Uncared-for Catholic Documents and Palm Leaf Manuscripts

Dr. V. Kattalai Kailasam

Image Courtesy: A Brondino

The spread of Christianity in Tamil Nadu began during the period of St. Thomas, one of the disciples of Jesus. His tomb in Mylapore attacted several foreigners to this place. For example Marco Polo (1254- c.1324) and John of Montecorvino (1247- c.1328), the first Franciscan missionary to Madras, visited the tomb of St. Thomas and have recorded also their impressions of the Tamil people.

The Jesuit presence in Tamilakam — the members of the Society of Jesus founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola — begins with the arrival of St. Francis Xavier in 1542. He came to Mylapore to pray at the tomb of St. Thomas in oder to get some guidance for his mission, as he himself reports. Following that small beginning, several eminent Jesuits landed in this Southern part of India for three centuries till 1773 when the Society of Jesus was suppressed in Europe. They all learnt Tamil diligently and left considerable amount of writings in Tamil for posterity. For example, Henrique Henriques, Robert de Nobili (Tattuva Pōtagar ), Carlo Michele Bertoldi (Gñānaprakāciyar), Costanzo Giuseppe Beschi (Vīramāmunivar), Giacomo Tommaso de Rossi (Cinna Cavēriyār), Jean Venant Bouchet (Cañcīvināthar) are among the prominent writers.

S. Rajamanickam has edited several of their works, but they are not complete. But the letters they wrote, their personal diaries and palm-leaf manuscripts form a larger corpus of their contribution which mostly remain uncared for. That is the concern here whether these writings are well preserved and made known to the next generation. This writ-up highlights one aspect of a larger concern, so that it may create an awareness among the youth as part of their formation.

The Reception of Tamil Christian writings

The reception of their writings by the Tamil writers could be briefly mentioned here. Mayilai Seeni Venkatasami wrote the book Christianity and Tamil (krithavamum Tamilum, 1962). R. P. Sethu Pillai documented the notes of Christian Tamil volunteers in Tamil. Prof. S. Innasi who served as the Head of the Department of Christian Tamil Literature at the University of Chennai, has compiled the grammar, literature and social work of Christians in his books “krithava tamil kodai Volume 1 & 2” (2001) and krithava Tamil kalañciyam (2009). A. Sivasubramanian, who was Head of Tamil Department in VOC College, Tuticorin, has been writing several valuable historical and cultural commentaries on Christianity in Tamil Nadu through field research. The notable works among them are: Christianity and Caste (krithavamum cāthiyum, 2001), Tamil Achuthanthai Henrique Adigalar (2003), Chritianity and Tamil Milieu (krithavamum Tamil cūzhalum, 2007), Upadesiyār Savarirāyapillai 1801–1874 (2006), Kallarai Vāsakappā Kūthu Nāṭakam (2007).

Catholic priests and monks who came to India produced various documents related to their religious work. It was the practice among the Jesuits to write annual reports to their higher superiors. In their letters, the Jesuits recorded not only religious events, but also the contemporary political situation in the area where they worked. They wrote notes, also on contemporary geography, climate, animals, birds, and plants. There are many letters revealing the socio-political and cultural information of Tamil Nadu. These letters contain a wealth of data on the socio-economic history of Tamil Nadu. Many issues have been documented such as the problems of the Catholic Church, the problems related to their life, the internal conflicts among the Church members, and the caste conflicts among the Catholics. Besides the letters, there are numerous palmleaf manuscripts and hand-written documents in possession of individual Catholics, documents relating to rites, covenants, and oral messages about the traditional information delivered to them. Only a few have been documented, laments A. Sivasubramanian (2010: 73–74).

Preservation of palmleaf manuscripts

The Christians who came to Tamil Nadu from abroad learned also to write on palmleaves. The Annavis, the local teachers, wrote Christian folklore in palmleaves. They are in peril now without protection. Christian Palm Leaf manuscripts are said to be preserved in some places like Kodaikanal (Shembaganore) Jesuit Archives. But they are not yet identified and catalogued. We are told that they are better preserved in the libraries and archives of Europe- in Germany, Denmark, the Vatican, and Paris.

But our concern is about the Christian manuscripts found in Christian churches and monasteries in Tamil Nadu, as well as with some individuals. Christian monastery’s literature, song-story, plays, biblical translations, parables, religious work notes, religious personal notes, worship songs, and temple offerings etc., were documented. Christians introduced the printing Press in Tamil Nadu. People also had the habit of writing in palmleaves at the same time, even when the texts were published. Rural Annavis wrote in palm leaf manuscripts until the end of the twentieth century.

Only a few have taken up the study of Christian palm leaf manuscripts. Research work was done by S. Soundrapandian in 1981 on Christian palm leaf manuscripts of Madras Eastern palm leaf manuscripts Library (University of Madras,1981). B. Selvarajan in University of Kerala has completed a doctoral dissertation entitled “Chavittu Nāṭakam Research and Edition” (2003). Dissertations were submitted for M.Phil degree programme by Arputha Sudha on “Palm Leaf Manuscripts on History of St. Gnanaprakashiyar” (2006), and Alex John on Yēsunāthar Pāṭupaṭṭa Prasangam; Ōlaichuvaṭi Patippu Ōr Āyvu (2007), Manonmaniyam Sundaranar University, Tirunelveli.

Alesu Nāṭaka Cuvaṭi, dramas on Barbarammal, Sebastiar, Gnanasoundari were taken up for research study at Manonmaniyam Sundaranar University, Tirunelveli under the supervision of the present author — Kattalai Kailasam. Many of the songs for various folk arts such as Christian bow-song (Villisai), Kaliyalātta songs and Oyilātta songs have been documented on the palm leaf manuscripts. Prose palm leaf manuscripts written by Christians were also available elsewhere. It is necessary to Collect and preserve Christian dramas such as Pāska nātakam (Passion play), Chavittu nāṭakam, Vāsakappā and Karunāṭakam. Kerala-based Christian Folklore researcher Chummar Choondal collected the palm leaf manuscripts of Chavittu nāṭakam (Christian Folklore Volume 1, 1998: 124)

A play on Devasagayampillai was published by A. K. Perumal (December 2004) . The author of this write-up published Alesu Nātaka Cuvaṭi in 2009. Tamil Prof. A. Joseph Beschi of Palakkadhad published dramas like Mūvarasar Chavittu (2009), Gnānasoundariyammāl, (2010), Punitha Kanukonthammal Kīrthanai (2012) and Punitha Alesiyar Nāṭakam (2013). Christian dramas in palm leaf manuscripts are still performed in church festivals in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu and in many parts of Kerala.

In fact old documents are endangered ones deserving our attention as a part of preservation of ancient history. Many of the palm leaf manuscripts on Christianity became extinct. Some of the Annavis in the villages of the Southern District still preserve the historical Plays of the Christian saints written in the manuscripts and perform plays with that manuscripts during the church festivals. Many palm leaf manuscripts of theatrical plays have become extinct with the life of Annavis (Rural Teachers). It is the duty of the Tamils ​​to collect and preserve Christian palm leaf manuscripts and other documents.

About the Author:

Dr.V. Kattalaikailasam taught Tamil at Madurai Diraviyam Thayumanavar Hindu College, Tirunelvelli. For more than 30 years he earnestly collected the palm leaf manuscripts from Tirunelvelli area. He collected rare Christian palm leaf manuscripts and documented them. He published 6 books, and edited 10 books. Sixty research papers also published by him. He organized many seminars for palm leaf manuscripts.

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