The Saint in the Banyan Tree: Christianity and Caste Society in India

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The Saint in the Banyan Tree: Christianity and Caste Society in India | David Mosse

The Saint in the Banyan Tree: Christianity and Caste Society in India

David Mosse

The Anthropology of Christianity

University of California Press

October 2012


408 pages

The Saint in the Banyan Tree is a nuanced and historically persuasive exploration of Christianity’s remarkable trajectory as a social and cultural force in southern India. Starting in the seventeenth century, when the religion was integrated into Tamil institutions of caste and popular religiosity, this study moves into the twentieth century, when Christianity became an unexpected source of radical transformation for the country’s ‘untouchables’ (dalits). Mosse shows how caste was central to the way in which categories of ‘religion’ and ‘culture’ were formed and negotiated in missionary encounters, and how the social and semiotic possibilities of Christianity lead to a new politic of equal rights in South India. Skillfully combining archival research with anthropological fieldwork, this book examines the full cultural impact of Christianity on Indian religious, social and political life. Connecting historical ethnography to the preoccupations of priests and Jesuit social activists, Mosse throws new light on the contemporary nature of caste, conversion, religious synthesis, secularization, dalit politics, the inherent tensions of religious pluralism, and the struggle for recognition among subordinated people.

David Mosse is Professor of Social Anthropology, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. Among his books are The Rule of Water: Statecraft, Ecology and Collective Action in South India (2003) and Cultivating Development: An Ethnography of Aid Policy and Practice (2004).

List of Illustrations
Note on Transliteration


  1. A Jesuit Mission in History
  2. A Culture of Popular Catholicism
  3. Christians in Village Society: Caste, Place, and the Ritualization of Power
  4. Public Worship and Disputed Caste: The Santiyakappar Festival over 150 Years
  5. Christianity and Dalit Struggle: 1960s to 1980s
  6. Hindu Religious Nationalism and Dalit Christian Activism
  7. A Return Visit to Alapuram: Religion and Caste in the 2000s



“The author achieves both historical depth and ethngraphic sophistication in his analysis of the complex relationship between caste and Christianity in India.”
J. J. Preston Choice

“Achieving a masterful synthesis of history and ethnography, this work examines the construction and contestation of caste within Tamil Catholicism.”
Religious Studies Review

“This is a powerful and exciting work. Mosse has produced a work of scholarship that is lively and readable without any loss of subtlety and sophistication. It is a ground-breaking study, of critical importance to the ways we understand religious nationalism and the anthropology of postcolonial experience.”
Susan Bayly, author of Asian Voices in a Postcolonial Age

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