Tripura’s Portuguese settlers struggle to retain their cultural identity
A small group of Portuguese merchants landed in Tripura in the 1530s during the reign of the then Manikya dynasty ruler, Indira Manikya.india Updated: Mar 31, 2018 22:07 IST
Tripura’s small Christian community of Portuguese origin, which traces its presence in the northeastern state back to 500 years, is ruefully nostalgic about the loss of its distinct cultural identity after adopting most traditions of the Bengali Hindus who dominate the local population.
The 60-odd families with roots in Portugal speak the local Bengali dialect and eat Bengali food .Elders in the community rue the fact that they haven’t been able to preserve their cultural identity.
“We don’t know our language and culture anymore,” said 72-year-old Jarat Laggardo, a member of the community, adding that none of them had ever visited Portugal. The only thing he remembers is a few lines of a prayer in Portuguese rendered in the local Mariamnagar church around 50 years ago. “Then, a special class on Portugese language used to be held at school next to the church,” he said.
Things started to change about 20 years ago when Bengali replaced Portuguese as the language of prayer in the local church. “The present generations knows only Bengali. Unfortunately, I too could not pass on the knowledge of the language to them,” he said.
A small group of Portuguese merchants landed in Tripura in the 1530s during the reign of the then Manikya dynasty ruler, Indira Manikya. He had invited the mercenaries stationed in Chittagong and Noakhali (now in Bangladesh) to thwart a challenge to his regime by local opponents. Four merchants stayed back as ‘subedars’ of the royal family, Laggardo said. The king allotted them land in the Khayerpur area, on the outskirts of Agartala, which is now known as Mariamnagar, named after Mother Mary. There are about 60 Portugese families from eight communities living there.
Policup Marcher, another man of Portuguese descent, said he had heard stories from his grandfather Tazu Marcher about how the Portuguese, who were typically sailors or merchants, shifted to agriculture and animal rearing after settling in Tripura.
Like other elderly members of Tripura’s Portuguese community, 70-year-old Marcher has been searching local libraries of Agartala to find a book written in the Portuguese script . He hasn’t succeeded so far. “Currently, 18th generation is running in our family and our own language existed probably before our 15 generations,” he said, rueful that his forefathers did not preserve their history.
With the passage of time, like language, the community has also lost most of its traditional recipes. “Rarely do we cook traditional Portuguese foods such as Vindaaloo at home as the younger generation does not like them. The local Bengali chicken is most favoured in the family,” Marcher said. The community’s assimilation with the local Bengal population is almost complete; women of the community wear the saree, put vermillion on the forehead and organise the Durga Puja every year.
Their surnames are perhaps the only reminder of their distinct lineage.