Wednesday, July 3, 2013


The story of the princess who became a slave, and then a saint
The meeting was catastrophic. The Client’s distant relative who tagged along with her “profound insights into the art called architecture” couldn’t shut her trap. We ended up talking way little about the project alongside her obsession on jewelry, and cooking, and her giant Rajapalayam dog called Alibaba, and above all, India! She was one of those ‘proud’ Indians who were always complaining about how the rest of the world was sponging on India to get ideas to incorporate into their culture and how ‘everybody’ has always been stealing off everything from ‘us’ since time immemorial. The overpriced buffet spread at the restaurant with a bad Indianised variant of Mexican food is what got her started off in that area- how the Indian palette swam across oceans to give ‘them’ a little idea on taste! (I was already having a migraine attack and was speculating on the possibilities of pushing her out through the window). She went on and on about it, none of which is worth mentioning here, but an interesting detail about what inspired the traditional dress for women in the Mexican Republic called China Poblana caught my attention, since it involved a little story that amused me. We will come to our petite ‘patriotic’ friend’s version of the legend later, as it’s hilarious. But the widely accepted fable has it that, an Indian girl, who was kidnapped and sold in the slave market to end up in Puebla in Mexico, was the inspiration behind the China Poblana. Her name was Meera.

Meera (1606-1688) was just eleven or twelve years old when Portuguese pirates abducted her and brought to southern India (Cochin, in Kerala) for slave trade. Either that, or she was captured from Cochin, to where her family was displaced by the Portuguese. (There are versions that claim she was a princess in her province in Rajasthan, or Gujarat perhaps). She was evangelized and baptized by the Jesuits in Cochin, and was given the name Catherina de San Joan. Her captors then took her to various ports before ending up in Manila (present day Philippines) from where she was ferried to Acapulco in New Spain (present day Mexico) in a trade ship called Manila Galleon to work as a slave for the viceroy Marques de Gélves. At Acapulco she was in turn sold to Don Miguel de Sosa of Puebla by the merchant captain for tenfold the prize.
Childless Miguel de Sosa and his wife Margarita de Chavez took Meera a.k.a. Catherina de San Joan in as their own child. Her story continues with her not gaining the Sosa inheritance after their death and she beginning to have visions of the child Jesus and angels till her death at the age of 82, ailing and poor. By then lot was done by her presence there. In addition to having her fame grow as something similar to that of a prophetess, the Indian outfit she continued to sport had a lasting impact on her admirers. This is what is believed to have given rise to what is known as China Poblana in Mexico. China Poblana meaning “the Chinese woman from Puebla”, is the name with which Meera was known since Asians in general were called 'Chinese' in those days. 

Coming from northern India (Rajasthan or Gujarat or Agra even), Meera should have worn either Lehenga-choli or Gaghra-choli (skirt and blouse) with odhni (the drape/ shawl/ stole), the likeness of which to the China Poblana is undeniable. Both the outfits have three major components, omitting the frills, a blouse, a skirt and a shawl. Even though the dress has become a distinguishable imagery of Mexican women world over, today you get to see them dressed in China Poblana only during folk dances, tourist fiestas and holiday celebrations.

While Meera a.k.a. Catherina de San Joan has become a kind of homegrown icon in Mexico, many still claims she never existed. But my Client’s ‘patriotic’ relative surely did. In addition to all the known legends associated with the China Poblana, she also had an indigenous version to add on to the details. According to her, Meera was Meerabai, the mystical Indian princess, poet and celebrated devotee of lord Krishna!!! (Don’t mind, the woman is actually nuts). She even drew parallels between Meerabai’s visions of Krishna to that of Catherina de San Joan’s vision of baby Jesus and angels. That Meerabai lived almost a century before China Poblana or that she never stepped out of Rajasthan, least to mention India, did not seem to affect her beliefs. I couldn’t care less as a little later I did a somersault jump out of the window screaming murder. As I plummeted to my death, I could hear her switch to a new topic behind me, how the Spanish stole dance moves from Kathak to pep up Flamenco! She just keeps coming back at you like ninjas. God, save that depraved bitch!

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