Arnos Pathiri (Fr. John Earnest Hanxleden) in Malabar

Posted by Maddy Labels:

I started out on this subject some months ago, but drifted away into other topics. In the meantime, I got some great research material on the subject from my friend Bernard and finally after months of procrastination, got a little deeper into this subject covering yet another person who came to Malabar as a missionary and who then decided that to live here and to complete his mission, he had to learn the life, ways and the language of people so alien to his culture. In fact so deep did he get to it that he even created the very first dictionary of the Sanskrit Malayalam language in the early 18th century!

Some years ago I wrote about Robert Nobili and his contributions. He was certainly not the first for Beschi and Paulinus had worked with Sanskrit and had written some lengths of prose in it, with or without assistance. However the works of the person we will get to know in the succeeding paragraphs are still fondly remembered by a cross section of humanity living in Kerala. They are the works of Arnos Pathiri or Johan Ernst Hanxleden, a person of German origin.

How did he get to India and carry on with his mission? It all started in 1699 for the 18 year old Hanxleden, after his completion of philosophical studies. Fr William Weber was at that time touring Germany to find the right candidates for the new Jesuit mission planned at Calicut.  Weber was impressed with the earnest man, justly named Earnest and took him for further tests at Augsburg where he was provisionally accepted into the Society of Jesus. Little were the missionaries to know how difficult the days ahead were going to be. They set out for India in Oct 1699 by ship to Turkey, then by land through Persia and by sea from Bandar Abbas to India, all of which took a full year. His mentor Weber and a companion Fr Mayer died during this voyage and Kaspar Schillinger a barber was the only one left with Earnest when they reached Surat in Dec 1700. Hanxleden moved to Goa shortly thereafter and we come to know of many of these events from the diaries of Schillinger.

At Goa, Hanxleden joined the St Paul’s college for Jesuits and after completing his novitiate (period of training and preparation that a member of a religious institute has to undergo prior to taking vows, in order to discern whether he is indeed called to the religious life) proceeded to Kerala, the place he was destined to serve at. Proceeding to Ambazhakaad, he got formally ordained and started out with religious teaching of his subjects. But his real interest was language and literature and he soon moved to Pazhur, with an intention to learn Sanskrit.

During that period there existed a famous Sanskrit college in Trissur. That he learned Sanskrit at Trichur is clear and it was a center for such studies at that time. The Chovvannoor "Sabha Madam" was the seat for such studies, but Ernst had no admission there as a non-Brahmin. Somehow a couple of Brahmins were enticed with presents and brought to Pazhur and from them Hanxleden learnt Sanskrit and Malayalam off and on for a long period of 10 years. The Brahmins were perhaps named Kunjan and Krishnan according to PJ Thomas.

Hanxleden was a short and sickly person, and apparently inarticulate in speech, but was a master with his pen. We know a little bit of his life actually from Fr Paulinus’s (the famous Carmelite scholar) writings.By1708 he had associated with Archbishop Ribeiro of Cranganore and started his missionary work in the Trissur area and Calicut and by 1712 he had retired to Veilur. Around 1729 he moved back to Ambazhakad and Pazhur and in 1732, he breathed his last at Pazhur. Riberiro himself had a lot of problems establishing himself in Cranganore, for that was in Dutch hands at that time and so he had to operate from the Zamorin controlled Puthenchira area.

Various factions were then in existence and the St Thomas Christians were in the grip of the Padroado Propaganda rivalry. Interestingly the Propaganda supporter Ernest was still accepted by the Padroado Portuguese at Goa! At that point in time, the Jesuits under the Padroado and the Carmelites under the Propaganda were vying with each other for the control of the Christians of Kerala. Hanxleden naturally took the side of the Jesuit Archbishop of Cranganore and worked as his secretary. Hanxelden’s task was to wean the Malayalee Christians to the Ribeiro Catholic fold. To make matters worse, an East Syrian - Mar Gabriel landed on the scene. But let us get to the rivalry so as to understand it better.

