The Rulers gave the Nasranis various rights and privileges which were written on edicts and copper plates. These are also known as Cheppeds, Royal Grants, Sasanam etc.
The languages of these Copper plates are Tamil, Pahlavi and Vattezhuthu. Though differences of opinion exist among the exact dating of each copper plates, there is a consensus that some of these are dated from 9th century. It is possible that any other record preserved in any other languages in the first few centuries of Saint Thomas Syrian Christian history might have been on palm leaves as was the practice at that time. This could have lost in the humid climate in Kerala.
These are evidences to substantiate the fact that there were a number of Christians both migrated from the Coromandel regions and from West Asia, along with the local Christians in the ninth century in Malabar, actively involved in overseas and internal trade. They were highly respected by the local rulers who gave them several social and economic privileges. The presence of these Christians in Kollam, Cranganore etc which were well known ports having commercial contacts with various parts of the world buttresses the argument that they were engaged in trade and commerce and had close contact with West Asian regions. The rights granted to them by the local rulers permitted them to collect taxes, administer justice, fix the prices of commodities, retain the share of taxes until grievances are redressed. They were thus invited to participate in the governance of the area along with the officials of the King.1
There are a number of such documents in the possession of the Syriac Churches or with the Kerala State. At present some of these Christian copper plates and edicts are kept at different ecclesial jurisdictions of the denominations of Saint Thomas Christians.
The topics covered are, 1) Edicts and Copper plates in detail,1.1) The Quilon plates ,a) First set of Copper plates ,b) Second Set of Copper plates ,c) Languages ,d) Further history of Quilon and Iravi Kortan plates ,e) Preserved at, 1.2) Thazhekad Sasanam- edict, a) About the edict,1.3) Iravi Kortan Cranganore (Copper plate),a) About the plate, ,b) Preserved at, 1.4 Thomas of Cana plates, a) About the plates, 2.)Conclusion
1. Edicts and Copper Plates in detail
Some of the most important historical edicts/plates and privileges are known as Quilon Plates , Thazhekad Sasanam, Mampally Sasanam, Iravi Kortan plate and Cana Thomman plate etc. Of these the Quilon plates, Thazhekad sasanam edict, and Iravi Kortan plate are still extant. Cana Thomman plate is shrouded in mystery.
1.1 The Quilon plates
Two of the three Copper plate sets issued by Sthanu Ravi are related to the Saint Thomas Christians. These Copper plates brings to light the support extended by the local ruler to the Church at Kollam built by Mar Sabriso and to the Christians residing in the settlement there. They also shed considerable light on the position of the Christians. These plates are also known as Tarisapalli Copper plates.
In c. 822 AD two bishops, Mar Sabrisho and Mar Peroz ( Prodh) along with several families had migrated to Kollam These two bishops administered the whole of the Syrian Church, with Mar Sabrisho keeping his head quarters at Kollam and Mar Peroz ( Prodh) at Kodungalur. They were responsible for the construction of churches at many places in Kerala and the churches built by them were known as Kantheeshangal
a) First set of Copper plates
The first set of the Copper plates were issued circa 880 by Ayyanadigal, the King of Venadu to the Church called Tarisa Church built at Kollam by Sabriso, a merchant ( some suggest Sabriso as a merchant and Mar Sapor as Bishop) who refounded the city of Kollam in 825.
Four women of the Ilava caste together with their eight children and one family of the washerman group were given to the church for the menial services. As they were attached to the church, they were exempted from paying certain specified taxes and rates to the King. The King made the church the custodian of the steelyard and weights and kappan ( or seal) which were formerly in the possession of the King. Even though menial workers were of low caste and prohibited from entering in the fort of Kollam and the streets on account of their lower social status, they were allowed to do this in view of their services to the church. Besides the Kollam Church obtained the right to try cases of these people. All the privileges were granted by the King at the instance of Sabariso.
b) Second Set of Copper plates
King Ayyanadigal also granted another set of privileges through the Copper plates issued around 880 AD, slightly after than the first plate. This also refer to the Church of Kollam, the leaders of the Jews at Kollam and the authorized leaders of Manigramam or indigeniouns Christians of Kollam, who were there even before the arrival of Sabriso. The King granted one family of carpenters, four families of Vellalas and two of another caste and extensive land with in the specified limits. The Church obtained the right to try the case of the people living in the area granted to the Church. The Church and its lands were to be protected by the six hundred ( probably Vendau Militia) and the leaders of the Jews and the Manigramam. The Church was given the right to collect fees for weighing with the steelyard and weights mentioned in the previous set of copper plates.
