About the Project Manuscript Archives and Collections The Saint Thomas Christians in India About Kerala

Syriac Manuscripts in India: The Present State of the Cataloguing Process

This study, written by István Perczel, was published in The Harp: A Review of Syriac and Oriental Ecumenical Studies. Vol. XV (2002) – Festschrift Mar Aprem, Kottayam, Kerala, India, 289-298. [1] Some errors of the original publication have been corrected. Naturally, this study mirrors the situation as of 2002. Ever since much new information about the collections has been gathered. You will find some updates at the present website. Please click here

1. Abbreviations Used in the Text Below: Manuscript Archives in Kerala (within brackets are indicated the ecclesiastic jurisdictions to which the libraries belong)

Bangalore: The library of the Dharmaram College in Bangalore (Syro-Malabar Church)

CB Thrissur: The library of the Syrian Catholic Bishop in Thrissur (Syro-Malabar Church)

Ernakulam: The library of the Major Archbishop’s House in Ernakulam (Syro-Malabar Church)

Catholicosate: The library of the Catholicos Metropolitan, Kottayam, Devalokam (Malankara Indian Orthodox Church)

Konat collection: The library of the Konat family in Pampakuda (Malankara Indian Orthodox Church)

Koonamackal collection: Private manuscript collection of the Koonamackal priestly family (Syro-Malabar Church)

Kuruvilassery: The library of the CMI (Carmelites of Mary Immaculate) Fathers at Kuruvilassery, Thrissur (Syro-Malabar Church)

Mangalapuzha: St. Joseph’s Pontifical Seminary, Mangalapuzha, Alwaye (Syro-Malabar Church)

Manjinikara St. Ignatious Dayro, Manjinikara Pathanamthitta (Syrian Orthodox Church, Antiochian Patriarchate)

Mannanam: The library of the CMI Monastery of St. Joseph, Mannanam, Kottayam (Syro-Malabar Church)

Mar Aprem collection: The library of the Metropolitan’s Palace, Thrissur (Church of the East)

Mar Thoma Seminary: The Mar Thoma Seminary, Kottayam (Mar Thoma Church)

Nidhiri collection: Private manuscript collection of the Nidhiri priestly family

Pulatheen: Metropolitan Palace, Pulatheen, Tiruvalla (Mar Thoma Church)

Vadavatthur: Saint Thomas Apostolic Seminary, Vadavatthur, Kottayam (Syro-Malabar Church)

OTS: The library of the Old Seminary, Kottayam (Malankara Indian Orthodox Church)

SEERI: The library of the Saint Ephrem Ecumenical Research Institute in Kottayam, formerly the collection of the Malankara Catholic Bishop’s House in Tiruvalla (Syro-Malankara Church)

Thozhiyur: The library of the Metropolitan’s Palace, Thozhiyur (Malabar Independent Syrian Orthodox Church)

Trivandrum: The library of the Archbishop of Trivandrum (Syro-Malankara Church)

2. Preliminaries

According to preliminary information, obtained from a study of almost all the published and some unpublished catalogues of the Kerala collections, as well as from oral information, as a conservative estimate, one can expect to find over a thousand Syriac manuscripts in Kerala. At the present stage of the research, neither the exact number of the manuscripts nor the precise content of the individual libraries can be determined. In order to make this point better understood, here I shall summarise the results of my preliminary research on the existing catalogues. I shall list them one by one, adding some notes on their relative values.

Existing catalogues have been made both by Europeans and by local scholars. None of them, with the exception of two – the catalogue of the SEERI, made by Alain Desreumaux, Françoise Briquel-Chatonnet and Jacob Thekeparampil, [2] and David Taylor’s still unpublished catalogue of the collection of Thozhiyur – corresponds to present-day scholarly standards. Thus, one can say that there exist two acceptable catalogues that can be used without any change. The others are checklists properly speaking – as such, they are very valuable and even indispensable as points of reference and of departure. Moreover, Hubert Kaufhold has published detailed descriptions of 17 particular manuscripts of legal content, [3] but of no complete library. His excellent descriptions will be of great help for the future cataloguing.

Now, in order to make better understand the difficulties we face, let me present David Taylor’s report on the Thozhiyur library. This gives a good idea of how uncertain any estimate of the precise number and content of the manuscripts available must remain.

The numbering of the Thozhiyur library goes from 1 to 137. Out of these, David Taylor has seen and catalogued 64, plus 12 others which have no call number. Nobody could inform him about the fate of the 73 missing items. According to him, it is also possible that printed books were included in the numbering, so that there are no great losses. However, van der Ploeg’s catalogue – more about which later – described 6 manuscripts, out of which David Taylor has seen only 2. He could not discover where the missing 4 manuscripts could be found. Moreover, Hubert Kaufhold described three juridical manuscripts from the Thozhiyur library, out of which Taylor could find only one. So, it is impossible to tell how many manuscripts there are in Thozhiyur and how many there were earlier. Up to now we have scanned 42 MSS of the collection, which permits only a partial comparison.

