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A sacred language is vanishing from State

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Fading script: A 17th century Syriac manuscript.
Fading script: A 17th century Syriac manuscript.

K.P.M. Basheer

Most churches have replaced Syriac with Malayalam

KOCHI: Did you know that the Malayalam words ‘maalaakha’ (angel) and ‘koodaasa’ (sacrament) are not Malayalam, but Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic which Jesus Christ spoke 2000 years ago?

And that qurbana, mishiha, mammodisa, methrapoleetha and easo, which Malayali Christians use on a day-to-day basis, are all Syriac? And that Suriyani-Malayalam (or Karshoni), which used the Syriac script to write Malayalam, was a popular medium of written communication among Christians until the 19th century, like Arabi-Malayalam used by Muslims in Malabar?

Well, these show the profound impact of this Semitic language, which is supposed to have arrived on the Kerala shore along with St. Thomas in 52 AD, on Malayalam. The arrival of Thomas of Cana, a Palestinian, in 345 AD, along with 70 families, boosted Syriac’s use and popularity in Kerala.

But the language, which thrived in Kerala for so many centuries as the sacred language of Syrian Christians, is now facing extinction.

Liturgical language

“Syriac was the liturgical language of most denominations of Christianity in Kerala until half a century ago,” Mar Aprem, archbishop of the Thrissur-based Chaldean Syrian Church (Assyrian Church of the East), recalls. “But, now most Christian denominations have replaced it with Malayalam.” This was the main reason for the language’s fast decline. “Once it lost the patronage of the priests, Syriac lost its popularity,” he says.

Mar Aprem, who holds a Ph.D. in Syriac and who maintains an archive of medieval Syriac documents, insists that Syriac was the language spoken by Jesus Christ and that Aramaic, generally considered the mother tongue of the Christ, was the name given by Europeans to Syriac.

Vatican Council

Most Christian denominations, especially the Catholic rites, dropped Syriac as the language of church service in the second half of the 20th century.

This was speeded up by the Second Vatican Council, held during 1962-67, which promoted ‘enculturation’ and encouraged holding of church services in regional languages instead of Latin or Syriac, Fr. Paul Thelakkat, editor of Sathyadeepam and spokesperson for the Synod of Bishops of the Syro-Malabar Church, said.

All Syriac prayers and religious texts were translated into Malayalam and a profusion of Malayalam prayer songs followed the switch-over from Syriac to Malayalam.

“In the past, only the priests could understand the meaning of Syriac prayers, but when these prayers were translated into Malayalam, the laypeople could very well understand the meaning of what they were singing and chanting before,” Fr. Thelakkat says. “And the laypeople liked it.”

Istvan Perczel, a Hungarian scholar of medieval Christianity, who is currently researching Syriac documents in Kerala, pointed out that while the switch-over to Malayalam was good for the faithful as they could understand the meaning of what they were singing and praying, Syriac suffered badly. Prof. Perczel said he was impressed by the rich Syriac heritage of Kerala of the 16th to 19th centuries. “It is very important to preserve this heritage as it will facilitate an in-depth study not only of Kerala Christians’ history but also of the socio-cultural and economic life of the period.”

When the churches dropped it as the liturgical language, very few people wanted to learn Syriac, said Fr. George Kurukkoor, a philologist. In the past, he said, it was the priests who had mainly studied the language and all the Christian seminaries taught Syriac to their students. After the switch-over, the old generation of Syriac scholars has died one by one and it has not been replaced. “It was compulsory for my generation of clergymen to learn Syriac at the seminaries, but it is no longer so.” Young clergymen are mostly unfamiliar with Syriac.

Second language

Of course, a few colleges in the State offer Syriac as a second-language study and the Kottayam-based St. Ephrem Ecumenical Research Institute offers postgraduate and doctoral courses.

But since it is no longer a living language, the number of students opting for the language is dwindling by the year.

Few speakers

True, world over, this classical language has lost it appeal and hardly a couple of lakh people in small communities in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Syria speak it now. Syriac, which originated in Mesopotamia, grew in importance as Asian Christians adopted it, as it was the Christ’s language, as their liturgical language.

Like Arabic, the Syriac characters are written from right to left. The language has two variants — Eastern and Western — and both were popular in Kerala.

Portuguese invasion

Syriac lost its growth momentum after the Portuguese invasion of Kerala. The Portuguese tried to impose Latin on the indigenous St. Thomas Christians of Kerala as the liturgical language.

In the 1599 Synod of Diamper (Udayamperoor Sunnahados), the Portuguese archbishop Alexis de Menesis ordered the burning of most Syriac religious texts. But, in the 1653 Coonan Cross Oath, the St. Thomas Christians revolted and regained their Syriac liturgy.

Though mostly restricted to the priestly class and religious texts, Syriac, for several centuries, was to Kerala Christians what Sanskrit is to Brahmins and Arabic to Muslims.

But the language is all but vanished now.

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