These consist of five sheets of copper, fastened together by a ring passing through the holes pierced at the end of several plates. Of the ten pages of copper thus furnished, seven pages are written in Tamil and two pages are written in Pahlavi and Arabic with Kufic characters. Four of the signatures are in Hebrew.
d) General details
The Merchant guild which figure in these Copper plates are Manigramam, Anjuvannam and Persian Christians. The Sthanu Ravi plates point out a close connection between the Manigramam and the Christian community and that the members of Manigramam worked in cooperation with the Syrian Church.2
The Scholars who worked on epigraphic evidence in the study of South Indian guilds of the medieval period holds that the Sthanu Ravi plates indicate that, “ the Church sponsored and engaged in trade and in particular overseas trade”. Evidence of another period also suggest the Syrian Christians continued to be involved in overseas trade in the late medieval period.3
Further more, there are many evidences about the early relationship of the Persian Church, the branch of Patriarchate of Seleucia Ctesiphon with India. Palladius, the fourth century writer, give references about Sassanid vessels in the Indian ocean. The active particiaption of Christian traders from Sassanid empire in the maritime trade is testified by many East syrian annals. Some time before 415 AD, as the eleventh century chronicle of Seert mentions, the Sassanid ruler Yazdigird I ( 399-421 AD) sent the East Syrian Catholicos, a certain Ahai, to Fars to investigate the piracy of ships returing from India and Ceylon. It is highly probable that the merchant guild in India- Ceylon and Persian Gulf were Christian and thus the Catholicos was in a better position to gather information about piratical attacks on them. It could also be because of support, as a Catholicos would be able to mobilize the Christian merchant settlers on the rim of Indian ocean to contain the problem of sea piracy.4
There were settlements of Christian merchants in Ceylon, Quilon, Sindabor or Goa, Kalyan etc.B E Colles is of the opinion that the East Syrians were not only zealous missionaries but also great traders. He refers to the account of Abraham Kashkar, a sixth century monk, who made his voyage to India as a merchant. He also mentions about Bar Sahde, who made several journeys to India before entering a monastery following the attack of his ship by the pirates.5
The account of East Syrian monk, Cosmas Indicopleustes ( 525 AD), mentions the important centers of Persian trade in the maritime space. Cosmas also speaks of the vibrant Christian communities of Male ( Malabar) and Kalliana ( Kalyan or Quilon) where the Bishop from Persia was residing.
e) Further history of Quilon and Iravi Kortan plates
The Franciscan John Marignola of Florence spent fourteen months at Quilon during the period April 1348- August 1349. He then returned to Europe via Mylapore, Ceylon and the Persian Gulf. He has maintained that Saint Thomas Christians ( as he uses) are much more numerous than the Mohammedans. As the Papel legate, he had received large gifts from the Christians. He also mentions that the Christians were the masters of the public weighing office. That is the seal is in their hands.
There are also references in which the local Christians asks the help of Afonso d Albuquerque who came to India in 1503. He made a peace treaty with Quilon and the Christians asks his help in restoring the privileges (that is the seal and the weight of the town ) which were removed form them by the King due to the fault of a person.
The Chaldean Bishop of Malabar, Mar Jacob Abuna, about 1530 entrusted to the care of Portuguese Governor of Cochin, Pedro de Sequiera, several metal tablets as the most precious treasure of his people. He had deposited all the Syrian Copper with the Factor of Cochin for safe custody with a condition for necessary access when required for the same.
