Two priests, a queen, a pope and a book

The book that Paremmakkal Thomman Kathanar began to write in 1785 describing his travel to Lisbon and Rome is an unputdownable read for anyone interested in history 

Published: 12th January 2021 07:16 AM  |   Last Updated: 12th January 2021 07:16 AM   |  A+A-

On 14 November 1778, two Syrian Christian priests and two young priesthood aspirants from Kerala stood gazing at the Portuguese cargo ship they were about to board. The ship, Esperanca, was bound for Lisbon from the port of Chennapatana, today’s Chennai. They had reached Chennapatana after an arduous five-month journey from Athirampuzha, an interior village in Kerala, by country boat, by foot, dhow, and by sedan chair, finally scraping through the Anglo-French war zone in Puducherry. Their final destination was Rome. 

The two aspirants were to join the Pontifical Propaganda College in Rome. The priests were on another mission. Kariattil Joseph Malpan, 36, had completed his studies in Rome back in 1755-66 and held doctorates in philosophy, theology and canon law, apart from being well-versed in Latin, Syriac, Italian, Portuguese and French. He now taught at a seminary at Alangad, his birthplace, near present-day Kochi. Paremmakal Thommman Kathanar, 42, learned in Sanskrit, Syriac and Latin, was vicar of Kadanad, the village of his birth in today’s Kottayam district, Kerala. They were carrying a petition to Pope Pius VI from their community, the Kerala Christians affiliated to the Pope (the present-day Syro-Malabar Catholic Church). Thereby hangs a tale. 

In 1653, Kerala Christians had taken a pledge, known as the Coonan Cross Pledge, rejecting Portuguese and Jesuit (read papal) hegemony in their religious and secular affairs and anointed their own bishop. Later, a papal emissary had weaned a faction away to the papal fold. At the time of the events mentioned here, the then bishop of the original group had expressed a desire to join the papal group and its members welcomed him. However, the papal/Portuguese hierarchy opposed the reunification, for reasons too intricate to explain here. It was then that a meeting of the community decided to send a delegation to Rome to appeal to the Pope and the task was entrusted to Kariattil Joseph, who knew Rome well and could speak European languages, and Paremmakkal Thomman, who was proficient in Latin and an articulate leader.

An eight-month journey via Benguela in Africa and Bahia in Brazil took them to Lisbon on 18 July 1779. They had been ravaged by scurvy and Joseph was at death’s door at one point. But the gritty travellers lost no time to launch themselves into their mission in Lisbon. The priests started off by canvassing the support of Queen Dona Maria I because Portugal had controlled Church affairs in India, though the Pope was trying to reclaim this right. The queen took kindly to the visitors from a land first introduced to Europe by a Portuguese navigator—Vasco da Gama in 1498. Thomman describes the queen in his travelogue thus: “Her face was round and beautiful, body slender and shapely, and eyes benevolent and calm.”

On 4 November 1779, after three months of intense politicking in Lisbon, they were on their way to Rome, braving snow and wind, by ship, canoe, boat and horse carriage, reaching the Italian capital on 3 January 1780. At the Propaganda College, they were happily met by three Malayali students known to them from Kerala. The joy, however, was short-lived. News of their mission had reached the papal clerics opposed to the reunification. Cardinal Castelli whom they visited the same evening seeking permission to admit the two students and for themselves to stay at the Propaganda College was enraged to see them. After a barrage of abuse, he threw them out into the freezing night, shouting, “You’re creating unrest among the ignorant Christians of Kerala. And now you’re trying to overcome our authority by playing the king against us. And who asked you to bring students to study here? I’ll chase you out like dogs.” 

But the men from Kerala couldn’t be put down. They soon found their footing and took to papal Rome’s corridors of intrigue, conspiracy and back-biting like ducks to water. The Pope gave them a courteous audience and received their petition. But they were dismayed to discover that he had simply handed it over to their opponent, Cardinal Borgia, without even opening it. Thomman comments sarcastically: “How responsibly this Pope called Pious VI is ruling the Church of God!”

After five months of no-holds-barred manoeuvrings in Rome, they returned to Lisbon where their stay got prolonged. They became familiar faces in the ecclesiastical and royal circles. Their petition for reunion had been sabotaged. However, with the queen’s intervention, Kariattil Joseph was appointed archbishop of Kodungalloor—against stiff opposition from papal clerics. On the return journey, their ship was caught in a storm and nearly wrecked. On 2 April 1786, they disembarked in Goa. They had been away for seven years and four months. But Joseph never reached Kerala. He died under mysterious circumstances in Goa. No investigation into his death seems to have taken place then or later. In his stead, Thomman was appointed administrator of the Kodungalloor archdiocese. 

The book that Paremmakkal Thomman Kathanar began to write in 1785 describing his journey is an unputdownable read for anyone interested in history, travel and a ringside view of 18th century Catholic Church. Considered the first travelogue written in any Indian language, Varthamana Pusthakam or the Book of Contemporary News is blunt, forthright and matter-of-fact. Thomman is a gifted narrator and a rational, analytical observer with an eye for detail. The story he tells is a superb religious thriller—stuff for a mega movie. 

Thomman firmly believed that the affairs of Indian Christians should be managed by themselves. In a lengthy denunciation of the European clerics, he asks, “Who are the nobility in your eyes? You do not accept as noble anyone other than the white-skinned European.” He makes fun of their complaint that they are undergoing suffering in Kerala: “What are these sufferings?... Drinking the fiery local brew, filling yourselves up with pork, chicken and eggs and stuff— these are your sufferings… And you carry away from our churches all the money received as offerings, to buy these sufferings!” He paid the price for his explosive honesty. 

The manuscript was suppressed for 146 years before it saw the light of day in 1936, with some chapters missing. To this day, this literary and historical gem—the first major work of secular prose in Malayalam—remains in a state of deliberate neglect, thanks to the Church’s silent antagonism and the mindset  of reactionary historians. But who knows, Pope Francis, the man wielding a broom in the Catholic Church for the first time in its 2,000-year-old history, may be reading Thomman and smiling to himself. Because he would understand precisely what Thomman was talking about. 

(Varthamana Pusthakam is published by Indian Institute of Christian Studies, Edamattom, Kerala. An English translation by Placid J Podipara CMI was published by the Pontifical Oriental Institute of Rome in 1971)

Paul Zacharia

Award-winning fiction writer  



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  • John

    How is this publishable material? Pope Francis is the first to clean the Church in 2000 years? Have you studied Church history? The manuscript is in a state of 'deliberate neglect'
    8 days ago reply
  • Hassankoya

    This article by eminent writer Paul zacharia sheds light in to the delibetately ignored travelogue which also shows darkness in the corridors of divinity. This can be a guide to christian heritage of kerala for students of history and theology .
    9 days ago reply
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