When melody was queen….

Part 1 – ‘From the original soundtrack’, the production process

As you grow older and the world changes, you slip into periods of nostalgia now and then, looking back at the road you have traveled. It is in those moments that you often remember music you loved, food you enjoyed and great reads, just to name a few. For me, music has always been an integral part and Hindi film music has been at the fore, starting from my high school days.

I still remember the old record player we had at Calicut where we could play ancient 78 rpm Hindi records and a few of MS Subalakshmi’s early hits like suprabatham, and that it was nothing fancy. The next was the Grundig (or was it Telefunken) spool players in some affluent houses. It looked so sophisticated, when the guy put on the spool tape, reeled it around and went on to play a number of songs, I also saw other spool tape players and recorders at the Calicut AIR where I used to be sent for some children’s program recordings. As I grew up, we started to use the first versions of Phillips cassette tape players which my shippie uncle once brought. Tapes were not readily available, and what he brought, the earliest BASF cassettes used to get affected by the humidity and get stuck at times. Then the laborious process of extricating it from the rollers started, rolling it back with a hexagonal pencil (also not easy to obtain in India those days, but I had a Steadtler, as an engineering student) and finally the great tube of ‘quick fix’ adhesive came to the rescue when it did snap, which was often with the repeated playing of a handful of cassettes. I remember also that the quickfix smelt good. As years went by the Walkman arrived, then the CD player made its grand entrance, and finally all that moving stuff got replaced by the 0’s and 1’s of the mp3 file. But I still think none of that would beat the richer sound coming from a good record player or turntable coupled with a good amplifier and a pair of great speakers. I had written about HMV and the record player some years ago, so those interested can take a detour there, to get into the mood. 

I loved Hindi film music, rudely titled Bollywood music these days, but since it is a usage which has gained much traction, I will use it as well. I am sure Mumbaikars will for once not object and try to change the Bombay in the synecdoche to Mumbai (in reverence to ‘that man’ Thackeray), for then, Bollywood would have to change to Mollywood and that as we know is Kerala’s film industry!! In this and two following articles, I will cover the birth and growth of the song and its making, its recording and finally a legendary music man, whom I revere a lot….

Life has come a long away, just the other day I saw AR Rahman and Sivamani playing music in thin air, just gesturing with his hands, using Intel Curie based contraptions. It was an early version, and only good to show the route the technology is taking towards making what they call ‘gesture music’.Going back to the music of yore, I was always intrigued by the comment on tapes and records ‘from the original soundtrack’ and so after I had obtained my research material, a voluminous amount of it, I started to study…

Now I am going to take you to a time when it all started, some 86 years ago in Bombay, a city which was just getting to be real busy. Not many cars, but lots of people, mostly dhoti clad, a few Europeans and Parsis well suited, cattle on the street, even in Churchgate, steam engines rolling out of the stations, to an era when sepia toned photos were popular. It was soon to become the home to Bollywood, taking over from Calcutta, to become the place where dreams were made, where heroes and icons were created, where the industry of making films thrived, with another industry hiding behind, the music industry another core of the Hindi film.

In the 30’s film making comprised of a large studio set where things were pretty static. The large mic was hidden behind something, such as a bush in the middle rear just like in a drama stage and the actors tried not to move too much. The first film to feature a song was Alam Ara in 1931. Their eyes and emoting did the trick of conveying a story. Well, the actor also had to sing while the orchestra which took an early cue performed the music out of view of the camera, still depending on the very same mic and connected to the single camera. As the talking actor burst into song, the orchestra picked up and everything was good. The resulting sounds were primitive, but this was what is called the synchronized sound process. The system itself never changed for many decades thereafter, the technique being recording the sound on optic film system on a monaural track. People did want to buy records, though not a lot of it and so a second print was made at the HMV studio in Fort, the following day while the session remained fresh in the minds of the singing actors. Many of the early films were adaptations of stage dramas and the songs followed from stage to cinema.

The biggest problems in this very natural looking process were the camera noise and the ambient manmade such as a train passing by or natural sounds. Unfortunately the scene could not be shot over and over again, because the cost of raw film was very high, as much as a tenth of the film making cost. For a while special blankets and mufflers were used to reduce the camera sound, but a solution had to be found. The process was so traumatic for the filmmakers and soon enough, the art of playback singing started, with the film Dhoop Chhahon in the mid 1930’s. Put simply, it meant that music was recorded separately, sometimes also the speakers voice over for the enacted lines by the actor or by a better sounding dubbing artist.

