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St Francis Xavier and the politics of ritual in Portuguese India
Author: Pamila Gupta

This book is a study of the complex nature of colonial and missionary power in Portuguese India. Written as a historical ethnography, it explores the evolving shape of a series of Catholic festivals that took place in Goa throughout the duration of Portuguese colonial rule in India (1510-1961), and for which the centrepiece was the “incorrupt” corpse of São Francisco Xavier, a (Spanish Basque) Jesuit missionary (1506–1552)-turned-saint (1622). Using distinct genres of source materials produced over the long duree of Portuguese colonialism in India (Xaverian biographies, European travelogues, royal decrees and Jesuit letters, a state commissioned book dedicated to Xavier, Goa guidebooks, newspaper articles, and medical reports), the book documents the historical and visual transformation of Xavier’s corporeal ritualization in death from a small-scale religious feast arranged by Jesuit missionaries (1554), into an elaborate celebration of Xavier’s canonization organized jointly by church and state (1624), and finally, into a series of “Solemn Expositions” designed by colonial officials at regular centenary intervals (1782, 1859, 1952), including the last colonial exposition of 1961 staged amidst Goa’s liberation and integration into postcolonial India. These six ritual “events”, staged at critical junctures (1554, 1624, 1782, 1859, 1952, 1961), and always centered on Xavier’s biography and corpse, provide the conceptual framework for individual chapters of the book.

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The relic state
Pamila Gupta

This first chapter introduces the major theoretical and methodological contributions of this case study, with in-depth discussions off several distinct areas of scholarship: colonial and postcolonial studies (“Provincializing” Portugal); Indo-Portuguese studies(“Problematizing” India); Ritual Studies(Implementing “Practice”); Dead Body Politics(“Metaphor and Metonym”); and Historical Anthropology(“Historizing” Ritual, “Anthropologizing” Colonialism).

in The relic state
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Pamila Gupta

The second chapter traces the actual and written journey to sainthood of Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier(1506-1552), from his death and initial interment on the island of Sancian(1552), to his translation to Malacca(1553), to the elaborate celebrations surrounding the arrival of his body in Goa(1554), and lastly, to his process of canonization(1556-1622). The period between Xavier's death in 1552 and his canonization in 1622 can also be characterized as one in which Xavier's corpse was handled in an odd assortment of ways by church and state officials alike; he was interred three times and disinterred twice, alternately treated poorly and with respect, exuded a wholeness, freshness, and fragrant smell, spurted blood, was subject to numerous act of religious devotion and relic productions, medical exams and amputations, and by the end was missing a toe and an arm. However, these corporeal details are not without significance, rather they intimate the connections between the European practice of translating a saint's relics and Portuguese colonial state-building processes in 16th century Asia.

in The relic state
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Pamila Gupta

In 1624 the Estado da Índia and the Society of Jesus jointly staged a reception to honour Francis Xavier's recent papal canonization (1622), a celebration that was markedly different from the small reception held in 1554 to honour the arrival of his "incorrupt" corpse in Goa from Sancian via Malacca. The third chapter develops a discourse and materiality of Goa Dourada by situating the eyewitness testimonies of two ritual participants (one Italian, the other Portuguese) within a larger historical context, as well as those of a multitude of European travellers who flocked to Portuguese India, often described as a "Rome in India" throughout the seventeenth century, Xavier's "miraculous" corpse a recently featured attraction. The focus is on how ritualization provides an arena in which colonial and Jesuit officials promote their respective and collective strengths through the success of Xavier's canonization. However, because of the colonial state's increasingly evident decline, ritual simultaneously serves as a point of distraction from its visible signs of decline, decadence and decay. The spectacle of canonization then turns the focus away from this saint’s corporeality towards his accoutrements in much the same manner that Goa itself had been "dressed up" for this special occasion.

in The relic state
Pamila Gupta

The fourth chapter explores the ritual contours of Xavier’s “First Solemn Exposition” which was staged in 1782. It addresses the increasing "secularization" of Xavier as he becomes a symbol and agent of colonial state authority in the midst of escalated tensions between the Estado da Índia and the Society of Jesus operating in Goa, including parallel concerns over the physical deterioration of Xavier's corpse—its state of "desiccation"—, and which culminates in the expulsion of this religious order in 1759. The role of official and unofficial documentation in both serving and disrupting church and state doctrine is detailed. In many ways, these acts of communication—the bequeathing of titles, monies, and vestments, and the various prohibitions against opening Xavier's casket—are indexical of differing investments in the corpse of St. Francis Xavier on the part of colonial officials and Jesuit missionaries, as well as anxieties concerning their respective positions (and positionings) throughout the 18th century.

in The relic state
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Pamila Gupta

Ritual practice in 1859 continued the Portuguese pattern of staging "Solemn Expositions" that had been initiated in 1782 amidst circulating rumours that Xavier's corpse had been removed by members of the Society of Jesus in the aftermath of their expulsion from Goa in 1759. However, seventy-seven years later, ritual was no longer about securing this saint's location in Goa—the keys to his casket that had been so carefully guarded throughout the 18th century first by the Jesuits and then by colonial officials were now inexplicably lost and the "management" of his corpse less a concern for the Estado da Índia, which was now experiencing even more acutely its own precarious position in Goa. The fifth chapter explores the ritual dimensions of the "Second Solemn Exposition" of 1859 that was staged in the face of a ruinous state that was increasingly uncertain about the longevity of its colonial rule given the dominating and competing presence of the British in India, and their slow but steady encroachment upon this Portuguese colony throughout the 19th century.

in The relic state
Pamila Gupta

The central focus in the sixth chapter is the “Solemn Exposition” of 1952 since it represents the last in a series of commemorations of this saint's biography—fittingly, a commemoration of (Xavier's) death exactly four hundred years earlier in 1552— staged on the part of the Estado da Índia as it faced its own imminent "death." It was staged during a time when the Portuguese were increasingly put on the defensive about their ethical right to maintain Goa as an "overseas province" in the midst of a newly independent Indian nation-state(1947). While this momentous event easily rivalled the one in 1859—the subject of my last chapter— in terms of expense and design, I will suggest that in tone and character, this particular solemnity staged in 1952 was markedly different, given not only the set of political and economic conditions under which it was organized, but because of the material and discursive force—commemoration—framing this set of ritual practices.

in The relic state
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Xavier and the Portuguese colonial legacy
Pamila Gupta

The last chapter explores some of the contours of Goa’s postcolonial imaginary, including the author’s ethnographic encounters with Xavier both in the archive and the field, the extraordinary and the everyday. Some of the conceptual investments of this historical anthropology project are then underscored: to "translate" saint veneration to a colonial context; explore the spiritual and the material aspects of colonialization and missionization; look at the production of a triad of church, state, and public at six different historical moments through the lens of ritual; view the space of ritual as a practical and discursive field that actively produces the "local"; analyze ritual as an ethnographic event located in historical time, and as a site of continuity and change; explore the interim of ritual as a site for the negotiation of different epistemologies of "faith"; document the physical decay of a corpse over four hundred years; and finally, tell the remarkable biography of a (colonial) state through the biography of a saint in life and death.

in The relic state