3. Previous Scholarly Research on the Manuscripts, with Special Reference to the Estimated Numbers

Perhaps the first to draw the attention of Western scholars to the wealth contained in the Kerala libraries was E.R. Hambye S.J., who in 1977 published a short notice on them. [4] He briefly presented three libraries: the Konat collection, the Mar Aprem collection, and Mannanam. He has also listed some of the more important manuscripts that can be found there.

The only general catalogue of the Kerala holdings, which serves as the point of departure for all later studies, is contained in the work of J.P.M. van der Ploeg. [5] During several visits to India, Van der Ploeg made a quick survey of all the manuscript archives that he could learn about. Rather than making a full catalogue, he intended to exploit the manuscripts for a better knowledge of Indian Church history, and was the first to initiate a systematic study of the Syriac manuscripts from this point of view. Moreover, he was working in quite difficult conditions and was pressed by time limits. Thus, his work has imperishable merits, but also intrinsic weaknesses. Here follow just a few examples of how this catalogue should be used. We have already mentioned the Thozhiyur library described by David Taylor. There, van der Ploeg saw and briefly described 6 MSS; after the descriptions he adds (p. 153): “there are other manuscripts in the library, but we did not see them; according to the Bishop, they are of no importance.” Those accessible out of these remaining manuscripts – some of them indeed very important – have now been properly catalogued by David Taylor. However, as shown above, nobody knows what has happened to 4 out of the 6 MSS described by van der Ploeg.

What happened in Kottayam is characteristic in another way. Van der Ploeg writes (p.158): “On Dec. 24, 1974, we visited the former ‘old seminary’ of the Syrian Orthodox Church at Kottayam and we were admitted into the library which was used as a hall for study. On one shelf we found some Syriac books and among them about a dozen handwritten ones, but not of special importance. I took notes of two of them.” Then a very short identification of the two MSS follows. Van der Ploeg continues: “On the same day… we visited the then 92 years old Catholicos in his residence near Kottayam, where I was told that there are no manuscripts at all in the residence of the high prelate.” Now, in fact these two places contain manuscripts, of which, again, some are quite important. [6]

There exist two checklists of the OTS. The first is in Malayalam and constitutes a part of the library’s general catalogue. Concerning every item it is indicated whether it is an imprint or a manuscript. Upon the kind permission of the librarian, Father Cheriyan, Father Matthew Koshi amiably translated the relevant part of this catalogue to me. According to his counting, the library would thus contain 91 MSS. Another, more detailed but less comprehensive, checklist was made by a former student of the Seminary, Deacon P.M. Cheriyan. [7] This lists 72 items. Then, how many manuscripts are there at the Orthodox Seminary? It is still very difficult to say. Although the Malayalam checklist contains more manuscripts, Deacon Cheriyan’s catalogue also contains items that are not mentioned – as manuscripts – in the other checklist, namely OTS 233, 298, and 390. Moreover, there are six additional items in Cheriyan’s catalogue, which do not bear any call number. Now do they correspond to any of those mentioned in the Malayalam checklist? Only a further detailed study of the OTS’ holdings will be able to give an answer to this question. According to the Revd. Dr. Baby Varghese, professor both at the OTS and at SEERI, there are many more manuscripts than those mentioned in either one of the checklists.

I have not yet had the opportunity to make a close examination of the manuscripts, but some items in the checklists promise much. Such is OTS 201, which, according to Cheriyan’s checklist, contains in one volume the “Hymns on Perfection” and “On the Divine Wisdom” of Bar Hebraeus, a text entitled “The History of the Nephew of King Abgar” which, in fact, is nothing other than the Syriac résumé of a lost Armenian work by Agathangelos on the conversion of Armenia, [8] a metrical treatise in the metre of Jacob of Sarugh, containing the “Conversations of Ephrem the Teacher with his Aramaic Kinsfolk” and another in the same metre, containing the “Answers” of the same “Ephrem” to the questions of a “Chalcedonian Patriarch.” There exist also in this library several copies of the works of Moshe bar Kepha.

As far as the Catholicos’ palace is concerned, there are 31 manuscripts, 12 in a cupboard near the Catholicos’ office [9] and 19 in another room, a checklist of which has been prepared by Father Koshi. [10] It is the purpose of the latter scholar to establish the detailed catalogue of both these holdings.

Mar Aprem, the Metropolitan of Thrissur for the Church of the East, has made and published a checklist of the holdings of his library, containing 82 items. [11] However, there are also 14 more – recent – unnumbered manuscripts, partly mentioned in an appendix to the checklist. Recently, the library obtained 4 additional manuscripts. We are currently digitising the entire collection and also preparing the detailed catalogue of this library.

