Blessed Kuriakose Elias Chavara, was a great sage that Kerala saw in the 19th century, who left indelible marks on the religious, social and educational fields of Kerala. It was he who began the transformation of the Catholics in Kerala, primarily engaged in and known for their acumen in agriculture and business, towards the top layer of educational, social and cultural horizons. It was his vision and farsightedness that enabled the Catholic community of Kerala reach the enviable position in educational field that it has acquired today. Fr. Chavara realized the vast potentials of ‘education’ and his work has played a unique role in the building of modern Kerala. If we have to know the depth of his contribution towards moulding the literate Kerala of today, we need to and look at the educational history of Kerala of the 19th century.
THE EDUCATIONAL SCENE OF KERALA IN THE 19th CENTURY
Kerala in those days was a land of family schools known as ‘kudipallikkoodam’ and learning centres under single tutors known as ‘Aasankalari’. Though the State was earlier divided into over 20 Principalities and later as Travancore, Cochin and Malabar, there was no noticeable change in the educational system followed by the people in the different regions. A slight change in the educational system took place with the arrival of the Missionaries from the west. The Sanskrit education that was prevalent in Kerala from the early days, did not give sufficient exposure to the Keralites to the outside world. Sanskrit was considered only as a medium of religious teachings and caste superiority.
The 1819 order of Queen Gowri Parvathy Bhai of Travancore,i setting up Vernacular schools could have brought about radical changes in the educational arena. Though a large number of schools were established after this declaration, many of them were closed down in a short span of time for various reasons. It was Swathi Thriunal Maharaja who began English education in Travancore. He brought Rev. Roberts, the Head Master of Nagarcoil Seminary, and started a school in 1834.ii The first English school of Cochin was established by Rev. Dasen in 1818 in Mattanchery.iii The Basel Mission established the first English School in Malabar – at Kallai in the year 1848.iv The first higher education centre of Travancore was the CMS school that was upgraded as a college in the year 1866. This school was started under the aegis of Church Mission Society to train the clergy in 1816.v Though there were such positive movements in the early part of the 19th century in the educational realm in Kerala, it was beyond the reach of the Syriac Catholics.
SYRIAC CATHOLICS AND EDUCATION
The Synod of Diamper (Udayamperur) was an event that changed the course of history of the Syriac Christians of Kerala. Besides making many basic changes in the worship and liturgy of the native Christians, the Synod also interfered in many other matters including education. The Synod prohibited Syriac Catholics learning from the people of other religions.vi It also insisted that Syriac Christian tutors should not try any thing particular to attract the children of other faiths.vii The consequences of these restrictions on the community were too severe and negative in the context of the limited available educational opportunities.
Those who took over the rein of the Church after the Synod, did succeed to a great extent in implementing the Synodal decisions. The educational activities among the Syriac Christians were totally ignored until the foreign missionaries left the administration of the Church. It is recorded in the historical report of Ignatius Persico: “The Carmelites who rule the Syriac Christians have not done any thing considerable in the educational field.viii In general, the missionaries have not done anything remarkable for the education of the priests and the Christians who were entrusted to their care. The Syriac Christians who were experts in agriculture and business were not encouraged to tread in a changed path.”ix This is the basic reason for the absence of any leading literary figure or academic genius coming up from among the Syriac Christians before Blessed Chavara. The points noted in the Letter to the Prefect of the Propaganda by the assembly of Syriac clergy on October 5, 1884, is noteworthy here. “There is no one from among the Syriac Christians who have completed college education and secured a degree. There are more than a hundred degree holders among the Jacobites. While there are many lawyers, doctors and judges in other communities, there is none among us."x
AN ARDENT LOVER OF THE COMMUNITY
The response of Fr. Chavara to the pathetic condition of the community to which he belonged was very extra-ordinary. Fr. Chavara taking up the leadership of the first monastic Congregation of India, the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate (CMI), channellized his and the Congregation’s divine charisms towards the progress of the society. He made a great opening for the overall progress of the Syriac Christians by establishing the first school and a printing press to facilitate its all round development.
