István Perczel could well be a modern-day Indiana Jones for Kerala’s elite approximately 60,00,000-strong Syrian Christian community spread across the globe. But instead of engaging in gun fights and discovering lost treasure and ancient cities, The Hungarian scholar of Byzantine history and early Christianity is bringing to life a forgotten body of Malayalam scholarly literature—one that is written in a script based on the Syriac alphabet, an ancient writing system that dates back to the 1st century AD, and shares similarities with Phoenician, Hebrew, Arabic and Sogdian.
He is now on a quest to develop an InScript keyboard for the lost script—the first of its kind—for which he had to decode thousands of palm-leaf documents lying forgotten in cupboards. They were arguably the oldest written historical records of the Syrian, or Saint Thomas Christians, a community that converted long before colonisation and missionary expansion in India.
Most of the records, popularly believed to have been destroyed in the 16th century by the Roman Catholic Church, are written in Garshuni Malayalam. While Garshuni is traditionally referred to as Arabic in a Syriac script, the records Perczel is digitising are Malayalam written in the Syriac script. It was used by the Kerala Syrian Christian clergymen till the early 20th century.
Some of the manuscripts he found were dust-ridden, rat-eaten and worm-worn.
Others had been burnt with their blackened remnants left behind. “In some
manuscript libraries, they were kept very well, like in Thrissur. But in other libraries,
they weren’t, or they were venerated but not conserved,” said Perczel.
The digitised records along with a keyboard in the Garshuni Malayalam script will give millions of Syrian Christians the world over the chance to relearn the language and their history, said Perczel.
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Building a keyboard
When European Catholic missionaries arrived in India for the first time, they were
surprised to find an existing community of Christians in Kerala. A community that
held considerable privilege and prestige, and claimed that their forefathers had been
converted by the apostle Thomas in 52 AD.
Along with his team, Perczel, who is a professor at the Central European University
in Budapest, is building a Garshuni Malayalam keyboard to help people
communicate online in the language. “We’re working on a keyboard that will help you
type Garshuni Malayalam as if you were typing Malayalam,” Perczel said at a Kriti-
SAMHiTA webinar recently organised by the India International Centre.
Perczel added that his three-person team was mostly of Indian origin, consisting of his PhD student Saranya Chandran and informatician Mujib Rahman. He also said that the keyboard will be “freeware and downloadable.”
The script has its own Unicode, a universal character encoding standard available online for free use. His team is also working on optical character recognition and handwriting recognition software for Garshuni Malayalam. This will allow people to familiarise themselves with the script and access historical records believed to have been destroyed.
Perczel has long been fascinated by the world of Syrian Christians in India. In 2000,
he launched a project to digitise, catalogue, and survey manuscripts, which were
once thought to be destroyed at the Synod of Diamper.
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The Synod of Diamper
As the Portuguese and other missionaries established the Roman Catholic Church in
India, the Syrian Christian community witnessed tectonic changes.
One such important event was the Synod of Diamper, which began on 20 June
1599 and continued till 26 June 1599. It was a council that united the Saint Thomas
Christians of the Malabar Coast in Kerala with the Roman Catholic Church. It marked
the Latinisation of the Church of Saint Thomas Christians.
The Synod of Diamper decreed that four types of ‘books’– liturgical, biblical,
theological, and magical (that dealt with divination)—were to be banned. As a result,
future generations were cleaved from their past.
Perczel argues that it gave rise to a myth that the ancient histories and records were destroyed. “When the Portuguese convened the Synod of Diamper and condemned
the customs and beliefs and even the books of the Saint Thomas Christians (or Syrian Christians) as heretical, they basically destroyed the past and the history of this community,” said Perczel.
But they were not all destroyed. Traces of the banned material in the Garshuni Malayalam script are still found in Syriac manuscripts. That said, the ban and its subsequent impact affected scholarly research. “The general belief is that we know very little about the early history of this community because everything has been destroyed in Diamper,” he said. In reality, most of what was condemned was actually preserved.
According to Perczel, the lack of information that European academics often talk about stems from researchers being unable to decipher this “linguistic wealth,” knowing only Latin scripte languages, afforded to them by the community. Only local historians will be able to reveal what the Syrian Christians held guard over for hundreds of years.
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Two decades ago, Perczel made it his mission to dig up these documents and unearth their secrets. As many as 124 Syriac and modern Aramaic manuscripts were found with the Mar Aprem Mooken, the Metropolitan of the Assyrian Church of the East, or the Chaldean Syrian Church. “Mar Aprem began manuscript studies in Kerala,” said Perczel, who finished digitising Mar Aprem’s manuscripts in 2005.
Some manuscripts, originally believed to have been destroyed, were found at the Varapuzha Carmelite Library in Kochi. They were perhaps confiscated by the Portuguese and sent to the library instead or hidden there before the Synod. Another 112 manuscripts were found in the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate (CMI) Monastery in Kerala’s Mannanam and digitised by 2008. By 2016, the team finished archiving, cataloguing and indexing all the manuscripts in the monastery and the library at Mar Aprem. It’s a labour of love that is far from complete.
In some, hymns had been copied verbatim into manuscripts. In others, ideals from
the banned books were paraphrased and localised.
But in almost all the manuscripts that he accessed, Perczel found that the names of their
authors were missing. This may have been done to hide the text from the Portuguese who would have otherwise destroyed them.
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A continuing effort
Local priests were guardians of these documents. Perczel talked about how Father Ignatius Payyappilly, a Catholic priest belonging to the Archdiocese of Ernakulam Angamaly, Kerala, preserved both collections of manuscripts found at Mar Aprem’s and the CMI Monastery by extensively studying ancient preservation techniques for paper, palm-leaves, and other materials.
These were thousands of palm-leaf documents and manuscripts in extremely diverse
Malayalam scripts which shed light on the cultural, religious, and political history of
the Syrian Christians. “Our work was not only to digitise but also to renew the conditions in which these manuscripts are kept,” said Perczel.
One of the most exciting discoveries was the Ktaba d-Pal or (Book of Lots) which contained 49 Syriac characters in a grid. Each character corresponded to an outcome or a fate for whoever was assigned it, like a divination tool. It was banned by the Synod. But now, with greater access to Garshuni Malayalam and a keyboard in the offing, the Ktaba d-Pal will one day be available to everyone.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)