The intent was to create the audio track on film separately (see this video to understand the
technique) and mix it with proper synchronization to the film visuals. The singer was still the actor and more instruments, musicians etc. could be used and the song recorded in a room at night or early morning without too many extraneous sounds. The song was later played over speakers on the sets and the actor mimed to his or her own song. At those times, they put the actor and musicians in a room and had a mic in there, which was connected to a recording van outside, one which had its own generator due to the problems associated with utility power frequency and frequent power failures.  If you recall we mentioned that the actor sang, so that meant that the actor had to be a well-trained and proficient singer which was a difficult proposition. In any case, a second version continued to be rerecorded at the music studio for HMV, albeit a bit shorter. The original soundtrack version was therefore different from the audio record. This was also the time when the art of dubbing came into vogue where the voices of actors were dubbed. Typically this was done when the lead actor was one who could not speak the language of the film or it could have been the case when the film itself was made in another language and dubbed into Hindi. Anyway the sound was again recorded on optic film and the two negatives, that is the one with visuals and the one with sound were mixed in a double recorder into one.

The song by now started getting a standard format with an antra, mukhdas, instrumental interludes and perhaps even an alaap. Soon enough listeners started getting picky, especially as was mentioned in the case of singer actor Ashok Kumar, and the actor’s singing was replaced with the voice of a professional singer. The resulting song, something that remained in the Indian mind for decades, and crossing over into all sections of society, be it a beggar or a hard core Carnatic singer of the south, became the ever famous Bollywood melody.

The level of sophistication increased and the music production team started to become bigger. More people had to get involved and the producer, the director, the music director and the lyricist had to meet and thrash out the details of the so called situation or scene. The MD created a tune which was synced with the lyrics, sometimes, words changed here and there to sit in the tune. The mood, the gender of the song, the singer, the actor, the landscape or landscapes, and the number of songs had to be discussed in advance and the song recording was done well in advance of the film shooting. Why was that required? So that the song was available for playback which the actor mimed as he or she acted out the song, running around trees or cavorting in the rain. As the songs were made ahead of the movie itself, they were sometimes released ahead of the movie with a music release function, and became somewhat of an advance advertisement of the movie itself.

It was in those days that many a great song was recorded. Even with a dull sound, you enjoy it even today and testament to that is the song ‘piya milan ko jana’ by early pioneer singer music director Pankaj Mullick. Or try out ‘Babul Mora’ (see my earlier article on this) by Saigal, not to forget ‘Awaz de kahan he’ (which I wrote about earlier) where Noorjahan and Surendra who sang the song were the actors or ‘So ja raajkumari’ by Saigal. Mullick was one of the first music directors who used western instruments for the Hindi song, though his work was mostly at the Calcutta studios. One of the first Bombay MD’s was a woman named Saraswati Devi working for Bombay Talkies!

I must also tell you that there was music even in the days of silent movies. In those times, while the film ran, music was played in the film theatre live by orchestras, Pankaj Mullick gained public popularity conducting such orchestras and his AIR programs. Raichand Boral and Timir Baran were other popular composer - conductors as New theatres became famous in Calcutta. And it was Mullick who brought in the first of the great singers to the scene, Kundan Lal Saigal from Punjab. Thus Saigal who started with New theatres in Calcutta, and recording in 1933, left his mark to set such a high standard with his mellifluous songs (he even sang two Tamil songs in 1936 for Devadaasa), such as Baabul Mora, Do naina matware, Diya jalaao, Ek bangla bane, So ja rajakumari and so many more. In fact it was the popularity of his songs which created the concept of a film music industry.

As the early 40’s firmly established Saigal as a great singer actor, the music recording scene did not develop very much, but by 1945, the singing scene was seeing changes with the entry of Mukesh and Rafi while the still young actor/singer Saigal was on a downward spiral under the spell of alcohol. As India became independent, Noorjehan left for Pakistan and by then, even greater music creators such as C Ramachandra and SD Burman arrived from Calcutta. Many more singers came to the fore, the Mangeshkars came while Geeta Dutt entrenched herself as a great. The singer was recognized, so also the music director who all became stars independent of the actor, while the poet lyricist got only a mention. The 200 or so people of the orchestra who were playing in the various recordings were largely just staff on daily wages, and were never listed or mentioned, sadly. But there was also an intermediate stage when the movie had the actor’s voices for the song whereas the HMV records carried a professional singer’s voice but as playback and miming became more professional, the actor as singer became a rarity, one which we hardly see, even today.

