When the Portuguese Bigot Martim Afonso de Sousa Tried to Invade Tirumala: Unknown Chronicles from the Christian History of India

As the Governor of Portuguese territories of India, Martim Afonso de Sousa launched a military campaign to loot and destroy the sacred temple of Tirumala in 1543. This is the first part of a series narrating this episode of the Christian history of India.
When the Portuguese Bigot Martim Afonso de Sousa Tried to Invade Tirumala: Unknown Chronicles from the Christian History of India

Dom Joao III or King John III, the “Pious” of Portugal arguably occupies the summit of infamy as far as his Christian fanaticism is concerned. He gets the unvarnished dishonor for issuing the order for the barbaric Inquisition of Goa: he is the royal butcher who authorized the genocide of Hindus in the ancient sacred Kshetra of Gomantaka. Christian piety never had it so good in India.

Martim Afonso de Sousa was his childhood pal because he was brought up in John’s household. Afonso’s earliest achievement was the brutalization and large-scale conversion of the pagan population of Brazil and plundering it for sugar and gold and silver. Recognizing this “success,” John III sent him to India where his marauding endeavors were largely a mixed bag but retained its fanatical and cruel edge.

In 1535-6, Afonso devastated Diu and pocketed it. In May 1542, he was elevated to Governor of Portuguese India that included Cochin, Goa, Daman, Diu, Dadra, Nagar Haveli and parts of Mumbai (Bom Baim).

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Like his lord and master John III, Afonso was a hardcore Christian bigot who felt compelled to erase every trace of heathens and their religious practices. His repeated sprees of violent bigotry against Hindus especially endeared him to the Christian clergy imported into India from Portugal. The Portuguese chronicle of Christian fanaticism titled Oriente Conquistado a Jesu Christo Pelos Padres Da Companhia de Jesus (The Conquest of the East for Jesus Christ) authored by several Jesuits of the Fathers of the Society of Jesus lavishes praise on Afonso. It describes with undisguised glee how Afonso’s regime of anti-Hindu atrocity was a great service rendered to Our Lord Christ. The sickening account is eerily similar to the medieval Muslim chroniclers who rejoiced at their Sultans’ savage persecution of the Kaffir Hindus. Similar but not unsurprising because the wellspring of Abrahamic fanaticism is the same.

The other work along the same lines is Gaspar Correa’s Lendas da India (Legends from India), an eyewitness rendition of Afonso’s fanatical reign.

When the Portuguese Bigot Martim Afonso de Sousa Tried to Invade Tirumala: Unknown Chronicles from the Christian History of India
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Both the Jesuits and Correa narrate how Afonso was especially qualified for that other distinctive, dark mark of Portuguese depredations in India: large-scale temple destruction and plunder of temple wealth. The accursed Pagodas (temples) of the heathen Gentoos (Hindus) had no business to stand unmolested.

Sometime in late 1542, Afonso received secret orders from King John III the Pious: I have received news of a great heathen temple in southern India that has limitless wealth. You are authorized to fit out a military expedition to attack and plunder and destroy this temple. Guard this mission with utmost secrecy.

Afonso was overjoyed and immediately began to make preparations. The first leg of the expedition was entirely naval. On August 27, 1543, four military vessels sailed as advance guard. Each was manned by a hardened captain.

On September 1, Afonso himself sailed at the head of a fleet of 45 ships including a 3,000 cavalry, 3,000 seamen and hundreds of soldiers from the City of Goa. The whole campaign was equipped with substantial musketry.

Afonso’s target: the sacred temple at Tirumala, its black, heathen idol of Sri Venkateshwara Swami marked for destruction and its wealth singled out for catholic plunder.

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However, the moment Afonso’s fleet landed in Cochin, his carefully-concealed secret was leaked out. Throughout the journey, he had deliberately lied to his force that the campaign was to help the king of Burma who in return would give him substantial sums of money. But then, history shows that even the secrets of the harem have a habit of miraculously draining and spilling out into the public square. Afonso was no exception. Thus, the moment they heard that Afonso’s real aim was the dacoity of the great “Temple of Tremmelle,” the semi-civilized fidalgos in his team began to publicly clamour for a share of riches of temple’s assured plunder. At Cochin, they learned the precise details of his plan: he would sail next to Pulicat and from there, he would launch a raid on the great “Temple of Tremelle” or Tirumala.

Afonso now realized that he was facing a double-edged sword: this plan-leak would most definitely reach the ears of the much-feared Emperor of Bisnaga (the Emperor of Vijayanagara). Not only did the great “Temple of Tremmelle” lie in that monarch’s domain, Sri Venkateshwara Swami was one of the hereditary deities of the ruling family. Retaliation would be swift, brutal and merciless. Meanwhile, out here, he could not risk fueling further dissension or open rebellion from his own fidalgos.

The crafty politician in Afonso woke up. He issued an order to destroy the church of San Thome (near Madras), save the relics of “Saint” Thomas, round up all Portuguese possessions on that coast and depart from Madras immediately. This was how Afonso preempted the ensuing vengeance from Vijayanagara after what he thought would be the assured destruction and robbery of Tirumala. The accounts he had read, and the stories he had heard of Tirumala’s fabulous wealth were way too compelling to resist his Christian plunder.

One account said this:

Tirupati, in…Madras, is celebrated throughout Southern India for the temple on Tremmelle, the holy hill, 2,500 feet high… This place, often known as Upper Tirupati where the shrine dedicated to Venkateswaraswami, a incarnation of Vishnu, is considered so holy that NO CHRISTIAN OR MUSALMAN WAS ALLOWED EVEN TO ASCEND THE HILL. From all parts of India thousands of pilgrims annually flock to Tirupati with rich offerings to the idol…the annual income of the temple averaged upwards two lakhs in Rupees alone.

Another story told Afonso that the fabulous wealth of the “Temple of Tremmelle” was literally countless. It was said that on one occasion, the temple’s managers dispatched sacks of gold coins loaded on the backs of one hundred bullocks to the “King of Bisnaga.”

When the Portuguese Bigot Martim Afonso de Sousa Tried to Invade Tirumala: Unknown Chronicles from the Christian History of India
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But yet another account is far more interesting, detailed and highly revealing. This was written by the selfsame Correa. At the outset, he says that the overwhelming wealth of the temple derived from the massive charity offered by pilgrims who flocked there by the millions on festive occasions. The most celebrated of all these festivals fell on the full moon day in the month of August (Brahmotsavam). According to him, a great fair was held every year on this occasion in front of the temple, when the kings of Bisnaga, from remote times, gave free access to all kinds of merchandise without any duties or taxes whatsoever.

However, this is just the superficial description or a summary record of what Correa actually witnessed at the Tirumala Brahmotsavam. The detailed picture given by Correa will be told in the next part of this series.

To be continued

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