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The Saint in the Banyan Tree

Anywhere between 2.3 and 6 percent of the Indian population are Christian, 24 to 68 million people.1 Around two-thirds are Roman Catholic, and over 40 percent live in the two southernmost states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, where their proportion of the population varies across regions and districts. Behind these figures is a chronicle of Christianity that is fragmented over different missions, regions, and periods. From a complex mosaic, this book draws out one tradition that is of particular importance. It began in the early seventeenth century with a remarkable Jesuit missionary experiment, which by the twenty-first century had been turned to radical social and theological ends. Researched over three decades, this is a historical project with anthropological objectives (cf. Peel 2000). Its first ethnographic and historical subjects are the inheritors of the Jesuit tradition in one particular region and community on the southern plains of present-day Tamil Nadu state (map 1). This locality offers up some of its history through a rich archive of letters, diaries, and notebooks from generations of mostly Jesuit priests who worked there from the early eighteenth century, including the parish priests who lived in the village of what I shall call Alapuram, where I stayed in 1982–84 and to which I have often returned since.

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