Illustration: Priya Kuriyan / May 2011 Himal Southasian
Illustration: Priya Kuriyan / May 2011 Himal Southasian

Five centuries of print

The book in India, old and new.

Southasian books are ancient; Southasian printing is not. This is in spite of the fact that printing was invented in Asia, probably by the Koreans, and wooden blocks were extensively used in Southasia to print textiles from medieval times. It is significant that Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type just before the Portuguese pioneered the sea route to this region, bypassing the Arab world and making it possible for Europe to interact directly with Asia. The 'codex' book, the form of the book that we know and love today, was made possible by a constellation of technologies of which movable type was the brightest star. All this made the codex eminently portable and thus exportable. The printed codex became the vehicle in which European thought travelled the world.

In Southasia, contact with Europe quickly produced various attempts by the Europeans to manufacture codexes locally, mainly to facilitate their dealings with locals. In this, the Catholic Church swallowed its dislike of printers and worked alongside the Protestants to adapt printing technology to conditions in this region. The Portuguese introduced printing with movable type into Goa around 1556, on a press originally intended to be a gift for the ruler of Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia) but becalmed by a series of improbable events in Goa. The Catholic brotherhood were very eager to please any African potentate they came across, due to the legend of Prester John, the mythical king of a lost Christian nation in Africa whom all the empire-builders wanted to find. (The African church had indeed been the largest Christian congregation in the early centuries of Christianity.) When the king of Abyssinia asked for one of the newfangled writing machines, one was dispatched from Lisbon; but on its long and eventful journey around the coast of Africa, including shipwreck and the death of its pressman, it reached Goa, too late to be sent to the king, who had died. For a while it lay unused in Goa, until another pressman could be sent out to make use of it. Thereafter, it became part of the imperial establishment in Southasia's premier European territory.

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