A Hungarian scholar of medieval Christianity is on a mission to preserve a slice of India’s Syrian Christian past. A slice that is written from right to left in a near-dead West Asian language and lies scattered in Kerala’s church attics, seminary vaults and ancient homes.
“There is a remarkably rich heritage of Syriac in Kerala, particularly from the 15th to 19th centuries,” says Istvan Perczel, who teaches at the Central European University, Budapest. Enchanted by this heritage, he has been digitising Syriac documents, correspondence and religious writings. “Syriac thrived in Kerala even while this sacred language was fading away from its place of birth,” Prof. Perczel notes.
For starters, Syriac was the language Jesus Christ spoke (in the West, they call it Aramaic) and was the language of worship for Syrian Christians from the time Christianity came to Kerala in 52 A.D. until the mid-20th century. The term Syrian Christians (or Suriyaani Christians, who constitute more than half the Christian population in Kerala) comes from their long association with Syriac. Before the Malayalam script became popular, a section of Syrian Christians used to write Malayalam in Syriac script, which like Arabic, is written from right to left. “Syriac was to Christians in Kerala what Sanskrit is to Brahmins,” Prof. Perczel says.
But, Syriac, which contributed several words to the Malayalam language, has all but vanished, mainly because most churches replaced it with Malayalam as the language of worship. Tonnes of centuries-old Syriac manuscripts are being gnawed at by termites and Time. Prof. Perczel has, over the past eight years, visited several seminaries and homes looking for manuscripts. Old seminaries that kept invaluable manuscripts in their vaults allowed him to photograph, copy and digitise. “The number of hitherto-unknown Syriac texts we uncovered is virtually uncountable,” he said. One is a 17th century poem written by Kadavil Chandy Kathanaar, a prominent clergyman who was known as “Alexander the Indian”. There have been families who specialised in Syriac learning and teaching.
Based on the study of the manuscripts, Prof. Perczel now questions the received wisdom that the Portuguese missionaries burnt most of the Syriac religious writings at the Synod of Diampur. The synod — held in 1599 at Udayamperoor, some 20 km from Kochi, at the behest of the then Portuguese archbishop of Goa, Alexis de Menesis —was a landmark in Kerala’s Christian history. The Portuguese, who thought the practices and liturgy of the native Christians heretical, burnt the texts and sought to replace them with Latin liturgy. Following the 1653 Coonan Cross Oath at Kochi, the Syrian Christians revolted against the Portuguese missionaries and temporarily seceded from the Roman Church. The fact that the researchers could find “heretical” Syriac texts, according to Prof. Perczel, shows that several such texts could have survived the synod and that the burning could even be a “myth”.Quantum leap
The digitisation drive could lead to a quantum leap in the knowledge of the history of Christianity in India. An important outcome of the effort has been the new insight into the history of Kochi, which had intense interactions with the rest of the Christian world. P.J. Cherian, head of Kerala Council of Historical Research, feels Prof. Perczel’s digitisation effort is an important step as “it provides new perspectives on how Christianity, a foreign religion, got integrated with the Indian culture and way of life.”
Prof. Perczel is excited about the manuscripts he has unearthed. “They need to be preserved for the future as they talk about a colourful period in Christianity’s history in India.” To help him in the mission, his family had relocated from Budapest to Thrissur for sometime and his children, who attended a local school, learnt Malayalam.
7 months ago