Dr (Father) Ivo Coelho – A lost book
The fascinating story of
Thomas Stephens’ Khristapurana

Coelho LE Mag Vol One Nov-Dec 2023
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14th Anniversary Edition, Live Encounters Magazine, Volume One Nov-Dec 2023.

A lost book – The fascinating story of Thomas Stephens’ Khristapurana,
by Dr. (Father) Ivo Coelho.

The Khristapurana (3rd edition, 1654) by Fr. Thomas Stephens, English Jesuit missionary in India.
The Khristapurana (3rd edition, 1654)
by Fr. Thomas Stephens,
English Jesuit missionary in India.

Thomas Stephens’ Khristapurana (Life of Christ) is an extraordinary work composed in Marathi by an Englishman in Goa in the year 1616. It has the distinction of being one of the first books printed in the first ever printing press in India, imported by the Jesuits in 1556. The book was, in fact, printed thrice – in 1616, 1649 and 1654. It is, therefore, in many ways a unique and historical book. The tragedy is that no copy of any of these editions has ever been found.

Thomas Stephens was born at Clyffe Pipard, Bushton (Wiltshire – England) in 1549 and died in Rachol, Goa in 1619. To escape the persecution of Catholics under Queen Elizabeth I, he fled to Rome and there entered the Society of Jesus on 20 October 1575. He volunteered for the missions of the nascent Society and was assigned to the Portuguese enclave of Goa. Leaving Lisbon by sea in April 1579, he arrived in Goa seven months later, on 24 October.

Stephens was one of the first Englishmen to set foot in India. His letters to his father about his voyage around the Cape of Good Hope and about the Portuguese commercial ventures in the East are considered to have inspired the English to establish their first commercial relations with India. He has the distinction of being the first European to write a grammar of an Indian language (Konkani), the first to compose a catechism in the same language, and the first to write a Christian poem in Marathi (his Khristapurana).

This last was also the first literary work in an Indian language to be printed (1615) in Roman characters, and its preface is cited as one of the first specimens of Marathi prose. Finally, it was this same Englishman who, two centuries before his compatriot William Jones, brought to the notice of Europe the similarity between Indian languages and Greek and Latin.

Known as Padre Estevão in Portuguese Goa, he served in various capacities in different places, endearing himself to the people. He spent a total of 39 years in Goa, broken only by a one year stint in Vasai, another Portuguese enclave north of Mumbai. Blessed with a robust constitution, he was energetic, vivacious and optimistic by nature. Through his work he comes across not only as a lover of the Konkani and Marathi languages but also as a human being of extraordinary sensibility and sensitivity. His delicacy and his capacity for understanding, negotiation and dialogue is borne out by the fact that, after the disastrous incident at Cuncolim, when the Hindu villagers refused to surrender the bodies of the Jesuits killed for desecrating their temple, it was he who negotiated with them and obtained the remains of his confreres.

The Khristapurana was a response to the need of the people. The new converts from Hinduism were forbidden to read the great texts of their former religion, but they had nothing comparable in their new faith. They therefore appealed to Padre Estevão. The result was the Khristapurana, a retelling of the biblical story in Marathi, using the ovi metre. The book fell into two parts, along the lines of the Old Testament and the New Testament, and ran into some 11,000 verses. At a time when the Bible was forbidden to Catholics, the Khristapurana must have been a godsend. The fact that it was sung every Wednesday in the Churches of Goa, and that it was printed thrice in the span of some forty years, gives us an indication about its popularity.

Stephens’ efforts, we must add, were very much in keeping with the decision of the first Provincial Council of the Church in Goa in 1567, which had opted to promote the work of evangelization and catechesis in the local languages. The result was a flourishing of Marathi and Konkani literature in the first century of Portuguese rule in Goa – a body of literature that is still being studied in the Goa University and elsewhere.

The tragedy, however, is that not a single copy of the first three print editions has ever been found. The reasons for this state of affairs are many.

A first reason was the suppression of the use of the vernaculars in 1684, thus effectively reversing the decisions of the First Provincial Council of Goa. After the initial enthusiasm, some members of the Catholic religious orders, among them the Franciscan Friars of the Observance, resisted the need to learn the local languages and eventually persuaded the Viceroy to change the established policies. By the year 1684 the use of Konkani was suppressed in favour of Portuguese. The reading of the Khristapurana during religious services went on a little longer but was eventually banned in 1776.

