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The Old Seminary and Two Centuries of Theological Education

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--- Rev. Dr. B. Varghese                               





Modern history of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church begins with the foundation of the Old Seminary in 1815. The theological education also entered a new phase and became more systematic and serious. Until the foundation of the Seminary, candidates for priesthood were trained in a Malpan Veedu (a school under a Malpan or Syriac teacher), always a priest respected for his scholarship and piety. Historical evidences are scarce to trace the history of the Malpan Schools before the beginning of the 19th century[1].


                   In 1751, three Antiochene prelates named Baselius Sakrallah, Gregorios and Ivanios and a Cor-episcopos Geevarghese landed at Cochin. They stayed in Mar Thoman Church Mulanthuruthy for some time and trained several priests. These prelates and the Mulanthuruthy School probably introduced the West Syrian script. In the last decades of the 18th century, a Malpan school existed in the Pazhanji church under Malpan Mathai Kathanar Pulikkottil. Mar Joseph Dionysius, founder of the Seminary, was an alumnus of this school. After the demise of Mathai Kathanar, the school was shifted to the Old Church in Kunnamkulam under the initiative of Mar Dionysius (who was a priest – Ittoop Kathanar- in those days). Ramban Geevarghese Kuthoor served as its Malpan.


                   In 1812, Colonel John Munro, the British Resident in Travancore and Cochin sent seventeen questions to Mar Thoma VIII (+1816) regarding the history, administration, faith and practices of the Syrian Church, to which the Metran replied on 2oth April 1812. Regarding the clergy and their training, he replied that three Malpans had been authorized for this purpose:


“ For the instruction of the clergy, in the North Malpan Konat Varghese Kathanar, and in the South Pallipadu Philipose Kathanar and Maramon Palakunnathu Varghese Kathanar teach the four Gospel in general. There are (priests) who learn more and also who learn less. Apart from this, we have no other place for the purpose”.[2]

Kandanadu Padiyola and the Preparations for the Foundation of a Seminary:                     

                    In 1809 (M.E.984 Mithunam 22) Mar Thoma VII passed away at Kandanadu. Two days before his death, a priest named Thoma was made his successor. The ordination led to a controversy, as Thoma was related to the Pakalomattom family (to which all the bishops since 1653 belonged) through maternal line and also because he was “ordained “ by an unconscious bishop at his death bed, whose hand had been placed on him”. Next day Pulikkottil Ittoop Kathanar and a group of clergy met the British Resident Macaulay and submitted a petition.

                   The late Metran’s fortieth day of the demise was observed at Kandanadu on Chingom 1, 985 (= 1809 mid-August) and all the churches of Malankara were invited to be present.[3] An agreement known as Padiyola was signed and the controversy was settled at least for some time.[4] One of the resolutions of the Padiyola was to establish two Padithaveedu (= Schools or Seminaries):


“For the common benefits of the Syrians two Schools (Padithaveedukal) shall be established – one in the North and one in the South – and Malpans shall stay there to instruct the children and the deacons the doctrines. Their expenses shall be met by regular contributions from the churches. As they master the liturgical ordos of the Church, the deacons and the priests shall get letters from the Malpans and be authorized to celebrate the sacraments by the concerned authorities”.[5]


                   Subsequent developments suggest that this resolution might have been passed under the initiative of Pulikkottil Ittoop Kathanar. As we will see, he was very keen to find it executed. For the reconciliation between Mar Thoma VIII and his rivals, the Kandanadu meeting resolved that Pulikkottil Ittoop Kathanar shall be professed Ramban and that the new Ramban and Kayamkulam Philipose Ramban shall assist the Metran in the administration of the Church. Accordingly, on Sunday 15th Chingom 985 (1809), Ittoop Kathanar was professed Ramban by Mar Thoma VIII. The two rambans assisted the Metran for about one and a half years. Then they broke away with the Metran and a division took place between the ‘Metran party’ and the ‘Ramban party’ (led by Ittoop Ramban).