The average Indian viewer still has to get his money’s worth, he needs the six good songs, the song and dance routines showing off the rain drenched scantily clad, well-endowed heroine or the in the dumps actor singing a sad song and so the singers and the song flourished and continue to do just that.

Let us now get back to sound recording, for we saw that the process of recording separated from filming by the mid 1930’s. The 35 mm film made with the sound had to be synchronizable to the 35 mm film using the right sprocket holes and run through a mechanical mixer or a double projector to make a married release print with sound and film on the same film. The music director of course had to make difficult choices of matching the singer to the song as well as the actor. You could not use the thinner voice of Rafi on a burly deep voiced actor, but at the same it was not possible to get Mukesh to sing a chirpy song for the burly actor. Some singers were adept at miming their voice close to the actor and the mangeshlkar’s were pretty good at that. That was how Mukesh became Raj Kapoor’s and Manoj Kumar’s voice, while Rafi became Shammi Kapoor’s voice.

Bombay in those early 40’s took over the music scene, and was replete also with a lot of foreigners lending their hand at technology. It was also the commercial capital and the core of capital and had plenty of businessmen and money (recall also that the British shifted out of Calcutta to Delhi in 1931 and thus Calcutta lost some of its importance) to invest. This is termed as the second generation of Bombay film music. While the period until the 50’s had classic music leanings, the music after the 50’s had soared westward. The 60’s had swinging rhythm and by the 70’s it simply belonged to RD Burman and Kishore Kumar,

And thus music got made away from the shooting locales, and recording studio developed. We will soon see that it remained in about five Bombay locations and over years concentrated to just one, in Andheri all due to the busy schedules and the need to have all the professional musicians and technicians available in locations geographically close to each other.

Interestingly the technology that produced some of the greatest Hindi songs was not very sophisticated, due to the decisions the Indian government took. Technicians innovated out of need and did not have computers or advanced instruments and devices which are common place today. But then again, I will only say that the number of good songs coming out these days, even with all that at hand is only a handful. The artiste perhaps does not really strive to stand out, depending instead to take refuge in technology, to punching in difficult bits rather than spend hours perfecting it. You can see it easily when the same artiste tries to sing it on stage and failing. It was a period when the recording was still in mono, not stereo. Though multiple mics were used and multi-channel mixers were available, the mixed track was in monaural sound. Musicians and conductors had to play it by the ear and could never listen to the recording (to decide if a retake) as the recording was on film and the film had to be sent out for developing and return before it could be played back. All this required deep concentration, focus by the full team and detail to attention during and before recording. And as I said before film was very expensive, so was never available for multiple song recordings though MD’s made a couple of insurance copies. Optical film also had the problem of not being able to cover a big dynamic range (could cover only 6000Hz – So I wonder how Saigal really sounded!!) which magnetic tape technology boasted of. Then again editing was difficult with snipping and splicing of film which did not give a wonderful result.

And that was how magnetic tape technology arrived, but here again we saw an issue, for the inch wide tapes were difficult to synchronize to the 35 mm film. But the Indian government which had limited foreign exchange would not easily permit the import, and the permit raj was in place. It was to remain so until Rajiv Gandhi took the reins. Until then electric guitars were hand made in India, mixers and amplifiers were built by radio enthusiasts (we all have done these in school and college!). By the 50’s synchronizable 35mm audio tape with sprocket holes was developed and this became the norm for audio recordings. By 1958, HMV had acquired a transfer machine which could transfer music directly to a record instead of rerecording the song and it was thus the usage ‘from the original soundtrack’ originated. In any case the issues with synchronizing multi-channel magnetic tape to film and back to a record plagued the music industry for a long time, until the 80’s. This was the time when all the music was composed in just four studios namely Film center, Bombay sound, Famous and Mehaboob studios.

They were the first and big recording studios, the ones which made the greatest hits of the 60’s through 80’s. Each had specialists and unique features depending on the technology and skills they possessed, and the end result sometimes showed the studio’s signature.

