Christianity has been a part of Kerala’s rich heritage right from the first century, but it took almost 17 centuries after the arrival of St Thomas to the region before the Bible was personally available to common Malayalis. The earliest followers of Christ in India had to depend on priests and church leaders who had scrolls in different languages such as Latin, Syriac and Old Greek. Followers of other religions in Kerala would also have to depend on their leaders. Ancient Hindu texts and mantras were passed down through oral memorisation as well as writings on palm leaves.
It would take the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century for a new revolution that gave people access to religious and scientific literature. Given the deep religiosity that was a part of European culture, it was Christian texts that got priority when it came to being published in the first couple of centuries of the printing age.
By the early 19th century efforts were on to get the Bible translated to Malayalam. In 1806, Scottish Theologian Claudius Buchanan visited Kerala and met Mar Thoma VI (Mar Donysius), the head of the Malankara Church, at Angamaly. It was at this meeting that Buchanan, who wanted to translate the Bible into several Indian languages, was gifted an old Syriac Bible (which is now in the possession of the University of Cambridge).
A novel initiative
K M George’s book titled Western Influence on Malayalam Language and Literature, which was published by the Sahitya Akademi in 1972, provides rare insights into the mission of Buchanan.
“The Syrian Metropolitan, Mar Dionysius, was very interested in Dr Buchanan’s proposal to translate the Bible and he offered to supervise the work,” George wrote. “By 1807 the translation of the four gospels had been completed. The translation was made from the Syriac version, though the Tamil version was also consulted.”
The Bible was translated into Tamil as early as 1714. There was even an Urdu version of the book in the 18th century, with the translation being out in 1743.
For the first Malayalam version, Malayalam type was specially cast at a press in Bombay (Mumbai) to print this manuscript. The book, comprising the four gospels, was finally published in 1811. The paper for this book was provided by the British and Foreign Bible Society.
Six years after the first four books of the New Testament were published, the British Resident in Travancore supported an initiative to have the entire Bible in Malayalam. The Church Missionary Society (CMS) backed this idea and offered the services of Benjamin Bailey, a missionary who spent more than three decades of his life in Kerala. He was also the founder of the first Malayalam publishing house, CMS Press, Kottayam. In 1829, the first Malayalam edition of the New Testament was published.
“The people of Cochin did not care much for the language of Bailey’s tentative position,” George wrote. “Therefore a parallel effort was going on in North Kerala under the supervision of T Spring, Chaplain of the East India Company at Tellicherry (Thalassery).” This was prepared after consulting versions in Tamil, Greek, English and Sanskrit, but it did not see the light of day. The Madras Auxiliary Bible Society, which initially agreed to sponsor both versions, did not want two versions out so as to not confuse the readers.
Bailey, assisted by local scholars, would later translate the Old Testament as well, providing Malayalis with their first complete version of the Bible in Malayalam.
George praised Bailey’s efforts. “It is true that local scholars assisted Benjamin Bailey in the great task of translating the Bible, but the stupendous work done by him will always be remembered with admiration and gratitude,” George wrote. “The Malayalam version of the Bible has shown that great ideas can be couched in simple language, language not far removed from the spoken tongue.”
It must be noted that in 2020, a growing number of younger Malayali Christians, even in Kerala, seem to be more comfortable with the Bible in English than in Malayalam. This could have something to do with the high levels of difficulty that children have to endure when learning Malayalam in school.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is the author of 'A Week in the Life of Svitlana' and 'Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island')