I popped into Blossoms Book House on Church Street one morning before heading to Indian Coffee House right opposite for a cuppa. It’s a familiar Sunday routine for most book-loving Bangaloreans. As I was browsing through a used books section stacked higher than my head, I bumped into Abbé Jean-Antoine Dubois.
The bearded Roman Catholic Missionary was wearing his customary white robes and turban. In his hand he held a bamboo staff. It was a style, as described* by the Hon. F. Max Müller ` that tradition assigns to a Hindu pilgrim.’ He also had a` broad forehead… well shaped but somewhat prominent nose… firm but kindly mouth and above all, marvellously intelligent eyes…that bespeak a man of no common mould.’ And he was of no common mould.
Mysore and Srirangapatna are rife with accounts of his pioneering efforts to strengthen the Roman Catholic Church in South India. Over a period of thirty two years spent here, new churches were built (Srirangapatna, Karumthampatty, Kodiveri, Sathihalli), agricultural colonies founded to relieve poverty and small pox vaccinations promoted (0ver 25,432 vaccinations took place between 1803-1804). And while I read about his evangelism being vigorously contested by two Anglican ministers, James Hough and H. Townley, his Sunday sermons too, were a subject of discussion. According to John Hands, a missionary from Bellary, they were once delivered to about 200 church goers in fluent Kannada, wearing his ubiquitous robes and wooden clogs or padukas. His popularity went beyond the church parish too. Major Mark Wilks, a keen historian and Resident of Mysore says ” the house of a Brahmin is uniformly cleared for his reception, without interference and generally without communication to Officers of the Government, as a spontaneous mark of deference and respect.” So much so that M.Launay says in his `Historire des Missions del’ Inde’ that the locals called him `Doddaswamiyavaru’.
The unconventional 18th century French priest (b.1765 in St. Remeze) was ordained in the diocese of Viviers, France in 1792, the year Mysore and Bangalore were being subjected to the tail end of the Third Anglo-Mysore War. With the French Revolution snapping at his heels, the Abbé made his way to India at the age of twenty seven to serve in the Pondicherry Mission (Mission Etrangeres de Paris), and thereafter to Mysore following the Fourth Anglo- Mysore War in 1799. Here, in a little cottage adjoining his Immaculate Conception Church in Srirangapatna, he wrote ‘Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies’, a first-hand observations of South Indian society in the 18th century.
Completed in 1806, the manuscript was sent to Major Mark Wilks. He studied it for a year and then persuaded Lord William Bentinck at Fort St. George to buy it for 2,000 star pagodas. The English reprint I discovered on a shelf at Blossom’s was first published in London in 1816, after the Abbé was asked to make (albeit unhappily) quite a few re-edits. The book is said to have barely resembled his original French version thereafter, but continues to be read as a popular reference for the times. I find his view of our world, as seen through the eyes of a foreigner, interesting. It is also not as flattering a description of our region as many make it out to be.
Long before Bangalore got acquainted with all things French including cordon bleu cooking, vintage wines and studying how to say “parlez-vous-Francais?”, the Abbé moved here and constructed a new chapel in the early 19th century on the site of a little makeshift shrine attributed to migrant farmers from Gingee. He is believed to have conducted conducted the Mass here often before setting sail for France in 1823 (d.1848) where he also translated the Panchatantra (1826) into French.
Over time, the chapel grew into the Gothic style St. Mary’s Basilica (1882), the oldest church in Bangalore whose spire punctures the sky over Russell Market. This September, thousands will gather here for the nine day Novenas culminating in St. Mary’s Feast, a community celebration of her Nativity. And as Mother Mary sets out on a pre-determined route around Shivajinagar in her festive chariot, perhaps somewhere up there, a French priest is watching Bangalore being blessed.
LOOK FOR THE BOOK AT: Blossoms Book House (www.blossombookhouse.com) No.84/6, Opposite Amoeba, Church Street, Bengaluru. P: 080 2532 0400
*(Portrait by Thomas Hickey at the Madras Literary Society)
This story was originally published in the Bangalore Mirror, August 25th 2014.