Praying with the Senses: Contemporary Orthodox Christian Spirituality in Practice

By Sonja Luehrmann | Go to book overview

SYRIAC AS A LINGUA SACRA
Speaking the Language of Christ in India

VLAD NAUMESCU

ORTHODOX CHRISTIANS ARE STRONGLY AWARE that language is a privileged means for accessing the divine. They also know that some languages are better than others since they embody the spirit of ancient traditions, lending an aura of authenticity to their words of prayer. This is how Saint Thomas Christians in South India see Syriac, the liturgical language of Syriac Christianity emerging in the first century AD and continuing up until this day in churches of both West Syrian and East Syrian rites. Part of this large family of churches, Syrian Christians in India (Suryanikkal) claim their roots in the conversion of a few Hindu families by the apostle Thomas and in Syrian colonists arriving a few centuries later. While fully integrated in Indian culture and society, they maintained over centuries close connections with the Middle East for religious and commercial purposes, for which Syriac was the lingua franca. The patriarchs of Antioch or Iraq sent their messengers and metropolitans to the Malabar Coast to check on their flock, while Syrian Christians in return sent their aspiring bishops to be acknowledged by the patriarchs. In Kerala, Syriac was used in parallel with vernacular Malayalam (also written with Syriac script between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries) for liturgical poetry, literature, and religious instruction and was taught by a Syriac teacher or malpan. Senior priests respected for their scholarship and linguistic skills, the malpans had their own residential “schools” similar to the Indian gurukula system, where pupils lived and studied with their master or guru. Knowledge transmission was based on

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