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“Orissa (Odisha) through French eyes: An account written by a French priest in 1877″ by K.J.S.Chatrath

Indian culture, religion and society have fascinated the world over centuries. Travellers came to visit India from various parts of the world- prominent among them being the Arabic-Alberuni [about AD. 1030], Ibn BatUta, [A.D.1304 to 1377], the Chinese-Fa-Hien [A.D. 399-414] and Hiuen Tsiang [A.D. 627 to 643]. Besides of course one is aware of a large number of’ books on India written by the British travellers to India as well as the Britishers who stayed for’ long periods of time in this country. However very little is known of a considerable number of, Frenchmen who came to this country and wrote about their experiences. Unfortunately, English translations of very few of these works, originally written in French, are available in our country. Accounts of some of the prominent French travellers which are available in English being Jean­ Baptiste Tavernier who made 6 journeys to India between 1638 to 1668, Francois Martin, whose ‘Memoires’ cover his travels to Africa, Persia and India during the period 1664-1610.

One of the main reasons for the limited readership in India has been that these accounts are in French and therefore not many in India can read and understand those. Some of the most fascinating and detailed accounts are found in compilation of letters written by the Jesuit Missionaries from India to their superiors in Paris. These were published as “Lettres Ediftantes et Curieuses ecrites des missioms etrangeres par quelques missionaries ‘de 1a Compagnie de Jesus”- meaning  “Edifying and Curious letters written by some foreign missionaries of the Company of Jesus”. In fact these accounts became so popular in France that between 1703 to 1743, as many as 36 volumes of such letters were published under the editorship of Jean-Baptiste Halde (1674- 1743).1

Besides, there are a number of other sources which give us an invaluable insight into India as seen by the French visitors. One such source is the compilation “Annales de la Propogation De La.Foi-  Recueil Periodique,2” published from Lyon in France. This publication coming out on a periodic basis – used to give information about various Missions and their activities from around the world. One finds in them a large number of references relating to news from and concerning the Indian Missions and the life in general in India.

To give an idea of the richness of this source, I am reproducing below the extracts (translated in English) of one such letter which was published in the ‘Recueil Periodique’. It was written by one of the French priests Father G. de Clercx, of The Company of Jesus. This letter was written from Balasore in Orissa, where the French had a Loge and French Jesuit Missionaries used to be stationed there. It is dated February 27, 1877, to his Mission in Paris. It gives the following account of Orissa, the social-life and customs of the Ouriyas, their adoration of Lord Jagannath and Balasore:

“The Mission of Orissa comprises of the district of Balasore (700,000 inhabitants) and several small kingdoms, tributaries of the English, out of which one may mention Mayurbhanj (191,000 inhabitants), the Nilgiri (21,000 inhabitants), the Keonjhar and Pal-Lahara (12,000 inhabitants).

Orissa is bounded by, in the South-East by the Gulf of Bengal. The littoral, a huge plain of sand Covered by savage plants, is almost a desert; with great difficulty one notices far and far, some huts of the fisher folk and some weak paIm trees here and there. Herds of stags and deer wander in this solitude. Between the sands of the coast and the mountains of the interior, lies a huge zone of cultivated land which is called the Moghulbandi and is inhabited by considerable number of people.

The inhabitants speak Oriya, which is a language derieved from the Sanskrit. They are of the Aryan race and almost all of them profess “Brahamanisme” (Hinduisme). Like the Hindus elsewhere, they are divided in a multitude of castes, whose preconceived notions pose a serious obstacle to the propagation of the real faith. The Oriyas are cheerful and sociable. They love to get together in groups in the mornings in the rays of the rising sun, and during the day, under the shade of a tree or of a temple of idols. Some play cards, the others a sort of ladies game while still others play chess.

Their houses, are built in a somewhat square shape and are mostly made of mud, with a bamboo frame and a roof made of straw, and are really at the ground floor level only. There are very few pieces of furniture; a mat is used as a table, chairs and the bed; some earthen pots are all the vessels that they possess.

The dress of the men folk generally comprises of two pieces of white cloth. One is tied around the waist and the other covers the rest of the body. The ladies cover themselves up in a long stretch of cloth, which also covers their heads.

 The indigenous people are very lavish in their greetings and compliments. Their most common mode of greeting is of bringing one’s hand in front and saying the word “salam”: quite often they also join the hands in front and say “namanara” the Oriya word for salutation. For showing respect to the brahmins, the people of the lower castes put their hands on the head and bow down saying many times “dundabut” (obesience). This is the most respectful form of greeting.

 One understands that for some time, Budhisme was the dominant religion of Orissa. After a tough fight, Hinduism succeeded in ousting it; and today the religion of Orissa is the same as of the rest of the country. The most favorite god is Vishnou, who is also adored by the name Krishna, Jaggenauth and Rama. In the villages the gods and the goddesses are sometimes represented by a heap of stones or by the trunk of a tree painted in red.

 It is at Jaggenauth, towards the south of Orissa, that one finds the place of piligrimage the most visited in the whole of India. People come here from hundreds of miles away and even from the districts located on the foothills of the Himalayas. Balasore, which is situated on the route of the pilgrims coming from the north-east of the peninsula, is continuously crossed by a crowd of pagansof all ages; of both the sexes and of all social levels, who visit or return to this place. The largest number come on foot; some come on horsebacks, on the backs of camels or of elephants, or in carts of all types. When, in January last, I was on the route from Midnapore to Balasore, the number of pilgrims was so -large that it looked like a procession as far as the eye could see. Most of them were full of tiredness; they moved forward painfully; quite a few had blood on their feet.

