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Journey of discovery

SARASWATHY NAGARAJAN

Hungarian professor Istvan Perczel’s research throws light on the Syrian Christians in India.


I found a few texts... that have liturgical practices that precede the Synod of Udayamperoor.


Photo: C.V. Subrahmanyam

Chronicling the past: Istvan Perczel.

Istvan Perczel’s nearly 10-year stay and work in this antique land of ours promises to throw new light on the Syrian Christians in India. A book of poems by a 17th century priest called Kadavil Chandy Kathanar is just one of the many gems unearthed by this Hungarian professor.

Eventually he plans to write on the travails and travels of Mar Simeon, a Persian Metropolitan who came to India in 1701.

Story of a bishop

“This is the story of a bishop who came from Diyarbakir, through Jerusalem, Rome, Spain and Lisbon to India, in order to be the shepherd of his people here. But he was caught and sent back on a ship, from where he escaped and landed in Surat in Gujarat, where he was again held in confinement. Later, he managed to come to Kerala at a time when the Vatican was trying to appoint bishops in India independent of the Portuguese King. So Mar Simeon was escorted to Alangad, where he consecrated the first bishop of Verapoly. However, he was subsequently interned in Pondicherry.

“Although he was unable to cater to the spiritual needs of his people, his work was continued by another East Syrian Metropolitan called Mar Gabriel,” recounts Dr. Perczel. It was the treasure of documents in Syriac, the ancient language that used to be the language of worship of the early Christians in Kerala that brought Dr. Perczel to India.

“In fact, the indigenous Christians in Kerala are called Suriyaani Christians on account of their association with Syriac. I wanted to see if there were documents that would show some kind of intellectual discussions with Hinduism during the Middle Ages. That turned out to be a disappointment but I stumbled upon many a treasure that has made my journey worthwhile,” says Dr. Perczel.

His missionary zeal to go back in time to travel with the early Syrian Christians motivated him to become a research associate of The Oriental Institute of Tubingen University, which has funded his work. Most of the documents (on liturgical, theological, philosophical and historical matters) were found in seminaries, churches and in private collections. For instance, he found the book of poems written in Syriac by Kadavavil Chandy Kathanar and innumerable historical letters at St. Joseph’s CMI monastery at Mannanam.

“Although we knew about the existence of one poem, I stumbled upon this collection during my work in Mannanam. Chandy, who called himself Alexander the Indian, was an erudite doctor of Syriac, who was trained in Chennamangalam by the Jesuits and was also familiar with local Christian hymns and worship. In his original poetry, written in Syriac, he combines the European humanist culture learned from the Jesuits with the traditions of the Indian Syrian Church. In the Chaldean Syrian Collection in Thrissur (in the custody of Mar Aprem Metropolitan) is preserved what is perhaps the oldest copy of the most important collection of East Syrian Church law. This book has been digitised and published.

“I feel that it is the personal copy of Mar Abraham, the last Persian Metropolitan who administered the Malabar Church before the Portuguese took over.”

According to him, it is wrong to say that Indians have no sense of history. He says that priests and church administrators used to document almost everything and copies were made of even letters to various important personalities of that time.

“We can read about people, events, decisions, laws and canons. There are many Malayalam texts written in Syriac script. I can read them, but my knowledge of Malayalam is not enough to understand them. So I am reading these together with Dr. George Kurukkoor, a specialist of old Malayalam,” he explains.

According to Dr. Perczel, his study of the Syriac documents points out that the Portuguese missionaries may not have entirely succeeded in their attempt to destroy the Syriac religious writings at the Synod of Udayamperoor in 1599 AD.

Discovery of texts

“I found a few texts, forgotten or hidden, that have liturgical practices that precede the Synod of Udayamperoor. In Thrissur, for example, there is an East Syriac breviary copied in 1585, which shows liturgical practices that were already not in use in the Persian Church,” muses the scholar.

In addition to finding the missing pieces in a historical jigsaw puzzle that covers centuries and continents, Dr. Perczel has also been digitalising the documents that are spread over Kerala in places like Thrissur, Pampakuda, Ernakulam, Kottayam and Thiruvananthapuram. The digitised documents are being archived and preserved at Hill Museum and Manuscripts Library in Minnesota, in the United States.

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