In the Konat collection, the father of the present owner, Malpan Abraham Konat, began a very scholarly description of his holdings, but he could finish only eight MSS. It is again Father Matthew Koshi who will do the rest.

In 1987, Daniel L. McConaughy published an “Update” on Van der Ploeg’s book. [12] In this article the author lists several manuscripts in the libraries described by Van der Ploeg, which the latter has not mentioned. Extremely valuable as these lists are, they do not bring us closer to a correct estimation of the number of the Malabar manuscripts. However, in another publication, McConaughy has given a complete checklist of the library of Vadavatthur. [13] There he briefly mentions 33 items. On a recent visit, we found only 27 out of the 33, but also another manuscript, not mentioned by McConaughy.

In 1989, Hubert Kaufhold published his erudite study on the “Syriac Manuscripts with Juridical Content in the South-Indian Libraries.” [14] There, besides an overview on the canonical texts that can be found in India and an excellent scholarly description of 17 MSS, he also gives an estimate on the numbers of MSS preserved in some libraries. Some of these libraries were not mentioned in Van der Ploeg’s book, while for others Kaufhold gives a more reliable estimate than the former scholar did, so that this publication also constitutes a valuable update on Van der Ploeg’s data. Kaufhold’s estimates contain the following numbers: Thozhiyur: ca. 60 MSS, Manjinikara (not in VdP): ca. 10 MSS, OTS: ca. 50 MSS, Mar Thoma Seminary (not in VdP): a few Syriac manuscripts, Pulatheen (not in VdP): 9 liturgical manuscripts.

Father Emmanuel Thelly has recently completed the checklist of the CMI (Carmelites of Mary Immaculate) Monastery in Mannanam and has established that the library contains 108 MSS. [15] Father Thelly’s checklist gives special attention to a breviary containing the hymns of an Indian Syrian poet, belonging to the Roman Catholic Church, who flourished in the seventeenth century: Alexander the Indian. [16] This library has the special importance of containing original works in Syriac by Roman Catholic (Pazhayakuttukaran) writers from the seventeenth-eighteenth century, so it is potentially a most important archive for source-material on the early modern history of the Malabar Church in particular and of Kerala in general.

During a recent field trip we also visited the Ernakulam collection, where Father Ignatius Payyappilly, the present librarian through whose work the entire archives of the Bishopric have been renewed, has gathered together the manuscripts that earlier remained inaccessible. On this visit we could count 38 manuscripts, some of them extremely, important, such as the otherwise well-known canon law collection that was copied for Mar Abraham, the last independent Metropolitan of the St. Thomas Christians, in 1563, or a manuscript copied in 1828-30 and containing, among others, a hitherto unknown Syriac version of the Mystical Theology of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. During the same field trip we also visited the Mangalapuzha collection, where we found 12 manuscripts, hitherto not mentioned in any catalogue, according to my knowledge.

As regards all the other libraries, I do not know about any other basis for calculating the number of the manuscripts available there than Van der Ploeg’s catalogue, only relatively reliable, as I have tried to show.

Finally to all this one should add several private collections belonging to priestly families, such as the Koonamackal collection, numbering 9 items, [17] or the Nidhiri collection, or even individual manuscripts in private possession, a survey of which will be very difficult to make.


[1] The present report could not have been written without the contribution of those many scholars who have worked on the manuscripts of Kerala and willingly helped me in gathering the data. Thus it is proper to thank them for their help. My first and foremost gratitude goes to Father Jacob Thekeparampil, Director of SEERI. Without his constant help, hospitality, encouragement, and expert advise even the first steps of this work could not be made. Without his corrections a series of mistakes would have remained even in this short study. Special thanks should also go to His Grace, Mar Aprem, His Grace, Joseph Mar Koorilose, Alain Desreumaux, David Taylor, Fr. Antony Vallavanthara, Fr. Emmanuel Thelly, Fr. Johns Abraham Konat, Fr. Baby Varghese, Fr. Matthew Koshi, Fr. Thomas Koonamackal, and Fr. James Aikkaramattam, who generously shared with me what they know about this topic and who also gave me access to several unpublished documents. I also thank the librarians of the Ernakulam and Mangalapuzha collections, Fr. Ignatius Payyappilly and Fr. Thomas Kakkattuthadathil, for their generous assistance, as well as Dr. Rüdiger Klein and Prof. Stephen Gerö who found and sent me some publications which were of difficult access to me. Irma Karaulashvili helped me to identify a number of texts found in Malabar. Finally I thank my friend, Matthew Suff, for having corrected my English.

