When Christians Meet Each Other: The Saint Thomas Christians of Southwest India During the Early Modern Period
Podcast with István Perczel (08 November 2021).
Interviewed by Sidney Castillo
Transcribed by Sidney Castillo
Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcasts/when-christians-meet-each-other/
Saint Thomas Christians, Kerala, Early Modern Period, historiography, source language, mysticism.
Sidney Castillo (SC) 0:00
Now, I’m sitting with Professor István Perczel from Central European University. This is an interview that is being recorded after the conference that we participated in, at CEU in late November, titled Imperial Mysticisms. So we’re hoping to talk about this subject and research from István Perczel during this interview. Thank you for being with us.
István Perczel (IP) 0:18
Thank you for inviting me for this interview.
I will introduce you very briefly, István Perczel is Professor of Byzantine and Eastern Christian Studies in the Department of medieval studies at Central European University Budapest, Hungary. He obtained his Candidatus Scientiae degree in 1995 at tThe Hungarian Academy of Sciences. He has extensively worked on Late Antique and Patristic Philosophy. And in the year 2000, he initiated the digitization and cataloguing of the manuscripts collection of the St. Thomas Christians of Kerala. Welcome again to The Religious Studies Project.
Just to start to try to situate your research a little bit, I would like to ask you that you participated in the discovery of a corpus of source language manuscripts in Kerala. What does this encompasses and how it sheds light on Early Indian Christianity?
Yeah, participated, but I think I initiated it basically, in the year and, how to say, it started in 1998. and I went for a conference in Kerala. And then they showed the conference participants, the Syriac manuscript collections, that was, I expected that such things would be there, but then I saw them with my own eyes. And then slowly, slowly, I built up a project for the digital preservation of these manuscripts. I made surveys of the conditions of the archives, and tried to calculate how many manuscripts that can be before applying for research funds. And I had a conservative estimate of around 1,000, little known, unknown Syriac manuscripts in India. And by now we have digitized over 1,200. And we don’t know how many more there are. Now, sSomehow this process has started because you have to be there to promote it. And now I am back to Hungary, then to Vienna teaching and whatever. I had romantic ideas about the stock of manuscripts that people would find there. As you asked, I expected that there would be something with direct relevance for the Late Antique or medieval history of Christianity in India.
Because, although few people notice that, there has been a Christian presence in India since Late Antiquity. The legend says that it was the apostle St. Thomas who converted the first ancestors, of those who are called now Thomas Christians are who are also called the Syrian Christians of India, they are also called Māppila Christians. And this is the local term, Māppila, which means the son of the maternal uncle, which means the idea of bridegroom. So these were bridegroom Christians together with the bridegroom Jews and the bridegroom Muslims. Because the community apparently was formed by intermarriage between women belonging to local matrilineal, exogamous castes and Western traders, travelers, sailors, who came by means of the monsoon winds through the Indian Ocean—the Arabian Sea, in fact. So, whenever this first evangelisation happened, it must have come on this route.
The Roman sailors knew the cross Arabian Sea routes via the monsoon winds from the beginning of the 1st century. And we have lots of documents about the trade interactions between India and the Mediterranean in the 1st century. Now, whether or not an apostle has come, the only thing we can say is that it was not difficult to get there, but there is no direct evidence about an apostolic preaching in India. The first direct evidences are ambiguous, and they are all coming from the west, nothing in India. What we discovered is mostly very interesting Early Modern and Modern material. But within this, there is a strong historiographic material. Because these people are keen on writing and retelling their own history. And you have volumes and many texts, retelling the history of the community from the Early Modern times.
And you also have Portuguese reports because they were also in contact with the local Christians when they came, first in 1498—Vasco da Gama arrived in Calicut. And in the year 1500, Pedro Álvares Cabral discovered the Christians because Vasco da Gama didn’t find them at the beginning. When he came back in 1502, then he encountered Christians; he was the second Portuguese admiral to encounter Christians—the first was Pedro Álvares Cabral. So we also have records—and these records are not very well processed yet, these Portuguese reports. A lot of them are in manuscripts in Lisbon, and Goa.
