By: Laxmi Murthy
A few years ago, in a small church in Ernakulam district of Kerala, Fr Ignatius Payyappilly happened to stumble upon a pile of burnt palm leaves, a residue of Ash Wednesday offerings. He was heartbroken. For this heap of ash represented not a symbol of piety, but a complete disregard of historical material dating back to the 17th century. Besides blatant human destruction by a series of rulers attempting to efface the history of previous regimes, sheer neglect and a lack of awareness of these precious records has endangered one of the richest sources of the history of Christianity in India. “I have managed to rescue about thirty thousand palm leaves, where they rest in peace in my archive,” quips the energetic young priest.
Born in 1968, and educated at various seminaries across India, Fr Ignatius went on to pursue a Masters degree in archiving in Liverpool, at the time the only Indian to have completed an archiving program. The formal qualifications only streamlined what is truly a calling for Fr Ignatius, who, in addition to being a parish priest, is the Director of the Catholic Art Museum of the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly, in the state of Kerala in India. He began to collect discarded relics from churches that were being reconstructed, including statues that showed a distinct Buddhist influence on Christianity in Kerala (see pictures below). He then went on to collect Syriac manuscripts, with the oldest in his archives dating back to 1563. Fr Ignatius then turned to the retrieval and preservation of palm leaves containing historical records of Christianity in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
Available palm leaf records belong to the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and in Kerala, a large number of palm leaf records are preserved in the Central Archives, Trivandrum as well as in the Regional archives, in Ernakulam and Kozhikode. There are private archives too such as Tharavad, churches, temples that hold palm leaf records.
Palm leaf records are a rich source of micro-history that throw new light on the relations of production of the colonial economy. Indeed, Church palm-leaves and manuscripts of Kerala are among the least exploited sources for historical studies and academic inquiry. While paper manuscripts are found in Portuguese, Latin, Italian, Dutch, and English, palm leaf records are found in three languages: (i) Malayalam – written in Vattezhuttu, Kolezhuttu, Thekken-Malayanma, Garshuni (or Suriyani) Malayalam, Arya ezhuttu (Modern Grantha – from the 17th century), Modern Malayalam (ii) Tamil – written in Tamil or Vattezhuttu and (iii) Syriac – written in East or West Syriac and their variants.
Palm leaf records are one of the best primary sources of local history, family history, social history, moral and religious history, agricultural history, economic history (accounting and book keeping), demography, medicine, besides church history, liturgical history and theology-catechism. As records of daily activities, they are not biased or “one-sided records”. The palm-leaf documents (books of daily accounts of Syrian Churches) reveal the close relation of the Christian Church with other communities as well as the social customs and practices of the locality. Interestingly, the scribes working for the churches were from the Hindu castes of Pillais and Menons.
The following heads of accounts/subjects found on the palm leaves provide a window into the daily lives of Church-goers more than two hundred years ago: patta chittu (receipt on pre-audited payments), kacheetu (a document on contract), michavaram (an extra amount levied by the landlord), pattam (receipt on land lease payment), palisa (interest), streedhanam (dowry), mammodisa (baptism),kooli (labor charge), kalyanam, vivaham (marriage), kodathi karyangal (court-related matters), panayam (mortgage), yathra (travel), vazhipadu, nercha (offering), perunnal (festivals), thulabharam (offering weighing exactly the weight of a person), nelluvaka (related to paddy), nalikeramvaka (related to coconuts), methrapolithayude karyangal (matters concerning the
metropolitan), savam maravucheyyal (burial), swarnam,velli roopam (articles of gold and silver made as offering), adiyandiram (40th-day funeral ceremony), chattham (annual remembrance of ancestors), velichenna (coconut oil), marappani (carpentry), kalppani (masonry), kurbana (holy mass), deenam or rogam (disease).
A fascinating record on a palm leaf describes the slave trade among Syrian Christians (see first image, above). It describes, with names, a slave family of three members separated forever after being sold or given as dowry to different families. It also describes the slave market in Paruru in 1842. This provides evidence of the practice of giving slaves as streedhanam (dowry), as well as recording the gift in front of witnesses, as well as maintaining a copy of this transaction in the Church. Other palm leaves contain details of the income of the church – whether it was the fee for tombstones or offerings during baptism, weddings or funerals.
Despite the stupendous treasure of information in these sources, Fr Ignatius has had an uphill task convincing Bishops and parish priests to allow him to source the palm leaves. Due to improper preservation, most of these organic materials approach the end of their natural life and face destruction from the climate, rats, silverfish and other insects. Yet, he labours on, convincing the unconvinced, physically collecting the palm leaves, painstakingly cleaning and preserving them and finally, digitizing them. Cataloguing and indexing is also underway, in order to make these rich sources available to scholars, historians and the lay public.
"Hri" - a sound or a vibration, the utterance of which awakens the empathy that is an inherent part of every sentient being. Regionalism must no longer remain a prisoner of platitude, since there is a consensus that geopolitical friction, poverty and pressing environmental issues as well as cultural and social dislocation must be addressed through the regional framework. There is a need to revive and energise discussions of regionalism on the platform of mainstream politics, public information and research, with a dynamic Southasian sensibility.
International Film Festival of Kerala invites you to the launch of the book Project Cinema City, edited by Madhusree
In Southasia today, the immense importance of archives for the overall advancement of society is yet to be recognised. Moreover, the resources set