Syro-Chaldean Karshuni(Suriyaani Malayalam)

Syro-Chaldean Karshuni ( Suriyaani Malayalam) or simply Karshuni (Syriac script: ܓܪܫܘܢܝ, which used the Syriac script to write Malayalam, was a popular medium of written communication among Christians until the 19th century, like Arabi-Malayalam used by Muslims in Malabar or judo Malayalam by the cochin Jews. Syro-Chaldean Karshuni originated in the ninth century AD, when Eastern Aramaic became the dominant liturgical language in the Malabar coast (Possibly by the large scale migration from Mesopotamia). After this initial period, Karshuni writing has continued up to the twentieth century among the Syriac Christian communities in the Malabar Coast. Syriac was the liturgical language of most denominations of Christianity in Kerala until half a century ago but now most Christian denominations have replaced it with Malayalam.” Most Christian denominations, especially the Catholic rites, dropped Syriac as the language of church service in the second half of the 20th century (1960).

The antiquity of this writing system is clear from the following observation by Isaac Taylor
It was probably about the 9th century that the Syrian Estrangelo alphabet was carried by Nestorian missionaries to India, where it is still used by the so-called "Christians of St. Thomas," on the Malabar coast. Nine additional characters have been borrowed from the Malayalim, a local Indian alphabet, in order to express certain peculiar Dravidian sounds. The original twenty-two Syriac letters have however remained almost absolutely true to the Nestorian forms of the 9th century.[We possess Nestorian MSS. dated in the years 600 and 768 A.D., but the forms vary little from the Estrangelo of the 6th century. The distinctive Nestorian peculiarities make their earliest appearance in a MS. written at Haran in 899 A.D.]This curious composite alphabet is called KARSHUNI, a term whose meaning is unknown, though it is probably of Syrian origin, being also applied by the Maronites to the Syriac characters in which Arabic is sometimes written. [1]

The origin of karshuni writing system in Malabar is closely associated with the large scale migration of East Syrian Christians(Nestorian) to the Malabar coast. A very good and simple analysis of the origin of different Syriac variants(Western, Eastern, Maronite, Turkic) is given by Isaac Taylor in his book “THE ALPHABET AN ACCOUNT OF THE Origin and Development of Letters” .The following introduction for this article is taken directly from this book (Chapter 5. The Aramean Alphabets).
Attention has been already drawn to the fact that the later developments of the Aramean alphabet were determined mainly by religious causes. From the Aramean of the Seleucidan epoch sprang four great literary alphabets, which conserve the sacred books of the four great religions of Western Asia. The variety of the Aramean alphabet in which the Koran chanced to be composed goes by the name of Arabic; the Aramean of the Jewish dispersion is called Hebrew; Parsi is the Aramean alphabet of the Zoroastrians; while Syriac is the name used to designate the Aramean of the Christian peoples of the East. But since the people who were called Syrians by the Greeks knew themselves by the name of Arameans, we may expect to find that the Syriac language and the Syriac script are the lineal representatives of the language and script of ancient Aram. [1]
From the 6th century B.C., the Aramaic speech began to extend itself beyond its original limits, and owing to political and commercial causes gradually became the lingua franca of the Seleucidan empire, supplanting one by one the contiguous Semitic languages - Assyrian, Babylonian, Hebrew, and Phoenician. The Aramean alphabet attained an even wider extension than the Aramaic speech, and at length extirpated all the independent North Semitic scripts. [1]
In the early Christian centuries the Mesopotamian city of Edessa rose to great importance, becoming the head-quarters of Aramean culture, as Antioch was of Grecian learning. From the second to the seventh century, which was the flourishing period of Syriac literature, Edessa was the seat of a great theologic school. Here, soon after the close of the second century, was made the Syriac translation of the Scriptures which goes by the name of the Peshito version, and this helped to give a wide diffusion among all Aramean peoples to the local dialect and alphabet of Edessa. [1]
The conquests of the Arabs, and the consequent spread of the faith of Islam, brought the Arabic speech and the Meccan type of the Aramean alphabet into competition with the language of Aram and the alphabet of Edessa, which had prevailed so widely for many centuries. In the 8th century Syriac rapidly declined, and soon nearly disappeared as a living language. It now survives mainly as the liturgical language of the Jacobite Christians of Aleppo and of the Maronites of the Lebanon, while as a spoken tongue it is represented only by a few Neo-Syrian dialects which linger on the shores of Lake Urumiah in North - Western Persia, and in the mountains of Kurdistan. [1]
The Syriac alphabet has shared the fortunes of the Syriac language. Like its near congener the Palmyrene, it is descended from the Aramean alphabet of the second epoch. Several of the peculiarities which distinguish the Syriac alphabet from the Palmyrene are exhibited on certain coins struck at Edessa during the 1st century A.D., and also in a bilingual inscription on a tomb at Jerusalem, which must be earlier than the siege by Titus, and which seems to relate to some person connected with Helena, Queen of Adiabene. Hence we learn that the development of the Syriac alphabet as a distinct script commenced as early as the 1 st century ; and also that the Syriac was not, as has been supposed, derived from the Palmyrene, but was an independent development from a common source. [1]