The first Syriac manuscripts that were written in India—the first Syriac manuscript that was written in India is now in the Vatican Library, and it was written in 1301. And it’s a liturgical manuscript, but it has a very important colophon. And it even says where it was written, and it was written in a town, which the manuscript calls, Shinjli, or Shingri, which we knew otherwise only from Jewish sources. Shingri is a legendary Jewish city in India. And apparently, wherever it was—we don’t know what this place means, in fact—there was a Jewish and a Christian community in the Middle Ages. But then the next Syriac manuscript from India dates to the 16th century, I think 1563. So we don’t have old manuscripts.
We have local records, and the most important local records which contain royal documents, royal donations to Christian communities are from the 9th century. The famous Kollam copper plates. The Kollam copper plates are the second oldest local documents because you don’t have all documents there. And it’s a grant letter written on copper plates and given to a sanctuary called Tarisappalli, which is apparently a Persian, Malayalam, hybrid word. Palli means sanctuary. And Tarisa comes from Tarsa, Early Modern Persian Tarsa, meaning “god fearer”. So the “sanctuary of the god fearers”, and this “god fearers” was the Persian name for Christians. So it’s clear, and also there is a leader of the Christian community who has a Christian name, Mar Sapir Iso. And so this is the first local document, but it’s late, its 9th century, the rest is legends and also histories and it is possible to put history together, but we have indirect sources, both from the West. Earlier than the 6th century, we have very unclear documentation, because you don’t know what the “India” or the documents means, because India was called the place from where the spices come.
Now, this means that from the Arab peninsula to the Indian port cities, among which the most important was called Muziris, coming from the Malayalam word Muchiri —that is to say “harelip”— but we have this in this Malayalam word. We have in the agreed documents the name Muziris, that is Muchiri. Mu is three (muna), and Chiri is the lip. So, a lip with three paths that is because it was in the delta of the Periyar river, where it was separated into three branches. So we have documents, but those which were digitized for this early history, they are only indirectly passes. The most useful, perhaps, are historiographic works, which retell the history of the community from what is beginning with St. Thomas, and then going to contemporary times. We have such histories from the 17th to 18th centuries, written in Syriac and in Malayalam.
Specifically about that, I would like to ask you, how can we understand the Christian evangelization process or processes for that matter in southwest India? Where there any stages or is it possible to identify?
Absolutely. I have heard a lot on this, because for a long while. So first, I didn’t know what to do with this relatively Modern material. It’s true that the oldest manuscripts that were digitized from 1290 and 1291. But the oldest one, which is dated 1209, are legal texts. East Syriac and West Syriac Nomocanons, the East Syriac Nomocanons were published in a facsimile edition and the West Syriac is forthcoming. But they arrived lately, the East Syriac Nomocanon dated 1291 most probably arrived around 1560 And something so it must have been ruled by the last Persian Metropolitan of the Christians there.
About the other one, which is the oldest manuscripts from there, the Nomocanon of Bar Ebroyo, the West Syriac Nomocanon, we know who was the West Syriac Bishop, Mar Baselius Sakralla, who brought it to Kerala 1751. So it arrived there as late as the mid 18th century. So, but what was written in India, with the exception of that only manuscript in the Vatican Library is Early Modern, beginning with the 16th century. And at first I was disappointed. I wanted to find the old things, they were not there. But then I understood several things which are very useful for understanding, that the Syriac literacy that we encounter there, is recent. And apparently, there was a long gap in contact with the mother churches.
