Wednesday, December 12, 2007


Portuguese fathers in the court of emperor Akbar (close view)

Portuguese fathers in the court of emperor Akbar

Akbar's Church 1598_main facade with 1835 portico

Old Cathedral

Old Cathedral Mughal Arcade

Pardes Santos Chapel 1611

William Dalrymple called the British who were converted to Islam in 18th century 'White Mughals'. Yet what about the Mughals who became Catholics?
In the year 1578, the viceroy in India of the Portuguese King in Goa had sent an ambassador named Antoine Cabral to the court of Emperor Akbar in Agra. When Antoine and his associates were in the royal court, the Emperor closely watched their behaviour and manner, gaining thereby some idea about the Christian religion. Akbar was very impressed. Subsequently the Emperor invited more Catholic fathers from Goa to learn about the principles of the Christian faith. In the writings of Father Pierre Du Jarric, S.J., we come to know that Akbar was even to abandon his Islamic faith at point of time. One evening while conversing with Kazis or Mullas, he told them frankly that he had decided to follow the council of the good priest, and prey to God for light to see the faith, and the path to salvation. At that moment the chief of all the Mullas was present, who said: ‘Your Majesty follow a good law, and has no reason to doubt it or to seek another’.

Akbar also desired to know Portuguese to better understand the Christian law. The priest taught him first to pronounce the sweet name of Jesus. The emperor found such a pleasure in this holy word that he repeated it at each step as he walked up and down in his palace.

One day, while conversing with the King, the priest told him about some learned holy fathers who lived in the town of Goa, and were spreading the knowledge of Jesus Christ in many parts of India. If the emperor would communicate his doubt to them, he would learn much more from them about the faiths and the Holy Scriptures. This made the emperor very anxious to see and know more about the holy fathers of Goa. He immediately sent a ferman (letter) to the fathers of the company residing at Goa requesting for two fathers to visit his court.

Three fathers – the Father Rodolfe Aquauiua, the Father Antoine de Monserrat and the Father Francois Henriques set out from Goa and after passing through many difficulties reached imperial court on 18th February 1580. The moment the emperor heard that they had come, he summoned them to his palace, where he received them with full honour and respect.

Three or four days later, the fathers again visited the King, and presented to him all the volumes of the Royal Bible, in four languages, sumptuously bound, and clasped with gold. The emperor received these holy books with great reverence, taking each into hand one after the other and kissing it, after which he placed it on his head to show honour and respect. The fathers also presented to him two beautiful portraits, one representing the Saviour of the World, and the other the glorious Virgin Mary, his holy mother. The emperor took these portraits into his hands with reverence.

For a few days the Court frequently witnessed heavy debates between the fathers and the Mullas on disputes relating to both the faiths.

Akbar finally did not show interest in converting, but he did give land to the Jesuits on the outskirts of Agra, near the Armenian settlement, and granted them permission to build a Church. Today, the early seventeenth century church is popularly known as Akbar’s Church. It was constructed in the year 1600 by the Jesuit Father, paid for by the emperor himself. The Jesuits had first built a chapel, but Prince Salim (later emperor Jahangir), donated a thousand crowns to renovate it to appropriate magnificence.

Akbar did go to the Church on Christmas morning to see the crib. He arrived in a splendid procession, with drums and music heralding his arrival. Church bells tolled and the choir sang joyous hymns. The priests received him outside the Church, ushering him with censes of incense. In the evening, the ladies of the harem and the younger princes also visited the crib, sometimes carrying candles.

Easter festivities acquired local colour in Agra. The Christian community practised Lent rigidly and with great austerity. After eating the traditional lamb on Maunday Thursday, the church bells were muffled till Holy Saturday. On Good Friday, Christians took out an evening procession through the city to the Church. Elements of Mughal pageantry were incorporated, with caparisoned elephants, camels and horses.

Akbar’s follower Jahangir also enthusiastically supported Akbar’s Church. He permitted the Jesuit priests to preach freely and even to convert. The emperor gave them a monthly stipend of first fifty, and later hundred rupees, with an additional thirty for the upkeep of their church. For a while, Jahangir wore a locket with a picture of Jesus, and sometimes attended - Mass. However, Jahangir was not seriously interested in the teachings of Christ. Although he encouraged the religious debates that his father had initiated, these often degenerated into occasions of raucous laughter and fun.

In July 1610, Jesuits arrived to the court of Jahangir. Before a glittering assembly of nobles, Jahangir presented his three nephews, and told the Jesuits to baptize them and bring them up as Christians. The priests were overcome. They had been waiting for years for just such an opportunity. They kneel to their knees and kissed the emperor’s feet. After three months, the good fathers declared that the princes were ready to be baptized. A glittering procession wound through the town from the fort to the church. The three young princes, dressed as Portuguese grandees, with gold crosses around their necks, rode extravagantly caparisoned elephants. As they approached Akbar’s Church, the bells began to peal. The princes, holding candles, entered through clouds of frankincense, repeating after the priest the vows of baptism in Persian. They were sprinkled with baptimisal water and given Portuguese names.