Jordanus Catalani, a Dominican friar from the south of France, travelled to India in 1316, and stayed there for the rest of his life, eventually becoming the first bishop of the Latin Church in the subcontinent. A man of wide-ranging scholarly interests, he wrote the Mirabilia Descripta, arguably the most informed and substantial account of India in the fourteenth century by a traveller from foreign parts. He informed his readers in Europe that he could not hope to describe all that he had seen of the people, animals and plants of the land, so complex and diverse were his experiences.

Jordanus found that the men of India went to war in their loincloths, with a small shield and a spear, an observation made by Giovanni before him. He appears to not have met or studied the great armies in the interior, nor does he seem to have been interested in the formidable arms and armour of indigenous soldiers or Turkish cavalrymen, or the flourishing export trade of Indian steel for swords and other weapons to the Middle East.

When a member of the nobility or a prominent man died, they were cremated. Jordanus did not describe the funerals of the poor, but he did witness the custom of sati, which was also noted in some detail by Ibn Battuta. The widows who entered their husbands’ funeral pyres “with joy as if they were going to their wedding”, observed the Dominican friar, were the most respected among the women who performed sati. He wrote of funerals he attended where as many as five wives of the dead man entered the fire at the same time.

Jordanus was also the first European to meet and observe the Parsi community of India along the coast of Gujarat and the northern Konkan region. Speaking of the different kinds of funerals in the subcontinent, he talked of these people who neither burnt nor buried their dead but cast them into massive towers without roofs, where carrion birds would eat the bodies. Jordanus had many discussions with the Parsis, and learnt of the Zoroastrian faith from them. Apparently, he did not meet the indigenous Zoroastrians of Persia during his stay there and was thus unfamiliar with the religion in its land of birth.

The Dominican also met the Dumbri, people of the “Dom” caste, who worked at cemeteries, did menial labour and ate the flesh of carcasses. The Doms of Jordanus’s time did not have a deity of their own, at least none that he could come to know of. But he was aware of their subservient position relative to others.

In general, Jordanus formed very favourable impressions of the people of western India, commending the cleanliness of their feeding habits. They were truthful and honest in their public dealings, whether it was with strangers or among their own. Justice and fairness were important virtues for them.

It was also a stratified society, and the people took care to preserve these distinctions which they had inherited from their ancestors. The Dominican did not note much else about the caste system, such as specifics about the varna hierarchy or endogamy within castes. Most Indians were idol worshippers, although Jordanus found that Muslims had made considerable inroads from Sindh just prior to his arrival. He wrote of numerous Hindu temples and Syrian Christian churches which had been destroyed or converted into mosques.

Jordanus seems to have visited many Hindus temples and held discussions with the priests about their beliefs. The discussions were amicable and instructive enough for him. The most common Hindu method of making offerings to the gods was presided over by a priest dedicated to an idol. The priest usually had a designated assistant for his tasks. The priest would then advance with the eatable offerings on a tray which would be adorned with lit incense sticks, and place one of them on an outstretched hand of the idol. The priest would then eat a part of the remaining offerings.

Jordanus was fascinated by the multitude of Hindu gods and their forms, and the kinds of idols worshipped in the land. But above all these gods, there was supposed to be a single, all-powerful deity, according to what he was told by his sources. Jordanus was also told by Hindu scholars that the age of the world, by their reckoning, was 28,000 years, which was considerably lower than what the Puranas composed in the Middle Ages hold, but was still longer than the same according to biblical reckoning.

Jordanus found the Hindus welcoming towards Christian missionaries and never feared for his safety while preaching among them.

In fact, missionaries would be treated with warmth and respect by Hindus across the land, and their safety would be ensured. Whenever a Hindu chose to be baptised, the people or the authorities would not create any hindrance or persecute either the convert or the missionary. This freedom, said the Dominican, was common to Hindu and Mongol societies and among other people east of Persia in his time.

Across the subcontinent, the one constant of practised Hinduism was the sacredness of cattle of both genders. While all Hindus honoured cattle like their own parents, most also worshipped them with the reverence seen for their gods. In most regions, the act of slaughtering cattle was considered as terrible a crime as parricide. A person who had murdered five men was more likely to receive a mitigated sentence than someone who had killed a cow.

The status of cattle derived from their role in virtually every aspect of these societies, from agriculture to sources of dairy products, but whereas the cow was important for all agricultural societies in the known world, in India, cattle were the economic basis of the entire society and therefore crucial. Eminent men from the nobility or royalty would, before beginning their daily activities, await visits from the fattest cows in the area, touch the animals and then rub their faces with their hands in the belief that this act, at the beginning of the day, would shield them from disease.

Jordanus also observed something curious enough for him to write it down: Indians’ attitude towards skin colour. For the darker the complexion of a man or woman, the more beautiful and respectable he or she was considered. Seventy years prior to Jordanus, William of Rubruck had noticed a similar belief among the Mongols, among whom women with the flattest noses were considered the most attractive.

Somewhere along the Saurashtra coast or in northern Konkan, Jordanus was told of a prophecy the Indians had: that the Latin Christians would, one day, rule the world. It was an isolated remark, and Jordanus merely mentioned it in passing. Nor does the Church appear to have noticed it or found it significant in any way. The idea that the West, or Western Christians, would have political domination over the world would not have been important for Europeans in the fourteenth century. But the question about the source of this “prophecy” remains.

Indians could hardly have been expected to be familiar with Latin Christianity, which had arrived in the subcontinent only three decades previously. It is possible that Muslim accounts of the Crusades and confrontations with European forces had percolated into India and the Hindus had responded to Muslim invasions by finding, in the Latin Christians of these stories, either allies or benefactors. In either case, Jordanus did not make much of the prophecy but merely noted it and moved on.

The Dominican’s impressions of India’s indigenous Christians were mixed. There were indeed Syrian communities in Gujarat and the north Konkan, which had churches where Jordanus visited. But he also found isolated and very fragmented communities of a people about whom he could not make much sense. They told him that they too were Christians. But beyond that declaration of faith, they appear to have had absolutely no knowledge of Christian beliefs and had not been baptised.

On further inquiry, Jordanus was told they believed that the apostle Thomas had actually been Christ. It is possible that these were still surviving heterodox Syrian Christians who, starting from the docetic idea of Christ and Thomas being twins, had conflated the two figures over the centuries. Jordanus was quite certain that these were not Syrian Christians, so there might have been multiple schisms over the years due to doctrinal disagreements about which there is little historical record.

Excerpted with permission from Carpenters and Kings: Western Christianity and the India of India, Siddhartha Sarma, Hamish Hamilton.