Eight years before Vasco de Gama discovered the way to India, there was a delegation going to Gazarta, to the Nestorian patriarch. The East Syriac patriarch was residing in present Eastern Turkey and they were, after a long pause, when there was nobody coming from the Middle East to India, so that there was no Bishop, and there was no consecration of priests. According to the local histories, they came to a situation where there remained only one consecrated deacon. And they forced that deacon to celebrate the mass. And this deacon, whose name was Joseph, went with two companions of his who were laymen, together in 1490, asking for bishops. They were consecrated priests, from which two of them reached out of the three because one died on the road. These were not very simple expeditions, often someone died. And they brought bishops and those bishops have renewed Syriac culture in India, eight years before the arrival of the Portuguese.
And there is a famous story about the condemnation by the Portuguese of the local manuscripts, which were catalogued and censored by a very eager Jesuit Syriacyst, who was called Francisco Ros, a Catalonian Jesuit. So there was a synod condemning the heretical teachings found in these books in 1599. But, to my mind, those books which were then condemned were also recent. So they were brought to India in the 16th century by this renewed contact with the Persian Church, the East Syriac church. What was there before? We don’t know. Sorry, I am responding to the questions in a retroactive way, because this is also the process of our work, of reconstruction. We have first digitized material, this is Early Modern, we are cataloging them, reading them, trying to understand, and then we try to get back in time, because what we knew until now was mostly local and European legends. And what we try to establish on the basis of the documents is at least a probable historiography, or even more documented historiography, but it’s not easy.
And what I understood, however, during this work was that Syriac was of limited help, I am a Syriacist. This is why and how I went to India, because there were very few people who were dealing with the Indian Syriac material, the Indian and the Süryani of India, that is to say the Syrian Christians. But this is again misleading, because Süryani is a Persian word, meaning the Christians of the Persian Empire. and they were called Süryani because their liturgical language was Syriac, but these were Persian-speaking Christians. So the first trace, which is documented really is the presence of Persian-speaking Christian traders who were coming, and apparently intermarrying with local women. There are legends about this, very interesting legends as well. Legends also contain very interesting historical information, but it’s difficult to interpret.
Okay, so there is a legend. Now I go the other way down from the beginning. There is a legend about an apostolic mission. The local tradition knows about St. Thomas Christians, about St. Thomas evangelizing. But there is a report from Pantaenus, the Alexandrian teacher, according to which it was the apostle Bartholomew, who went to India. But we don’t know what this India is, because there was also an outer India and then inner India. Outer India, that’s the area beginning with Arab Peninsula, as India is the place from where the spices come. And inner India may mean India, but what this means precisely that’s difficult to know.
Then from the 6th century onwards, we have very reliable information about the presence of Persian-speaking merchants, we have Cosmas Indicopleustes who wrote in Greek. And we have the Chronicle of Seert which originally was written in Syriac, but which we know in an Arabic translation and it contains valuable 6th century material about the presence of Persian speaking Christian traders in India, for whose sake, a certain Bishop called Manna translated liturgical texts from Syriac to Persian, so that they may use them or understand them in India. So, the first documented presence of that was Persian-speaking traders from the 6th century, Cosmas Indicopleustes and the Chronicles of Seert.
And then the first local document is this royal grant to the Tarisappalli, Kollam copper plates or Tarisappalli copper plates dated 849 which is clearly a royal grant letter given to a Christian community. And interestingly, there are witnesses on the last copper plate testifying to the validity of the document by apparently members of a trade guild, which is most probably the so called Anjuvannam trade guild, the trade guild of the foreigners, while Manigramam seems to be the trade guild of the local traders. And the signatures are in two languages, Arabic and middle Early Modern Persian in three types of characters: Kufic Arabic, Pahlavi, and Hebrew. So first, Muslim traders testify to the validity of the document in Arabic written in Kufic characters; second, Christian traders writing in Persian, in Pahlavi characters; third, Zoroastrian traders writing also in…
…Early Modern or middle Persian, in Pahlavi characters; and fourth, Jewish traders writing in Early Jewish Persian, Early Modern Jewish Persian in Hebrew characters. So this is the first very strong document of the presence of all these trading communities. I have an idea because people think that this was to validate the royal grant. But I don’t think so. This would even overestimate the role of these trading guilds in the royal courts. It seems to me that the document is a copy of the original and it is the copy which was testified to by the members of the trade guild. So we don’t know the precise date of the copy because there is the date, which can be established to be 849. But that is the date of the original document, of the issuance of the original document. So, this is a very important document and a two-volume monograph, there was an international research project on just the Kollam plates, and a two-volume monograph is forthcoming. If I can still accomplish my duty, then I will give a text on the indirect text traditional to the Kollam copper plates.
