It is often suggested that fact can be stranger than fiction. Here is a biography that adds weight to that proposition!
Sebastian Manrique was born in Portugal and joined the Order of Saint Augustine as a member of the Province of Portugal. By about the year 1628 or 1629 Manrique was in Bengal, in an area that today is part of the nation of Bangladesh’ and served there until the year 1642. A case of the killing of a bird called a peacock somewhere near Burdwan by a Muslim and his arrest by the shiqdar of the locality in 1628 was reported by Manrique. It indicates that a regulation prohibiting the killing of peacocks was imposed in that locality at the time of the conquest of Bengal by Akbar (1575). The offence carried a punishment by whipping and by cutting off the right hand.
Manrique defended the accused before shiqdar of Narayangadhi on the plea that the man "had only acted according to the precept of his faith". But this argument was rejected on the ground that the regulation of the Emperor regarding the matter was to the contrary. What was left unsaid was that, in a situation where an order of the Emperor came into a clash with a religious injunction, the former would prevail. This was, apparently, the position not only under Akbar, who was known for his adherence to the principles of sulh-i kul, but also under Shah Jahan, notwithstanding his claim of being a defender of the orthodox shari'a.
In the year 1635 Manrique travelled into what today is Myanmar (formerly called Burma). There he visited Arakan, the capital city of the old capital of Rakhine dynasty (family). It was first constructed by King Min Saw Mon in the 15th century, and remained its capital for 355 years.The adjacent golden city of Mrauk U became known in Europe as a city of oriental beauty after Manrique published his memoirs in 1649. His vivid account of the installation of King Thiri Thudhamma on the throne in 1635 and about the Rakhine Court and intrigues of the men from Portugal seeking adventure inspired the imagination of later authors. The English author Maurice Collis, who made Mrauk U and Rakhine famous in his book, The Land of the Great Image, based his account on the travels of Manrique in Arakan.
In 1641 Manrique visited Lahore, in what is today part of Pakistan. In one square mile of space in the heart of greater Lahore is a microcosm of history - and of the human condition. Once a jewel in the crown of the Mughal kings, and of the Sikhs who took control of it, the Walled City of Lahore is a testament to intrigue, power, passion and pathos. Almost 400 years ago, Sebastian Manrique O.S.A. wrote, "despite the large gateways, [moving in the Walled City] is a very difficult undertaking on account of the number of people who fill the streets." He noted, "There are a great many shops, or more properly speaking, kitchens in which are sold meats of various kinds…"
The words have resonance four centuries later. Since the number of people inhabiting the Walled City has swelled from 20,000 in the time of Manrique to almost 300,000 today, movement within is proportionately more arduous, and kitchens selling meat abound.
Just ask anyone who has sampled the famous carnivore delight, 'Phajja's siri paya.' Or ventured down the 'food street' of Lahore and been treated to some freshwater fish. Manrique, who came during the time of Shahjahan, has given an interesting testimony about a ceremonial meal given by Asaf Khan to Shahjahan in 1641 in the city of Lahore. The hall was decorated with carpets "which covered the floor so as to form tables on the ground, as is the national custom, and also served in place of chair and couches." The food was brought in by a retinue of servants accompanied by four 'lovely looking girls who came forward with implements for the ablution of the hands of the royal guest.' Manrique further adds: 'I was astonished and surprised to see so much polite usage and good order in practice among such barbarians. I was not less astonished at the abundance and diversity of the dishes of food, among which some were in European style, especially certain pastries, cakes and other sweet confections made by some slaves who had been with people from Portugal."
Manrique managed to become involved in the controversy about the identity of the architect of the Taj Mahal. He proposed that the architect had been Geronimo Veroneo from Venice, who died at Lahore in 1640. His proposition found little support locally, and caused annoyance that this Indian work of art was being attributed to a person born in Europe. Contemporary sources in Persia provide many particulars on the construction of the Taj Mahal and carry the names of various artists and craftsman, but make no mention of the supposed architect from Venice. On the contrary, all the European travellers who passed through Agra in those years remember Veroneo only as a skilled jeweller with a great ability in creating curious pieces in gold.
After thirteen years on the sub-continent of India, Manrique travelled to Goa, which was the base of operations of the Order of Saint Augustine in the vast expanse of land and ocean that is now called the Middle East and the Far East (the Orient). He now desired to go to Japan. Japan was then closed to foreign people, and especially to any who wished to promote the Christian religion. He would face death if he entered Japan and was discovered by the government. Manrique travelled as far as Macao (Macau), where the Augustinians from Portugal had a house (convento). But he could find no ship that would risk taking him to the coast of Japan. He returned to India, and then set out for Rome by land. He went via Pakistan, Persia, Iraq, Cyprus, Malta and Italy. Unfortunately at Aleppo (now in Syria) he lost all his notes of his previous adventures.
Manrique reached Rome on 1st July 1643. He was appointed to the central house of the Order, the Convento Sant'Agostino. There he served there for the next twenty six years as an agent in Rome for the Province of Portugal. In Rome during the year 1649, he wrote of his journeys and experiences in the Orient. In the Portuguese language, the document contained 747 printed pages. The most recent version in English is Travels of Fray Sebastian Manrique, 1629-1648, T(two volumes). It was translated by C.E. Luard, and published by Oxford University Press in 1827. Although his reason for doing so in now unknown, Manrique in 1669 departed for England. By then he was probably over seventy five years of age, hence his reason for making the journey must have been urgent for the Order to have allowed him to expend his energy in this manner.
In the year 1669, the tension against the Catholic Church in England under King Charles II was easing. Possibly Manrique hoped to be received in the royal circles by the queen, Catherine of Braganza, who like Manrique was born in Portugal. The Curia of the Order in Rome had sought a strategy, hence for Manrique to have been assigned that secret mission is a distinct possibility. Manrique had no time to initiate any plan because of an unexpected turn of events. He reached London, and rented lodgings near the Thames River. He brought a valet with him from Rome, and a trunk in which the valet knew contained a large sum of money. The valet broke open the trunk to steal the money, just as Manrique entered the room. The valet killed Manrique, placed the body in the trunk, and threw the trunk into the Thames River. Because of the tides in the river, the trunk did not submerge. It was soon noticed, and was opened.
Photo Gallery For the Augnet photo gallery on the Augustinian Vicariate of India (including the above pictures), click here.
Michael B. Hackett O.S.A., who died in England in March 2005. See his book, A Presence in an Age of Turmoil about the effects of the Reformation on the English Province of the Order of Saint Augustine. The book was published in 2001 by the Augustinian Historical Institute, Villanova University, Villanova, Pennsylvania 19085 in the United States of America. ISBN 1-889542-27-X. AN4346