Upon my last visit to the British Museum in London, I came upon a fascinating book, “Mughal Miniatures” by J. M. Rogers in their store. I have been fortunate to view examples of exquisite Mughal miniature paintings scattered all over the world, from the Metropolitan Museum New York, Calouste Gulbenkian Museum Lisbon, British Museum, British Library and the V&A (Victoria & Albert) Museum, London, and closer to home, the National Museum New Delhi, Salar Jung Museum Hyderabad, and the wonderful collection in the Prince of Wales Museum (now the Chhatrapati Shivaji Vastu Sangrahalaya) Mumbai. I suppose somewhere down the line, the interest developed and compelled me to purchase the book.
Tucked away in the chapter “Painting at the court of Akbar” was an intriguing picture, titled ‘Christ’s entry into Jerusalem’. I thought it pertinent to share it with readers today, on Palm Sunday. The caption accompanying the painting described its medium (gouache on paper) and stated that it was “an illustration (c. 1602) to the Dastān-i Masiḥ (The Life of Christ) which was composed by the Jesuit Fr. Jerome Xavier and presented to Akbar in 1582.”
Following the conquest of Goa by the Portuguese in 1510, they turned their attention to other strategic locations along India’s west coast, among them the port city of Surat. The Mughal conquest of Gujarat and the siege of in 1573 brought Emperor Akbar into direct contact with the Portuguese there. It was vital for Akbar that friendly relations exist between the two powers, to enable the security of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina for the ḥajj, as the Portuguese by this time ruled the waves in the Arabian Sea and beyond. Furthermore, Akbar acknowledged the superior artillery and firepower of the Portuguese and needed these for his own goal of conquest in the subcontinent.
Lastly, his increasingly syncretistic religious theories spurred him to study Christianity more closely. In 1575 he proclaimed the foundation of a central institution, the Dār al-Ibāda wherein not only the religion officially tolerated by the Islamic world (Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism) but Hindus and other faiths too would be reconciled. He followed this in 1579 with an even more radical proclamation of a universal faith , Dīn-i Ilāhī, which saw a brief lease of life during his reign and petered out thereafter.
A Mughal mission was sent in 1575-78 to Goa to acquire European rarities for Akbar’s court. This was followed by several Jesuit missions from Goa to Akbar’s courts in Agra,Fatehpur Sikri and Lahore.
This is where we encounter Fr. Jerome Xavier, grand-nephew of St. Francis Xavier and a Jesuit priest. Like his illustrious predecessor, he was also born in Navarra Spain and was sent to Goa in 1581. After several stints in Bassein and Cochin, he was appointed Superior of the Professed House in Goa. Historical accounts seem to indicate that Fr. Xavier’s stint in Goa was an unhappy one, as he was Spanish and his subordinates Portuguese. So it was perhaps providential that he was sent with two other companions Fr. Emmanuel Pinheiro and Brother Bento de Góis on the third Jesuit mission to Akbar’s court and arrived in Lahore in 1595. There he was taught the Persian language. Xavier accompanied Emperor Akbar on several Deccan expeditions and the move to Agra.
During this time Xavier composed Dastān-i Masiḥ. It was originally written in Portuguese, and a note written in Latin in the copy held by the British Museum states this: ‘Liber dictus Dastan Masih i.e. Historia Christi, primum Lusitanice composite a Patre Hieronymo Xavero’ (the book called dastan Masih, that is, History of Christ, originally written in Portuguese by Fr. Jerome Xavier). It was later translated into Persian as ‘The Mirror of Holiness.’ Both Akbar and his son Jahangir after him seem to have been greatly taken by the text.
Fr. Xavier himself seems to have secured the confidence of Akbar, much to the dismay and envy of the English, rivals to the Portuguese in India. Contemporary traveller Nicholas Withington writes: ‘The Mogul would do nothing against the Portuguese so long as that witch Savier liveth, (for so the Moores themselves term him), which is an ould Jesuit residing with the King, whom he much affects.’
Xavier certainly took his mission very seriously. He became proficient in Persian, and the visitor Pimenta reported that the ‘Persians themselves took pleasure in hearing Xavier speak, and admired the propriety of his vocabulary and the choice of his words.’
As in the other missions, Akbar gave the Jesuits much leeway. They were free to baptise anyone who so desired it, and to build a church. But Xavier yearned to do more to ‘clear the ground of brambles and sow on the rocky ground of the Muslims and the thorny places of the Hindus.’
Xavier continued his mission after the succession to the Mughal throne by Akbar’s son Jahangir. By now he began to harbour serious doubts about the success of his efforts, owing to the ‘harndess of the Muslims and the motives of the converts.’ Matters were made worse when war broke between the Portuguese and the Mughal empire in 1613. Although peace was restored two years later, Xavier returned to Goa shortly after, a “broken man.” He wished to return to Spain but was too weak. In 1617, he was found “burned to death in his room” under inexplicable circumstances.
It is not known if Xavier himself oversaw the composition of the illustrations that accompanied Dastān-i Masiḥ and his other religious texts. It is a remarkable work of art, depicting the entry of Jesus Christ astride a mule or donkey into Jerusalem. The ‘crowd’ of people to receive him are reduced to three, who are attired in 16th century European dress, and not waving palm leaves. Christ himself is barefoot and appears to be in Indian or Persian attire. A pack mule trots alongside, laden with provisions.
The Jerusalem landscape is stylised, and the building in the background would be more at home in Agra than in the Holy Land.
As is true of Mughal miniatures, the painting is unsigned, and was probably worked upon sequentially by a whole workshop of artists. It is an extraordinary manifestation of the confluence of disparate cultures.
(An edited version of this article was published on 13 April 2014 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)