Another reason was the suppression of the Jesuit Society in 1773, leading to the loss of most of its Goa archives. The underground legend among historians is that these archives were sent by sea to Lisbon. Since there was no longer any official body of Jesuits in Lisbon to receive them, they were sent back to Goa. From there, it seems, they were sent once again to Lisbon. At this point, the story goes, the frustrated captain resolved matters by dumping them into the sea.

Whatever the truth of the matter, between the cessation of the use of the vernaculars and the suppression of the Jesuit Society, the Khristapurana was no longer printed and copies became difficult to find.

The closest idea we have of the print editions now comes from several handwritten copies of these editions. This is probably a rare if not unique case – that we have handwritten copies of what was originally in print. There are several such manuscripts. There is a well-preserved one in the Krishnadas Shama Goa Central Library, Panjim, Goa; it was copied in 1767 from the third edition of 1654. There is another, possibly older but undated manuscript in the museum of the monastery at Pilar, Goa. The Thomas Stephens Konknni Kendra (TSKK) at Porvorim, Goa has two manuscripts, one of which seems to have belonged to a certain M.C. Saldanha. Finally, there is the incomplete “Bhaugun Kamat Vagh” manuscript in the Pissurlencar Collection at the Goa University Library, Taleigao Plateau, Goa.

When Joseph L. Saldanha produced what he called the “fourth” edition of the Khristapurana (The Christian Puranna, Mangalore 1907) he reports having based himself on at least five manuscripts. Four of these were in the Roman script: those of Messrs. Dunbar Brothers of Parel, Bombay; Mr Marian Saldanha (probably Dr Mariano Saldanha of Ucassaim, Goa); Mr Julian Coelho; and the Rev. S.B.C. Luis. The fifth, interestingly, was in Devanagari script, and was borrowed from a Mr Jerome A. Saldanha,

Sub-Judge of Alibagh, Bombay Presidency. Unfortunately, we have been unable to trace any of these manuscripts, unless the one belonging to Mr Marian Saldanha coincides with the “M.C. Saldanha” copy held by the TSKK in Goa.

Interestingly, however, another manuscript of the Khristapurana in the Devanagari script came to light in 1923. This was discovered and identified by Justin E. Abbott in the Marsden Collection at the School of Oriental Studies in London. The collection had belonged to the library of a certain William Marsden “who a century ago [Abbott was writing in 1925], had made a large collection of coins and Oriental books when in India; many of the latter having been obtained from the Archives in Goa.” The text of the “Marsden manuscript” is now available to scholars both in the Devanagari script (with a translation into current Marathi) and in Roman script (with a translation into English) thanks to the painstaking labours of Nelson Falcao.

Far from being a copy of the print editions, the “Marsden manuscript” displays several variations and differences, giving scholars much food for thought. Was the Khristapurana composed in Devanagari script and then transposed into Roman script, or was it the other way round? Why is the Marsden manuscript shorter than the ones in the Roman script? Most importantly, why is there a systematic difference in terminology between the two sets of manuscripts, with the Marsden manuscript making use of biblical and ecclesiastical terms deriving from Sanskrit, and the others using Latinized and Portuguese forms?

Falcao reports having searched libraries in the UK, Portugal and Rome, but does not, unfortunately, give us a detailed account of his findings. Given the fact that there are many variations of Stephens’ name (Tomás Estêvão, Estevão, Esteves, Estevam, Busten, Stephen de Buston, Stephen de Bubston, Thomas Stevens, Thomas Stephens) as well as of the title of his work itself (Discurso sobre a vinda do Jesu-Christo Nosso Salvador ao mundo; Purana; Puránna; The Adi Puran and The Deva Puran; Khristapurana), I would think that a second and more thorough search is needed, especially in the national libraries in Lisbon and Porto, the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana and the Jesuit Central Archives in Rome.

It would certainly be an important scholarly event if we were to find even a single copy of the three print editions of Thomas Stephens’ great work.

© Dr. (Father) Ivo Coelho

Ivo Coelho, SDB earned a PhD in philosophy at the Gregorian University, Rome, for his work on the hermeneutics of the philosopher and theologian Bernard Lonergan, SJ (1904-1984). After teaching philosophy in Divyadaan: Salesian Institute of Philosophy, Nashik (India) and holding various offices in his religious congregation, in Nashik, Mumbai and Jerusalem, he is currently based in Rome, where he is in charge of the sector of training and formation for the Salesians of Don Bosco. Besides his interest in Lonergan, he has also edited collections of the essays of the Indologist Richard De Smet, SJ (1916-1997).

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