[2] A catalogue in French of the SEERI collection was published by F. Briquel-Chatonnet, A. Desreumaux, J. Thekeparampil, “Catalogue des manuscrits syriaques de la collection du Saint Ephrem Ecumenical Research Institute (Kottayam).” Le Muséon, Tome 110 - Fasc. 3-4 (1997), 383-446.

[3] Hubert Kaufhold, “Syrische Handschriften juristischen Inhalts in südindischen Bibliotheken,” Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-Historische Klasse. Sitzungberichte, 535. Band (Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1989).

[4] E.R. Hambye S.J., “Some Syriac Libraries of Kerala (Malabar), India: Notes and Comments,” A Tribute to Arthur Vööbus, ed. R. H. Fischer, (Chicago: The Lutheran School of Theology, 1977), 35-46.

[5] J.P.M. van der Ploeg O.P., The Christians of St. Thomas in South India and their Syriac Manuscripts (Rome and Bangalore: Center for Indian and Inter-Religious Studies and Dharmaram Publications, 1983).

[6] Van der Ploeg’s information has already been updated by Kaufhold, o. c. 10.

[7] Dn. P. M. Cheriyan, The Catalogue of Syriac Manuscripts in the Orthodox Theological Seminary, Kottayam. Thesis submitted as part requirement for the diploma of Graduate in Sacred Theology of the Orthodox Theological Seminary, Kottayam. 1989 (in manuscript). The manuscript of the checklist was kindly shown to me by Fr. Baby Varghese, who acted as thesis supervisor of Fr. Cheriyan.

[8] This text was published, on the basis of the unique manuscript hitherto known, Damascus Patriarchate 12/18, by Michel van Esbroeck: “Le résumé syriaque de l’Agathange,” Analecta Bollandiana 95/3-4, 291-358.

[9] Upon the kind permission of the Catholicos, his Holiness Mar Thoma Mathews II, I could spend a couple of hours examining the manuscripts near his office, among which some have proved to be indeed very interesting, such as a beautiful MS (Syr. 132), written in India, in the specific “Kerala” script, and dated 996 of the Kollam era – that is, 1821 AD, given that the Kollam (Quilon) era began in August-September 825 [Van der Ploeg 99] – containing “Mimre on the Mother of God, Who Has Wrought Great Miracles” (apparently originally a translation of a Greek hagiographic collection) and a copy of Abdisho’s “The Paradise of Eden,” copied in 1699 (Syr. 129).

[10] According to this checklist, among the MSS kept in the other room – not seen by me – one finds such as several works of Bar Hebraeus, his Astronomy, his Grammar, and Book of Splendours, as well as the “Testament of Our Lord to His Disciples by Clement of Rome.”

[11] Mar Aprem, “Syriac Manuscripts in Trichur,” IIIo Symposium Syriacum 1980: Les contacts du monde syriaque avec les autres cultures (Goslar 7-11 Septembre 1980), édité par René Lavenant, S. J. Orientalia Christiana Analecta 221. Pontificium Institutum Orientalium, Roma 1983, 355-374.

[12] Daniel L. McConaughy, “An Update on the Syriac MSS Collections in South India.” Oriens Christianus 71 (1987), 208-212.

[13] Daniel L. McConaughy, “Syriac Manuscripts in South India: The Library of the Saint Thomas Apostolic Seminary.” Orientalia Christiana Periodica 52 (1986): 432-434.

[14] See above, in n. 2.

[15] He gave a report on this work at the 8o Symposium Syriacum, held in Sydney, on June 26-30, 2000. The checklist, introduced by a general description of the library’s holdings, will be published in the proceedings of the Symposium. I thank Father Thelly and Father Antony Vallavanthara for giving me access to the manuscript of Father Thelly’s paper.

[16] According to P. J. Thomas, Alexander the Indian (Alexandros Hendwaya) or, in Malayalam, Kadavil Chandi Kattanar lived during the period of the Coonan Cross Revolt, the schism that occurred between those who revolted against the Roman Catholic Church and joined the Syrian Orthodox and those who remained faithful to Rome (the Puthenkuttukoor and the Pazhayakuttukoor, that is, those who follow the “new” and those who follow the “old rite”), that is, around 1653. He belonged to the latter group. According to Sebastiani, an Italian missionary to the Malabar Coast, Alexander was a famous preacher and a close friend of the king of Purakad. His hymns were much appreciated by the then Syriacists in Rome (this information comes from P. J. Thomas, Malayala Sahityavum Christyanikalum [“Malayalam Literature and the Christians”], Athirampuzha: St. Mary’s Press 1935; second edition with additions by Scaria Zacharia: Kottayam: D. C. Books 1989, 143-4). I owe all this information to Fr. Antony Vallavanthara, who looked for it and kindly translated the relevant passage for me.

[17] I owe this information to the present owner, Fr. Thomas Koonamackal.

About the Project Manuscript Archives and Collections The Saint Thomas Christians in India About Kerala