But the recording was all the same, the musicians and the singer gathered in a room with the many mics and they recorded a few takes live, on multi track magnetic tape. The Nagra machine made much of this possible and replaced sound vans. Slowly it changed as music writing became standardized and track recordings were made separately for voice, rhythm and music. From just one track, sound recording went all the way to as much as 16 tracks by the 70’s. Eventually they were all reduced to one track for the film, though and this created a really bad master as musicians dubbed and overdubbed multiple adders and changes to the master. For example they made a two track audio, then added more sound tracks to it, again reducing to one, again adding more and so on. If you amplify those recordings with today’s digital technology, it would show much of the problems, but so long as it was analog, it was so to say, alright. Some music directors such as RD Burman embraced technology and employed specialists for recording while others left it to the studios.

After the 80’s, as education overseas and import of technology was liberalized, the technology galloped and the whole scene changed, with the recording scene itself changing from a complete sitting of musicians and singer to the ever busy singer recording his or her track in isolation. Punching also became the norm where a bit was taken out and replaced with a better take of just that portion instead of a complete rerecord. By the 1990’s a new Bollywood was born, and lump sum package practices ensured. The music director had a budget but also had access to a lot of technology. The industry became a sound factory and everything started to get synthesized, with lesser and lesser maestros or musicians. The scene was to change, but as I said, we wills tick to the golden era…

There is one other bit of background which is very specific to the period. Did you know that the government (one infamous minister named BV Keskar M for I and B who according to Indira Gandhi retained his post only due to an acute shortage of ministerial talent) decided to curtail and later ban Hindi music (cheap and vulgar – he said, he also banned cricket commentaries and the Harmonium!) at one time, on the AIR due to its supposed negative influence on the population? That was the reason radio Ceylon and Amin Sayani’s Binacca Geet mala rose to fame. I still remember that my most treasured property during early college was the small transistor radio which was duly licensed (we had to pay license fees for owning the radio) and tuned to Radio Ceylon during Wednesdays at 8PM for the BGM which Aminsaab would start with his customary Bhayiyom aur behnom…nothing would take me away from the device close to my ear. Apparently Indian listeners after listening to the English pop Binacca hit parade asked for a Hindi one and thus was born the BGM. Advertising revenue poured in from India and Amin became a star hosting over 54000 radio shows! He explains that the ratings were made after inputs from music shops and a select panel of the film industry in order to arrive at the final listing. AIR had no choice but to counter it and thus came about the Vividbharathi in the late 50’s and their fascinating programs like the Bhule bisre geet and aap ki farmaish programs, thereby going on to popularize one place which we all heard often – Jhumritalaiya!! Curiously the biggest number of requests for any film song addressed to Vividbharati came from Jhumri Telaiya. Many thought it was a hoax, they doubted if such a place existed! But yes, there is such a place, and it is in Jharkhand. The cheap post card and the numerous requests for songs from the listeners there which actually popularized it. The listeners of that lone outpost marveled when their name was announced to the whole world, by none other than the AIR announcer or Amin Sayani. They too became a memory after the 80’s when TV took over from the shortwave radio.

Today's recording studio
The 50’s through 80’s introduced us to so many great music directors like Salilda, Hemant Kumar, Naushad, Madan Mohan, Shankar Jaikishan, Lakshmikant Pyarelal, Kalyanji Anandji, Roshan, SD Burman, RD Burman, OP Nayyar, Khayyam and so on. The list will easily take up a whole page. It also heralded the arrival of the genius maestro Kishore Kumar. The careers of many peaked and waned, sparked and fizzled, depending not only on their music but also their relationships with studios and stars. That was the music which remained in the minds of the people of that South Asian generation, they are the tunes which went beyond the Indian borders, far and wide. That is why you hear a person in Siberia humming Awara Hoon just like the Arab in Yemen, the Burman in Rangoon, a Chinese youngster in Peking and the Turk in Istanbul.

Interestingly even though the first movie Alam Ara was shot with Sync sound, and used a Mitchell camera, the system as we saw soon changed to recording sound separately and remixing with the visual. Actors had to enact the scene again in their mind, within a dubbing studio while talking and in many a case, the real mood was lost. Sometimes, the dubbing artiste was a different person and this made the whole movie less realistic than what the director desired. It took many more decades and only recently has sync sound come back into Indian movies with many other contraptions such as waterproof mics, boom mikes and so on.

