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Monday, April 06, 2020

In Tripura, a handful of Portuguese names, with no clear story from the past

In the early 16th and 17 century, just decades after Vasco Da Gama’s fleet anchored off the port of Calicut on the Kerala coast, the Portuguese were very active along the Bengal coast too.

Written by Debraj Deb | Agartala | Updated: December 25, 2019 8:04:19 pm
Mariamnagar Catholic Church at Agartala. (Express photo: Debraj Deb)

Marchers, Lagardos, D’mellos, D’Silvas and D’Souzas… surnames that stick out in Tripura. But there is a story, even though a blurry one, behind why a bunch of families in Tripura sport these Portuguese surnames. They are what remain of a group of Europeans who settled down in what was then a kingdom ruled by the Manikyas. Over 18 generations and almost 500 years later, they don’t have much to show for their Portuguese origins other than their names.

In the early 16th and 17 century, just decades after Vasco Da Gama’s fleet anchored off the port of Calicut on the Kerala coast, the Portuguese were very active along the Bengal coast too. In fact, Chittagong, or Xatigan in Portuguese, housed a strong Portuguese community for well over a century till they were overthrown by the Mughals in the early 17th century.

Author and historian Sekhar Dutta suggests that a few hundred Portuguese were captured by the king of Tripura in the battle at Chittagong, which was then part of Tripura territory. “They were given the option to either go back home or settle in Tripura. They chose the latter,” says Dutta, adding that some of them later served as gunners in the royal army and were compensated with land.

Dr. David Reid Syiemlieh, who has studied on Portuguese settlements in North-East India, has a slightly different version. He writes that King Amar Manikya Bahadur (1577-1586) engaged a group of Portuguese mercenaries in his army at Chittagong and Noakhali (now in Bangladesh) to fight Mughals. They were later settled at Rangamati, the then capital of Tripura, later renamed Udaipur. After Maharaja Krishna Manikya shifted his capital to Agartala in 1760, they moved there.

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Pradyot Kishore Manikya Debbarma, the Tripura royal scion, thinks most of these Portuguese were regular soldiers. “They helped the king in battles and were settled here. They brought in a considerable contribution of tactical skills in warfare with them, as they were well-versed with using firearms,” he tells

Father Abraham, who heads Mariamnagar Church, speaks about Portuguese settlements in the area. (Express photo: Debraj Deb)

The tax-free land given to them became ‘Mariamnagar’, or the land of Mary. Though many of these settlers gradually took up farming, they could not hold on to the land given to them.

“Not many of our ancestors were interested in education. They sold off much of the property given by the kings,” says commerce teacher Biplab Lagardo, explaining why the area now has a mix of all communities. “There is no problem. But the dearth of land is now prodding many of us to take an active interest in education and find jobs,” adds the 40-year-old, who is from the 18th generation of the first Portuguese settlers.

Tripura’s royal chronicle, the ‘Tripura Rajmala’, is supposed to have details of the first settlements. But there are many versions of the royal chronicle, making this part of the history even more confusing.

A shot of statues of Mother Mary and Jesus at the house of Jarath Lagardo, one of the community elders, who is now ill. The picture shows cultural semblance as Jesus and Mary have found their place on a Hindu ‘asana’, which is used as an altar. (Express photo: Debraj Deb)

Lagardo says he has tried hard to put together the pieces of their ancestral history. “It is a very tedious job. I have succeeded to trace back only as early as 1860s,” says the college teacher, adding that many documents seem to have been destroyed during the riots of 1980. “I am trying to connect the dots and I am told some of these documents are there with our community in Dhaka (Bangladesh).”

Portuguese legacy in Dhaka is stronger with the community having flourished till the early 18th century when competition with the English and Dutch traders drove them out.

Biplab Lagardo, a college teacher and 18th generation of early Portuguese settlers in Tripura. (Express photo: Debraj Deb)

Mariamnagar Church was the very first Parish in Tripura and a church was erected in 1930s for the Portuguese Christian community. Almost a century on, this is the oldest church in the state, which has only 40,000 Catholic population.

Father Abraham, who heads Mariamnagar Catholic Church, says the three Portuguese families who came here first have kept some of their old traditions alive, but are hard to distinguish otherwise. “They have mostly mingled with Bengali culture. There is not much difference these days…” he says.

Twenty year old Pratiksha Marcher at her relative’s house in Mariamnagar. (Express photo: Debraj Deb)

Authors like Partho Ghosh and Asoke Deb claim since Portuguese settled in less numbers here, they lost much of their ancestral culture over the centuries. Today, none of the descendants can speak Portuguese and no one has ever visited Portugal. Some 25 years back, all prayers were also moved from Latin to Bengali. It is hard to find anyone cooking even a Portuguese dish anymore.

“I don’t know Portuguese, neither can I read Latin. I would love to know more about my ancestry and learn Portuguese someday,” says Pratiksha Marcher, a 20-year-old college student. Marcher too wants to chronicle her ancestral history some day, but it seems the story of the Portuguese settlers of Tripura has clearly become a thing of the past. Attachments area

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