Tamil scroll scripts story of India, Italy, saint and swami | Chennai News

While on a recent trip to Venice to take part in a conference on Greek palaeography, V K Tamil Bharathan, a Tamil researcher from Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, made a discovery — a collection of Tamil palm-leaf manuscripts beautifully preserved at a library in an Armenian monastery on the Venetian Island of Saint Lazarus.
As he delved into the mystery of how these manuscripts came to Italy, he stumbled upon a fascinating connection between Chennai, Armenia and Italy.
“The manuscripts were not catalogued as Tamil. They were marked as Lemulik (a word used to indicate any language from the South of India). And the people working at the library were not aware of what language the manuscripts were written in,” says Bharathan. “Initially, I was not allowed to read or photograph the content.”
After a lot of persuasion, Bharathan was allowed to photograph the entire manuscript and read parts of it.
The manuscript has 170 leaves with writing on both sides. Titled ‘Gnanamuyarchi’, it speaks of Christianity, with the author mentioned as Gnanaprakasa Swamigal.
“He was an Italian preacher who took on the Tamil name. All 340 pages of the manuscript appear to be about Christianity, and are most likely the Swamigal’s sermons, translated from English. I have started to digitise the content which will take six months to complete,” says Bharathan.
The researcher’s revelation raises intriguing questions such as who translated an Italian preachers’s words into Tamil and how the manuscripts wound up at an Armenian monastery in Italy.
V Kattalai Kailasam, a Tamil historian from Tirunelveli, who has written a book on Gnanaprakasa Swamigal titled ‘OlaichuvadiArsiyasishta Gnanaprakasiyar Sarithiram’, says Gnanaprakasa Swamigal was a saint from Italy. “His original name was Aloysius Gonzaga. He was born in Italy in 1568 and dedicated his life to Christianity at the age of nine. He went on to become a saint and gave thousands of sermons on Christianity across Europe,” says Kailasam.
St Aloysius Gonzaga did not visit India, but his sermons reached the country’s shores and he was given the name Gnanaprakasa Swamigal. “European saints who preached Christianity were often given regional names,” says Kailasam. “For instance, St Joseph is called Punitha Valanar and St Thomas Punitha Thomaiyar by locals.
St Aloysius Gonzaga was rechristened Robert towards the fag end of his life. Robert in German means ‘shining bright’, which in Tamil translates to ‘prakasam’. ‘Gnanam’ is knowledge in English, and that might ex plain the origins of his name.”
French historian Margherita Trento has a different theory. “The manuscripts appear to be a copy of the first translation of ‘Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises’ (St Ignatius of Loyola) into Tamil.
This is a prose text from the early 18th century (likely the 1720s) and has been printed several times in the 19th century by the Mission Press in Pondicherry,” says Margherita, associate professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (School of advanced studies in social sciences), who has written a book titled ‘Writing Tamil Catholicism: Literature, Persuasion and Devotion in the Eighteenth Century’, where she speaks of this history.
This translation, she says, was most likely by Michele Bertoldi, another saint who came to India to propagate Christianity, and who was called Gnanaprakasa Swamigal.
As for how the manuscripts reached Italy, Chennai-based culture researcher Nivedita Louis, who has done extensive work on Christianity in Tamil Nadu, says they were most likely transported there by Armenian traders Samuel Moorat and Edward Rafael.
“The two were highly influential and renowned for their philanthropic work. Stone tablets in memory of the two can be found in the Armenian Church at Parry’s Corner, Chennai,” says Niveditha. “Moorat and Rafael had started a religious college in Venice in the middle of the 19th century. They might have taken these manuscripts to the college, for the benefit of the students.”
The two were so attached to Chennai that after starting the college in Venice they returned to the city and lived here till they died, says Nivedita. Several copies of the manuscript that were printed in Puducherry are available at libraries across the state. In Chennai, Roja Muthiah Research Library hosts a copy albeit in a dilapidated state.
No rules of grammar were followed in the script making digitisation difficult, says Bharathan, who has approached the state government for help. Meanwhile, French and German libraries have contacted Bharathan to help with the digitising manuscripts.

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