Religion revisited

How a translation mistake ended up making India a part of the Bible

Whether medieval Christians saw India as a symbol of evil or as the home of saints, the Subcontinent remained a source of fascination.

Christianity has long been a part of India’s religious diversity. Syrian Christians claim that Thomas, one of the original 12 disciples of Jesus, established their community almost 2,000 years ago. Medieval Christians in Europe believed that Bartholomew, another disciple of Jesus, evangelised North India while Thomas headed south. India also influenced Christianity in the West. Around the year 1,000, reports reached Europe of two Indian saints who, supposedly, had continued the work of Thomas. These saints, known as Barlaam and Josaphat, soon became popular, and their biographies were read throughout Europe. In fact, their life stories were slightly altered translations of Sanskrit narratives about the life of Siddhartha Gautama. The Buddha became not one, but two Christian saints.

Another error in translation brought India into Jerome’s Latin Bible, where it remained at the heart of Catholic belief for over 1,500 years. Jerome, who lived in 347-420 CE, was a monk from modern Croatia who undertook a pioneering translation of the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament into Latin, the language of the Roman empire. But Jerome also found time to indulge other interests, including a fascination for India. He seems to have read nearly everything about the Subcontinent that would have been available in Greek and Latin. His letters to friends, colleagues and potential converts are full of references to features of South Asian life in that period – the caste system, Buddhism, and sati. They also mention magical gems and fabulous creatures, like the unicorn, that people in the Mediterranean region believed could be found in India.

With India on his mind, Jerome made a mistake in translating the Hebrew Bible that would influence Christianity for many centuries. In a passage of the Book of Job (chapter 28, verse 16), Jerome translated a Hebrew expression meaning “the gold of Ophir” (a region in East Africa) as “the dyed colours of India”, referring to the brightly-coloured cotton cloth that India was already exporting throughout the world. Indian textiles were a highly valuable commodity in the ancient Mediterranean. Greek and Roman traders travelled to Indian ports like Arikamedu, near present-day Puducherry, to buy cloth, spices and other luxuries, in exchange for gold. It was only natural, therefore, that Roman subjects like Jerome associated India with rich colours and valuable dyestuffs.

Fascination with India

After the decline of the Roman empire in the 5th century, and particularly after the rise of Islam in the 7th century, Europe was isolated from India. Westerners saw little of the Subcontinent’s vivid cotton cloth until Vasco da Gama’s 15th-century voyage to India around the coast of Africa. But Europeans of the Middle Ages were still enthralled by India, and particularly by the allusive reference to it in Jerome’s translation, which had become the standard version of the Bible used by the Roman Catholic Church.

Generations of Christian thinkers pondered the spiritual significance of “the dyed colours of India”. One of the most popular interpretations came from Gregory the Great, a 7th-century pope. Gregory said that Indian cloth was a metaphor for “the brightness of false philosophy”, for people who seem wise and holy but are really only dyed with “an exterior colour of righteousness”. India itself, “which produces a black race, is this world, in which the dark life of man is engendered in sin”. Bright Indian cloth and dark Indian bodies signified sin, he insisted, while Christian virtue was white “like an undyed garment”. Gregory’s interpretation casts the Subcontinent as a land of temptation and vice, yet it also shows that India was seen as a place of wealth and sophistication with which Europe, then in its dark ages, could not compare. Whether medieval Christians saw India as a symbol of evil or as the home of saints like Thomas and Barlaam, the Subcontinent remained a source of fascination.

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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.