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  • Turning over old leaves

    03.13.2014

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    If palm leaf inscriptions can be saved from rodents, insects, the forces of nature and deliberate destruction, they can paint vivid pictures of the history of the Syrian Christians in Kerala, says Ignatius Payyappily. 

    Revelations that challenge popularly-held beliefs about the Syrian Christian community in Kerala are emerging from an unexpected quarter: the leaves of palm trees. While records and documents greatly assist our understanding of a culture and a community, evidence about the early history of the South Indian Syrian Church – which claims a history of 2000 years – is contained primarily in oral narratives. It was only in the 16th century that Portuguese missionaries began to record the historical memory of the St Thomas Christians, as Syrian Christians are also known. There also exist important post-Portuguese records on Christianity, such as Syriac and Malayalam manuscripts (copper plates, papers and palm leaves), under the custody of various denominations of St Thomas Christians.

    In Kerala, palm leaves were the most commonly used medium of written record in the middle and early-modern periods. There are thousands of leaf records related to the lands of the Crown, states, temples and churches. Palm leaf records are also found in Tamil Nadu and in a few other pockets of India. Traditionally, palm leaf writing was practised by professional lipikaras, or scribes, and their skills were passed down through generations. In Syrian Christian churchesin Kerala, these manuscripts were mainly written by scribes from the Hindu Pillai and Menon castes. Almost all records of the churches’ daily dealings were written on palm leaves, while some special records were written either on copper plates or on granite. The palm leaves currently accessible belong mainly to the 19th century, and are written in modern Malayalam. However, there are palm leaves dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries written in Tamil, and also in Vattezhuthu and Kolezhuthu– earlier written forms of Malayalam – with signatures in Malayalam, Syriac and Latin.

    Palm leaf records of the daily accounts of Syrian churches are veritable chronicles, detailing the complex interconnections of the Syrian Christian community with other communities of the area. Yet the palm leaf records and manuscripts of churches in Kerala are among the least exploited sources of historical study and academic inquiry, and these rich materials have not yet been considered in the writing of Kerala’s modern history. Indeed, even historians of the Christian community have not made extensive use of these resources due to a lack of knowledge about the material.

    Read more at http://himalmag.com/turning-old-leaves/

    This is a part of the ‘Archives of Southasia’, a project pursued jointly with our sister organization Himal Southasian in the initial print-run of Himal’s pioneering quarterly ‘Are We Sure About India?’

     

    First page of an 1843 slave deed from the St Thomas Jacobite Church, Parur, Kerala
    Second page of an 1843 slave deed from the St Thomas Jacobite Church, Parur, Kerala
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