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  • Spencer Low

The Portuguese impact on Kerala

Kerala, a state on the southwest coast of India, is perhaps not particularly well-known in the rest of the world. I first heard about it while living in India, primarily as the land of origin of many practitioners of traditional Indian ayurvedic medicine. Foreigners, starting with the Arabs a thousand years ago, referred to Kerala as Malabar. That name, along with the Malabar Coast, is much more evocative for those with an interest in world history. A reader of Portuguese.Asia, Renjith, is a journalist from Kerala and he recently wrote to me to share the fact that he had been researching the impact of Portuguese culture in South Asia, which piqued my curiosity.

Built by Portuguese sailors in 1503, Pallippuram Fort or Torre de Paliporão, is the oldest European fort still in existence in India.

Vasco da Gama arrived in Calicut, now known as Kozhikode, on the northern part of the Malabar Coast in 1498. Capital of the kingdom of the Zamorins, Calicut resisted Portuguese attempts to assert control, especially over trade (with the Arabs being well established over centuries). Further south was the port-city of Cochin (today called Kochi), and the Portuguese admiral Pedro Álvares Cabral allied with the local ruler in 1500 against the Zamorins, setting off a series of events that led to Cochin becoming a Portuguese protectorate. Cochin was in fact the first capital of Portuguese India, only ceding this distinction to Goa in 1530 after a period of rivalry. Kochi even hosted the grave of Vasco da Gama until his remains were returned to Portugal in 1539.

Cochin was already a global trading hub, attracting both the Arabs and the Chinese long before the Portuguese showed up. Its ruler was known as Kěyìlǐ (可亦里) to the Chinese, and in the 1400s the Ming dynasty imperial court even accorded special status to Cochin protecting it from, surprise, the Zamorins. The Chinese admiral Zhèng Hé (郑和) even brought gifts from the Emperor Yǒnglè (永乐帝). There was also a sizable community of Jewish traders, and just as notably for the Portuguese when they arrived, of Saint Thomas Christians. This community of Indian Christians traced their roots to the evangelistic activities of Thomas the Apostle in the 1st century, and were part of the Church of the East practising the rites of Syriac Christianity.

The Portuguese therefore inserted themselves into an existing thriving trade network, and followed it east to Southeast Asia and then to China and Japan. The Dutch eventually ejected the Portuguese in 1663 after a four year siege, but in those 160 years the Portuguese left a considerable cultural legacy.

Aside from modern cannons, guns and gunpowder, the Portuguese also introduced cashew, tobacco, guava, custard apple and breadfruit, as well as the spread of coconut cultivation. They established seminaries and promoted both the Latin and Portuguese languages, starting printing presses that even many Kerala people today, proud of their high levels of education compared with the rest of India, attribute to the Portuguese presence.

Not surprisingly, Portuguese has contributed to the vocabulary of the local Malayalam language as well. Some common Portuguese derived terms used in Malayalam today include സവാള (savāla for onion, from the Portuguese cebola), ആയ(āya, maid, from aia), കസേര (kasēra, chair, from cadeira), ചാവി (chāvi, key, from chave) to list a few. According to Renjith there are more than 170 such words.

The impact of the Catholic Portuguese on the local Syriac Christians was also complex. According to Jish Jilson:

"Initially they were welcomed by the Syriacs and allowed to celebrate the Holy Mass in Syriac churches in the Western rite. The Syriac Christians were also happy to learn about a Christian Kingdom in Europe and hoped that the Portuguese would protect them from harassment of the Muslim Arab traders. With the help of the Syriac Christians, the Portuguese were able to secure trade rights from the Kingdom of Kochi, whose Kings patronised the Syriacs. Under the influence of the Portuguese, the Syriacs converted to Catholicism from the Assyrian church of the East. But relations worsened when the Portuguese tried to impose Latin rite customs on the Syriac Christians and take over the Archeparchy of Kodungallur to which the Syriac Christians belonged through a controversial Synod of Diamper. This ended up creating a schism among the Syriacs with Catholic and non Catholic factions. Under Portuguese rule, many churches were in the traditional Kerala style of architecture were dismantled and replaced by Portuguese style churches, some of which exist to this day."

Another example of how the history of the Portuguese presence in Asia is multidimensional and needs to be researched and considered not only from the European perspective but also within the local and regional context.

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Renjith Leen
Renjith Leen
Nov 20, 2022

Thanks a lot dear Spencer for mentioning me in your fascinating article on the Portuguese presence in Kerala. Maybe, you should dig deep and write about the Luso-Indians who are descended from the Portuguese settlers. There are many articles as well as an interview of mine that appeared on RTP Internacional of Portugal long ago on this aspect. Here is the link

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