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The Old Seminary and Two Centuries of Theological Education

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--- Rev. Dr. B. Varghese 

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Funds and the Donations


                   The available documents provide different information (not always contradictory) regarding the source of the funds of the Seminary. Ittoop, being contemporary witness to the foundation of the Seminary needs special attention. He gives a list of donations that the Seminary received from the East India Company and the Government of Travancore.[1]

1.     3,000 Star Pagodas that Mar Thoma VIII had deposited in 1808 with the East India Company, at the initiative of Col. Macaulay.

2.     Rs.8, 000 being the share of the compensation that was paid to the Thiruvalla church.[2]

3.     Rs.20,000 was paid by the Government of Travancore which included 80,000 panam

4.     That the Government had to pay to Thachil Mathu Tharakan, a rich Roman Catholic business man who fell victim to popular rage and royal disgrace. As he had no legal heir to claim the amount, it was donated to the Seminary, of course at the intervention of Munro.

5.     The Ranee of Travancore donated the land where the Seminary was built, as well as a large property (“Munro Island”) in Kallada, in 1818.

6.     An amount of over Rs.14, 000 was collected from England at the initiative of Joseph Fenn for various works including the training of the clergy and the printing of the Bible.


                   In fact when the construction was begun the interest of the Syrian Fund and a similar amount collected by Ittoop Ramban were the only funds available. The other donations were added from 1816 onwards. A word is needed to say about items 2 and 3.

                   In his letters addressed to the Missionaries, Munro refers to the funds granted to the Seminary. Regarding the source of item 2 (= Rs.8, 000), it is qualified as ‘donation”. In none of his letters, Munro says that it was part of the compensation paid to the Thiruvalla church. In 1838, the British Resident J.S.Fraser, in his letter addressed to the Acting Diwan, refers to it as a donation made by the Ranee in 1816 at the recommendation of the Resident (Munro).[3]

                   In a letter to Rev.Norton (Feb.13, 1817), Munro expressed his desire regarding the expenditure of the funds:

“It was my desire that the donation of Rs.8, 000 should have been entirely laid out in the purchase of lands for the support of the College, and that the buildings should have been gradually erected from the interest of the company’s bond of 3,000 Pagodas “[4]

                   In another letter, Munro said that this investment was made to support 40 or 50 students.[5]  Later a donation of Rs.2, 000 was added to it. Thus Munro wrote to Norton:

“ I believe that a donation of (2,000) Two Thousand Rupees may still be expected to be made to the Syrians from the same source that supplied the last donation of Rs.8, 000.[6] 

                   Here Munro does not say that the amount was a donation from the Ranee. Therefore, Ittoop’s version of the origin of the fund seems to be credible.

                   Regarding the donation of Rs.20, 000 (or 21,200) we have the original letter written by Ranee Parvathi Bhai to Col.Munro. We shall quote it.

“ We have received your letter stating that, in the amount remitted from State funds to the Company’s Treasury on account of subsidy due to the Company and in the loan account, it is seen that there is a difference of Rs.21, 200, that it is not definitely known how the difference arose, that nevertheless if it is found that the amount rightly belongs to the State funds, it is the Colonel’s desire that it should be returned to the State funds, and further that if we of our own accord give the said amount for the maintenance expenses of the Kottayam Seminary it would enhance our reputation in the country and increase the friendship of the Company towards us…… Now it is our wish that the said amount of Rs.21, 200, due to the State funds out of the amount remitted to the Company’s Treasury should be given towards the expenses of the Kottayam Seminary, it is requested that this amount should be given and arrangements be made for the proper discharge of Seminary expenses. 28th Kumbom 993 (March 1818) “[7]

Seminary under Pulikkottil Mar Joseph Dionysius:

                   The building of the Seminary was partially completed by March 1814, and according to Ittoop, the instruction had begun soon (1814?).[8] Apparently Mar Thoma VIII was not present at the laying of the foundation (Feb.1813) or at the beginning of the studies.

                   Ittoop and other 19th and early 20th century sources say that the studies had begun before the Episcopal consecration of Mar Dionysius. But according to the Missionary sources, the Seminary did not begin to function until July 1816. On 19th June 1816, Rev.Thomas Norton paid his first visit to Kottayam. C.M.Agur writes: “ The Metropolitan Mar Joseph (Dionysius) received him very kindly. The College building was in a very advanced state – the white plastering of the outside floor being nearly finished – as to be ready for use in another six months”[9]. Norton gave the Bishop one of the Syriac copies of the Gospel of St.Mathew, sent to him by Mr.Thompson, Secretary of the Corresponding Committee of CMS. Norton was in fact a missionary to the Syrians until the arrival of Benjamin Bailey in November 1816, and was the channel of communication between the Syrians and Col.Munro. If we believe, the Malankara Edavaka Patrika, in their first meeting, Mar Dionysius asked Norton whether they intend to ‘steal his people as the Portuguese did’. Norton replied that he had come to redress the harms caused by the Romans.[10]