The Portuguese documents of the early seventeenth century make mention of the special rights and privileges granted to the Christians at Quilon and copper plates containing these details preserved in the Church of Thevalakkara near Kayamkulam in Kollam.
In the Sixteenth century Jornada of Dom Alexis de Menezes, the Arch Bishop of Goa, the Portuguese historian Antonio de Gouvea mentions about the Olas of Copper sheets the Christians of Quilon showed him.
The Church at Teualecare (Thevallakara ) was situated in the lands of Queen of Changanate ( Kingdom of Quilon). The Archbishop Dom Alexis de Menezes stayed there for many days. Gouvea also writes that before the Archbishop Menezes, left for Kundara the Christians there brought big Olas of copper, written in diverse characters which contained many privileges and incomes, which the king who founded Coulao ( Quilon) gave to the church which was built by the two, who came from Babylonia, Mar Xabro ( Mar Saphor) and Mar Prohd (Mar Prodh). The Olas are retained by the Christians of this church as an invaluable treasure.
Before showing the Archbishop the Ola, they made him swear that he wont move it from there. They were afraid that the Archbishop would take that to Angamale, which being the current bishopric and having the archives there.
Franciscso da Costa who was the writer at the Portugues factory at Cochin for many years was very familiar with many documents in the factory. He writes in 1613, that this grant was made to ( at the instance of) two Armenian brothers who founded that Church in 825, ie 782 years before 1607. He alludes to the authority of the Archbishop of Angamali, Bishop Francis Roz who read the copper plates of Thevalakara. He also writes about the Copper plates issued by Cheraman Perumal at Cranganore and the construction of a big church in the name of Saint Thomas.
After their surrender of Cochin fort to Dutch in 1661 AD, Portuguese were not allowed to take anything belonging to the Church. When Dutch were defeated by British, they left Cochin fort to British and handed them all the documents. Mr. Vam Spall had authenticated the vouchers for that. Many of the books/ manuscripts written by Portuguese and Dutch in this collection were burnt by British later on.
According to Captain Charles Swanston ( In Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society in January 1883) Colonel Macaulay, was able to locate the Plates using these vouchers in 1806 AD.
The Copper plates which were found during this search are,
(1) the grant to Iravi Kortan of Cranganore,
(2) the two set of plates of the grant given to Mar Sabrisho and Mar Peroz ( Prodh) of Quilon.
The mysterious Thomas of Cana plates were missing. Colonel Macaulay handed over all these copper plates to the Malankara Syriac Orthodox (Jacobite) Metropolitan.
All of them remained together till the time of Malankara Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan, Mar Mathew Athanasius. During 1876 AD, in the disputes between Mar Mathew Athanasius and Mar Dionysius, the former produced only four plates in court and said that they were all that he had with them. It may be that the other two plates were lost or that they were withheld by interest parties. The missing Plates were the first and last pages of the Second grant. They are very important because the first plate contains name of the soverign who granted it and the time of granting and the last plate bear the signatures of the witness in Pahlavi, Kuffic and Hebrew characters. The court handed over the plates to the care of Mar Dionysius, the Malankara Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan.
The set of plates remained split up until the missing two plates of the second set was found by Gopinath Rao in the Bishop house of Mar Titus II, Tiruvalla of the reformed Syrians, the Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church.
f) Preserved at
Except the first and last plate belonging to the second set, all other plates are kept at the Old Seminary in Kottayam- Malankara Orthodox Syriac Catholicosate, Kottayam. The two sheets are kept at Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church, Metropolitanate in Tiruvalla
1.2 Thazhekad Sasanam- Edict
Thazhekad, is the site of one of the earliest Nasrani communities in Kerala. It was once a prosperous inland port, during heydays of Muziris.
a) About the Edict
The King Rajasimha Perumal of Thazhekad Sasanam granted special rights and privileges to the Nazranies. It is one of the earliest surviving edicts granting special privileges to the Nasranies. The edict was written on a stone and mentions privileges granted to traders. The leaders of the traders were Chathan Padukan and Iravi Kothan. It mentions Cherupally and the traders were expected from paying tax, enabled them to fix the prices of commodities and retain the share of taxes until grievances are redressed. The edict is estimated between 8th and 10th century. This Church was ravaged by Tippu Sultan’s army, during his invasion of the south between the period, 1789-1792.
b) Preserved at
The edict is preserved in Thazhekad St Sebastian church, Syro Malabar Church under Irinjalukuda diocese. A Malayalam translation of the edict is also available at the site.
