The Māppila: Christians, Muslims, and Jews of South-West India
István Perczel, professor at CEU's Department of Medieval Studies and CRS fellow, is now senior researcher in the research group "Jews and Christians in the East: Strategies of Interaction between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean" (JewsEast, http://www.jewseast.org/), an ERC project at the Center for Religious Studies, Ruhr University Bochum, Germany. He is about to broaden his previous research, targeting the ancient Saint Thomas Christian community in Kerala, into becoming a general research project on the Abrahamic communities along the Malabar coast.
This Indian region, of exceptionally religious diversity, includes a Hindu majority, strong minorities of Muslims and Christians (27% and 18% of the population, respectively), as well as the memory of an ancient Jewish community that has almost entirely emigrated to Israel. The history and cultural profile of these three minority groups is of a fascinating complexity: they have always been an integral part of Indian society, but maintained intense commercial and religious contacts with West Asia and Europe. In local speech, their members are known as the māppila – hence the title of the research project. The etymology of this term ("maternal cousin," the ideal bridegroom in India) seems to attest a tradition of intermarriage between the Hindu and Abrahamic communities.
In the framework of the new project, Dr. Anaz Abdulkareem, Lecturer at Farook College, Calicut, has started the survey of thousands of hitherto unknown, uncatalogued and unstudied Muslim manuscripts written in Arabic as well as in the local language Malayalam with Arabic script. Ophira Gamliel, now based in Bochum and researcher in the JewsEast project, who has studied the oral and written traditions of the Māppila Jews for many years, is responsible for the Jewish part. Radu Mustaţă, former MA Religious Studies student and current Ph.D. student at CEU and junior researcher in the JewsEast project, is working on the edition of the newly found Jesuit texts produced in India and written in Syriac. Currently he is studying Malayalam in India.
The new project will complement the survey of the manuscript holdings of the Christian communities that István Perczel has been conducting during the past sixteen years. His research in sixty-one documentary collections allowed him to locate thousands of manuscripts and archival records dated from 1290 to the present. The great majority of the texts are in Syriac, which the Christian communities maintained as their lingua franca over the centuries, while a smaller part of the manuscripts form a still unstudied literature in Malayalam language, mostly written in a script called Garshuni, or Syriac Malayalam, using the Syriac alphabet enriched by eight old Malayalam and a number of Modern Malayalam letters. Abundant church archives written on palm leaves turned out to be a rich source for the social conditions and everyday life in Kerala. István Perczel and his team, including the Rev. Dr. Ignatius Payyappilly, the Chief Archivist of the Ernakulam-Angamaly Diocesan Archives of the Syro-Malabar Church, and Dr. Susan Thomas, Senior Lecturer at Sree Sankaracarya University of Sanskrit, Kalady, Dr Anaz Abdulkareem and Radu Mustaţă, have studied the manuscripts as a window to the history, languages, theology, liturgy, art, architecture, and anthropology of their communities, including the position of women and the centuries-long resistance of the Indian Christians against their assimilation to the churches of the Western colonial powers.
A vast digitization project, funded by Hill Museum and Manuscript Library, Collegeville, Minnesota, has so far reproduced close to 230,000 manuscript pages. At a moment when acute danger from war and insecurity threatens the cultural heritage of Syriac Christianity in the Middle East, its Indian treasure trove is all the more precious.
Indian national and local media reported repeatedly on the results of this work. The famous Indian novelist Amitav Gosh has followed the project in his blogs and interviews. The researchers have taken care to encourage a sustainable management of the collections; and the work of Rev. Dr. Payyappilly has meanwhile triggered an entire archives preservation movement in Kerala.