Fr. Chavara, who had not seen the corridors of systematic schooling, was determined that the formal education that was denied to him and his ancestors, had to be made available to the contemporary and future generations. The projects that he implemented to uplift the fellow brethren from the pathetically backward conditions in education, are symbols of his farsightedness and courage. The members of his Congregation keep alive that passion for the community in taking the lead role in educational field even today. It is an undisputed fact that the greatest contribution of the Congregation to the people of Kerala is education in high standards. If there is any field where the minority Christians have got universal acclaim in the country, it is the educational field. It is true that the schools have never aimed at turning the country Christian at any point of time. But the role played by these Christian institutions in building up a Christian vision of ethics in identifying and responding to moral and immoral acts, is not small.xi
ESTABLISHMENT OF THE SANSKRIT SCHOOL
An isolated stand from the material welfare of the fellow brethren will weaken any religious organization. Fr. Chavara wanted to overcome such an unpalatable situation. On the 15th year of the commencement of the monastery at Mannanam, i.e., in the year 1846, he established a Sanskrit school. Sanskrit was made the medium of education here for the fear that English education might spread the Protestant ideology. This severe attitude of the administrators had the backing of the Synod of Diamper. The status that Sanskrit had among the people in the upper layer of the then society might also have influenced him in adopting Sanskrit as the medium of education in this school. Fr. Parappurath Varkey, one of the contemporaries of Fr. Chavara, recorded about the establishment of this school like this : “Along this time a Sanskrit school was establishment as part of the Mannanam Monastery. The priestly inmates and children from the neighbourhood were studying here. A tutor belonging to the Varyar community was brought from Thrissur, to run this School. He was well versed both in Malayalam and Sanskrit."xii
SCHOOLS AT ARPOOKARA AND MANNANAM
The success of the Sanskrit school made Fr. Chavara more enthusiastic. He began to focus on the downtrodden in the society. He realized that the lamentable condition of the backward and depressed class could not be changed merely by financial support. The Mannanam and Arpookara schools are living examples of his attempts to revive the very humanity of these poor communities, that was thrashed down by the unjust social system, through literacy and civilization. These schools were the silver stars that spread glitters in the inner soul of these downtrodden members of the society who were deprived admission to public schools.xiii On this Fr. Parappurath Varkey wrote: “While the work on the Mannanam School began, a place on the Arpookara Thuruthumali hill was located to build a Chapel and school for the converts from the Pulaya caste." xiv Fr. Chavara was the first Indian who not only dared to admit the untouchables to schools but also provided them with Sanskrit education which was forbidden to the lower castes, thereby challenging social bans based on caste, as early as the former part of the 19th century.xv
THE DREAM OF ESTABLISHING A COLLEGE
We have seen that in the 19th century there were very few schools in Kerala. Starting a school itself was a great deed. It was in such a context that Fr. Chavara thought of establishing higher education centres. It was his desire to start a central college at Mannanam,xvi that would help the multifaceted growth of the Syriac Christians. He began his efforts towards achieving this goal. Unfortunately it was exactly at this time the event that shook the whole Kerala Church took place– the arrival of Bishop Roccos in Kerala. The administrators of the Church who totally failed to resist the tide of Roccos had but one choice before them – to promote the universally acceptable Fr. Chavara to the top of the leadership. In June 1861, Archbishop Bernardinos appointed Fr. Chavara as the Vicar General of the Malabar Church with wide powers. He was then transferred to Koonammavu. His attachment to the monastery where he spent more than 30 years of active life and the dream to transform Mannanam as a major educational centre did not stand on the way of this great martyr of obedience. Later, he could not return to Mannanam and due to the busy schedules of the new assignment as Vicar General his dream of establishing the college remained unfulfilled.
THE HISTORICAL CIRCULAR
After taking over as the Vicar General, Fr. Chavara gave a resplendent leadership to the Kerala Church. The root cause for the tremendous growth of education and hundred percent literacy in Kerala can be traced back to a circular of Archbishop Bernadinos, that Fr. Chavara got issued. The circular was that “each parish should establish educational institutions, or else they will be debarred from the communion”. It was a warning circular. The order that the churches that do not follow the instructions would be closed down, had salutary impact in creating a revolutionary change in the academic hemisphere. That circular which was written by Fr. Chavara in his own hand, was signed with the official seal by the Archbishop Bernadinos. Fr. Chavara did not remain complacent after getting the circular issued. He delegated the members of his Congregation to ensure the implementation of the order and to energize educational activities. Each monastery was to oversee these activities of the parish churches in its neighourhood.xvii Schools attached to the churches thus became the live wire and symbols of educational activities in Kerala.
SEMINARIES AND SECULAR EDUCATION
Priests are the spokespersons of any religion. The role of priests in shaping the public image of religion is immense. For this reason every religion paid special attention in moulding efficient priests. It was not otherwise in Christianity as well. The Catholic Church had always taken the training of the clergy very seriously. Seminaries are centers for training the clergy. The present day seminary system was originally established by the Synod of Trent (1545-1563).
In Europe and other western countries, several renowned learning centres have come up along with the Seminaries. Though the western missionaries had started a few seminaries in Kerala, the majority of the Syriac priests including Fr. Chavara had their basic learning from religious tutors called ‘Malpans’. However, there were very few among them who were knowledgeable and scholarly. Fr. Chavara who understood these ground realities, took the lead in establishing seminaries along with monasteries. He was aware that only erudite and scholarly priests could lead the community and the society to progress. In 1833 he established the first Seminary of Syriac Christians at Mannanam. This was followed by the establishment of Seminaries at Vazhakulam in 1866 and Elthuruth in 1868.xviii The foundation of the seminary at Pulincunnoo also was initiated by Fr. Chavara but which was realized only in 1872. In the course of time the vision of Fr.Chavara got realized. What happened in Europe, did happen in Kerala too. Mannanam, Vazhakulam, Elthuruth and Pulincunnoo became leading educational centres of Kerala.
PROGRESS THROUGH EDUCATION: THE ORIGINAL VISION OF FR. CHAVARA
If the foundation of the religious Congregation was the out come of the collective efforts of many, including Fr. Chavara, the educational activities sprang from Fr. Chavara’s vision alone. He knew the value of education. When the thought came as to which would be the right platform the Congregation should step into in order to uplift the community, it was the field of education that blazed bright before him. If the establishment of the Congregation has helped the spiritual growth of the Malabar Church, the educational activities paved the way for the overall growth of the Kerala society.
Blessed Chavara had a clear vision on education. He wrote: “As soon as children are able to recognize things, they should be sent to school. Besides, the parents should enquire about their studies and their friendship. Every Sunday, their learning should be checked.”xix He entrusted the well to do members of the community and the parishes with the responsibility of providing educational facilities for poor students. He also found out viable means to maintain the schools established by him.xx In considering Blessed Chavara’s contribution towards education, it is not the number of schools established by him that matters most. Rather it is the new thought process he injected into the consciousness of the society that education is inevitable for its all-round progress and development. Further, he made it obligatory to the parish churches and monasteries to provide the people with learning facilities, in spite of all sorts of inconveniences. Blessed Chavara’s vision of education is unique and ever relevant in this regard.
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xix Chavara, Kuriakose Elias. Oru Nalla Appante Chavarul, 18.
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