Kerala has launched a project to preserve and digitise manuscripts and heritage material related to 2,000 years of Christianity in the state. The project, launched in collaboration with Kerala Council for Historical Research (KCHR) and some leading European and American universities, also aims to "promote further studies on the subject in a proper perspective".
A forum called Association for the Preservation of the Saint Thomas Christian Heritage (APSTCH) has been formed to locate, gather and preserve all available documents including the manuscripts in Syrian. "The purpose of the project is to preserve and maintain the St Thomas Christian heritage, monuments, manuscripts and printed books in Syrian and Malayalam to create correct data-base for the study of Christianity in Kerala, their culture and traditions," APSTCH honorary president Mar Aprem said.
The Syrian Christians in Kerala, regardless of different church denominations they belong, trace their origin to the arrival of St Thomas at Kodungallur, an ancient port town in central Kerala, in 52 AD to preach the gospel. According to historians, many church documents had been lost over centuries. "The project is important not merely from the religious angle. The preservation of the documents that have survived the ravages of time would greatly help studies on Kerala history and eastern Christianity," KCHR director Cherian said. The entire project will be carried out in three-phases. The first step involved digitising and creation of an electronic database. This would be followed by their publication in facsimile editions with scholarly descriptions. In the third stage, data obtained would be used for clarifying obscure points in the history of Christianity in Kerala.
The member-institutions have jointly opted for an open accessible policy for making the entire digitised material freely available via internet and provide them with catalogue descriptions. The partners in the project also include Oriental Institute under Karis University, Tubingen, Germany, Centre for Hellenic Studies of the Central European University, Budapest, Hungary and Berth Mardutho, the Syriac Institute, Potaway, New Jersey.
According to Mar Aprem, as many as 120 manuscripts had been digitised. They include 'The Chaldaean Kashkol' (breviary-prayer book) written in 1585 and 'Hudra' (prayer book for 365 days). According to historians, much of the original documents relating to native Christian community have been destroyed by Portuguese in the 15th and 16th century as part of their drive to "Latinise" and bring St Thomas Christians under the Papal control. Also, many other documents had perished due to humid tropical climate and the poor conditions in which they were preserved.
The KCHR is also trying to revive interest in Aramaic, an endangered Semitic dialect believed to have been spoken by Jesus Christ, among the masses, Aprem said. Aramaic, with different dialectical variations was spoken in parts of Syria, Iraq and Turkey. During Jesus's time Jews spoke Hebrew and Aramaic and its Galilean dialect was believed to have been spoken by Jesus. According to Aprem, modern Aramaic is spoken by over 4,00,000 people belonging to various emigrant communities that moved out of Middle East. For St Thomas Christians in Kerala, Syriac was the main church language till mid-20th century.