Istvan Perczel could well be a modern-day Indiana Jones for Kerala’s elite approximately 60,00,000-strong Syrian Christian community spread across the globe. But instead of engaging in gun fights and discovering lost treasure and ancient cities, The Hungarian scholar of Byzantine history and early Christianity is bringing to life a forgotten body of Malayalam scholarly literature—one that is written in a script based on the Syriac alphabet, an ancient writing system that dates back to the 1st century AD, and shares similarities with Phoenician, Hebrew, Arabic and Sogdian.
He is now on a quest to develop an InScript keyboard for the lost script—the first of its kind—for which he had to decode thousands of palm-leaf documents lying forgotten in cupboards. They were arguably the oldest written historical records of the Syrian, or Saint Thomas Christians, a community that converted long before colonisation and missionary expansion in India.
Most of the records, popularly believed to have been destroyed in the 16th century by the Roman Catholic Church, are written in Garshuni Malayalam. While Garshuni is traditionally referred to as Arabic in a Syriac script, the records Perczel is digitising are Malayalam written in the Syriac script. It was used by the Kerala Syrian Christian clergymen till the early 20th century.
Some of the manuscripts he found were dust-ridden, rat-eaten and worm-worn.
Others had been burnt with their blackened remnants left behind. “In some
manuscript libraries, they were kept very well, like in Thrissur. But in other libraries,
they weren’t, or they were venerated but not conserved,” said Perczel.
The digitised records along with a keyboard in the Garshuni Malayalam script will give millions of Syrian Christians the world over the chance to relearn the language and their history, said Perczel.