Turning over old leaves

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.

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.

First and second pages of an 1843 slave deed from the St Thomas Jacobite Church, Parur, Kerala.
First and second pages of an 1843 slave deed from the St Thomas Jacobite Church, Parur, Kerala.

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.

Revelations of the unjust

Palm leaf records provide fascinating revelations about the Syrian Christians in Kerala, who claimed superior social status and were treated on par with Hindu savarna or upper castes. These records give evidence not only of social customs and practices observed by the Syrian Christians, but also of prevailing social hierarchies. For example, records from the 18th and 19th centuries show that this community was no different from the savarna in its approach towards slaves. The following letter from a Father provides an example:

To let my son-in-law know: Kurumba, a Pulaya [low caste] woman and Kunjan , a Pulayan whom I bought theeru [written slave deed] from Vellattummel Chinmar by paying the price, and as I sold Kurumba, the Pulaya woman, to Palliyakkal Muriyil Chanku Nayar and her daughter Ayya to Eeraly Ittichan Vareethu in Parur market in Dhanu month in the year 1017, I give Kunjan, a Pulayan to you as part of dowry together with 300 Puthan [a 19th century coin used in Cochin] and I give theeru [written deed] and agree that hereafter myself or my descendants will not have any right over him. 11th of Vrischika month in the year 1018.

This single leaf is not only proof that slavery was practiced among Syrian Christians, but also incontrovertible evidence of a slave market in Parur, of the destruction of a family by separating its members and selling them to three different owners, of the practice of giving slaves as dowry, and of the practice of preserving a copy of the dowry record in the church as a way of avoiding future disputes. It should be remembered that this transaction took place three decades after the historic proclamation of Rani Lakshmi Bai of Travancore in 987 ME (1812 AD), by which all forms of buying and selling human beings were prohibited. Violation of this ban risked severe punishment, including the confiscation of property and banishment from the country.

An 1830 land deed from the St Thomas Jacobite Church, Parur, Kerala.
An 1830 land deed from the St Thomas Jacobite Church, Parur, Kerala.

The legal abolition of slavery did not, however, change people's mentality, and every religion had its own justification for the institution. Like the Hindus, Syrian Christians too gave a religious colouring to this social practice, portraying it as a social custom that had been translated into a spiritual practice – a move that also reveals their identification with Hindu culture. This might have been the origin of 'slave offerings' in churches, a symbolic donation that continues as a religious practice even now, and constitutes a considerable source of income for parishes across Kerala. One such example is:

Varavu nalvazhi [income day book] 20th Edavam [month] 1044M E [1869 AD]: Meenattukare Varkey's son adima vacha varavu [income given to the church for offering Meenattukare Varkey's son as a slave] = Chakram 10 [a 19th century coin].

Besides slavery, palm leaf records evidence the practice of other social evils among the Syrian Christians, including the practice of dowry. These records document the shares that priests and churches received in dowry or stridhanam transactions, which by the 19th century had become an essential feature of Syrian Christian marriages. Church accounts record not only the passaram – or donations to the church – but also specify the amount of the dowry. Even in those days, however, dowry was a matter of dispute and often strained family relations among Syrian Christians. Palm leaf records also reveal that churches rented out bridal dresses, umbrellas and other accessories as a source of income.

In 1879, after several complaints and disputes regarding stridhanam dues, church authorities instituted a new procedure. The parents of the bride were to write out a kacheetu – an agreement on the dowry details – which would then be signed by the father, together with two witnesses. Once the dowry agreement was approved by the groom's side and the marriage was fixed, this document would be handed over to the groom's parents. In addition, the parish priest was to ensure that the stridhanam kacheetu was properly written out before announcing the banns. This was also used as an opportunity to levy taxes in order to increase church income. The original spirit of voluntary action in the form of a donation turned into an obligatory contribution, and therefore a burden.

An 1875 land deed from the St Thomas Jacobite Church, Parur, Kerala.
An 1875 land deed from the St Thomas Jacobite Church, Parur, Kerala.

Adding such religious colouring appeared to be an effective strategy in rationalising unjust social customs. It allowed such customs to be taken for granted by people who were generally afraid of questioning traditions, which could cause not only isolation from the community but also anger the deity. Such displeasure could be incurred – it would seem– even from the grave.

Death rituals – as evidenced by palm leaf records – show the inequalities that existed among Christians. Take, for example, the practice of levying tomb fees, or kuzhikkanam – a term adapted for church records from secular usage. 'Kuzhi' literally meant the pit in which coconut or areca-nut trees were planted, and 'kanam' was the rent for the land on which these cash crops were cultivated. Christians buried their dead in tombs, or in cemeteries which belonged to the parish churches. From church records, it is clear that the kuzhikkanam was a compulsory fee, and those who were not able to pay the amount in cash were forced to incur debts by pledging either gold or property in mortgage to the church. Clearly, while conversion to Christianity did liberate the poor from the bondage of the caste system, it did not free them from their financial difficulties. In death, social disparities seemed to loom larger than in life. Significantly, 19th century church records do not reveal details of any activities undertaken in the parishes to change these disparities. This absence is glaring, since palm leaf records are proving to be excellent repositories of the history of Christianity in India.

Problems with preservation

According to recent studies conducted by the Association for Preserving Saint Thomas Christian Heritage (of which this writer is Secretary), there are thousands of unpublished palm leaf manuscripts on various aspects of Syrian Christian churches, families and institutions. Though these records form part of the rich heritage of the churches, most often these documents are not kept in safe custody, nor are they appropriately preserved. Unfortunately, most of these organic materials are approaching the end of their natural lives, and now face destruction from the climate, rats and insects, as well as from wilful human desecration.

Given their fragility, the Association has taken the initiative to digitise palm leaf records wherever there is access. The existing palm leaf manuscripts include letters, land deeds, agreements, books of daily accounts, applications, complaints, government records, and information about church art and architecture. All such information can contribute greatly to the study of local socioeconomic history, of relations between non-Christians and Christians, and of the Christians' contributions to education, agriculture and social custom.

The conscience of the Church authorities, clergy and laity should rise to preserve the patrimony handed to them in trust. However, my personal experience has been that Church authorities in Kerala often fail to maintain proper archival systems. The absence of real historical sense – as well as a lack of trained archivists – exacerbates the situation. No effort, however small, to improve the management and archiving of these records will be wasted.

~ Ignatius Payyappilly is a Syrian Catholic priest, the founder-director of the Archdiocesan Archives of Ernakulam-Angamaly, Cochin, and a trained archivist. 

~This article is from our series of articles on the state of archiving in Southasia.

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