When the Portuguese were the principal European colonizers in India their King accepted the burden of supporting missions in the East and received a Padroado monopoly or the patronage of these missions. As time passed and the power of the Portuguese in India was shaken, this arrangement became no longer suitable and the Dutch refused to tolerate a Portuguese priest within the Dutch territories and their various spheres of influence in India. The papal Propaganda was therefore compelled to send to India, missionaries of nationalities other than Portuguese. The Portuguese resented this and even disputed the power of the Pope. This dispute lasted for more than two hundred years and as historians detail, did much harm to Christian missions in India.

Visscher, in his Letters from Malabar, says:— "At present there are two Bishops, Mar Gabriel, and Mar Thomas, who do not agree well together, as each of them, especially the latter, claims authority over the other. Mar Gabriel, a white man and sent hither from Bagdad, is aged and venerable in appearance, and dresses nearly in the same fashion as the Jewish priests of old, wearing a cap fashioned like a turban and a long white beard. He is courteous and God-fearing and not at all addicted to extravagant pomp. Bound his neck he wears a golden crucifix. He lives with the utmost sobriety, abstaining from animal food. He holds the Nestorian doctrine respecting the union of the two natures in our Saviour's person. Mar Thomas, the other bishop is a Native of Malabar. He is dull and slow of understanding. He lives in great state; and when he came into the city to visit the Commandeur, he was attended by a number of soldiers bearing swords and shields, in imitation of the Princes of Malabar. He wears on his head a silken cowle, embroidered with crosses, in form much resembling that of the Carmelites. He is a weak minded rhodomontader and boasted greatly to us of being a Eutychian in his creed, accusing the rival bishop of heresy. According to his own account, he has forty-five churches under his authority the remainder adhering to Bishop Gabriel."

It appears Hanxelden was not too successful in his evangelization efforts. He moved on to Chetuva, Muthedath, then to Calicut finally returned to Velur where he built a chapel and took up residence and eventually started writing. Hanxleden, then became the vicar of St. Francis Forane Church Velur, which, according to many, was established by him. As per the legends it was while here that some hostile fellow Christians tried to assassinate Hanxleden. He was believed to have been tipped-off by a woman in the area about the plot to kill him. Ernst made a dummy of himself and positioned it on his cot with the priestly gown on. The assailants hacked the dummy and fled thinking that they had actually killed Arnos Padre, who was in fact clandestinely watching the whole scene. He, however, decided to leave Velur that night itself and spent his remaining years of life at a church in Pazhuvil. His cot can still be found at the church there as reported in the Hindu.

Let us now take a look at Ernst's dabbles with literature and lexicology. He wrote in Latin grammar text covering Sanskrit on the lines of Kerala’s Sanskrit grammar text called Sidha-Rupam, and as a companion volume, he added a Sanskrit-Portuguese Dictionary. He was a great scholar in Malayalam and also composed a dictionary and a grammar in that language. Father Johann Ernst Hanxleden of the Malabar Mission was, as far as we know, the first European to write a grammar of Sanskrit(It is likely that Roth, who died at Agra in 1668, had compiled a Sanskrit grammar before Hanxleden: it has never been found, although it could perhaps be recovered in the Vatican archives). Vezdin Paulinus brought back Hanxleden's manuscript covering the Sanskrit grammar to Rome and made use of part of it, in fact Paulinus pronounced Ernst as the best Sanskrit scholar of his time.

By March 1732, he was gone. Fr. Hanxleden, apparently died of a snake bite at Pazhuvil in March 1732.His name is held in benediction among the Keralites mainly for his Puthenpana (a Life of Christ in 10,000 couplets and Parvangal (Treatises on the four last things).

The Puthenpana is one of the earliest Malayalam poems scripted around a Christian theme and is held dear by the Malayali christians The `padams' (or cantos) of `Puthenpana' are recited by Kerala Christians on various occasions. It has 14 `padams'. The 12th padam, portraying the lament of Virgin Mary at the Crucifixion and death of Jesus, is considered to be the most important of them all. The other padams centre on Fall of Man (second), Annunciation (fourth), Nativity (fifth), Sermon on the Mount (seventh), Last Supper (10th), trial and Crucifixion (11th), Resurrection (13th) and Ascension (14th). The poem is believed to have been composed just before Arnos’s death or the preceding year.