In following articles we will focus on music composing and recording, and finally get to the finest composer in my mind, and the most diverse and dynamic at that. In the course of this study I had access to many fine books as pictured. The list under references will provide those interested a detail of various printed resources for their own study. One of the finest books out there is Gregory Booth’s ‘behind the curtain’ and my humble thanks to him for taking me through those hallowed corridors with his fine writing.

Hindi Film Songs and the Cinema - Anna Morcom
Behind the Curtain: Making Music in Mumbai's Film Studios - Gregory D. Booth
Hindi Film Song Music beyond Boundaries – Ashok Da Ranade
Sun Mere bandhu re – Sathya Saran
Housefull – Ziya Us Salam (ed)
Global Hollywood – Sangita Gopal and Sujata Moorti
Bollywood melodies – Ganesh Anatharaman
Bollywood sounds – Jayson Beaster Jones
RD Burman – Anirudha Bhattacharjee & Balaji Vittal
The Architecture of sound and music: Soundmarks of Bollywood, a Popular Form and its Emergent Texts - Madhuja Mukherjee
The role of a song in a Hindi film Rajiv Vijayakar
The cinematic soundscape: conceptualizing the use of sound in Indian films - Budhaditya Chattopadhyay
Hindi Filmi Git: On the history of commercial Indian popular music Arnold, Alison E., Ph.D.
The Many Passages of Sound: Indian Talkies in the 1930s Joppan George
Not Really Bollywood – Sanjana P Nayee

From Wikimedia
Madan mohans orchestra from the linked site


The Legend of Prester John

How this mythical character galvanized explorers of medieval Europe into centuries of discovery is a story which will be retold many times by historians.  Not many people know that Vasco Da Gama for example carried letters of introduction from his king, to this legendary Prester John, so that they could have a healthy discussion when they met in the Indian continent, which by the way was one of the locales this immensely rich Prester John was ruling over.

Vasco Da Gama did meet a king, the Zamorin at Calicut, in 1498, a story which we all know very well, and the Zamorin seemed curious meeting a voyager who had traveled so far and so long but brought nothing along, by way of gifts. During their second meeting he asked the empty handed Gama why he who claimed to be from a wealthy land had brought nothing. The embarrassed captain replied that his voyage was one of discovery and that he as an ambassador and explorer and had just a letter to deliver. The Zamorin then asked Gama if he hoped to discover stones or men and that if indeed the Gama had planned to meet people in an inhabited land, he should have brought something along to break the ice.

From the above we note that the famed navigator was on a voyage of discovery (which later went on to start an immensely profitable trade and establishment of many colonies) and that he was looking for the Christian kingdom of one Prester John. Who then was this Prestor John residing in the east and what was his huge allure to the Western world? The mere fact that this single character played such a tremendous role in the history of nations is something which continues to astound people and students of history.

Presbyter Johannes, for that was supposedly his name, came into the limelight in the 12th century, just after the first crusade and the start of the second which was not going well for the Christians. He became a favorite of the clergy, who took to quoting his deeds, mainly because he was a crusader and a foe of Muslims. Was he a Mongol, Ethiopian, an Indian (In perspective, it must be noted here that India in those days was a vague term in the west, geographically covering much of the east, including Africa) king or none of those? Recall now that this was a period when the relations between the kings and the church was somewhat troubled, while at the same time, the crusades needed a united front and state support.

It all started with the visit of a person from the Syro- Malabar Church of Malabar in the 12th century, a period when the first of the crusades were winding down. Stories of travelers were just starting to come in, and getting recorded, but were not circulated or well known as yet, for the art of printing was still many centuries away. The words of a man of the church on the other hand was therefore one of much credibility and when indeed a Priest, claiming to be the Malabar Prelate or Patriarch, landed up in Rome, it was a matter of some importance to Pope Callixtus II.

Many of you would know the fact that Malabar was a place of refuge for many troubled people since time immemorial. Persecuted Jews came to the land in the ancient times, so also a large number of Persian Syrian Christians.  It is also the place where a large number of St Thomas Syrian Christians lived since the Apostle ‘Doubting’ Thomas or St Thomas came there in the 1st century. Soon the group comprised the St Thomas Nazranis and the Syro Knanayites and many more. They were evangelically administered from Shengly (Shingly – Cranganore) and possibly Mylapore in Madras which gained some fame as the ‘See (seat) of Thomas’, for that is where the remains of St Thomas were interred. It was believed that the Metropolitan Bishop or Patriarch of the Malabar Church was located in Mylapore, but we will come to that a little later. The Bishop who decided to make a yearlong bone breaking journey from Mylapore or Shingly in Malabar to distant Constantinople was one named Mar John. It is not clear if he was a person from Malabar (I would assume so), a Tamil or of mixed extract. He was going to Byzantium to attend a ceremony recognizing his appointment as the Patriarch of the Indies.

