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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With twenty-nine states and over 50 ethnic groups, India’s diversity is mind-boggling to most foreigners. This diversity manifests itself across areas from clothing to art and especially to food. With globalisation, growth of international travel and availability of international ingredients, the culinary diversity of India has become progressively richer.

New trends in food are continuously introduced to the Indian palate and are mainly driven by the demands of generation Y. Take the example of schezwan idlis and dosas. These traditional South Indian snacks have been completely transformed by simply adding schezwan sauce to them – creating a dish that is distinctly Indian, but with an international twist. We also have the traditional thepla transformed into thepla tacos – combining the culinary flavours of India and Mexico! And cous cous and quinoa upma – where niche global ingredients are being used to recreate a beloved local dish. Millennials want a true fusion of foreign flavours and ingredients with Indian dishes to create something both Indian and international.

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The global food trend of ‘deconstruction’ where a food item is broken down into its component flavours and then reconstructed using completely different ingredients is also catching on for Indian food. Restaurants like Masala Library (Mumbai), Farzi Café (Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru) and Pink Poppadum (Bengaluru) are pushing the boundaries of what traditional Indian food means. Things like a kulcha pizza, dal chaawal cutlet and chutney foam are no longer inconceivable. Food outlets that stock exotic ingredients and brands that sell traditional Indian packaged snacks in entirely new flavours are also becoming more common across cities.

When it comes to the flavours themselves, some have been embraced more than others. Schezwan sauce, as we’ve mentioned, is now so popular that it is sometimes even served with traditional chakna at Indian bars. Our fascination with the spicy red sauce is however slowly being challenged by other flavours. Wasabi introduced to Indian foodies in Japanese restaurants has become a hit among spice loving Indians with its unique kick. Peri Peri, known both for its heat and tanginess, on the other hand was popularised by the famous UK chain Nandos. And finally, there is the barbeque flavour – the condiment has been a big part of India’s love for American fast food.

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Tasty Treat’s range of Firangi Bhujia has increased the versatility of the traditional aloo bhujia. Many foodies are already trying out different ways to use it as a condiment to give their favourite dish an extra kick. Archana’s Kitchen recommends pairing the schezwan flavoured Firangi Bhujia with manchow soup to add some crunch. Kalyan Karmakar sprinkled the peri peri flavoured Firangi Bhujia over freshly made poha to give a unique taste to a regular breakfast item. Many others have picked a favourite amongst the four flavours, some admiring the smoky flavour of barbeque Firangi Bhujia and some enjoying the fiery taste of the peri peri flavour.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Tasty Treat and not by the Scroll editorial team.