So, 9th century, then we have later royal grants, whereas the next which is very important, it is a similar grant to Jewish traders. And then we have the Iravi Kortann copper plates, already I think it’s 13th century if I am not wrong, to apparently a Christian trader. All these are written in old Malayalam in local Dravidian script. And then we have we have very interesting Tamil inscription from 1492, another royal grant. So we can establish that there was a certain formulaic identity between these royal grants from the 9th to the 15th century.
And this shows how communities in port cities received privileges. This is our documentation. Besides this, we have very interesting legends, noted very early, either in these Malayalam or Syriac documents that we found, or by the Portuguese, who noted them either translating something or rather through hearsay. And so what we can establish, however, is that it was these trade communities, which received very important profit privileges…
… from the local Rajas, the local kings. And whose presence was very important for securing the trans-Arabian Sea trade. And unfortunately, the religious issues are not in these documents, because these are purely legal documents. It’s only from the accompanying legends that we know that, for these communities or with these communities, that came also bishops. There were two very famous bishops who are connected to that community. So these two bishops were called Mar Afrat, and Mar Shabur. And they were the saints of the community. They apparently came in the 9th century, and many churches were dedicated to them. Now, by that time, they belong to the church of the East, which has also called Nestorian Church, and that was their affiliation until the Portuguese came.
And the first report on the arrival of the Portuguese, is also written by those bishops, who came not in 1490, but a little later in 1500 to 1503, who tell about their arrival in Kannur, which is in the northern part of Kerala where they met the Portuguese. And they are detailing the story, how the Portuguese came, how they got into battles with the Muslims, and so on, and so on, how they were treated by the Portuguese, who are treating them very well. And they were very happy that there were some powerful Christians from the West. So for a while, there was a very good relationship between the local Christians and the Portuguese colonizers, because they saw in them allies, and they also had fierce competition with the Muslim traders. And that helped the Christian traders to have the upper hand.
The problem began with some hardening of the mission in the mid 16th century that was connected to the Council of Trent. And then there was the idea that these heretical people, that these are heretics. And they have to be converted, or at least brought to obedience with the Roman church. But in fact, that last Persian Metropolitan whom I mentioned, Mar Abraham, who came as a Nestorian, was caught in 1558, by the Portuguese, and they forced him to sign a Roman Catholic confession. I found that confession, but I’m not sure whether it is that confession, or the confession that he made later, confession of faith in Rome. The two must be quite similar, however, because then he became a Catholic bishop. But they wanted to remove him, the Portuguese. They deported him, he escaped in Mozambique from the Portuguese ship, and learned that the Patriarch who consecrated him, —because all these bishops had lifelong obedience to the patriarch who consecrated them—but that patriarch died. And then he didn’t go to the next Nestorian patriarch, because by the time there was a schism already within the Church of the East, one part of them in 1552, joined the Roman Catholic Church. They became the Chaldeans, so-called Chaldean Church.
So he went to the Chaldean patriarch, Mar Abdisho the IV, who sent him to Rome. And then this Mar Abraham was reconsecrated, as Metropolitan of India, by the patriarch of Venice. And he was appointed by the Pope. So he came back as a Catholic bishop. And then began a long strife with the Portuguese who had to accept his various consecrations in Rome, but who didn’t like him, and considered him an enemy. And he acted in an ambiguous way, one has to admit, because what he wanted was to keep the Syriac tradition. So a very interesting interaction began. And his main enemy was this young Jesuit, Francisco Ros, who was a brilliant Syriacist. And so, we have a lot of documents and information from this period, because that was a time when the kulturkampf, the cultural war, was going on in Syriac, which meant that a lot of Syriac literature was produced in India at that time. That was the place where more Syriac literature was produced than anywhere else in the world in the 16th-17th centuries.