                   Following his first visit in Travancore as a Missionary, Norton sent a report to the Resident. Munro was chaffed at the slowness with which the Metran carried out his plans, namely the instruction of the clergy and the translation of the Scripture. On 22nd July 1816, Munro wrote to Norton:

“ I am very well pleased at your having visited Kottayam, and at the advanced state in which you found the buildings of the College. A course of instruction ought to be commenced at the earliest practicable moment at the College and I beg you will have the kindness to call upon the Metropolitan for information regarding his intentions on that subject. I shall have the pleasure of addressing to you without delay a statement of my opinions respecting the plan of education, and instruction proper to be established at the College: but the bishop should in the meanwhile take measures to collect teachers and students. I beg that you will have a communication with him on this point and urge him to carry into effect the injunctions which I have repeatedly conveyed to him concerning it. I will also thank you to have the progress that has been made in translating the Scriptures into Malayalam and examining a manuscript translation of the part of the New Testament which I put into the Bishop’s hands nearly two years ago. The Bishop is naturally slow and will lose much valuable time unless he is stimulated by our advice and representations “.[11]

                   Munro’s letter gives the impression that the studies had begun sometime after July 1816. Mar Dionysius passed away on 24th November 1816. However, none the letters of the Missionaries or of Munro suggest that the instruction had begun only after the demise of the Bishop.                 

                   We can assume that traditional instruction in Syriac language and liturgy must have begun even before the consecration of Mar Dionysius. In the beginning the response must have been cold, and therefore Munro was annoyed. As the subsequent history shows, he wanted to have a more systematic education system at the Seminary.

                   Under Mar Dionysius, the main activity begun in the Seminary seems to be the translation of the Scriptures. On 19th July 1816, Munro wrote to Mr. Thompson, Secretary of the Corresponding Committee of the CMS:

“I have repeatedly urged the Bishop Joseph to hasten the translation of the Scriptures; but I fear, from his age and infirmities, that we cannot expect the completion of that work until Mr.Norton shall be enabled by his knowledge of Malayalam to take some part in the superintendence of it.

                   Mr.Norton has visited the College at Kottayam, and will have informed you of its state. I trust that a system of instruction on an extended scale will be commenced there in the course of this year.”[12]

                   According to the Missionary sources, the building was not completed during the lifetime of Mar Dionysius. Similarly the construction of the chapel was begun by Mar Dionysius and was completed after his death. On 13th March 1817, Munro wrote to Norton : “ The late Metran (= Mar Dionysius) informed me that he had begun to build a church at the College. I don’t know what progress has been made in its erection”.[13] As the works were not complete, Munro promised financial assistance. Thus in May 1817, he wrote to Norton:

“ I should also wish to receive an estimate of the sum necessary for the completion of the College and the erection of a church contiguous to it. I shall be able to procure a donation, I hope, those purposes…”.[14]

                   Benjamin Bailey who arrived at Kottayam in November 1816, a few days after the demise of Mar Dionysius, must have played a part in the completion of the building and the chapel. In a letter addressed to Bailey Munro gave the following direction:

“ You have stated that 400 Rupees will be sufficient to finish the building of the College, and 500 Rupees to erect a church, and I am happy to inform you that I have procured a donation of 1,000 Rupees to the College which sum will be sent to you from my Treasury at Quilon. I request that it may be applied under your personal direction in completing these works with the least possible delay. I request you to know if any assistance is necessary to enable you to build the church with expedition, Lieut.Gordon will be disposed to furnish you with every facility in his power towards the execution of that work. I shall be happy to learn from you at what time you expect the College and the church to be ready and completed. You will exercise your discretion in building the church of such a size and form as you may judge to be expedient “.[15]

Obviously the donation of Rs.1, 000 was made by the Ranee. The chapel built by Mar Dionysius and completed by the Missionaries was much smaller than the present one and detached from the main building. The present chapel, as we will see, was built in the last decades of the 19th century.


Colonel Munro and the Seminary:


                   Colonel Munro was genuinely interested to introduce English Education for the Syrians and to translate the Scriptures from Syriac to Malayalam, using educated Kathanars. But he was not a missionary; however, he was a committed Christian. He was a shrewd British official whose plan was to use the native Christians for his Government. He had political motivations behind the idea of the “ Mission to the Syrians” of which he is considered as the patron.[16] In a letter written in 1815 (to the CMS?) Munro revealed his plans: “. the diffusion of genuine Christianity in India… (is) a measure equally important to the interests of humanity and to the stability of our power”.[17]  For Munro “ genuine Christianity “ meant Protestantism, especially the Anglicanism. He was convinced that English education was necessary for its advancement: “ An efficient and extended system of education, particularly in the English language, will contribute more effectually than any other plan to the early and substantial advancement of the Protestant religion in India[18]

In the same letter, Munro explained his plans regarding the Seminary:

“The College proceeds under the present superintendence of the new Bishop, Joseph: and it is my intention to adopt the best measures in my power for placing it in a state of efficiency, and combining its operations with a system of parish schools among the Syrians, which already exists in a certain degree and is susceptible of much improvement. The principal object of the establishment of the College in Travancore was to instruct the Kathanars and officiating priests among the Syrians in a competent knowledge of the Syriac language in which they are at present too generally deficient (….). Another object was to procure copies of the scriptures in the Syriac language, and it was intended that the students in the course of their education should transcribe the Bible to the greatest possible extent (…..). The laity were also to be taught the Syriac. The plan of the College was also intended to comprehend a system of instruction in Malayalam to priests and the laity, and of translating the scriptures and the religious books into that language for general circulation and use.”[19]

                   As we will see later, Munro wanted to have a Missionary at the head of the Seminary, who could eventually control the Metran and the Church. But during the lifetime of Mar Joseph Dionysius, Munro did not interfere very much in the administration of the Seminary and the Church. There might be two reasons behind it. Firstly, ‘The Kottayam Mission’ had just started and he wanted time to win the confidence of the Syrians. Secondly, T.Norton was the only Missionary available at that time and he was stationed in Alleppey.

                   In his letters to Norton and to the CMS, Munro revealed his plans concerning the Seminary and the Syrian Church. But he did not seem to have regarded Norton as the suitable person for executing his plans, though he wanted him to supervise the translation of the Scriptures from Syriac to Malayalam.[20] Munro patiently waited for the arrival of new missionaries who were suitable for the task. Thus on 22nd January 1817, he wrote to Mr.Thompson:

“ Our object is to establish on sure foundations, what I may term the head-quarters of the Travancore Mission; and I think that Alleppey is in every view, the best place for the purpose (….). At this place, and also perhaps at Kottayam, I propose that all the new Missionaries that may arrive, shall fix their residence; and prosecute their studies. It is also necessary that an English Missionary should be fixed at Kottayam, and put into efficient superintendence over the Syrians and the College “[21]

                   As an interim arrangement, Munro had chosen Benjamin Bailey to supervise the College. In March (13th) 1817, he wrote to Norton:

“ Regulations for the interior government of the College will be extremely necessary and I should be happy if Mr.Bailey would prepare some at his earliest convenience. Mr.Bailey should establish his personal residence at Kottayam without any delay, and assume the general supervision of the affairs of the College.”[22]

                   Within a few days, Bailey and his family moved over to Kottayam (March 1817).[23] In August 1817, Munro instructed Bailey to take control over the funds of the Seminary:

“I must request that you will assume yourself the direction and management of all the funds belonging to the College; employing a Committee of principal authorities attached to it.”[24]


Beginning of English Education:


                   As soon as Bailey settled down in Kottayam, the teaching of the English language was started at the Seminary. We can assume that the instruction had begun in March or April 1817. Thus in a letter on 29th May 1817, Munro expressed his approval: “ I approve very much indeed of your commencing a course of instruction in the English language, and I request earnestly that you will continue it with vigour “.[25] However, systematic teaching of English would not have begun before the middle of 1818.[26]

Munro’s interest in the health of the inmates:

                   Munro paid attention to every aspect of the community life at the Seminary. Once he had to order compulsory vaccination for the inmates against smallpox. His letter to Bailey in this regard shows the attitude of the people of Travancore in the 19th century towards the new form of medical treatment:

                   I am exceedingly concerned at the Metropolitan’s illness:[27] but I encourage a confident hope that it has had a favourable termination. I am surprised at the prejudices manifested by the Syrians against vaccination: and I am of opinion that it will be very desirable that you should endeavour to remove their fears and doubts upon that subject. Doctor Proven has ordered some Native Vaccinators to be stationed at Kottayam and every person attached to the College, who has not had the smallpox, should be vaccinated immediately. I beg you will inform them that I have given orders to this effect; and that if they are not promptly executed, I shall be obliged to enforce them through Police. These people are so ignorant and weak that we must sometimes threaten them into their own good. I think, however, that if the Metropolitan exerted himself, the whole body of the Syrians would very soon be vaccinated “.[28]

Munro interferes in the affairs of the Church:


                   Munro was very careful to execute his plans regarding the Syrian Church. His ultimate intention was to reform the Syrian Church according to the Protestant principles and he found that education of the clergy was the best means to achieve his goal. Translation of the Scriptures and the foundation of parish schools were part of this project. We have already noted that the traditional formation of the Syrian clergy was done at the Malpan Schools. Munro’s first step of ‘reformation’ was to suppress such Schools and to centralize the training of the clergy. Thus he directed that all the deacons should study at the Seminary, and no body shall be ordained without Seminary training.

In 1817, he wrote to Bailey:

“I request that all the pupils in the other churches may be called directly to the College: and that no person shall be ordained as a priest unless he shall have passed some time at the College, and undergone a regular examination. You must see this and every other arrangement carried into effect; for be assured that whatever you leave to the discretion of the Syrians will be neglected “.[29]

Munro and Punnathara Mar Dionysius: