Syriac is the liturgical language of the St. Thomas Christians from a very early date, even though their identity and culture remained always truly Indian. This language, which belongs to the family of Semitic languages developed as an independent dialect of Aramaic with its own script in the 1st century A. D. Aramaic, believed to be in continuous use since 3000 years, was one of the most prominent languages of the middle east. It was the language of commerce and international relations in this region at least from 7th century B. C, and was the official language of the Persian (Achaemenid) empire from the 6th century B. C. Aramaic dialects were spoken in Palestine in the time of Jesus and thus it has the honor of being the language in which Christ and his disciples spoke. The early forms of Christian worship conducted in Jerusalem also would have been in Aramaic.
Edessa was the cradle of Syriac and it was primarily among the Christians of Edessa that it began to be used as an independent language. Soon it acquired the status of the language of Christian communities of Mesopotamia and Syria. These Christians began to be called as Syrians after the Roman province in which they lived – Syria-and their language was called Syriac. It did not take long for this language to reach Persia and from there to India – where it remains even today as the basic liturgical language of some Christian communities – and even up to China.
Estrangela was the script initially used to write Syriac. Later two different scripts and pronunciations developed, one in the western parts of the Middle East (especially in the Roman empire) known as the western script or serto and another one in the eastern parts (especially in Persia) known as the eastern script or chaldean script. The serto is being used by the Syrian Orthodox, the Maronite and Syrian Catholic denominations whereas the Assyrian and Chaldean churches use the eastern script. Although remaining a single language, the two employ distinctive variations in pronunciation and writing system. The exact periods in which each of these forms developed is still a disputed question. It was after the 8th century that the estrangela script was steadily replaced in the west Syrian circles by the serto. However, recent discoveries show that serto scripts were in use much earlier; but as they were used more in business or administrative texts, ecclesiastical institutions and libraries rarely preserved them. The eastern script, which resembles more to the estrangela came into regular use even later.
Syriac literature covers numerous fields within and outside Christianity such as Biblical interpretations, theology, apologetics, history, monasticism, legends, civil and cannon law, philosophy, natural and physical science, astronomy and mathematics. St. Ephrem of Nisibis, Aphrahat the Persian Sage, Jacob of Serugh etc. are some of the eminent Syriac writers of the early centuries. With the invasion of the Middle Eastern region by the Arabs, Syriac language slowly lost its prominence until it was gradually banned by the Arab rulers. By the end of the 8th century, this language ceased to be spoken in cities, but was kept alive in villages and as a liturgical language. Writers like Moses Bar Kepha (9th cent.) Bar Salibi (12th cent.) continued to produce important literary works. Gregorios Bar Hebraeus (13th century) can be considered as the most renowned scholar and writer of the middle ages.A considerable amount of both prose and poetry continued to be written during the centuries that followed, but the language and literature could not flourish as before; it underwent a period of decline until it became almost a dead language. The late 19th century witnessed a revival of Syriac literary activity thanks to the contributions of men like T’oma Audo, Rahmani, Patriarch Ephrem Barsaum etc. Today different dialects of Syriac are spoken as the first language in small scattered communities in Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Iran etc. Turoyo and Assyrian Neo-Aramaic are two of the important dialects of modern Syriac. Attempts are being made to revive its use. It remains as the basic liturgical language of some Christian denominations in the Middle East, but most of the liturgy has been translated into and is being conducted in Arabic.
As far as historical evidence is available, it is now more or less an established fact that the St. Thomas Christians had very intimate relations with the Persian Church from a very early date. Even though it is difficult to precise dates due to scarcity of documents, most of the modern historians agree that the Church of Malabar was under the Metropolitan of Riwadisher, belonging to the Persian Church and they had adopted the east Syrian (Persian) liturgical traditions at least from the 4th century. We do not know how far the ordinary people of Malabar were proficient in this language, but at least the clergy would have been well versed in Syriac and the people could follow the worship conducted in it. Thus, even though Syriac neither is nor was the mother tongue of the Thomas Christians, they have a longer acquaintance with it than with their own mother tongue Malayalam (developed only in the 10th cent.) As Syriac was already present during the formative period of Malayalam, a lot of Syriac words have crept into it. Sleeba (cross), madbaha (alter), kasesa (priest), qurbana (Eucharist) are examples.
The liturgy that was in use in this church when the Portuguese landed in Malabar (end of 15th cent.) was the east Syrian liturgy of Adai and Mari, the same as that of the Persian Church. Other liturgical practices also would have been in line with that of the east Syrian tradition. Later when the church had to face the threat of latinization under the Portuguese Archbishop Menezes, the Archdeacon of India and other leaders of the Church were constantly trying to establish contacts with churches in the Middle East following Syrian liturgy and traditions. In the turbulent events that followed in the 17th century, the St. Thomas Christians who resisted latinisation entered into an intimate relation with the west Syrian Church of Antioch. During the succeeding centuries (18th and 19th) the Church slowly accepted west Syrian liturgical traditions. Thus the liturgy of St. James replaced that of Adai and Mari. Other liturgical books such as order of sacraments of marriage, baptism, house blessing, funeral rites etc. were brought to Malabar by visiting bishops and Patriarchs of the Antiochian Church. Books of prayer such as shimo (prayer for ordinary days) prayers for the holy week, prayers for lent, the penquito (prayers for feasts and special days) etc. followed suite. Detailed rubrics conforming to antiochian practices were slowly established through bulls of Patriarchs and direct instructions given by visiting prelates. Patriarch Peter III, who visited the Malankara Church during the last quarter of the 19th century, did give the final touch to the antiochianisation of the Malankara Church. It is inferred that he even tried to conform the dress of the people of Malankara to that of the Syrians, an attempt which proved to be a failure.
The establishment of Syriac printing presses, first in Cochin, (St. Thomas press), which was later shifted to Kottayam, and in Pampakuda (Mar Julius press, in 1879) helped the spread of west Syrian liturgical traditions. A Syriac periodical by name simath haye, published from the Mar Julius Press popularized even patristic texts, side by side with books of worship.
If the 19th century saw the establishment of west Syrian traditions in Kerala, the 20th century can be distinguished as the era of translations. Especially during the second half of the past cent most of the liturgical texts were translated to Malayalam. Eminent linguists like St. Dionysius Vattasseril, Konat Mathen Malpan and Mattackal Alexandreos Malpan gave the lead to this trend while H. H. Mar Baselios Augen I, H. H. Mar Baselios Mathews I, H. G. Youhanon Mar Severios and Konat Abraham Malpan followed suit in the next generation. Now almost all liturgical texts, except some used in very rare and special occasions, have been made available in Malayalam. Translations in other Indian languages and English are under way.
It has to be born in mind that the St. Thomas Christians, even while accepting and feeling proud of their Syrian liturgical heritage, has always adopted those traditions in combination with local customs and practices. For example, customs related to birth, marriage and funeral have a lot of local elements. As stated at the out set, though they have inherited Antiochian faith and liturgy, their culture is Indian.
Syrian Heritage of the St. Thomas Christians
Revd. Fr. Dr. Johns Abraham Konat
Orthodox Theological Seminary, Kottayam.