of patterns of rural dominance left a scattering of Protestant chapels adorning the very poorest streets in the villages of Ramnad.

Conclusion

Jesuits and later Protestant missionaries had this much in common: in various ways they engaged with the sociopolitical order of which they were a part, but at the same time they narrativized their work and accomplishments as spiritual struggles. Jesuits, both before and after the suppression, brought the sacraments of Catholic faith into the structures of Tamil ritual and social life so as to make them accessible. Building a domain of Catholic religion from within a secularized caste order involved contradictions-most glaringly, having to pay for the societal acceptability of Christianity with the coin of untouchability; and yet this did not slow large-scale Catholic conversions in the late nineteenth century. Mass conversions of "untouchables" was no more the result of Protestant than of Catholic mission strategy. All missionaries were taken by surprise. The Protestant response to this social movement prompted the construal of caste as a form of spiritual slavery. This imposed a distinction between the material and the spiritual onto dalit conversions, rendering economic struggle as spiritual redemption. In the long run this turned conversion movements into a chapter in the history of Christianity-the key narrative being the "Pariah" acceptance of the Christian ideal of equality abstracted from their struggles with upper-caste landlords-and institutionalized a separation of "mission history" from "economic history" in the academy (Viswanath 2008).

Consolidated into official social policy through public debates on the evil of "untouchability," this missionary construction of caste as religious not only contributed to the systematic concealment of the economic characteristics of caste inequality and the caste character of unequal access to resources (Viswanath 2010, 145; Mosse 2003), but also led to non-Hindus being denied eligibility to state concessions established for "Scheduled Castes," being those whose (Hindu) religion subjects them to deprivation. This will be explained in chapter 5, and in chapter 6 we will see how the persistent discrimination of dalits, now perceived as religious, within the Catholic Church would ignite another mass movement for social liberation and equality in relation to the church and state.

While Protestants framed caste as spiritual slavery, Jesuits secularized caste. For the one, spiritual release from the grip of caste was essential; for the other, caste was ultimately irrelevant to eternal salvation. The secular space in which Jesuits contained caste so that it would not be an obstacle to the saving of souls also accommodated interventions on the side of dalits by nineteenth-century missionary priests, in part influenced by antislavery campaigns and the Church's response to the rights of the poor and the laboring classes in Europe. While this social action accelerated conversions, it was not considered relevant to salvation. It was only in the late twentieth century that the Jesuit Madurai mission began to promote an agenda of social justice (see chapter 6). In the late nineteenth century it was rather that, as the bishop of Tiruchirappalli observed, "low"-caste converts who in earlier times had accepted exclusion as "natural" now made legitimate claims to equality in the church that could not be ignored. He expressed a Jesuit view that was still not keen to abolish caste, preferring to preserve these "social distinctions" purged of "extreme customs." The shifting boundary between religious rights and social honors would be central to the unfolding of social struggles around Catholic churches for the next century. The Catholic Church (its rituals and festivals) had emerged as a space for more equal recognition within (rather than beyond) hierarchical village society. The way in which this then made the Tamil Catholic Church a powerful venue for "low"-caste converts to affirm new social aspirations and have them publicly recognized, and hence a focus of caste politics long before such struggle became part of the Church's own social ethics, will be described in chapter 4.

Save 20%

Add source code 14W0162 to get your discount at checkout.
Cannot be combined with any other offers.

Join UC Press


Members receive 20-40% discounts on book purchases. Find out more