While at Constantinople, some of the clergy from Rome were also there, in discussions with the Byzantine emperor, and taking a liking for this chap from a distant land, invited him to visit Rome and meet the Pope. That he did and what happened next is the precursor for the origination of the myths and legends of a fairy tale like kingdom in the Indies. The meeting as recorded in the Pope’s chronicle was quoted by a monk named Alberic as ‘De Adventu Patriarchae Indorum (on the arrival of the Patriarch of the Indians)’. The record was popularized later by Fredrich Zarncke and corroborated by an independent mention in a letter from Odo of Rheims who was a witness to the event. It is not necessary to get into greater details, for reasons of brevity and it will suffice to mention that it was nothing short of fantasy and full of mentions of all kinds of miracles. One could question if a serious man would say such things or if it was all concocted by others later. I find it pretty difficult to believe that Mar John said all this, but if one were to critically analyze the letter, you will find quite a few nuggets of interest. It is not my intention to revisit the St Thomas epoch or this meeting in greater detail, that I will do another day, from a historic perspective, but we will get to the times of Mar John, which is close to a nine hundred years after St Thomas.

We know for example that Mar John travelled a whole year before reaching Constantinople in 1122, to receive the Pallium (a woolen vestment of honor) from the Byzantine emperor where he learned from the Romans that Rome was the ‘capital of the whole world’. He then went on to meet the pope and live in Rome for a year. At the papal meeting, he narrated that he hailed from Ulna (or ultima) a heavenly utopian place inhabited by many Christians, full of gold and riches, filled with people of good virtues, totally free of vices and so on. Not far on a hilltop was the church of St Thomas around which there were 12 monasteries. There is also a mention of the pope’s disbelief hearing that St Thomas ( his body which is displayed in the St Thomas Church)  opened and closed his hand miraculously to receive offerings, which the Bishop dispels by solemnly swearing on the holy gospel (according to the other witness - Odo of St Remy’s).

Did the copyist write the uttered sound correctly when he wrote Ulna or ultima? Was it Melia for Meliapur (now Mylapore which was considered Ultima Thule) or was it Adayar? Was it a location in Malabar such as Shingly, Kalikut or Piravom, some other ulnad (interior state)? Was it elsewhere, perhaps Urfa in Mesopotamia? Was it Kollam or Quilon? Was it perhaps the mythical kingdom of Mahabali which the Keralites remember even today? We will discuss all this another day, but suffice to say for now that Mar John filled the minds of the clergy in Rome with wonder and convinced them of the existence of a rich world in the South of the Indies. 

We should now take note of the 1141 battle of Samarkand in Central Asia when the Seljuk Turkish sultan Sanjar’s forces were decimated by the army led by a Chinese warrior Yehlu Tashih, the Gur Khan al-Sini, a Buddhist. Otto of Freising who heard about this battle from the Gabulan Bishop visiting Rome in 1144, mentioned a Prester John in 1145 for the first time in his Chronicle or history of the two cities. In the Chronica, Otto reports a meeting he had with Bishop Hugh of Jabala, who told him of a Nestorian Christian king in the east named Prester John. In it is said that this monarch would bring relief to the crusader states: this is the first documented mention of Prester John (The rest of the article will shorten this to PJ).The PJ die was thus cast and the spin started.

By 1165 the Prester John story went viral as we say today, following the surfacing of a letter comprising many paragraphs, considered to be addressed to King Emmanuel of Rome. Arguments and debates ensued as to who and where PJ was located. As time went by, travelers returning from Asian trips added stories of this PJ to their own, embellishing them even more. Prester John even got a biblical connection as the descendant of Gaspar the Indian, one of the three magi from biblical lore.