1.3 Iravi Kortan Cranganore (Copper Plate)
Veera Raghava Chakravarti issued a copper plate to Iravi Kortan in 1320 AD at Kodungallo or Cranganore.
a) About the plate
This is a single copper plate of 14 inches by 4. He was given the office of Manigramam, most probably the headship of merchants of Cranganore. He obtained several social privileges, monopoly of overland and seaborne trade. The donor made all other merchants and five artisan classes ( like the Carpenter, blacksmith, etc) subservient to Iravi Kortan. He was given brokerage on all sorts of goods and also customs duty or toll. The King permitted his descendants to enjoy these privileges and rights as hereditary grants. It is in old Tamil letters with some Grantha letters intermingled.
b) Preserved at
At the Old Seminary in Kottayam- Malankara Orthodox Syriac Catholicosate, Kottayam
1.4 Thomas of Cana plates
Thomas of Cana, the Bishop who arrived in ninth century ( the immigrant leader who arrived in 345 AD according to the current Southist tradition) is said to have received a Copper plate. These are also known as Cana Thomman plates. This is shrouded in mystery and no one knows where the Cana Thomman plates are. According to some, the plates were reported missing during Portuguese possession.
A manuscript at British Museum contains a Portuguese translation of a plate by a learned Jew. Those were claimed to be of Thomas of Cana plates. According to some Portuguese reports this exist in Arabic langauge, which seem to indicate very late origin after 9th century. Some scholars has suggested that the claimed Thomas of Cana plates are the same Quilon plates. Some others has suggested that it was a grant given to the Church at Cranganore. There is no general agreement and there are no evidences concerning the Thomas of Cana Copper plates.
The different edicts/ plates which are in possession of the Nasranis are the most significant available early influence on the extensive historical process that led to the rule of law today in India. These grants resemble those issued to temples in early medieval India.
It is often referred as Indian Magna Carta. James Hough, writes about Quilon Plates “ It may be doubted whether there exists in the world any document of so great length which are of equal antiquity and in such faultless preservation as the Christian Tablets of Malabar”.6
It influenced the development of the social structure in Kerala and privileges, rules for other communities such us Jews at a later date. These are considered as one of the most important legal documents in the history of Kerala.
Dr. K S Mathew- “ Saint Thomas Christians in Malabar from the 9th to the 16th Centuries”
Hermann Gundert- “ Ancient Documents” “ Translation” The Madras Jorunal of Literature, Vol XIII , Part I
Kukkil Kelu Nair- “ Translations” The Madras Jorunal of Literature, Vol XIII , Part I
William Logan- Malabar Manual, Vol II, 1989
T K Joseph- “ Malabar Copper plates” Kerala Society Paper
Gopinath Rao- Travancore Archaeological Series Part I, Madras, 1916
Joseph Kolengadan – “Saint Thomas Christians in Malabar from the 9th to the 16th Centuries”
Author can be reached on admin at nasrani dot net
Last Update- September,9th 2009
- Dr. K S Mathew- “ Saint Thomas Christians in Malabar from the 9th to the 16th Centuries” [↩]
- Dr. K S Mathew- “ Saint Thomas Christians in Malabar from the 9th to the 16th Centuries” [↩]
- Meera Abraham-“ Two Medieval Merchant Guilds in South India” [↩]
- Pius Malekandathil -” Saint Thomas Christians and the Indian Ocean” [↩]
- B E Colles- ” Persian Merchants and Missionaires in Medieval Malaya” A Mingana- ” Early Spread of Christianity in India ” [↩]
- James Hough- “ The History of Christianity in India, London 1839 pp103-4 [↩]