Hal and Vielle explain the literary work of Ernst - Hanxleden copied, introduced and annotated several manuscripts of Sanskrit lexical and grammatical works. He also commented on Sanskrit poetical works, esp. the Yudhiṣṭhiravijaya (Paulinus 1799: 6). Moreover, he authored grammars and dictionaries of Malayaḷam and Sanskrit. Several manuscripts are now preserved in different European libraries (although a complete inventory is still to be made). Hanxleden composed two dictionaries. A (high or Sanskritized) Malayaḷam - Portuguese dictionary which is the ‘Hanxleden’s dictionary’ referred to by Paulinus. Apart from his Sanskrit grammar Hanxleden also authored a Malayaḷam grammar text, a copy of which is preserved in the Carmelite Archives in Rome and remains to be published. Remarkably, Hanxleden chose Latin as the metalanguage for his Sanskrit grammar, whereas he uses Portuguese for his (lexical and grammatical) work related to Malayaḷam language. While the Grammatica Grandonica based on the Sidharupam deals with Sanskrit, his Arte Malavar is a Malayalam grammar work compiled in Portuguese. However I am not so sure yet if it was a revision of the original done by Fr Henriques working on the Parava coastline. And then again, I will get to the evolution of Malayalam, another day.

‘According to the traditional method of studying Sanskrit in Kerala, pupils have to study Siddharūpa containing all the representative forms of declensions and conjugations, along with Bālaprabodhana [by Putumana Nampūtiri, which deals with all preliminary grammatical rules with examples in simple Sanskrit mixed with Malayāḷam] and Samāsacakra [of unknown authorship, general treatment of compounds].’ As a missionary working in the South-West of India (Kerala), Hanxleden wrote Sanskrit in Grantha Malayāḷam characters.

Paulinus undoubtedly introduced Hanxelden and his work, but also suppressed it to a certain extent. His own most precious manuscript was the Sanskrit grammar written by Johann Ernst Hanxleden. When it was suggested that he had plagiarized Hanxleden’s work, he responded in his De manuscriptis codicibus indicis printed in Vienna in 1799, that they both used the same Sanskrit sources. He said - ‘Hanxleden far surpassed all other foreign missionaries in elegance of poetic composition, in the profound knowledge of Sanskrit. The incredible diligence he showed in pursuing studies and in writing books which are widely admired. John Ernest was most proficient in Sanskrit; no European scholar was ever equal to him’.

Hal and Vielle continue - We could cautiously conclude that Paulinus had always intended to publish a Sanskrit grammar, but that after his return he found out that Hanxleden had done a better job. This being the case, he decided to merge Hanxleden’s grammar and his own versions into one grammar, in which he probably deliberately failed to mention the name of his ‘co-author’ who authored the very bulk of the book’s contents.

Padre Ernst or the Malayalee Arnos Padiri is indeed the father of the Christian literature of Kerala having composed the Puthen Pana (the ‘New Ballad’ on the life of Jesus Christ), which is still received enthusiastically by readers even today, after almost three centuries. His other poetic works include Genoa Parvam, Ummade Dukham and Chathurandyam, and a Malayalam version of the Latin hymn Ave Maris Stella.


Christianity in Travancore - Gordon Thomson MacKenzie
An unknown oriental scholar – Ernst Hanxleden – A Mathias Mundadan
Grammatica Grandonica - The Sanskrit Grammar of Johann Ernst Hanxleden S.J. (1681–1732) Introduced and edited by Toon Van Hal & Christophe Vielle

