by Nandkumar Kamat

Four hundred years ago father Thomas Stephens published Kristapurana which Jonathan Harris considers part of Jesuit tradition of inculturation. Harris remarks that, “the anti-colonial history of the Kristapurana also has much to do with the power of translation to transform what is being translated. Stephens didn’t simply dress up Jesuit Christian doctrine in workman-like Marathi. He also demonstrably fell in love with the language, in a way that Indianized both the Christianity he sought to preach and his own body.

“Just as Thomas Stephens was fascinated by coconut tree, Harris is fascinated by use of Coconut symbolism by Stephens. Actually no critic of Kristapurana or biographer of Stephens has paid as much attention to this dimension like Harris.”

Why a Jesuit priest from England fell in love with local natural history and languages? Was Stephens just following the already well established Jesuit tradition and being in the land of bumper coconut harvest, the scenic land of Salcette where he worked at Rachol seminary knew all that included in “Arte palmarica escrita por um padre da Companhia de Jesus” an authoritative agronomic text on Coconut farming?

Tangentially, we discover some answers regarding the Jesuit spirit of enterprise and the very impulse behind Stephens’s fascination of the Coconut palm in an unrelated scholarly paper ‘Quest for Permanence in the Tropics: Portuguese Bioprospecting in Asia (16th-18th Centuries)’ by Ines Županov and Ângela Barreto Xavier ( Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient , 2014). The authors comment that “present at all levels of society, from the poorest of the poor to the thrones of the kings, Jesuits had access to a wide variety of local knowledges in Europe and, especially, in the overseas colonies. While they identified therapeutic rituals and ceremonies and tried to suppress them or expurgate their “idolatrous” content, they were also quick to notice and record indigenous natural remedies.

In India it was coconuts, tobacco, and rice that became crucial cash crops, as is apparent from acrimonious disputes, between the Jesuit provinces of Malabar and Goa, over the three villages in Salcette (Ambelim, Velim, and Assolna).

Zupanov and Xavier also provide glimpses of one of the most interesting Jesuit agronomical treatises, the “Arte palmarica” which they claim “ reflects their economic approach to cultivation of coconut trees.”
The authors point out that “although the text survived in transcriptions from a later period, and given the ongoing Jesuit custom of “improving” and “updating” (or expurgating) their texts, it is a remarkable document of that particular moment in the late seventeenth century, when the Jesuits espoused “scientific” methods in farming. This scientific experiment was closely connected with commercial exploitation.

The work of an anonymous Jesuit, it is a manual on selecting, planting, and tending coconut palm trees in order to obtain the most fruit possible from each tree. Divine intervention is absent from the text, except for a fleeting analogy between the coconut tree and the tree that St John saw in the Apocalypse, an analogy drawn, the author claimed, because those trees yielded twelve harvests a year, each time with “a bunch of fruit.” “And there are palm trees that produce fifteen or sixteen bunches (cachos) a year, as I saw, and in a single harvest gave 196 coconuts, all good and well grown.” The utility of this plant is then described in detail, followed by advice on how to cultivate it and on what soil, how to protect it from vermin, how to choose the best seeds and the best species of coconuts, and so on.

“If they [the cultivators] observe the rules,” he wrote, “that I suggested here, there is no doubt that their farms will be very fruitful and remunerative and that they would give fruit in a short time and be preserved and known as good, as experience has shown me.”And this is precisely the content of the book—the rules for producing the best and most ample crop of coconuts.

“So from this account we have no doubts why Professor Harris came to see coconut tree as an integral part of Thomas Stephens’s oriental inculturation process. He writes- “ in the last three years of his life before his death in 1619, most of them spent in the infirmary next to Bom Jesus Basilica, he struggled to take food because of a chronic stomach problem; it’s likely that coconut water would have been a regular part of his sickbed diet. It is likewise difficult to imagine Stephens earlier in his life avoiding the multiple uses of the coconut in its many other forms. Eating the coconut’s white flesh itself or mixed into tasty dishes such as the kishmur fish curry that is so plentiful in the region; using its husk as coir for rope, employing it as charcoal for cooking, sheltering under its leaves during monsoon; even writing on it as a substitute for paper (indeed , it is tempting to imagine drafts of Kristapurana written on the leaves of kalpataru)- Stephens must have been familiar with all these.
Harris provides verses from Kristapurana in which Stephens invokes Coconut Tree. Stephens assumed the Marathi name “Patri Guru” for himself in Kristapurana. It means “Father Teacher’. But ‘patri’ also means in Sanskrit, both “letter’ and “leaf of a palm tree’. Harris is convinced that “it is hard to imagine that Stephens so adroit with languages, was not aware of this pun. Was his choice of name a subtle homage to the coconut leaves on which he most likely wrote- a homage, indeed to the tree that was in so many ways his Guru?

Harris concludes by saying that – “Patri Guru is the man who teaches from the palm tree leaves, with the palm tree leaves, from the vantage point of palm leaves. In this name then, we might see Stephens recalibrating his flesh not simply with, but also as, the Konkan coconut tree.”

In the historic quadricentenary year of publication of great epical Marathi text- Kristapurana, time has come for Goans in general and Society of Jesus and Christians in particular to value and pay their divine debts to Stephens’s Kalpataru.