Sunday, July 11, 2004

THERE'S RENEWED INTEREST IN ARAMAIC IN INDIA, thanks to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ:
Mel Gibson's film spurs interest in the ancient Aramaic language, from countryside to classrooms across India

Saturday, July 10, 2004
By Joshua Newton
Religion News Service

KOCHI, India -- Every Saturday night, six old men crowd together on a wooden bench in a damp church foyer with pens and notebooks. Some are small-time traders, some retired clerks. Two of them are over 60 years old. Some take notes while others toss questions to the Rev. Raphael Rappai, a 63-year-old priest tutoring them.

Topic of study: Aramaic, the language many believe Jesus Christ used.

The motley language class in Thrissur district in Kerala state in southern India has proved a new lease on life for Jesus' language there ever since the release of Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ" in May.


Kerala has the largest number of Christians in the country. Scholars believe the use of Aramaic-Syriac dialect there began with migration of Christians from the Middle East to Kerala during the third and fourth centuries.

In the following centuries, colonialists led by the Portuguese began to translate the liturgy into Latin, which gradually led to the demise of Aramaic. The situation is now being slowly reversed by Gibson's film, albeit on a modest scale.


In recent years, proponents of the language found it difficult to propagate Aramaic. But they got a boost when Mahatma Gandhi University, one of India's prominent academic centers, launched an Aramaic wing for its language department.

"Several people called up here asking for crash courses on Aramaic," said the Rev. Jacob Thekkeparambil, director of St. Ephrem Ecumenical Research Institute at Kottayam. "Once we get a quorum of 20 students, we launch such quick courses. Yes, I guess Gibson's film is bringing in fresh students for us."

The institute, the only one of its kind teaching Aramaic in the country, has about 15 students attending its two-year postgraduate course. Since its inception in 1985, as many as 500 graduates learned to read and converse in simple Aramaic.


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