Hate Buster: A glimpse into how missionary faiths arrived in India The arrival of missionary faiths in India demonstrates that the propagation of beliefs was a multifaceted process influenced by various factors and motivations

13, Oct 2023 | CJP Team

If one looks at the right-wing narrative, there are multiple competing and opposing narratives about the arrival of Christianity and Islam in India. Claims such as ‘Babur committed massacre of thousands’, a ‘holocaust created by the Mughals’, and ‘Inquisition of Goa’ are phrases that broadly pepper the imagination, and WhatsApp chats, of the Right. However, as we will see below, the spread of Abrahamic faiths in India was a process that was diffused, decentralised, and subject to space and time.

Each of these seems to connote the existence of a deep and sinister conspiracy amongst members of Christianity and Islam converting to Islam and Christianity. However, today there are lakhs of followers for both religions, from multiple contexts, regions, and cultural backgrounds – thereby, motivations, experiences, and objectives for changing a religion would not have been uniform is to say the least. Secondly, ‘converting’ or ‘changing’ the religion may not have been so abrupt or alien a process for natives – it may not even have been as disruptive a process in an ordinary man’s life as well. 

Islam, Judaism Christianity arrived with people through various means, by trade, by way of military might, by charismatic leadership, or by rulers facilitating the process by way of laws. Understood chronologically, however, it was through the western coast’s trade with west Asia that first, Judaism, then Christianity and finally Islam (ironically all three of which “lay claim to Jerusalem”) that these three major faiths first landed and interfaced with locals on Indian soil.


Christians first trace the arrival of Christianity to the coast of India to the arrival of St Thomas in 52 CE. While it cannot be verified completely, there are thus inscriptions that trace the Christian community of Malabar to the 2nd or 3rd century CE. St Thomas is said to have built several congregations, and one of the churches St Thomas Syro-Malabar Church in Palayur is said to be one of the oldest churches, built in 52 CE. 

Source: Kerala Tourism

A bust of Shahpur II

Christianity in India has a very early history. According to Pius Malekandathil, the Sassanian Persian Empire implemented a rigorous network of trade in the oceanic routes. It was during the rule of the Persian king Shahpur II that Sassanian trade with India expanded intensively. One of the earlier migrants from Persia, were a group of 400 people led by Thomas of Kana to India. The native ruler of Kerala was favourable to traders. For instance, traders travelling to West Asia from the Persian Empire would also sometimes stop in between at Kerala, and would often form settlements by the beach. The legend of Cheraman Perumal who is said to have built the first mosque in India continues. He was said to be a native ruler of Kerala in Kodangular. After having a mystical dream, he is said to have travelled to Madina to meet the Prophet in the 6th century. He is said to have died on his way back to Kerala in Oman. However, before dying he is said to have instructed his companion to return and spread the message of Islam. Borders were porous and culture and diversity flourished that would be difficult to understand today. 


Kerala witnessed the construction of various synagogues chronicling Jewish presence in the region throughout history. The oldest recorded presence of Jews in the land is in 1000 CE. Their oldest recorded settlement was once called Anjuvannam. It was gifted by King Bhaskara Ravi Varma of Kodungallur to the Joseph Rabban in 1000 CE. However, some scholar attest that Jews first arrived as traders in Kerala in the times of King Solomon, others believe that they arrived after the fall of the first temple in a bid to seek refuge. Regardless of varying claims about the arrival, it is evident that Judaism has had a long history in Kerala. Similarly, one of the earliest recorded instances of Islam finds itself in Kerala. The Cheraman Jumma Masjid in Thrissur stands testament to trade routes through which Islam too found its way in India in the 6th century.

Paradesi Synagogue in Kochi. Source: Kerala Tourism. 

