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Becoming a Martyr in Early Modern South India: The Memory of Tēvacakāyam between Jesuit Mission and Tamil Popular Culture.

Project description

Connecting the Tamil Catholics' history and culture to the global history of Catholic missions

The study of Catholicism's presence in India has so far focussed on narratives from the Catholic missionaries’ point of view. The aspect of the native groups remains obscure. The EU-funded TamCatHoly project is exploring ideas and practices of Catholic martyrdom and self-sanctification in early modern South India, in the context of the mission established by the Jesuits in Madurai in 1606. The innovation of TamCatHoly lies in the adoption of a new perspective that pinpoints how Tamil converts reshaped ideas and practices of martyrdom, sanctity and the miraculous to accommodate their new faith within local social and cultural orders.

Objective

In the TamCatHoly project, I explore ideas and practices of Catholic martyrdom and self-sanctification in early modern South India, in the context of the mission established by the Jesuits in Madurai in 1606. Unlike previous narratives centred around the missionaries, I adopt a new perspective, and focus on how Tamil converts reshaped ideas and practices of martyrdom, sanctity, and the miraculous, in order to accommodate their new faith within local social and cultural orders. How did they recognise, and relate to Catholic saintly figures and their powers? What were the tools and strategies at their disposal for becoming martyrs and saints themselves? My research addresses such questions by focusing on the little-known figure of a local convert, Tēvacakāyam (1712-1752), a high-caste Nadar soldier who converted to Catholicism in 1745, and was later imprisoned, tortured and killed by the king of Travancore. Upon his death, Tamil Catholics throughout South India immediately recognised him as a martyr and set to tell his story in songs and ballads, while missionaries begun to promote the cause of his canonisation. In the project, I analyse the biography and cultural memories of Tēvacakāyam and his martyrdom drawing upon hitherto unstudied sources such as hagiographic texts written in popular Tamil genres from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century, and local historical records and Church documents produced around his canonisation process. I read these Indian and European archives in Tamil, Malayalam, Latin, Italian, French, and Portuguese at the crossroad of philology, indology, and cultural and social history, thus inaugurating a novel interdisciplinary perspective. In doing so, I endeavour to connect the history and culture of small Tamil locales to the global history of Catholic missions on the verge of modernity, and explore the complex evolution of religious and regional belonging against overly simplified received notions of Catholic and Tamil identity.

Coordinator

CENTRE NATIONAL DE LA RECHERCHE SCIENTIFIQUE CNRS
Net EU contribution
€ 196 707,84
Address
RUE MICHEL ANGE 3
75794 Paris
France

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Region
Ile-de-France Ile-de-France Paris
Activity type
Research Organisations
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Total cost
€ 196 707,84