Kochi (AsiaNews) - Mel Gibson's blockbuster film 'The Passion of The Christ' released across India May 7th, has sparked new interest in Aramaic - the language that Jesus Christ spoke. Kerala, a state on the West Coast of India, is perhaps one of the few places in the world where the study of the Syriac dialect has been kept alive, along with Sanskrit and Arabic, over the centuries.
According to a Biblical scholar, Aramaic and its dialect have been in use as a liturgical language among Christian communities in Kerala for centuries. But now, inquiries to learn the basics of Aramaic have been pouring in from Europe and America.
Mar Aprem, Metropolitan of the Chaldean Syrian Church of the East, heads one of the smallest but most ancient Christian Communities in India. He is the author of the book, "Teach Yourself Aramaic", and believes that the release of the film, "The Passion of the Christ" could be a reason for the increased demand for learning the language. Mar Aprem's doctoral thesis, the 'History of the Assyrian Church', said there was a jump in the sale of his book after the release of the film.
According to him, about 1.5 million people around the world know Aramaic, the present variants of which are slightly different from the tongue used by Christ. He says Aramaic is not a difficult language to learn grammatically, though more difficult than English or Malayalam, the languages commonly spoken in Kerala.
According to Mar Aprem, Aramaic has only 22 letters in the alphabet beginning with 'alap'. Being a semantic language, Aramaic is written from right to left. He said his church has about 100 works in Aramaic in its library, including a 16th century hand-written prayer book written by a native of Kerala, and a text on Canon Law believed to be compiled by Mar Abdisho in the 13th century. Besides universities, including some in India offering courses in the language, a world symposium is held on Syriac every four years in different centres of learning. According to one theological expert, Aramaic is an ancient language with a history of its own and is not derived from Hebrew, as many believe. "The word Aramaic comes from Aram, the son of Sehm, according to the Book of Genesis". Aramaic language and its variants had been in use in Kerala churches for centuries.
Dr (Fr) Augustine Kanjamala, a native of Kerala and the Director of the Institute of Indian Culture in Mumbai, stated that according to tradition, St. Thomas the Apostle arrived in Kerala is 52 AD. Pro- Thomasin's believe that St. Thomas initially came to evangelize the migrant Jewish population settled in Cochin, (a prosperous city even those days). Like any other migrant group, these Jewish settlers would have spoken Aramaic among themselves. Aramaic and its deriving dialects have been transmitted down the centuries through their descendants. Hence the Aramaic language in varied dialect still exists among the local Malayalam population today. Another tradition holds that the use of Aramaic-Syriac dialect could be the result of the migration of Christians from the Middle East to Kerala during the Roman persecution in 3rd to 4th centuries. Dr. Augustine said in his student days pre-1960's mass in Kerala was in Syrian, which is the more developed form of Aramaic.
The Church in Kerala faces its own rank disputes. Some say the Syrian Catholics feel superior over their Latin rite brethren, as being the original beneficiaries of St. Thomas the Apostle. It was mainly the Brahmins and upper classes of society who were the first to convert to Christianity. Later conversions were the fruits of Catholic missionaries, but to the Latin rite.
Kerala, popularly known as 'God's own country', boasts of incredible scenic beauty, but also Portuguese-built churches, Jewish synagogues and churches of a number of different Christian rites. More than 20% of the population is Christian. (NC)