Is that, like the translations were coming from, like source language to then Latin and then back and forth?
Yeah, yeah. There was great translating activity and also original texts were produced and all these was to make them good Tridentine Catholics, and they were resisting and then developing the cult of the Chaldean jurisdiction which is also under Rome. And that went on until that Synod, the 15th provincial Synod, not diocesan Synod. It was the province of Goa and the Diocese of Malabar. 1599, the famous Synod of Diamper, where their books, their customs, whatever, were condemned, to reduce them to a Tridentine obedience, and that didn’t work very well. So that in 1653, there was a revolt. They appointed a local priest to be their Metropolitan Bishop. First they wanted to be under the Chaldean jurisdiction, but then finally in 1665, a Jacobite —the West Syriac— Bishop came and consecrated this Metropolitan, was nominated by the laying of hands or consecrated by the laying of hands of twelve presbyters, so-called uncannonically. And then they came about a split, because part of the church followed Mar Thoma, who became an independent Metropolitan, and part of the church wanted to be under the book. But they were also kind of resilient. So that story went on during hundreds of years, and I can’t go into the details.
But it’s a very interesting story of Christian anti-colonial resistance. And for this, we have absolutely new material. So whatever, we found there sheds new light, and it’s a fantastic story seeing it from the inside, from the local sources, both in Syriac and in Malayalam, and they come from secret archives, which finally were open to us. So, these are things that nobody has ever seen before and it was also a secret movement and so, there we have a lot to say, I have a few things to say.
Right. Now, you mentioned about the heretics and how this input from the church was trying to align the local Christians, into what is Tridentine theology, I want to ask related to that, what challenges did the mystical thought present in the manuscripts posed to the Jesuits and how they managed them?
Okay. It is a very interesting, at least for me a very interesting issue that the cultural wars, so-called, between the Jesuits and the Middle Eastern envoys or bishops, be the Nestorian Chaldean or Jacobite was going on not only in the liturgical, and juridical level, but also at the spiritual level too. We have a very important document by this aforementioned Francisco Ros who was the first really good Syriacist on the part of the knowing Syriac which was the liturgical and literary language of these Indian Christians, who knew this language well, in a creative way, he was speaking and writing this language, and was surrounded by other missionary schools, and he was apparently the first able to read the books. And he was scandalized, because these were books of Nestorian theology. And he found out that there are also mystical texts.
There is a fantastic book, The Life of Joseph Busnaya which is extended in one manuscript in the Vatican, but in the revised version, so some choirs are missing. And apparently those choirs contained that theology, which Ros reading the book was scandalized with. So he wrote excerpts from this book, containing the Nestorian theology which were nowhere in the manuscript in the Vatican. We know them only in the quotations of Ros. And he said that the book was brought to India by his older opponent Mar Abraham, the last Persian Metropolitan, who, even when he came back from Rome, was detained by the Portuguese in Goa for two years. And during those two years, he was revising that book. Now, what we found, however, in I think, three different copies, —one is in Cambridge, one is in Thrissur, and one is in Mankulam— are excerpts from the life of Joseph Busnaya by Yohannan bar Kaldun and they contain the mystical teaching of the text, which is only partly present in the Vatican manuscript.
Now, what is interesting is that, apparently, I don’t know about the aim of, but perhaps also other bishops, were also introducing the mystical teaching of the Church of the East. But Mar Abraham definitively was keen on introducing this. And I can imagine that those excerpts are from Mar Abraham, although it may be later as well, they are fantastic excerpts, and I have not yet published a little bit of them, but the whole thing should be published. And, apparently, Ros, who himself had a mystical inclination, took the challenge, and started to translate Western mystical material into Syriac for countering this East Syriac influence, because apparently, mysticism was also important for these people.