The form of the Syriac alphabet which prevailed during the flourishing period of Syrian culture is called the ESTRANGELO. Of this name the usual explanation, first propounded by Michaelis, and adopted by Adler, Land, and Lenormant, derives it from two Arabic words which signify 'the writing of the Gospels.' In support of this etymology it is alleged that the older uncial characters were retained for copies of the Scriptures, after they had been replaced for ordinary purposes by more cursive scripts.Noldeke, however, the latest and best authority, prefers, and apparently with good reason, an older derivation, first suggested by Assemani, from the Greek στρογγυλη, 'rounded,' a term which would appropriately distinguish the bold uncial forms of the Estrangelo letters from the later cursive script which the Syrians call SERTA, or 'linear.' This is the correct name for the modern Western minuscule which often goes by the name of PESHITO, a Syriac word meaning 'simple/'usual,' 'common,' applied to distinguish the ordinary script from the more archaic and elaborate writing employed for liturgical purposes. (Skipped) The Serta, or 'linear' script, which is the correct designation of modern Syriac, was probably so called, as Hoffmann has suggested, because of the characteristic horizontal line or ligature which unites the lower portions of the letters, and thus distinguishes it from the Estrangelo, or 'rounded' character. [1]
The most ancient dated Syriac MS .that has come down to us was written in the year 411 A.D. [2] and exhibits the Estrangelo character in its full perfection. Down to the end of this (18th) century the Estrangelo continued to be the sole Syriac script. At the beginning of the 6th century it began to develop the more cursive forms which gradually replaced it; but till the 8th century, when it fell altogether into disuse, the Estrangelo continued to be employed for uncial manuscripts and ornate codices.The Estrangelo differs from the Palmyrene in being a literary rather than a lapidary script. Hence, as in all cursive alphabets, the tendency is to increase the breadth and to diminish the height of the letters, and more especially so to modify their forms as to make it easy to unite them by ligatures. In the Aramean of Egypt, where ligatures first appear, they are used only for three or four letters ; in the Palmyrene the number is increased to twelve characters, whose forms chanced to be such as make it easy to unite them with either the preceding or the following letter. But when we come to the Estrangelo we find that ligatures are employed in the case of every letter of the alphabet, a fact which sufficiently accounts for the great apparent changes in the alphabetic forms. [1]
That the universal use of ligatures must necessarily modify the outlines of the letters is easily seen. The case of the Roman minuscule’s, and the cursive forms derived from them, explains the mode in which such influences operate. It is easy to see, for instance, that the forms of the letters b f g h p r have been transmuted into b f g h p r, because the script formation offers greater facilities for obtaining speed by joining letters. Now, if the reader will compare the Palmyrene and the Syriac forms given in the Table on the opposite page (see simplified Syriac table ), he will see that the changes in the letters which have undergone the greatest amount of alteration, such as olaf, he, heth, teth, shin, and tau, can thus be readily explained. To the same cause is due the startling difference which is sometimes found between the initial and final forms of the same letter, as in the following cases(Omited). [1]

