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Crossover of Cultures

by Dr. Sushama Arur
First Online: December 12, 2004
Page Last Updated: January 03, 2018


In the last few decades, Indians have been westernized to a great extent. But in this article, I want to mention the incidents of western conquerors of India being culturally conquered over by the Indians.

In the past India has attracted foreigners in all sizes and colors, they came in different garbs, as conquerors, traders, merchants and religious men to seek peace in India. Indians might have lost few battles to the conquerors, but she has overpowered them by slowly assimilating and transforming them into her rich and colorful fold. Here lies her power of conquering through Dharma not by wars, the hearts and not the land as told by Ashoka in his rock edict XIII in 3rd Century BC itself and followed throughout the course of her history.
Sushama ArurContributor Sushama Arur, Ph.D. is a historian and educator living in Bangalore. History of the Maratha period is her favorite area of study. 

Let us have a look at some her rich culture. The Persians, the Greeks, Sakas and Parthians etc in the ancient period, came as attackers and later carved small kingdoms and adopted Indian ways of life. Of the conquerors that came from north west of India and got enamored with Some rulers became Shaivas, a few took up Buddhism and others Vaishnavism and followed the customs of the land naturally. They married Indian women, kept Indian names and contributed to the enrichment of mutual cultures

The medieval period saw the coming of Arabs, Persians, Turks, and Mongols. Mughals combined in themselves the genes of the Turk and the Mongols (Chengizkhan and Nadirshah) known for their ferocity and ruthlessness ruled India from the beginning of 16th century for more than 300 years. They mingled with Indian culture and in course of time they adapted to Indian ways and became part and parcel of India contributing greatly to her cultural glory.

Among the Europeans who came to India during this period the Portuguese were the first and they started the transition of crossing over to Indian culture. Alfonso de Albuquerque had ordered his men to marry the widows of the Muslim defenders who were killed in the battles against the Portuguese. Later they were converted to Christianity. They took to the ways of the conquered –dressed like them, chewed beetle-leaves, ate rice with hand and drank water from the pot not touching the mouth, but water falling straight into the mouth from above! The whites preferred to have the native medicine-cows urine three times a day!! But this was considered too much of perversion by the orthodoxy.

The Portuguese Church was shocked to observe their men freely mixing with Hindus and Muslims and adapting to their ways of life. Hence it felt the need of an Inquisition to keep control over the Christians and to spread their tribe.

Englishmen too did not lag behind and their letters and travel accounts tell us many ways of their mingling with Indians, adapting Hindu culture refuting Rudyard Kipling's famous line "East is East and West is West and the twain shall never meet". There were handful of Englishmen who had really fallen for Indian ways of life, her literature, philosophy and cultural heritage. Who would forget James Princep, James Fleet, B.L Rice, James Todd, William Jones who have contributed to unravel the mystery and history of India? There are hordes of other Englishmen whose names 18th century India cannot overlook. Job Charnock, the founder of Calcutta married a Hindu girl, whom he saved from committing Sati and adopted Hindu ways of life.

The East India Company in its early years might not have paid its staff handsomely. As a result there was a tendency to look for greener pastures elsewhere. Mughals and their governors in the Deccan offered them grand jobs with still grandiose titles and their black-eyed beauties in marriage. Those who married Muslim Begums had to convert themselves to Islam since their religion demanded that Muslims should marry only Muslims. There are more instances of Englishmen converting to Islam and marrying high-class Muslim ladies than to Hinduism, because of caste restrictions. While the Muslims were still the ruling class and were polygamous, this prospect of promiscuity and a lavish life style with big paraphernalia consisting of servants, slaves, horses, elephants etc attracted the Englishmen the most. William Hawkins the first Englishman to meet the Mughal emperor Jahangir accepted the girl proposed by him. It looks like the British Residents at Delhi, Pune and Hyderabad were bowled over by Mughal zenana. David Ochterlony at Delhi had thirteen consorts and led a grand life like any Mughal nobleman. His assistants, William Fraser and Edward Gardner followed suit. General William Palmer at Pune married Fyze Baksha, adopted daughter of the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam, and had many of children from her.

James Achilles Kirkpatrick was a thoroughly Indianized British Resident of Hyderabad who married the great niece of the Nizam`s Prime minister. Major General Charles `Hindu' Stuart bathed in Ganges river, performed puja everyday before going to office. General Richard Mathews was called "Brahmanised British" who prayed at the Hindu temple at Takkolam ever since he was cured of some acute disease. (Makenzie collection XXV pp162)smoking hukka and pan chewing had become very fashionable among the Europeans of those days! To top it all the British in Calcutta celebrated their victory over Napoleon and the treaty of Amiens by marching with military band to the temple of Kali!!

Such marriages between Christian missionaries, diplomats, military men government officials and the Indian women became common in course of time and gave rise to the Anglo Indian community who have played an important role in the making of modern India.


Reference and Further Reading

  • White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India By William Dalrymple, Penguin Books, 2004

See Also:

  • When the Mogus Ruled… -- Chronology of the Mogul dynasty, including important kings, the span of their kingdoms, and period artifacts. Includes references and links.
  • Roman Catholic Brahmin! -- Biography of an Italian missionary who Indianized Christ's teachings.
  • Anglo-Indian Community -- A brief article on the bi-racial community of India who are descendants of ruling British and local Indians.


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