Architect of the constitution, B R Ambedkar is famously to have espoused the means of conversion as a means of social liberation from the Caste Hindu social order. Various Dalit groups have since the 20th century there onward adopted conversion to Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, as well as Buddhism since then. Ambedkar himself had converted to Buddhism in a public ceremony. Similarly, many have theorised that Indians have perennially turned to changing their religion as a means for social liberation as well. In a paper titled Constitutional Mandate and Education, published by Khoj, Education for a Plural India project, Teesta Setalvad writes about what meaning conversion to Islam and Christianity have held for marginalised groups in the modern period, “Many conversions to Islam or Christianity in the modern period of history have also coincided with the passage of emancipatory laws liberating bonded labour. This allowed oppressed sections the freedom to exercise choice in the matter of faith. These sections, then, exercised this choice, rightly or wrongly, perceiving either Islam or Christianity to be more egalitarian than Hinduism’s oppressive system of caste.” Arguing further, “Many conversions to Islam or Christianity in the modern period of history have also coincided with the passage of emancipatory laws liberating bonded labour. This allowed oppressed sections the freedom to exercise choice in the matter of faith. These sections, then, exercised this choice, rightly or wrongly, perceiving either Islam or Christianity to be more egalitarian than Hinduism’s oppressive system of caste. There were several instances of conversions during the second half of the 19th century in Travancore, for instance. Educational endeavours of missionaries and the resultant aspirations to equality of status encouraged many persons of ‘low’ caste to change faith and through this to a perceived position of equality. For example, the first ‘low’ caste person to walk the public road near the temple in Thiruvalla in 1851 was a Christian. Around 1859, many thousands converted to Christianity in the midst of emancipatory struggles that were supported by missionaries in the region: for example, the struggle of Nadars on the right of their women to cover the upper part of their body, a practice opposed by the upper castes! Large-scale conversions to Islam took place on the Malabar Coast not during the invasions by Tipu Sultan but during the 1843-1890 period. These were directly linked to the fact that in 1843, under the British, slavery was formally abolished in the region. As a result, large numbers from the formerly oppressed castes, bonded in slavery to upper caste Hindus moved over to Islam, which they perceived, rightly or wrongly to preach a message of equality and justice.”

SabrangIndia has previously explored the Sangh Parivaar claim that all Muslims today Hindus earlier, and its findings have revealed some stark contrasts to the narrative that seeks to paint India in one colour.  We can see that the right-wing always seems to stamp, condense, and falsify history of the spread of various religions to the following causes: Conversion by missionaries through brute force or by coercion; conquests of Mughal rulers; or the alleged adoption of native tradition by local saints to ‘lure’ converts. 

Let’s have a look at some historical snippets below which may complexify and diversify our understanding of how the common stereotype that Muslims arrived with a lethal intent or Christians arrived with rice bags to convert is really a picture very far from reality.

 Was the dynamic between the relationship between ‘insiders-outsiders’ always one defined by hostility?

Let’s look at the case of Sindh, Sindh is said to be a cradle of civilisation, a hot pot of culture historically as well as today. While Sindh is oft noted to be one of the earlier recorded arrival of Islam, it is not quite historically correct. Though believed, in popular myth and even skewed school history textbooks to be the first recorded entry point for Islam, through military conquest, Islam did arrive through this route a good 110 years after it had already been embedded on India’s west coast through trade. Proving what? That faiths travelled in multiple ways across continents.

Source: Digital South Asia Library

But, what did the arrival of Muslims in Sindh look like? Was it as black and white as we imagine?

According to Kumari and Rathori, Sindh is region that came under Muslim rule with the arrival of military general of the Umayyad Dynasty, and thus remained under the rule of Muslims from Muhammad bin Qasim’s conquest in 711 AD until the British annexed it from the Talpur Mirs in 1843. This arrival only took a significant time after Islam first arrived in Kerala through trade routes in the 6th century. 

According to Pragyayan Choudhury, the Jat even aided and allied with the Umayyad general against the native ruler. The Jats of Sindh were a pastoral community, which Irfan Habib describes as ‘Chandala-like, and tribal’. This point reveals that history back then was not governed by considerations of the nation-state or even of religion as we know it today. For the Jats to have aligned with Muslim advent in India would be unbelievable to right-wing troll in 2023, and perhaps, even anti-national, however this was the rule back then where communities and kingdoms ruled with more autonomy, and certainly more complexity as we know it. 

What of Sufis? Were they not a well-oiled machinery of conversion?