                   Mar Thoma VIII and a few leaders met the British Resident Col.Macaulay and discussed the possibility of inviting a bishop from Antioch to regularize his consecration. Macaulay replied that if the Metran and the churches make an official request, he should follow up. The Resident  also informed the Metran he had decided to deposit an amount of 3,000 star pagodas (Poovarahan) with the East India Company as a perpetual loan ‘ for the education of the Syrian Christians and for the charitable works’[6].  This deposit was known as the Syrian Fund or Vattipanam, that is deposit on interest.

                   Mar Thoma VIII took no initiative in starting the Seminaries or sending invitation to Antioch. Chakkarayakathu Ittoop Kathanar from Angamaly was the trusted adviser of the Metran and rumors spread that they were meditating on some “new initiatives”. Pulikkottil Ittoop Ramban and Philipose Ramban were unhappy about this development and they complained to Col.Macaulay and later to his successor Col.John Munro (1810-1819). Having been disappointed, Ittoop Ramban withdrew to Kunnamkulam and stayed at the Arthattu church.

                   Meanwhile, Col.Macaulay handed over the receipt of the Syrian Fund to Mar Thoma VIII and was instructed to receive the yearly interest at a rate of 8% per year from 1809 onwards. Due to the disputes with Ittoop Ramban, the Metran was able to collect the interest of only one year (1809).

                   Ittoop Ramban and his party leveled two accusations: the Metran did not implement the decision to start the Seminaries; and he did not write to Antioch to get a bishop to regularize his consecration. A few lay leader met the Metran on Kumbom 1, 985 (mid-February 1809) and apprised him of the accusations and urged him to start the Seminaries, as the priests were practically incapable of fulfilling their pastoral responsibilities. They also discussed the ways to meet the expenses of the construction of the buildings for the Seminaries. Metran’s reply was encouraging. He said: “ If you decide what I should do, I shall abide by it. We have already decided to found two Seminaries: one in the North and another in the South. For this purpose, the interest (of the Vattipanam) of one year, which I have with me, could be spent, according to the decision of all “. Accordingly, Ittoop Ramban was informed that about 1,000 Rupees was at hand, and he was requested to arrive as soon as possible to supervise the construction. Ramban promptly reached at Kandanadu.[7]

                   Obviously this was a means of reconciliation between the Metran and the Ramban. Ittoop Ramban met the Metran, who asked him to wait till Munro arrives from the South. They did not have any further discussions on the matter. Ramban found it difficult to stay at Kandanadu till the arrival of Munro and left for Kunnamkulam leaving a letter for the Metran, of which the content is as follows: “A circular shall be sent to all churches to convoke them to decide on the letter to be sent to Antioch and all Malpans and the representatives of the parishes shall sign it and the absentees also shall be asked to do so. The letter shall be handed over to the Resident (Munro). Seminary shall be built and Philipose Ramban shall be appointed (as Malpan). Each church shall be asked to send at least one priest, one deacon and one child, and their instruction should be started soon. Andutakasa(= Festal Breviary) shall urgently be re-copied and be distributed to the churches. If necessary funds are available, the construction of the Seminary could be completed within four months and the teaching could be commenced “

                   Ittoop Ramban concluded his letter saying that if none of the above suggestions are implemented, he shall serve the Kunnamkulam church, instead of wandering here and there and wasting time.[8]

                   The letter throws light into the personality of Ittoop Ramban, who was not all ambitious to become the head of a Seminary. We should remember that Malpan’s office was always a prestigious one. Though he suggested Philipose Ramban’s name for this post, he expressed his willingness to supervise the construction of the building.

                   Meanwhile Munro arrived at Alwaye and Ittoop Ramban and his party met him and submitted a new petition against the Metran. Later Metran and his men came and complained that the Ramban was insubordinate.[9] Munro asked both the parties to keep restraint and ordered to hold a meeting of reconciliation at Puthiacavu church, Mavelikara in July 1811 (ME 986 Mithunam). The Resident sent letters to Philipose Ramban and Ittoop Ramban asking them to be present at the meeting. But they replied that their presence might cause further disputes. In the following years both parties continued to submit petitions to Col.Munro.[10] Gradually Ittoop Ramban won the respect and friendship of Munro. Finally, Munro heard the arguments of both parties. Apparently he favored Joseph Ramban.  He might have been convinced that Ramban is the right person to execute his plans concerning the Syrian Church in Malabar. Ramban told the Resident that if necessary funds and permission are granted, he should build the Seminary and stay there to train the clergy. Soon he prepared a plan of the proposed building and got Munro’s approval.[11]