The letter and its various translations and versions cover so much geographical ground that fingers can point anywhere in the east, which perhaps was the intention of the letter’s creator. There are subtle references to India and in the inputs from Mar John, see some examples below

And our land stretches from the extremities of India, where the body of Thomas the Apostle rests and it extends through the wilderness to the setting sun, and reaches back, sloping to deserted Babylon, near the tower of Babylon. Seventy-two kingships serve us in bondage, and of those but few are Christians and each of them has a king, by itself, and these are all tributary to us.

And there is this fantastic nonsense about how pepper is collected - In another kingdom of ours there grow all kinds of pepper, and they are collected and exchanged for wheat, and skins, and cloth, and men’s food; and those regions are wooded, as if thickly planted with willows, and all full of serpents. And when the pepper ripens, all the people come from the nearest kingdoms, and bring with them chaff, and refuse, and dry branches; and they kindle the wood round about; and when a mighty wind blows, they set fire within and without the wood, so that not one of the snakes may escape; and so within the fire, after it has been thoroughly kindled, all the snakes perish, save those that reach caves; and when all the fire has died out, all come, men and women, small and big, with forks in their hands, and fling all the snakes out of the forest, and make high heaps of them sky high. And when they have finished shaking that refuse, the grain that is gathered from among the fagots is dried, and the pepper is boiled, but how it is boiled no one from another country is allowed to know.

The palace wherein our majesty dwells was made in the form and likeness of that which the Apostle Thomas ordained for Wyndofforns, king of India; and its wings and structures are exactly like it.

In 1221, Jacques de Vitry, Bishop of Acre, who returned from the disastrous Fifth Crusade brought in good news: King David of India, the son or grandson of Prester John, had mobilized his armies against the Saracens, thus connecting PJ again with India.

With the advent of printing, many copies of the PJ letter were circulated, and the supposed original in Latin was translated extensively. Since then some 250 versions of the PJ letter have surfaced, in various languages with purposes varying widely from entertainment to demonstrating the characteristics of an ideal Christian king. It also raised the hope of fatigued European armies in obtaining support for their crusades against Islam, from an experienced and immensely wealthy Christian crusader in the east. Hope was not to be lost.

Who then could have been the person who created and then leaked this PJ letter? And what was his
real role? Fingers pointed to Archbishop Christian of Mainz and Archbishop Rainald of Dassel at Cologne. An analysis of the letter started, the emphatic conclusion was that the literary origins stemmed from the Alexander romances and the various marvels come from it. The general conclusions was also that the purpose of spreading the letter was propaganda - to unite various warring factions of the clergy and the rulers, against a common enemy, the Islamic power and that help was not far, that it was arriving from PJ in the east.

Other inputs came in from worldly explorers, that the equator was passable and not burning hot, that as the pole star was hardly visible on the horizon, that the world was spherical, that monsters and one legged people did not quite exist. In the meantime, by 1291, the kingdom of Palestine had fallen to the Mamluks and the crusaders were busy bickering among themselves reaching nowhere after trying and failing to organize expeditions to get the land back. The time was ripe to go out and find the crusader Prester John.

Pope Alexander III took it upon himself to answer the PJ letter in 1177, and in imperial tones urged the king to embrace the true Roman faith and not boast about his power and riches. The carrier of this reply, one physician named Philip who set out in search of PJ vanished.

The location of the PJ kingdom had by now moved in popular imagination, from central Asia to India.  By the 14th century and after Marco Polo’s exploits were published, the location shifted to Abyssinia though moving to Tibet in between, but by consensus he remained in the jungles of Africa, never to be seen. He was in the third India (the Three India's referred to India Major, from Malabar through the East Indies, India Minor, from Malabar to Sind, and India Tertia, the east coast of Africa. It was perhaps close in fit to what is known in Chinese texts as Sanfotsi and among the Muslims as Zabag).

Many voyagers set out in search of PJ and his kingdom, some never returned back. Some discovered new lands and people, some saw that the lands which were considered prime suspects were not rich Christian kingdoms. Meanwhile the search continued in the Indies.

Igor Rachewilz states- There, in his new country of adoption, Prester John continued to play his subtle game, firing the imagination of Europe and attracting other adventurous men. It was, again, in search of the elusive Christian king and of his rich and fabulous country that the captains of Prince Henry the Navigator undertook those voyages along the African coast in the first half of the fifteenth century which led to many new and exciting discoveries.

