The Dutch paintings of the 17th century depict the citizens of the Netherlands in black costumes with ruffled white collars, straight and stiff. But if one looks at the faces and the eyes, one often detects curiosity as well as boldness beneath the stern exterior. These two qualities characterized the Dutch who sailed to the East as merchants and missionaries. Curiosity tempered the extremes of trade and missionary zeal in India and produced a unique work published in 1651. “De open-deure tot het verborgen heydendom” (the open door to the hidden heathendom) was written by a Dutch missionary to Paliacatta on the Coromandel coast, Abraham Rogerius.
Rogerius came to Paliacatta, which became an important Dutch trade centre, in 1630 and stayed there until 1647. He came in contact with a Brahman, Padmanabhan, who seemed to have had some difficulties with his own community and sought refuge with the Gouvernor in Paliacatta. Padmanabhan communicated with Rogerius in Portuguese but his knowledge of the language was limited and another Brahman, Damersa, who was fluent in Portuguese, was asked to help. As Caland indicated in his edition of a reprint of this work in 1915 Rogerius had to rely on two Tamil-speaking informants. The phonetic transliteration of the Sanskrit terms shows that our Dutch missionary did not have any knowledge of a Sanskrit pronunciation other than that of his two Brahman acquaintances. It is also interesting that, in the description of the Vedas, we find a southern Vaiṣṇava, purāṇa tradition. Nevertheless Rogerius wrote a very valuable description of Hinduism as practised in the area in which he lived as a Christian minister.
Perhaps the most important contribution to the European knowledge of India in his time, was a translation, or rather paraphrase, into Dutch of two Śatakas by Bhartṛhari. The two Śatakas, Vairāgya and Nīti, were included in an appendix entitled “Hondert Spreucken van den Heydenschen Barthrouherri, onder de Bramines op de Cust Chormandel befaemt, Handelende Van den Wegh na den Hemel” (Hundred aphorisms on the path to heaven by the heathen Bhartṛhari, famous amongst the Brahmins on the Coromandel coast) and “Hondert Spreucken van den Heydenschen Barthrouherri, Handelende Van den redelijcken ommegangh onder de Menschen” (Hundred aphorisms on reasonable social conduct amongst men).
The life of Bhartṛhari was reported in an introduction to these two Śatakas. We find that he was supposed to be the son of one “Sandragoupeti Naraja”. It was said that Sandragoupeti was a Brahmin who married four women, a Brahmin, a Kṣatriya, a Vaiśya and a Śudra. A son, Varuci (Wararoutji), was born of his Brahmin wife, a son, Vikramarha (Wickerama arca), of his Kṣatriya wife, a son, Bhatti (Betti), of his Vaiśya wife, and a son, Bhartṛhari (Barthrouherri), of his Śudra wife. Rogerius further reports that Barthrouherri became “a wise and sensible man and it is said that he composed 300 aphorisms, 100 on the path to heaven, 100 on reasonable social conduct amongst men, and 100 on amourous subjects. They say he did this in order to enlighten men and because the books were too numerous, he extracted the “marrow” from them and condensed it into short aphorisms”.
Barthrouherri’s short biography also contains some interesting information on the status of women, particularly Śudra women. In the end Barthrouherri became a sanyasin and when his 300 wives wished to follow him, he told them they were free to marry and that it would not be dishonourable for widows to remarry in the family which would be born of these 300 women. “And this family was called the Cauwreas, … the largest family amongst the Śudras, because all the others may become members of this family; that is why it is said that it is like an ocean into which the waters of all rivers flow.”
The information contained in the rest of the book treats a variety of subjects dealing with the daily life of the Brahmin, the education of their children, marriage, funeral rites, and the gods, temples and festivals. There is even a chapter (XIII, part II) in which Pongol, “a feast in honour of the Sun” is described.
An indication that Rogerius’s book was important outside the Netherlands may be found in the fact that already in 1663 a German translation was published in Nürnberg under the title of “Abraham Roger Offne Thür zu dem verborgenen Heydenthun etc.” A French translation entitled “La porte ouverte pour parvenir à la connoissance du Paganisme caché” was published in Amsterdam in 1670.
Rogerius greatly influenced later Dutch writers on the Orient such as Baldaeus, Dapper, and Valentijn. Often they would repeat whole sections of his work.
Baldaeus compiled a work that contains very valuable information on India, “Beschrijving der Oost-Indische Kusten Malabar en Choromandel der selver aengrensende Koninckrijcken en Vorstendomme als oock het Keijserrijck Ceylon nevens de Afgoderije der Oost-Indische Heijdenen” (A Description of the East-Indian coasts Malabar and Choromandel and the kingdoms and principalities bordering them, as well as the imperial kingdom of Ceylon and the idolatry of the East-Indian heathens). In his introduction Baldaeus states that in 1654 at the age of 21 he was sent to preach the word of God in faraway lands. The book was published at Amsterdam in 1672. Baldaeus borrowed freely from other people’s work, but the result is a fascinating compilation of descriptions of battles, customs, cities and villages often illustrated with engravings of scenes described in the book and maps. One of the most interesting sections in the book is entitled “An introduction to the Malabar language”. It contains an alphabet of the Tamil language with the phonetic transcription in Portuguese and Dutch and the Lord’s Prayer in the “Malabar language and script”.
In 1755 Jacob Haafner was born and although he was not a Dutchman by birth his adventurous life led him to the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company in Nagapatnam. He later published a number of books in Dutch describing his travels to Bengal (including the events leading to the infamous blackhole), South India, and Ceylon. In 1823 his son published his translation of parts of the Rāmāyaṇa, “Proeve van Indische Dichtkunde volgens den Ramaijon naar het oorspronkelijke Sanscritisch gevolgd door Jacob Haafner” (A Sample of Indian Poetry according to the Rāmāyaṇa by Jacob Haafner following the original Sanskrit). In the introduction to this posthumous work his son stated that his father did translate it from Sanskrit.
This brief review of the early literature in Dutch on India and Indian culture reflects an interest in the language of India as well. It is, therefore, a very strange fact that the first chair of Sanskrit at a Dutch university was established more than 200 years after Rogerius published his book in Amsterdam. Sir William Jones (1746-1794) and Charles Wilkins (1749-1836) had also published a number of Sanskrit texts into English in the 18th century. The first chair of Sanskrit was founded at the Collége de France in 1814 and the first chair in England was the Boden Professorship at Oxford in 1832. Johan Hendrik Casper Kern (1833-1917) became the first professor of Sanskrit in the Netherlands at the University of Leiden only in 1865. Kern started the academic tradition in the Netherlands and many internationally known Dutch scholars followed him in the subsequent decades. This website is dedicated to showing the extent of the published works on Indology in the Netherlands.