On seeing us approach, a number of them started singing, out of which the only thing that I could understand was the name of Jaggernauth.  In the crowd of the piligrims, I noticed a Hindu penitent, almost naked; his long hair covering his shoulders; his entire body was covered with ash. His companions on the route looked at him with admiration and regarded him as a saint. During the month of February about 3,000 pilgrims stay at Balasore each day. In the eyes of the pagans, even the route going to Jaggemauth is sacred; often the indigenous people taking this route, touch the earth with hands, kiss it with respect before putting their feet on that route.

One notices a large number of penitents in Orissa. Quite a few of them cover their bodies with ash; some of them allow their nails to grow indefinitely raising one of their arms towards the sky; in the long run, this arm turns rigid and becomes almost paralysed; the others perpetually squat on a tiger skin; there are others who spend the day standing near a big fire and expose their uncovered heads to the burning sunshine of the tropics; some other beggars sing to the accompaniment of cymbals; all have an odd and forbidding air.

The daily routine of Ouriyas consists in frequently repeating the name of their favorite divinity, while taking a bath in the river or in a pond, in reciting some phrases (mantras) and in throwing some water towards the sun with hand or towards the region which they think is inhabited by their ancestors. Often, after having finished this ceremony; they fill up water in a metal utensil, then go and offer it to a sacred tree or to an idol. After the sunset, the ladies place a small lamp in front of the door of the house for warding off the evil spirits. The Ouriyas love to read the books where the life and the adventures of their Gods are narrated. The more religious go to a temple from time to time, fall down prostrate before the idol and recite mantras. Some others repeat the name of their God on each grain of a kind of rosary.

Towards the west of the district of Balasore, the mahals of Orissa start. This is a mountainous and difficult to access region, cut off by deep valleys and watered by various tributaries of Bourhabalang, Beitarani and Brahmani rivers. The most remarkable mountains attain a height of 1,000 to 1,300 metres; one of the principal chains, the Nilgiri or the Blue Mountains is clearly visible from Balasore. This entire region is inhabited by the aborigines, that is to say, by the descendents of the original inhabitants of the country. One notices among them the Koles, the Santhals and a host of other tribes, who have preserved their language, their costumes and the religious practises of their ancestors. There are no castes among them and do not resemble at all their neighbours – the Ouriyas or the Bengalis.

As one advances from Balasore towards the mountainous region, one soon discovers jungles, which gradually become thicker and end up by forming an impenetrable thicket. These jungles, which cover the larger part of the territories of the tributary Rajahs, make the climate of the area hardly salubrious for the Europeans and serve as the refuge of tigers, bears, the savage elephants and a host of other dangerous animals…  … We have an orphanage and a school at Balasore. The orphanage provides a great service to the Mission; almost all the orphans become very useful native teachers of the missionaries.

Yesterday, Father Lehrmitte left for the forests of Mayurbhanj, where the catholic religion has made considerable progress. Following is the drill followed during such excursions. On the head of the small group is the missionary on a horseback, dressed in white and protected from the heat of the sun by a large bordered hat. He is followed by a buffallo carrying the chapel, the provisions and the baggage. Four of the oldest orphans are at the end of the group.

Father Lhermitte goes first to Mitrapour, a small village situated at a distance of about 3 leagues from Balasore, in the mountains of the Kingdom of Nilgiri. There are some families who want to be admitted to the fold of the Catholic Church. The missionary stops there for two or three hours and leaves an orphan there as a catechiste. In the afternoon he is again back on the route and makes his way more towards the west in the direction of Daiga, in Mayurbhanj, at a distance of about 18 or 20 miles from Balasore. This village has been won over since it has already has 53 catholics. One of our orphans has been placed there as a native preacher. Father Lhermitte has obtained a vast concession of land from the Raja of Mayurbhanj on extremely  favourable conditions. He is proposing to start a new establishment there next.”

 The letter above is a small example of the richness of the hitherto untapped French sources on India. Scholars studying the happenings in India and the life of the Indians in 17th to 20th centuries are likely to find interesting material and expression of a fresh viewpoint in these sources. This would enrich and give an added dimension to our studies; which at times, tend to rely heavily on the Anglo-Saxon sources and views.(3)


 1.     Kochar, R.K., “Secondary Tools of the Empire: Jesuit Men of Science in India” article in “Discoveries, Missionary Expansion and Asian Cultures”, edited by De Souza, Teotonio R, Concept Publishing Company, New Delhi, – 110059; 1994, pages 175-183.

2.     “Annaies’De La Propogation De La Foi, Recueil Periodiue” (Annals of the Propagation of the Faith. Periodic Selections, Letters written by the bishops and missionaries of missions of the two worlds, and all the documents relating to the missions and the work of the Propogation of the Faith), Chez L’Editeur Des Annates, Place Bellecour, No. 31, Ancien Rue du Perat, 6, Lyon, France, 1877, pages 340-345. The same letter has also been reproduced in “Les Missions Catholics Bulletin. Hebdomidaire lllustre de fa Propogation De La Foi’, Janvier ­Decembre 1877, Aux Bureaux D’Oeuvre De La Propogation De La Foi, Place Bellecour. Lyon, pages 370-371.

3.     From my book “The French Collection”  published by M/S Indian Publishers Distributors, 156-D, Kamla Nagar, Delhi-110007, India.

4.     For more information on the French presence in Balasore since 1667, see my books “Some Vignettes of Balasore and its French Loge” and “The Balasore Papers: 1693-1949“.


Text  and copyright K.J.S.Chatrath

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