Up to the close of the 5th century there is only one Syriac script, the Estrangelo. The style in fashion at Edessa prevailed over the whole Syrian region, both in the Roman and the Persian provinces. This unity of type was brought to an end by the great heresies, and the consequent schisms, of the 5th and following centuries. The replacement of the Estrangelo by a variety of cursive scripts was influenced in a most curious manner by theological disputes which turned on the most subtle metaphysical distinctions Some of the secondary Syriac alphabets - Nestorian, Jacobite (and, as can be seen from the Syriac table, the Türkic, Mongol, and Tungusic Manchus)and Maronite - derive their very names from Syrian heresiarchs. The History of the Alphabet at this period is therefore inextricably involved with the history of minute theological distinctions, and of the great councils which were summoned to pronounce upon them.The earliest of these schisms, that which takes its name from Nestorius, had a greater influence on the development and diffusion of the alphabet than any single event that can be named, save the rise of Islam, and actually resulted in transporting a form of the 5th century alphabet of Edessa as far as the southern extremity of India, and the remote shores of China. [1]
Nestorius, a Syrian who was Bishop of Constantinople, doubted whether the Virgin Mary should be styled Θεοτοκοσ, the 'mother of God.' (in today's lingo Nestorians are Monophysites, a three-partite Christian euphemism for Monotheists, see M.Adji Tengrianizm and Christianity) The Council of Ephesus, usually called the Third General Council, was summoned by (Eastern Roman emperor, 408-450) Theodosius (II) the Younger, and met in 431 to decide the question. By the violence of Cyril of Alexandria, who presided at the council, Nestorius was condemned unheard, deposed, and banished. Our involuntary sympathy with the victim makes it easy to understand how warmly the Oriental provinces espoused his cause. Barsumus, a doctor of Edessa, who was a zealous partisan of Nestorius, having been ejected from his chair, took refuge in Persia, and in 435 became Bishop of Nisibis, where he founded a school of theology in rivalry of that of Edessa. The reigning Sassanian monarch, Firoz, who espoused the cause of the Nestorians, made over to them the patriarchal See of Ctesiphon (Seleucia), and expelled their opponents from Persia, just as the Nestorians themselves had been driven from those parts of Syria which were subject to Constantinople. From the school of Nisibis proceeded those bands of adventurous missionaries who during the 6th and the succeeding centuries spread the Nestorian tenets over Egypt, Arabia, India, Tartary (18th c. term for Türkic lands) and China. [1]
The more vehement opponents of Nestorius naturally transgressed, in an opposite direction, the strict line of orthodoxy. This reaction from Nestorianism took shape in the heresy of the Monophysites, who were led by Eutychus. The Council of Chalcedon, called the Fourth General Council, which was summoned by(Eastern Roman emperor, 450-457) Marcian in 451, condemned the Eutychian doctrines. As the Eastern Syrians were mainly Nestorians, so the Syrians of the West sided for the most part with the Eutychians; but those Syrian Christians who, though not Greeks, followed the doctrines of the Greek Church as declared at the Council of Chalcedon, were called by their opponents, by way of reproach, MELCHITES, 'royalists' or 'imperialists,' because they submitted to the edict of Marcian in favor of the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon. [1]
The JACOBITES were the followers of Jacob Baradaeus, a monk who revived in the next century the languishing Monophysite heresy, and died Bishop of Edessa in 578. By his untiring energy he converted to the Eutychian creed the Syrian, Armenian (and thus, the Uigur script is largely identical to Armenian, both being in the I.Taylor's terminology Jacobite scripts, see simplified Syriac table below), Coptic, and Abyssinian Churches; so that to this day the Patriarch of Antioch is a Jacobite, as well as the Patriarch of Alexandria, whose jurisdiction is still acknowledged by the remote Primate of Abyssinia. [1]
The Monothelites (a three-partite Christian euphemism for basically Monotheists), a sect who adopted in a modified form the views of the Monophysites, were condemned by the Sixth General Council in 680. Their opinions took root among the Mardaites, a people of Lebanon, who about the end of the 7th century received the name of MARONITES, from Maro their first Bishop. They afterwards abjured the Monothelite heresy, (renamed their views Miaphysitism), and were admitted into communion with Rome in 1182. [1]
We can now trace the effects of these successive schisms on the fortunes of the Syriac alphabet. The Christians of Persia were exclusively Nestorian, so that the line which divided the Sassanian kingdom from the Roman empire severed also the Churches of the East from the culture of the ancient school of Edessa. Henceforward the Syriac alphabet is parted into two branches, the Eastern and the Western, which pursued their independent developments. The Nestorian, or, as it is sometimes called, the Syro-Chaldaic alphabet, is merely the Syriac alphabet as it was used in the Sassanian realm. [1]

