Part I: European Symbols in the Indian Art of Goa and Kerala
When was the first time that the Indian populace laid eyes upon a European symbol in an Indian work of art? If you guessed the 18th or 19th century, you’d be wrong. The arrival of European art in India goes farther back than you think. It dates back to the early 1570’s, when the Portuguese Jesuits first arrived in Goa. They brought with them religious images and artists who were well-versed in European standards of art. This set off a chain of events that led to the adoption of European symbols in Indian art.
This blog is part 1 of a two-part series that explores the journey of European symbols and influence in Indian art, particularly in the South Indian states of Goa, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. The next part will feature the European influence on the Mughal school of painting.
European Symbols in Indian Art: Introduction in the South
First, let’s turn to Kerala and observe the European influence on the art of this region. The disciple St. Thomas is believed to have landed in Muziris (Kodungallur), Kerala, in AD 52, mere centuries after the death of Christ. Along with preaching and conversions, he also built churches in the places that he visited.
However, many of those structures were demolished or have since been rebuilt. Some, like the twin churches of Ramapuram, are still standing and feature interesting architecture in the early colonial style with a strong Persian influence and a minor Portuguese one.
Let’s now turn our attention to the paintings and murals in these churches. Early Kerala church architecture featured local elements like painted woodcarving.
Before the Portuguese colonisation, they were virtually indistinguishable from temples. They usually contained St. Thomas crosses (also called Mar Thoma Sleeva, Persian Cross, or Indian cross) and baptismal fonts carved out of granite. The sculptures and paintings in these churches were in accordance with the indigenous art of the region.
In general, there was a lack of European symbols involved in Christian art and places of worship. These places followed the Eastern Orthodox or Syrian tradition, which did not use any art or religious icons in places of worship.
European Symbols in Indian Art: Kerala After the Portuguese Intervention
This changed after the Portuguese intervened. Portuguese missionaries followed Roman Catholic rites, while those who followed St. Thomas teachings were under the influence of the East Syrian Church.
In an effort to subdue the Syrian church, the Roman Catholics prevented the entry of the East Syrian bishops into the country and then declared that the community would be under the Roman Catholic Church.
The St. Thomas Christians rejected this idea, and what followed was a period of turmoil and rebellion. The influence of the Portuguese Padroado soon became evident even in the churches of Kerala: and this is what led to the introduction of European symbols in Indian art.
European Symbols in Indian Art: Goan Art and Architecture
Portuguese and French cultural elements heavily influenced Goan art. The Portuguese and French colonies that settled here influenced the local art and architecture. For example, they introduced retable art to Goan and Kerala churches.
A retable is a decorative panel behind the altar of a church, often painted with stories from the Gospels. Early retables were relatively simple and were fashioned out of wood. Images of the Virgin Mary were a popular theme of retable paintings, especially in areas with large Muslim populations.
Kerala mural art was prevalent at the same time, which led to the Hindu and Catholic artists of Kerala using similar techniques but noticeably different styles. The murals of Kerala’s churches and temples show two unique styles of mural painting that coexisted independently of each other and never once crossed paths.
The Portuguese were also responsible for destroying a large number of temples and mosques in Goa, and replacing folk art with religious and European imagery. However, some influence of the indigenous Indian symbols prevailed; for example, the above picture shows some peculiar anthropomorphic figures at the base of the carved pulpit.
According to Ines Zupanov, a faculty member at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, these creatures were derived from the Indian ‘naga’ and similar to European mermaids or sirens. While the colonial creatures stood for seduction and immorality, nagas were venerated in Kerala as symbols of fertility and guardians.
While Ines argues that the interpretation of indigenous creatures as evil monsters was a deliberate attempt at Eurocentric subjugation, Simona Cohen of the Department of Art History, Tel Aviv University, states that the Portuguese were unaware of the significance of the nagas, vyālas and other mythical creatures and regarded them as heretical symbols of idol worship.
European Symbols in Indian Art: The Murals of St. Mary’s Church, Angamaly
The St. Mary’s church in Angamaly, Kerala, was painted during the Padroado period, most likely under the supervision of a Portuguese clergy member. Its 16th-century murals feature scenes like Jesus’ life and Ascension, while a coffered European Renaissance-style ceiling bears a lotus motif, a part of traditional Hindu iconography that signifies purity and spiritual knowledge. It was not uncommon for early church murals to blend European symbols like the dove and the cross with Indian motifs.
The overall style reflects the conventions of Kerala temple painting in its limited colour palette of malachite green, ochre, and red and large, intricately decorative borders. The painted inner sanctuary, called madubaha, is very similar to the garbhagriha that is present in Hindu temples.
European Symbols in Indian Art: Propaganda
Another mural in this church features an interesting interpretation of the classical Christian story of creation. In the original tale, a serpent offers the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil to Eve. The artist was likely an Indian convert who trained under a European priest.