Sufism is generally understood to have been a popular means of spreading the message of Islam to the masses. However, Eaton argues that a closer examination of texts and other sources would reveal that Sufi Saints did not hold conversion as central to their goals as one would imagine. Biographical accounts and other records suggest conversion was not their primary goal. This really seems to point towards the fact that historical circumstances were more complicated than our archives can fully describe – and certainly more complex and diverse than what right-wing establishments can categorise with sweeping statements. Eaton further gives an example of a powerful nomadic family who was very gradually drawn towards Sufism by witnessing the caretakers and custodians of a Shrine. These anecdotes and analysis reveals that the spread of Islam and Christianity was a diffuse and gradual process – it was subjected to diverse realities that varied from place to place. 

One of the popularly known instances of the arrival of Islam in Jammu and Kashmir was by the conversion of Rinchan, one of the rulers of Kashmir, who converted to Islam from Buddhism after engaging in various theological debates with scholars, including the acclaimed saint Bulbul Shah. One of the narratives conclude that he was dissatisfied with Buddhism due to foreign elements in it and Hinduism because of the element of caste. Bulbul Shah was a Sufi missionary who tried to spread the message of Islam and alleviate the concerns of the people, he rams several campaigns against superstition in the people of Kashmir, and was sought after by the local populace as he settled near the bank of the Jhelum till his death. 

Did the Portuguese arrive off their boats wielding the sword and the bible?

Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica

While there can be no dispute that the Portuguese wielded a tough hand in managing and colonising the native population in Goa to cement their rule, using violence as and when they deemed it necessary. However, variations tend to occur. Firstly, according to Gilbert Lawrence Philomena, the colony of Goa was founded in 1510 however, conversions were not recorded in the region until 25 years later in 1535. Philomena further marks out an instance when Goa was flooded with the arrival of 4000 Lusitans, which is a group in Portugal. However, these Lusitans were mostly preoccupied with acquiring territory rather than brothers in faith. This does not disclose the possibility of proselytisation, forced or otherwise, however, these facts serve to add diverse motivations and experiences to illustrate historical advent of Christianity in India, and allow us to see that various other considerations were at play such as the land, economy, and so forth.  

Furthermore, one of the reasons historian Richard Eaton cites for the inclusion of large numbers of Punjabis and Bengalis in Islam is their relatively ‘low level of integration’ with the Brahmanical literary traditions, as compared to the populations in the other parts of India. Furthermore, other northern parts of India, according to Eaton, had low rates of conversion and continue to have Muslims in minority despite being centres of administration under Muslim rule historically – this really rules out the possibility that most conversions happened due to the sword. Eaton cites that northern regions had the native population more strongly integrated in Brahmanic traditions which is why conversion remained low in these regions. 

Thereby, this brief glance at history informs us that lives back in time were as complex and diverse as they are today – if not more. Thereby, oversimplification of history which borders down to outright lies by right-wing forces serves to only be a temporary, political gimmick; history remains immortal to woes of populist rhetoric. 

Intellectual curiosity, quest for knowledge and morals has motivated people to approach religious faith, sometimes different faiths and sometimes more than once, throughout history. Just like Rinchan, the subcontinent also witnessed another tall leader – Ashoka who belonged to the powerful Mauryan dynasty that was known for its political prowess. However, Ashoka was said to have found values of tolerance and peace in Buddha’s Dhamma with which he resolved to rule his kingdom there onwards. The kingdom moreover flourished under his reign, and thereby, so did Buddhism. D D Kosambi writes in his essay titled The Decline of Buddhism in India that this turn towards conversion to Buddhism opened up new trade routes for the growing middle class that was emboldened by the state. For instance, unlike Brahminical prohibition of overseas travel which ran the risk of excommunication, Buddhism held no such qualms on travel and trade. This opened up avenues for the growth of the faith further. 

“Trade and commerce finds dry and peripheral treatment in our texts as do the impact of technological developments through history. Religious interpretations and explanations often pre-dominate, with little attempt to explain how ideas and thought-processes travelled across continents and borders; the means and modes of communication etc. are hardly explored.“

Teesta Setalvad

Thereby, from Ashoka to B R Ambedkar, Buddhism has enshrined the message of social liberty, tolerance and nonviolence which has given people the option to rid themselves of social tyranny of institutional like caste, elaborate and costly Brahminical rituals, as well as petty warfare. Thus, the renewal of the option to choose Buddhism as a favourable way of life can be to an extent credited to be brought by the pan-India kingdom Ashoka spearheaded. The cost of simplifying history has been high, it matters now whether we wish to bear the effort of sieving through to find the truth.


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