The Nestorians took with them that form of the Estrangelo which prevailed at the time of the schism. We possess Nestorian MSS. dated in the years 600 and 768 A.D., but the forms vary little from the Estrangelo of the 6th century. The distinctive Nestorian peculiarities make their earliest appearance in a MS. written at Haran in 899 A.D. The modern Nestorian, as now used by the Syro-Chaldee Churches (Assyrian Churches) in the Persian province of Azerbijan, exhibits somewhat more cursive forms, but is nevertheless the most archaic of existing Syriac scripts. [1]
It was probably about the 9th century that the Nestorian alphabet was carried by Nestorian missionaries to India, where it is still used by the so-called "Christians of St. Thomas," on the Malabar coast. Nine additional characters have been borrowed from the Malayalim, a local Indian alphabet, in order to express certain peculiar Dravidian sounds. The original twenty-two Syriac letters have however remained almost absolutely true to the Nestorian forms of the 9th century. This curious composite alphabet is called KARSHUNI, a term whose meaning is unknown, though it is probably of Syrian origin, being also applied by the Maronites to the Syriac characters in which Arabic is sometimes written. [1]

It is not only on the Indian Ocean that we find traces of the successful labors of the Nestorian missionaries. Soon after the schism they penetrated among the Turkic hordes of Central Asia, and even crossed the great Wall of China. The Mongolian, the Kalmuk, and the Manchu alphabets, to whose singular history the next section will be devoted, are found to resolve themselves into slightly disguised forms of the Estrangelo alphabet as it was at the time of the Nestorian schism. [1]
Within the Roman frontier the fortunes of the Syriac alphabet were less eventful. In the 6th century the Jacobite revival of the Eutychian heresy divided the Western Syriac alphabet into two branches, a northern and a southern. The Syrians of Palestine, who remained in communion with the Orthodox Church, are known by the name of Melchites, while the northern Syrians followed Jacob Baradseus, who became Bishop of Edessa. The modern Jacobites, who may be said to continue the Syrian Church and alphabet in the line of direct descent, are now under the Patriarch of Antioch. Their alphabet differs little from that of the Maronites of the Lebanon, and goes by the names of Modern Syriac, Peshito, or Serta. The types in column iv. of the Table on p. 288 (see simplified Syriac table) were cut under the direction of the present Patriarch of Antioch, and represent the Jacobite alphabet of the 12th or 13th century.[3] The modern Jacobite, or Serta, will be found in column v. of the same Table. [1]
Of the alphabet used by the Melchites of Palestine, whose separation from the other Syrians dates from the Council of Chalcedon, two widely different forms are known, - an early uncial form which is found in three very ancient MSS, which probably belong to the 7 th or possibly to the 6th century, and a later cursive form employed in numerous MSS from Nitria and elsewhere, dating from the 11th to the 14th centuries. These two forms are so distinct that they may conveniently be distinguished by separate names. The uncial Melchite, called Hierosolymitan by Adler and Hoffmann, goes generally by the name of the Syro-Palestinian.[4] This remarkable alphabet preserves and exaggerates many of the most archaic features of the Estrangelo, but, as Land has suggested, it has doubtless been affected by an intentional imitation of the style of Byzantine manuscripts. The Melchites being the only Syrians who remained in communion with the orthodox Greek Church, this Byzantine influence can be easily accounted for. The later cursive Melchite is wholly unlike the Syro-Palestinian, and is the most deformed of all Syriac scripts. [1]
