Main Scholarly Results

Digitization in the Mannanam archives

Our team has been able to access altogether 61 large and small manuscript collections in Kerala that hold manuscripts written in Classical Syriac (an Aramaic language that was used as the main literary language of Asian Christians), Neo-Aramaic, Malayalam (a Dravidian language spoken in Kerala), Tamil, Latin, Portuguese, and English. Among the collections accessed are the largest and most important collections known in Kerala, such as the Chaldean Syrian collection in Thrissur, the Konat collection in Pampakuda, and the collection of Saint Joseph’s Monastery in Mannanam. The collected material amounts to 347,293 files, corresponding to 228,895 manuscript pages, occupying 5,260 TB memory (without the Konat collection in Pampakuda, the files of which are in custody of the HMML). Among the digitized material there are 1176 Syriac and Malayalam Garshuni[1] manuscripts, 67 Malayalam paper manuscripts, over 60,000 palm leaf documents arranged in 629 bundles, 29 Malayalam literary palm leaf documents (granthas) and thousands of archival documents shedding light on the history, the political relations, and the daily life of the communities. The cataloguing of this material is progressing.

Mar Aprem, the Metropolitan Bishop of the Church of the East in India: one of the main inspirers and supporters of the SRITE project, and the manuscripts in his custody

This immense new material gathered – the dates of the manuscripts range from 1290 to the present – constitutes a major breakthrough 1) in the study of the history and culture of the Indian Syrian Christians; 2) in understanding the relationship of the Indian Christians to Oriental Christianity in general and 3) in Western (Portuguese, Dutch, British) colonial and missionary history. Moreover, 4) our material opens new perspectives on a much-discussed colonial and post-colonial problem, namely, the question whether the “Indians” had ever had historical consciousness or had been engulfed in a mythical world view; also, 5) it provides a basis for an unprecedented socio-economic study of the Christian churches and village communities in Kerala. Finally, 6) we are pioneering in the study of a hitherto almost entirely unknown literature, the one written in Garshuni Malayalam, an old script for writing Malayalam used exclusively by the Christians, based on the Syriac alphabet enriched with 8 Dravidian and a changing number of Modern Grantha characters, and antedating the presently used Malayalam alphabet.

The new picture emerging about the Kerala Syrian Christian communities is that of an Indian caste (even two endogamous sub-castes) equally belonging to their local Indian community and to their fellow Syrian Christians in western Asia, to whom they were strongly connected through trans-Arabian-Sea trade. The Portuguese and the subsequent colonizers stepped into this framework. They were first received enthusiastically by the Indian Christians and, from this interaction, an incipient new syncretistic Euro-Indian culture began to take shape. This culture, which flourished in the sixteenth century, was destroyed, however, by the aggressive behaviour of the Europeans, so that the later history of the community was that of passive resistance and of the creation of new secret and open contacts with the West Asian mother Churches. The preservation of archives as a gauge of Syrian Christian identity in India was part of this resistance and fight for survival.

None of the new fields of study initiated by this research was even conceived of before this project. They are as follows:


Classical Syriac as an Indian lingua franca

This research has revealed the importance that the Classical Syriac language had attained in India before and during the colonial period (from the late fifteenth to the early twentieth century). This language was the one that local Christians used to communicate with their West Asian co-religionists and, later, with European missionaries. This resulted in the production of diverse genres of local literature in Syriac, a phenomenon that was unknown until this research.  Publishing the corpus of Indian Syriac literature is an ongoing project. Among the new discoveries of the research are a rich sixteenth-century literature written in Syriac by Jesuit authors for the use of their Indian missions, the poetic oeuvre of Kadavil Chandy Kattanar, a hitherto almost unknown Indian poet writing in Syriac in India in the seventeenth century, scientific treatises combining local Indian, Middle Eastern, and Jesuit knowledge, and historical correspondence among the local elite, Middle Eastern, and European missionaries.


Christian Malayalam and Garshuni Malayalam

The literary documents that we have collected show clearly the peculiarities of a Christian Malayalam “religiolect” (a dialectal variation of a language, used by a given religious group), a parallel to Jewish Malayalam and Arabic Malayalam, and also diverse stages as it evolved from an early form that could be called a “Syriacized southern Malayalam” dialect, in contradistinction to the Jewish and Arabic Malayalam dialects that are of the Northern type.[2] The Christian Malayalam “religiolect” underwent superficial Latinization in the seventeenth century and massive Sanskritization in the nineteenth century. Christians also had their own old script, Garshuni Malayalam, based on the Syriac alphabet, with a number of additional letters adopted from Old Malayalam and Modern Grantha (the predecessor of modern Malayalam script).  Garshuni Malayalam is a phonetic script that reproduces a language with archaic features close to Tamil in a Semitic script that has been adapted to the rules of Dravidian alphabets. Examining the documents written in this script, publishing and analyzing them, is another important objective of the project. Recently the Unicode fonts for writing Garshuni Malayalam have been developed by a collaboration between George Kiraz and his team at Beth Mardutho: the Syriac Institute and the JewsEast project, with István Perczel’s scholarly advice:  


A new body of literature

Garshuni Malayalam studies are uncovering a sunken continent of local Indian literature, including books on history, the first scholarly dictionary of the Malayalam language antedating the famous 1870 dictionary by Herman Gundert by c. 250 years, which was hitherto thought to be the first, the first interfaith dialogue written in Malayalam between a Jewish rabbi, a Jew, a Hindu, a Christian, and a Muslim, all from Kerala, the original acts in Garshuni Malayalam of the famous Synod of Diamper (1599).

Church economies and the social networks of the Christian communities are studied through palm leaf manuscripts that have been saved and digitized. Older churches were and partly are conserving their daily economic and judicial records in palm leaf manuscripts. When István Perczel first visited Kerala, these palm leaves were considered to have no worth. In the best case they were slowly decaying, in the worst case they were being actively destroyed. We reversed this process, showed the value of the palm leaf manuscripts and have digitised over 60,000 of them. Now they are being used by Indian historians to write the modern social and economic history of the Christian community in particular and of Kerala in general (see below). These studies reveal slave-holding in the Christian churches up to the nineteenth century, their taxation of dowries, the social position of women in the community, and the intricate relationships between the Christian and the Hindu communities.

[1] Garshuni Malayalam is the local Malayalam  language written in Syriac script enriched with 8 Old Malayalam  and a changing number of Modern Malayalam letters. For the most up-to-date description see I. Perczel, “Garshuni Malayalam: A Witness to an Early Stage of Indian Christian Literature” in the bibliography, below.

[2] Garshuni Malayalam is the local Malayalam  language written in Syriac script enriched with 8 Old Malayalam  and a changing number of Modern Malayalam letters. For the most up-to-date description see I. Perczel, “Garshuni Malayalam: A Witness to an Early Stage of Indian Christian Literature” in the bibliography, below. For the Jewish religiolect, see Ophira Gamliel, “Fading Memories and Linguistic Fossiles in the Religiolect of Kerala Jews” in Erich Kasten, Katja Roller and Joshua Wilbur (eds) Oral History Meets Linguistics (Fürstenberg/Havel: Verlag der Kulturstiftung Sibirien, 2017), p. 83-105.