Prince Henry who thought providence his guide, urged voyagers and explorers to find a route to the East where they might eventually locate Prester John and his Christian kingdom. Portuguese explorers started to sail along the African coast, looking for the mythical land with a large sea in the middle of it as per the legend. Once they crossed it, they would reach PJ’s abode. They were also driven by a religious zeal after Constantinople fell to the Islamic Turks, believing that an apocalypse was near and needed the full support of the powerful PJ. Keep in context that the PJ should have been many hundred years old by now, but then again he looked 32 forever because he had a fountain of youth in his backyard, so no problema….

The age of exploration had started, new sailing techniques had been mastered, and ships started to sail east and west, looking for PJ, and to finance it all, trade played a key role. And thus we get to Vasco Da Gama and his search for Christians and Prester John in Calicut, but as we know, there was no PJ in our part of the world. Even though Vasco reported that there were many Christians in Calicut, he was proved wrong, but the explorer had discovered new routes to the fabled spice capitals of Malabar and for a while trade rose to the fore.

The Portuguese did find a Christian kingdom of Ethiopia, and a priest by name John, but the land was neither wealthy nor capable of supporting the weary crusaders, in fact they needed Christian help to with stand their warring Muslim neighbors. As is nicely stated by Baldridge, the Portuguese Father Francisco Alvares, who fell in love with the country and its people, became a friend of its king, hid the Abyssinian's heresies from his superiors, and set in motion events that saved Ethiopia from imminent destruction. PJ on the other hand, quietly slipped from the front pages, but the hope that this fabled crusader would one day be located spurred more Spanish and Portuguese expeditions to various new lands such as Africa, Asia and the Americas, for another two hundred years.

The reason for the elaborate hoax, the 1165 letter, was perhaps to stop the petty fighting going on between the clergy and the monarchs with an underlying message that they should unite to fight the crusades. But what it did was trigger many centuries of exploration and reshaping of the world. It affected the destinies of millions in a way nobody could have imagined, let alone the ever young Prester John.

Igor Rachewiltz sums it up beautifully - Had the Prester John visualized by our ancestors really existed, he could have hardly done a better job than he did, by simply not being there!

Would it be fair to assume that an Indian triggered centuries of exploration with his tall tales? Why not???

Strange are the ways of our world, isn’t it?

Anecdota Oxoniensia: Semitic series, Part 7
St Thomas and San Thome – Rev H Hosten SJ (Asiatic society papers)
The Historical Prester John -Charles E. Nowell
Prester John – the legend and its sources – Keagan Brewer
The rites of eastern Christendom – Archdale A King
The Malabar church and Rome – George Schurhammer
The Hebrew letters of Prester John – Edward Ullendorff, CF Beckingham
Prester John's Letter: A Mediaeval Utopia - Karl F. Helleiner
Prisoners of Prester John – Cates Baldridge
Prester John and Europes discovery of East Asia – Igor De Rachewiltz
The lives of the popes in the middle ages – Vol VIII – Horace K mann
History of Paradise – Jean Delumeau
The hierarchy of the syro-malabar church – Placid j Podipara
Prester John: A Fourteenth-Century Manuscript at Cambridge- Malcolm Letts
Christian-Muslim Relations. A Bibliographical History. Volume 4 (1200-1350) - edited by David Thomas, Alexander Mallett

1. Karl F. Helleiner  concludes in his paper – Assuming that it was political motives which caused the unknown author of the Epistola to fabricate this strange piece of correspondence-a desire to give some tangible encouragement to the hard-pressed Christians in the Holy Land, as well as the wish to take the high and mighty ruler of the Byzantine Empire down a peg or two by extolling the superior power and virtue of another Christian prince-did he really have to strain the credulity of his readers by adding all those fantastic details about India? All I can suggest is that the writer must have lost sight of whatever may have been his immediate objectives. He was carried away by his imagination, and composed a work whose character corresponds very closely to modern science fiction.

2. Most enticing among all the stories of Prester John is his magic mirror. The mirror allowed Prester John to see everything in his kingdom and instructed him in all the duties he was meant to perform. Is such a system not what every ruler of the West and East want even today? And the fountain of youth aspect continues to be researched by so many !

3. Rev Hosten professes an explanation that Mar John reached Constantinople to meet the Greek Emperor John II and that Mar John may have reached Rome only in 1124, not 1122.

4. Calicut Heritage forum had written in detail about the visit of Gama and the mentions of Christians. Please check this link out fordetails