Of Thomas Stephens and his Kristapurana: How a 16th-century priest came to write Christian poetry in Marathi, Konkani

  • Thomas Stephens was the first Englishman to land on the shores of Goa.

  • Stephens described his book as a Purana because it was a grand poetic retelling of the Biblical story from the creation up until the resurrection and ascension of Christ, much like the original Sanskrit text.

  • The Kristapurana lives on in the cultural memory of the region, in Marathi-Konkani literary histories and in its ‘afterlives’ in the form of modern translations and performances.

By Annie Rachel Royson and Simran Agarwal

In 1579, a young Jesuit priest by the name of Thomas Stephens became the first Englishman to land on the shores of Goa. He came with the aim of preaching Christianity to the locals in the Portuguese colony. Little did he know that his time there would transform him into a ‘devotee of the Marathi language’, composing Christian poetry in the style of the saint-poets of the region. Several centuries later, we still remember the contribution of the Elizabethan poet to Marathi and Konkani poetry and his indelible imprint on the cultural life of the Goan coast.

The right place and time

Stephens was born in Bushton in the diocese of Salisbury in Wiltshire, England, in 1549, to a rich merchant family. While limited information is available on his childhood, we know that a 30-year-old Stephens set sail for India on the S. Lorenzo in 1579. For 10 years he worked with the local communities in the region as a missionary, while learning their language. In 1609, he took charge as rector of the Patriarchal Seminary in Rachol, Goa. Interestingly, the school housed one of the libraries Swami Vivekananda visited to study Christianity before his speech at the Parliament of Religions, Chicago, in 1893. While this association came much later, Indians know the Rachol seminary for one major publication — the Kristapurana.

It was originally published as Discurso Sobre a Vinda de Jesu Christo Nosso Salvador ao Mundo in 1616. But Stephens described it as a Purana because it was a grand poetic retelling of the Biblical story from the creation up until the resurrection and ascension of Christ – much like the original Sanskrit text, held in reverence by various sects of Hindus in the Indian subcontinent. According to AK Priolkar (1895–1973), Stephens’ ‘claim to a place among the immortals of the Marathi literature’ is because of this ‘classical presentation of the Biblical story in Marathi verse'.

 Of Thomas Stephens and his Kristapurana: How a 16th-century priest came to write Christian poetry in Marathi, Konkani

Stephens described his book as a Purana because it was a grand poetic retelling of the Biblical story from the creation up until the resurrection and ascension of Christ, much like the original Sanskrit text.

That Stephens was able to publish this magnum opus here has an interesting story. The printing press housed in this college was, in fact, intended for Ethiopia. In the mid-1500s, the Patriarch designate of Ethiopia, who was accompanying the printing press, made a customary halt in Goa. He decided to extend his stay for a while, and died there in 1562. The press, thus, remained in Goa, as did the Spaniard Joao de Bustamante, who — Priolkar insists — must be ‘considered as the pioneer of the art of printing in India’.

Stephens’ Kristapurana was one of the earliest works to be printed in this press. So were his letters, a grammar of the Konkani language written in Portuguese and a translation of the Portuguese catechism. A reading of Kristapurana and an analysis of the sociopolitical background during Stephens’ time shows that he had written it in Marathi, purposefully mixing it with Konkani to make it comprehensible to the Goan locals. ‘…[S]eeing that common people do not understand pure Marathi, and so that the fruits of this Purana may be enjoyed by many, I have left out many difficult words of the past great poets, and like poets writing in the present, have replaced them with simpler words of the Brahmana language at different places, to make the poem simple,’ he wrote in the introduction to Kristapurana.

For the love of local

It was Stephens’ enthusiasm to learn the local languages that set him apart from other Portuguese missionaries before him. Already proficient in Latin, Portuguese and English, Stephens set forth to learn, and eventually love, the two languages most commonly spoken in and around the Goan coast, the Sanskritised Marathi of the Hindu priests and the common Marathi (Konkan) of the people. It was his success in teaching himself to preach and hear confessions in these languages that translated into his success in proselytising in the region and his popularity with the masses.

‘When he was posted as head of the mission…[Rachol] had about 8,000 Christians. Fourteen years later there were close to 35,000, and when Stephens died... more or less all the inhabitants of the region were Christian,’ wrote the scholar Brijraj Singh.

Stephens’ love and appreciation for Marathi is evident in his verses in the Kristapurana:

‘Zaissy puspa mazi puspa mogary / Qui pari ma Ila mazi cas turi / Taissy bhassa mazi saziry
Maratthiya / Paqhiha madhe maioru / Vriqhia madhe calpataru / Bhassa madhe manu thoru
Maratthiyessi.’

(As the mogra among flowers, as musk among perfumes, so is the beauty of Marathi among languages; among birds the peacock, among trees the kalpa, so is Marathi among languages.)

In this composition, Stephens deftly weaved together stories from an alien religion with the native imagery of Indian myths and culture. His achievement over four decades, therefore, is less as a missionary and more as a writer and linguist.

Stephens died in 1619 in Goa, three years after the publication of his masterpiece. His legacy lives on. Father Glen D’Silva, a trained Indian classical musician, rendered 25 of the verses of Kristapurana in the khayal style in 2016. This is the closest we can get in the present age to understanding how the verses might have sounded when they were sung by locals in Stephens’ time. The text lives on — in the cultural memory of the region, in Marathi-Konkani literary histories and in its ‘afterlives’ in the form of modern translations and performances.

This article is part of Saha Sutra on www.sahapedia.org, the digital library of Indian culture.

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Updated Date: Dec 25, 2019 11:13:13 IST