                       Meanwhile, Kindangan Geevarghese Kathanar of the Arthattu Church, an ally of the Metran, broke away with him, and went to Anjoor. In 1811, he was consecrated bishop by Mar Philoxenos (Cheeran) of the Anjoor Church. The new bishop also was called Philixenos.[12] 


Col.Munro and the Syrian Church:

                   Col.Munro was appointed British Resident in Travancore and Cochin in 1810 and he held the office till January 1819. He had a special interest in the case of the Syrian Christians. P.Cherian summarizes Munro’s plans:

“ Shortly after Col.Munro’s appointment in 1810 as the British Resident in Travancore and Cochin, the Syrian Christians began to attract his attention. His Protestant instincts were aroused at once; and he began to wish ardently for a religious reformation among the Syrians, in the hope that in this manner missionaries could be obtained from among them for the evangelization of the country. He promptly came to the conclusion that the translation of the Bible into Malayalam and the establishment of an efficient system of education were the first requisites for bringing about the desired reformation”[13]

                   According to C.M.Agur, the scheme of a Syrian Seminary or College seems to have first originated with Rev.Mr.W.T.Ringeltaube, the first missionary of the London Missionary Society in Travancore, who worked in the South India, especially in Nagercoil.[14] If we believe Agur, Ringeltaube proposed it to Col.Munro among various other reforms. In fact Mar Thoma VIII, while staying at Omalloor, sent a messenger all the way to Mylaudy (near Nagercoil) with a long letter to Ringeltaube seeking his friendship and influence with Munro. Agur says that Ringeltaube did not believe that Mar Thoma’s management of the Syrian Church would result in any good. He made proposals to Munro for the better management and investment of the funds of the Syrian Church to secure an annual grant to support the Bishop and the priests and to establish the Seminary. Ringeltaube also proposed to send a dozen Syrian priests to Madras to be trained under an English chaplain.[15] Agur does not provide the source of this information.

Construction begins:

                   Colonel Munro was impressed with the enthusiasm and the ability of Ittoop Ramban to execute the foundation of the Seminary. The Resident handed over to the Ramban 960 Star Pagodas (Rs.3360), being the interest of the Syrian Fund for four years (1809-1813). An amount of Rs.3360 was borrowed from the churches of Kandanadu, Mulanthuruthy, Nadamel, Karingachira and Kunnamkulam and from Kochittan Itty Mathu Tharakan from Pala.[16] If we believe the Malankara Edavaka Patrika, Ittoop Ramban, who knew the principles of architecture, himself made a plan and traveled from one church to another seeking financial assistance and few were willing to support him. At last, continues the Edavaka Patrika, he approached the Resident, who disbursed the interest of the Vattipanam, which was due for four years.[17] Following the recommendations of Munro, Rani Parvathi Bhai of Travancore gave orders to the Tahsildar to give a land of six dandu (about 15 acres) in Kottayam, in a venue chosen by the Ramban.[18] Thus the land was received as a donation from the Rani. One hundred slaves (Pulayas) were also given for manual labor.[19] The foundation stone was laid on Kumbom 3, 989 (Mid-February 1813). Some of the supporters of Ittoop Ramban desired to have the Seminary built somewhere near Kandanadu.[20] But following Munro’s wish, Ramban chose the present site of the Old Seminary.

                   The building was partially completed by March 1814 ( M.E.Meenom 990).[21] Though Ittoop Ramban wanted to invite Mar Philoxenos of Anjoor to stay and to give leadership for the instruction in the Seminary, Mar Thoma VIII objected. Consequently, Ittoop Ramban himself assumed the responsibility.