The evidence of Greek influence is not confined to the Syro-Palestinian alphabet, but is curiously exhibited by the Jacobite adoption of superscribed Greek vowels in place of the primitive Syriac system of points. The five vowel sounds a, e, o, i, u, which in the older notation were indicated by the points ..., are conveniently expressed by the symbols ... , which are merely the Greek vowels A E O H Y turned upon their sides.[5] [1]
It is doubtful whether the singular Mendaite character[6]should be classed among the Syriac alphabets. It is used by the people who are variously called Sabeans, Nazarenes, Galileans, or Christians of St. John, but who call themselves Mendai. They inhabit a region on the lower Euphrates, near Bassora. They retain vestiges of the Magian planetary worship, combined with a rudimentary Christian teaching, and they practice certain rites which have been supposed to be of Jewish origin. Their language is Aramaic, approaching to the Talmudic Chaldee, and they possess a very ancient literature, written partly in the Nabathean dialect, and partly in the Sabean, of which the "Book of Adam" is the most important relic. Their alphabet is of a character as composite as their religious beliefs, exhibiting affinities with alphabets of varied types. It is probably based on the ancient local Aramean of Chaldea which is exhibited in the legends on the coins of the Kings of Characene, assigned to the 2nd century A.D., and in an inscription at Abushadr.[7]Some of the letters, such as aleph, seem to be Nabathean. [1]
The long supremacy of the Sassanian kings may possibly account for certain Pehlevi forms, while the Syriac mould into which the alphabet has been cast seems to bear witness to Nestorian influence. [8] The vowel notation is unique, degraded forms of aleph, vau, and yod being suffixed to the consonants so as to form a sort of syllabary, which finds its nearest analogue in the methods by which the vowels are denoted in the Ethiopic and the old Indian writing. [1]
Malabar Karshuni Documents
J.P.M. van der Ploeg (1909-2004) recently discovered some Syriac manuscripts (Including the book of Judith) containing Karshuni writings from the Syro-Malankara bishop’s house in Trivandrum. Even though the manuscript was in a damaged condition he was able to read it. A colophon at the end of the text is indicating that it was copied in 1734 AD. Most probably a catholic priest or deacon from the ancient parish of St Thomas mattom Thrissur. [9]

This holy book was completed and finished in the days of corporeal cherub and bodily Seraf and angel in flesh Mar John the Baptist, Mary, Apostholica of all Hendo and Gogin of the order of the discalced Carmelites and in these days of the government of Mar Antonius metropolitan of all Hendo of the order of the Jesuits our lord may make long their days, as metusalah amen.

I have written this in the holy church of Mar Thoma the blessed apostle which is called in Indian mattom and is called region of north and of Nambudimar, King of Talapilly in the year 1734 of our Lord.
The Book of Judith

The three names in lines 12 and 13 of the colophon are written in Malayalam Garshuni (Malayalam written in Syrian. The copyist must have worked in the presbytery of an old Syo-Malabar church, It is situated 13 KM NNW of Thrissur, a Roman Catholic Chaldean centre in the middle of Kerala. The newly found Syrian text of Judith is interesting for various reasons it seems clear that it was brought to India by Catholic priests or monks. Possibly by one of the monks of the Lebanon who were sent by the Roman Congregation of the Propaganda Fidei to Malabar We know that some Maronites were sent to South India in I660.It may be possible that these Maronites wanted this copy in Karshuni like their own form of Karshuni( ie Arabic in Syriac Alphabets) .[9]