The serpent in this painting is replaced by a makara, an ancient mythological creature associated with Hindu iconography. This crocodile-like beast has tusks on either side of its teeth and an elephant-like snout. It is the vahana of the river gods Ganga and Varuna and is believed to repel evil spirits. In ancient Indian and Buddhist art, the animal guards over sacred places and is often painted with a snake or lion coming out of their mouth.
The makara in this image shows a European devil emerging from its mouth. The fruit of the tree of good and evil, traditionally represented by an apple, takes the shape of the Indian persimmon in this painting. The depiction of a sacred animal as a creature of evil seems to be a deliberate attempt on the part of the artist: to twist traditional connotations associated with the local religion.
European Symbols in Indian Art: Bhagavati As the Devil
Images of heaven and hell were a common theme of European murals in colonial times. There is a mural of hell in St. Mary’s Church; only hell looks a little different than what we’re used to. Instead of Lucifer presiding over his domain, Bhagavati or Bhadrakali, is the punisher of hell. She towers over rows of sinners, who are all contained within the mouth of Leviathan, a sea monster associated with Judaism and Christianity.
When the Europeans first reached Kerala, they encountered images of the goddess Bhagavati that were unlike anything they had seen before. The goddess with serpents on her headdress, dark skin, sharp teeth, a necklace adorned with cut human heads and a belt of severed arms, resembled the European depictions of Lucifer or his devils. They could not help but associate the sacred imagery of the goddess as hereticism.
Perhaps if they had approached the situation in a less prejudiced manner and attempted to understand the religion of a new land, they would not have been victims of cognitive bias and understood that the unknown was not all that unreasonable.
Colonists and evangelists of the Catholic Church in the 16th century considered the indigenous people to be inferior to the white man. Thus, their religious and social beliefs were demonised, their cultural heritage vandalised, and their knowledge disregarded as witchcraft, or voodoo.
Preconceived Notions: How Prejudice Breeds Propaganda
In an attempt to demonise the pre-existing cultural beliefs of the local Indians, artists purposefully used loaded imagery to misinterpret mythological narratives. A large number of coastal villages worshipped Bhagavati.
In Malyali folklore, when Indra asked Kali to protect his devotees, she chose Kerala to be her abode. The cult of the Devi was an ancient Dravidian cult most prominent in the South Indian states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
Portraying Bhagavati as the devil was an attempt to renounce her as ‘evil’, and is a reflection of the Christian missionaries’ contempt towards the local religion. This attempt to manipulate the locals failed miserably; the villagers were perfectly aware that Bhagavati could create and also destroy.
The devotees were indifferent to such propaganda; since their goddess was both dark and light, she did not conform to the Eurocentric, or rather, the Catholic categorisation of a goddess. Not Madonna nor the whore, to them she was the embodiment of death and of life, the guardian of Kerala, all-encompassing, all-assuming, and the start and end of all there was.
In the same church, a mural of David and Goliath contains another metaphor of evangelical superiority- David, the pious king, is shown defeating the haughty Goliath, who, by curious coincidence, is dressed like a native Indian king.
Well, we can’t call it coincidence at all: it deliberately symbolises the message that the beliefs of the missionaries would prevail over the beliefs of the indigenous people, whom they believed were inferior. Such methods were also used in Latin America to degrade the pre-Hispanic gods and goddesses in colonial art by portraying them as demons.
European Symbols in Indian Art: Thanjavur Painting
The Thanjavur paintings of Tamil Nadu also incorporated certain European symbols and influences. Artists of this school of painting derived great inspiration from European techniques. In the early 20th century, Tanjore painting began featuring cherubs, seraphs or putti (male children depicted as divine beings), who surrounded a central figure.
Europeans would sometimes commission paintings from local Indian artists. Due to the patronage of European artists, Tanjore artists began painting in the ‘Company Style’: a non-homogenous style of painting that involved folk and traditional artists painting in an Indo-Western manner, primarily for European consumption. This phenomenon began in 1773, when a British garrison was stationed at Thanjavur due to the Anglo-Mysore Wars of 1767–99.
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By Melissa D’Mello
Johnson, Paul Zacharia; Photographs by Lynn. “The Surprisingly Early History of Christianity in India.” Smithsonian Magazine, 10 Feb. 2016, www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/how-christianity-came-to-india-kerala-180958117.
Nangelimalil, Antony Joseph. “A New Idiom of Sacred Art for St. Thomas Christians | Sahapedia.” Sahapedia, www.sahapedia.org/new-idiom-of-sacred-art-st-thomas-christians.
Granziera, Patrizia. “Cultural Interactions and Religious Iconography in 16th Century Kerala: The Mural Paintings of St. Mary’s Church in Angamaly.” Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies, vol. 30, no. 1, Jan. 2017, https://doi.org/10.7825/2164-6279.1662.
Cohen, Simona. “Hybridity in the Colonial Arts of South India, 16th–18th Centuries.” Religions, vol. 12, no. 9, Aug. 2021, p. 684. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12090684.