And so he translated a lot —or his circle— translated a lot of Western spiritual literature, and apparently, their favorite author was Dyonisius the Carthusian. So there is a lot of Dionysius the Carthusian translated from Latin, into Syriac in India in the late 16th, early 17th century. But I even found a Syriac translation of Pseudo-Dionysius the Aeropagite’s mystical theology. And I thought it was a great discovery for the Dionysian studies. And I thought that I found the lost translation by a certain translator Athanassios Ballad, a 9th century translator, but then I showed it to the person who would be considered the greatest Syriacist in the world, Sebastian Brock, he went to the Bodleian Library, open the interlinear edition of the Latin translations of Pseudo-Dionysius and found out that they were based on the 15th century translation of Ambrogio Traversari. So it was not translated from the Greek into Syriac but from the Latin. And now I attribute this translation, either to Francisco Ros or his circle, because he was crazy about Pseudo-Dionysius. In all the writings we can discover, he is quoting Dionysius, he is using Dionysius, even when he translates legal texts it becomes very Dionysian. And Dionysius the Carthusian was also using a lot of Pseudo-Dionysius, so Pseudo-Dionysius became an inspiration for the Catholic mission in India. So that’s an interesting issue.
That is a very interesting combination of translation, back and forth.
And then there was another person, great missionary, Mar Sidayatala who was a Jacobite —that is West Syriac patriarch— who became Metropolitan of the, in the Mar Thoma faction, in the dissident faction in 1685. He was a great scholar, translated many texts. And he was introducing the Jacobite teaching including mystical texts, like the revelations of Gregory the Illuminated, which he translated from Arabic into classical Syriac in India in 1689. So, there was this cultural war, which had to be conducted in Syriac has produced an incredible literature in Syriac, which was enriched by East Syrian scholars, by local scholars. We (also) found the poetical œuvre of a local, very gifted poet, Alexander the Indian, and also the Syriac missionaries. So this (was a) continuity to an unheard-of blossoming of Syriac literature in India in the Early Modern times.
Wow. I think that’s a very good idea for wrapping up, if you have any concluding remarks.
Yes, one concluding remark. What we started was an exploitation, preservation, not only digital, but also material preservation of manuscripts, archives of a physically tiny community. All together, those St. Thomas Christians number 8 million which is a small community in India, but you don’t know what is lying there in the Indian archives. It would be wonderful to do the same work with the Muslim archives. There are many Arabic and Arabic Malayalam manuscripts and you don’t know what they contain. So apparently, each community keeps its records and you don’t know what they contain.
So it remains to be yet discovered and worked upon.
Yes, I want this to be discovered. Okay, you go to the Hill Palace Museum in Thrippunithura, near Ernakulam, near Kochi. And you see there hundreds of stone monuments, inscribed stone monuments in the ancient Dravidian script and there is not even a label because nobody has read them. But they have collected them. So, I think, what they contain. What kind of history is dying in these epigraphic documents. A lot of epigraphy has been done there. Excellent epigraphists in Kerala, now Raghava Varier and (…) are the leading experts and they are publishing wonderful things. But how much more is to be done…
In order to have like, complete historiography.
Because the history of India is normally written on the basis of colonial documents. But a different history can be written on the basis of the local documents. So this is to be done.
That’s a very good takeaway. I think for now we will look forward to what you’re going to yet to be discovering and the publications that are coming up.
Thank you, Professor Perczel for being with us here on the podcast.
Thank you for this interesting conversation and your kindness.
Perczel, István and Sidney Castillo. 2021. “When Christians Meet Each Other: The Saint Thomas Christians of Southwest India During the Early Modern Period”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 08 November 2021. Transcribed by Sidney Castillo. Version 1.0, 08 November 2021. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcasts/when-christians-meet-each-other/
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