                   Meanwhile, the British East India Company asked Munro explanation regarding the disbursement of the interest of the Syrian Fund to Ittoop Ramban. We can assume that Mar Thoma VIII or his men would have sent petitions in this respect. In fact the receipt of the Syrian Fund prescribes that the interest shall be paid to “the Metropolitan, Metran, or any other regularly constituted Prelate”.[22] Munro had handed over the interest to Ittoop Ramban, after having received a voucher signed by the Ramban and four or six laymen. The Madras Government did not approve the business. Munro was directed either to produce a receipt signed by the Metran or to retrieve the amount to the treasury. Col.Munro was in embarrassment.[23] The only solution was to ask Ittoop Ramban to get Episcopal consecration. Thus, following the Resident’s advise, the unwilling Ittoop Ramban went to Anjoor and he was consecrated bishop by his friend Mar Philoxenos at the Pazhanji church on Meenom 9, 991 (25th March 1815). The new bishop was named Mar Joseph Dionysius and he soon returned to Kottayam to resume his responsibility. Mar Thoma VII was deeply sad at this development and protested. Though he submitted a petition to Munro, the Resident ignored it. On 21st Makarom 992 (January 1816), thanks to Munro’s recommendation, a royal decree was issued confirming Mar Dionysius’ consecration.

                   In 1813 (ME 989, Kumbom 24), a church built in Thiruvalla had been torched by a few Hindus. The Resident brought them to justice and they were fined 60,000 kaliyam, half of which went to the church and the other half to the Seminary.

                   Mar Thoma VIII, broken hearted and ill, consecrated his uncle Ipe Kathanar with the name Mar Thoma IX and died in 1816(ME 991, Thulam 12) at Niranam. Mar Dionysius forced the new prelate to abdicate.


[1] See, B.Varghese, “ A Brief History of the Syriac Study Centers in Kerala”, The Harp X (1997), 65-70.

[2]  See Question No.7, in Ittoop, p.180. Ittoop gives the seventeen question and the answers, pp.175-180.  Malankara Edavaka Patrika, which was the official publication of the Malankara Church (1892-1909), made the following comments on the training of the clergy: “ Hundred years ago (ie.c.1800), the ability to read the four Gospels was considered as a great competence. Those who had learned four or six Anaphora were considered as Malpan “ MEP II-2 (1893), p.222.  In 1900, Konat Mathen Malpan wrote: “ Most of the clergy had learned a single anaphora and two Gospel readings “. MEP.IX-11 (1900), p.208. This means the competence to read and translate. In fact most of the Malpans of the Malankara Church of the 19th and 20th centuries had an elementary knowledge of Syriac and liturgy.

[3]  In 1812, in his reply to Munro’s  seventeen questions, Mar Thoma VIII said that there were 55 churches, 167 priests and 30,000 people under him. See Ittoop, p.179 (5th question).

[4]  According to the Syrian Church case (Seminary case), Resident Macaulay took the initiative to call the Meeting.  The Syrian Church case, tr.E.M.Philip, (Kottayam, 1890), para 116.

[5] Resolution No.8, Kandanadu Padiyola, in Ittoop, pp.156.

[6] Ittoop, p.158.  See also the Letters of Macaulay and the Chief Secretary to Government in, P.Cherian, Appendix G, p.389. There is no unanimity among the historians as to the origin of this fund. Some had attributed the deposit to Mar Dionysius I.

[7] Ittoop, p.160-161.

[8] Content of the Letter in Ittoop, p.162.

[9] Ittoop, p.162-63.

[10] See the petitions in Ittoop, pp.167-174.

[11] Ittoop, p.175.

[12]  On the Anjoor Church, J.R.K.Fenwick, The Malabar Independent Church,  Grove Books, Nottingham, 1992.

[13] P.Cherian, p.176.

[14] Agur, p.958 (note). On Ringeltaube (visited Travancore in 1806), Agur, pp.460-527.

[15] W.S.Hunt says that Dr.C.Buchanan would have known Ringeltaube in Culcutta, and later both met in Travancore and might have discussed the scope of working among the Syrians. “It is quite possible,” says Hunt, “ that the idea occurred to him and to other people also… It is of course, possible and indeed more than probable that Dr.Buchanan discussed with the missionary the condition and needs of the Syrians, and included a Seminary among the latter, or received the idea of one from him. But this is a mere conjecture. It would be interesting to know Mr.Agur’s authority for his statement “. HUNT, II, p.85.

[16]  Ittoop, p.187.