The Padroado propaganda rivalry

BerchmanKodakal explains - The Padroado (Portuguese) or "patronage" (English), was an arrangement between the Holy See and the kingdom (and later republic) of Portugal, affirmed by a series of treaties, by which the Vatican delegated to the kings of Spain and Portugal the administration of the local Churches. The partition of missionary zones between Spain and Portugal led to some bitter rivalry. Wherever the two nations met, as for example in East Asia, there was open hostility between the Spanish Patronato and the Portuguese Padroado. The missions were also tied to the government of kings who claimed rights and privileges that encroached upon the spiritual domain. Spanish and Portuguese missionaries were often regarded by the local people as mere agents of white penetration rather than as harbingers of Christ, so much so that in India conversion was described as "turning Parangi".One of the steps the Propaganda envisaged to advance the cause of the missions independent of the colonial patronage was to promote indigenous vocations. The clergy who worked under the Padroado, even with the de Nobili Movement, were mostly foreigners. In the early decades recruitment of local vocations was not very much encouraged. So when Propaganda thought of starting an ecclesiastical unit under its full control in India, namely, the vicariate of Idalcan or Bijapur outside the Goan jurisdiction, the Congregation chose Matteo de Castro, a Brahmin Christian of Goa. The relations between Padroado and the Propaganda became tense during the Matteo de Castro episode and continued to be so for a long time. An attempt to resolve these tensions resulted in the establishment of the double jurisdiction system, whereby churches and clergy were established by the Portuguese Padroado separate from Propaganda. This unfortunate system lasted until 1928, although the Padroado system was previously annulled by the Pope Gregory XVI in the early 19th century, but restored with the Concordat of 1886.

Thomas Koonammakkal in his fine paper ELEMENTS OF SYRO-MALABAR HISTORY states - Troubles for Nazranis began to abound under the Carmelites and Propaganda. A series of reunion efforts between Puthenkur and Pazhayakur were thwarted by Carmelite missionaries. In 1778 the Pazhayakur sent Kariyattil Yausep Malpan and Paremmakkal Thoma Kathanar to Lisbon and Rome for reunion of Puthenkur. Their miseries, adventures and achievements are recorded in Varthamanapusthakam written in 1786. Kariyattil was consecrated as archbishop in 1783. But he expired in Goa under dubious circumstances and foul play. To pacify the anger of Nazranis, Paremmakkal was tolerated as Administrator. These two heroic and saintly sons of Pazhayakur wrote a glorious chapter towards reunion and identity of the Church. A noble layman Thachil Mathu Tharakan did his best for Nazrani reunion. Though a reunion took place in 1799 it fell apart due to the apathy and intrigues. (If you recall I introduced Mathu Tharakan in the Veluthampi story)

To see pictures of the Velur church, check out this link.

To listen to Puthenpana – click this link

Who is Toon Van Haal? In Nov 2010, the Grammatica Grandonica was rediscovered in an Italian monastery after having been lost for many decades. Authored in the early 1700's by the German Jesuit Johann Ernest Hanxleden, the Sanskrit grammer text was found by the Belgian scholar Toon Van Hal of the Center for the History of Linguistics, K.U. Leuven, the Katholieke University, Netherlands. Toon Van Hal rediscovered the lost manuscript by retracing the previous inquiries of Luxemburg scholar Jean-Claude Muller in and around Rome, uncovering it at the Convento di San Silvestro, a Carmelite monastery in Montecomprati, Lazio, Italy.

Grammatica Grandonica is the earliest known missionary grammar on the Sanskrit language and had a great deal of influence on the emergence of the first published Sanskrit grammar ever printed in Europe, in 1790. This first published grammar, by the Carmelite missionary Paulinus a Sancto Bartholomaeo, is thought to have been taken directly from Hanxleden's original work.


  1. Premnath.T.Murkoth

    "He was a great scholar in Malayalam and also composed a dictionary and a grammar in that language."
    We normally give credit to the first Malayalm Dictionary and the Bible in Malayalam to Rev.Herman Gundert? Who did the works first please.

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Premnath,
    the answer is interesting. While Ernst's dictionary and grammar work in Malayalam were not complete, Benjamin Bailey completed a dictionary in 1846, followed by Richard Collins in 1865. Gundert's was done in 1872. Gundert's grammar work is dated to 1851.

  1. Maddy

    I forgot to clarify - Padre Hanxleden worked on the Portuguese-Malayalam dictionary and got it done to the letter T. Archbishop Pimental who succeeded Riberio completed it.Gundert worked on a Malayalam - English dictionary.

  1. Manikandadas

    Whether he learnt Sanskrit at Pazhur near Piravom or Pazhuvil .? all the articles are very interesting and informative .well done

  1. Maddy

    Thanks manikandadas,

    I believe it to be Pazhur..