MS Mannanam Mal 14, a Church History from the end of the 18th century, preserving original documents from the 18th century.Language: Malayalam and Syriac; script: Garshuni Malayalam and Syriac. Garshuni Malayalam is a mixture of Syriac and Old Malayalam (Kolezhuttu or Thekken-Malayanma) characters. On the magnified detail: “…they consecrated Mar Alexander of Kuravilangad(Mar Chandy Parambil) a bishop.”[10]
A historical letter by the Mor Dionysius I (1759-1809) [Malankara Metropolitan Mar Thoma VI] to Pope Pius VI, dating 1778 Ernakulam MAP Syr 7, f. 516v-517r. Right: the letter’s Garshuni Malayalam version; left: its Syriac version. This is the only known copy of this document, and a key witness enlightening a set of historical events.[10]
A detail from the Malayalam version of the letter of Mor Dionysius I (Mar Thoma VI) to Pope Pius VI (1778 AD)
• Because of these high priests and their padri’s many scandals, divisions and defections are caused among the faithful in Malabar. That is to say, the matter that one bishop binds, the other bishop unbinds; and what one bishop unbinds, the other bishop binds again. God alone knows the conditions of their acts. I very much hesitate to report all this to your Lordship.
• For this reason myself and the priests who are in the Holy Church in Malabar are describing our petitions and grievances, in order to bring them, by the grace of the almighty God, to your Throne. We are sending the venerable Kariyattil Yausep Kattanar and Paramakka Thomman Kattanar to your holy Throne, in order to have consolation and salvation by the graces that will be donated to us by your Petrine power….
• Since we, who are living under the pagan kings, are poor, it is by many of us together, meeting their expenditures, that we are sending these two people to your Lordship. Because of this, I, Metropolitan Dionysius, request from your Holiness what the priests who are sent are requesting from your Throne.[10]

[1] Full Text from THE ALPHABET AN ACCOUNT OF THE Origin and Development of Letters London, Kegan Paul, Trench, & Co., 1883 Vol. 1 By Isaac Taylor, M.A., LL.D Page 283-297
[2] This beautiful Codex is among the treasures of the British Museum (Add. MSS. no. 12,150). It contains the Clementine Recognitions and two treatises by Eusebius. A facsimile has been published by the Palaeographical Society, Oriental Series, vol. i, plate II ; Wright, Catalogue of Syriac MSS., plate 1; also by Land, Anecdota Syriaea, vol. i., plates 2 and 4, and p. 65. See Cureton, Festal Letters of Athanasius, pp. xv. to xxvi.
[3] Cf. Land, Anec. Syr., vol. i., plate xxi.
[4] See col. ii. of the Table on p. 288. Cf. land, Anec. 6yr., vol. i., p. 89; Wright, Catalogue of Syriac MSS., plate 18; Noldeke, Syr. Gram., col. 5 of the Schrifttafel.
[5] The reason why this prone position was adopted will be presently explained. See p. 306 infra.
[6] Given in column viii. of the Table on p. 288.
[7]The alphabet of this inscription, which is conjecturally assigned to the 5th century A.D., is given in column iii. of the Table on p. 326. It belongs to the Nabathean type.
[8] The forms of several Mendaite letters, such as h, r, s, find their nearest analogues in the Mongolian (Uigur) alphabet.
[9] The Scriptures and the scrolls: studies in honour of A.S. van der Woude on the occasion of his 65th birthday A. S. van der Woude, Florentino García Martínez, A. Hilhorst, C. J. Labuschagne Page 125,126.
[10] History of Kerala Christianity on the Basis of Newly Found Documents: Methodological Challenges and possible Answers (Talk at the IIS Centre for Contemporary Studies, on 24 July 2008) István Perczel University of Tübingen Central European University


  1. The valuable information provided about the once popular Syro-Chalden KARSHUNI ( Suriyani- Malayalam ),language in Malabar,is really astonishing.The contents of the manuscript,using this script,discovered from Mattom church ( Thrissur ),is very interesting.
    This peculiar form of Syriac- Malayalam ( Karshuni ),and it's use as a liturgical language,( just like Arabic-Malyalam of Malbar Muslims,and Judo- Malyalam of Cochin Jews ),require, the attention, not only of the various Syriac Christian denominations ,but also of the linguistic researchers and scholars of Kerala.

  2. I am very interested in the art of Malabar Christians and yours is the only picture I've seen online of a church interior.

    It is unfortunate that the picture is in such small format (same for the manuscripts). Would you consider posting them in larger format or with a 'zoom' function?

    I have bookmarked your site. :)