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Durable Link to this BlogThursday, July 30, 2009

Goan Legacy: Classic called Kristapuran

Browsers of Kamat's potpourri are already familiar with Father Stevens, the first English padre who lived, loved and died at Goa in 1519 CE. Goans should feel proud that the first ever Indian classic on the life and message of Christ was written in Goa, in its native language and printed at a press, again the first one to arrive in India around 400 years ago. Kristapuran of Father Stevens (also spelled as Stephens and Estevao as well) gets the credit of getting printed three times in the author"s lifetime. But it is tragic that not a single copy of the original book, printed in Roman script is available in its land of birth.

By a Royal decree issued by the Portuguese administration in 1684 CE use of Konkani / Marathi language and script was totally banned. Father Stevens had tried hard to transliterate his work in Devnagari script, so that the commoners could have easy access. But moulds of native language scripts were not yet invented. Whatever hand-written copies of Kristapuran in Devnagari scripts that were available died under new regulation, which was to destroy everything "heretic".

But fortunately, Kristapuran had become quite popular among Konkani Christians and traveled with them to Mangalore and parts of Kerala. It became a book of recitation in the evenings when the working class assembled for evening prayers in their homes. During Lent and other feasts, important chapters were read out and recited in groups. When Tipu Sultan conquered Mangalore and parts of Kerala, he took 60,000 Christians as prisoners and brought them to his capital, Shrirangapattana. It seems they went on walking and reciting ovis from Kristapuran all the way. Most of the ovis or verses must have been hand-copied and the working class knew it by heart.

The language of Kristapuran is simple, direct and appealing. It is similar to the language of great Jnaneswari, (Saint Jnaneshwar's commentary on Bhagavadgita ) and it could be easily followed by persons who spoke Marathi or Konkani. It is a pleasant admixture and older version of both the languages, spoken in Goa and coastal Maharashtra. It must have been the lingua franca of masses of those times.

The genius of Father Stevens lies in understanding Indian ethos. In the land of avataras (incarnations) and myriad gods, he was successful in depicting Jesus Christ as the redeemer. He chose idioms and phrases familiar to locals in their homely language while describing various situations of Holy Bible. His description of Eden reminds one of similar ones in Sanskrit or Kannada kavyas. The monjat (animal world) of cattle and sheep lived in Eden amicably with tigers and wolves in the ashram-like atmosphere of Indian sages. Then there is description of boy-Jesus playing with cowherd-boys. They strung together wild flowers into garlands, armlets and other ornaments and decorated Jesus. This sport is associated with Lord Krishna and Indian epics are replete with this sport of flowers (pushpa-vihar). Description of (hell) yamakonda, Sermon on the Mount, Mary Magdalene's remorse, the Resurrection or the Ascent to Heaven of Jesus Christ, appealed greatly to the sensitive mind of devotees with which they could relate easily. In Indian mythology similar anecdotes are galore and most of the devotees were familiar with them in their puranas.

Scholars speak highly about the poetic elements in Kristapurana, which has not received enough public attention. But enough to say that it caught the imagination of the masses, in Stevens time who was a visionary.

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Jyotsna Kamat

Jyotsna Kamat Ph.D. lives in Bangalore.


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