Written by Koonammakkal Thoma Kathanar, at the occation of the Asletha D-Hendo award-giving ceremony of Thelly Mani Malpan.

 

            It is coming from two words: Asletha (athlete) and Hendo (India). Hendo is the name of river Sindhu in Persian language. By that term, the Persians meant the whole region of Indian sub-continent from Afghanistan to Srilanka. It extended beyond Burma bordering China. The term Asletha is the typical East Syrian word for an athlete. It comes from Greek athletes. In Greek, athlesis means training, usually spiritual and physical training which prepares young men for participating in Olympic Games. Eventually it means a well-trained person who becomes a champion in the Game. Hard training and serious discipline are part and parcel of their life-style.

            By the 2nd century B.C. it came to be applied in a spiritual and religious sense, especially among the Jews. Examples can be seen in 4th Maccabees 6:10; 11:20; 16:16. The same term and meaning was taken over by the earliest Christians and we find examples in Lk 13:24; 1 Cor 9:24-27; 1 Th 2:2; Phil 2:16-17; Col 1:29; 1 Tim 6:12; 2 Tim 2:5; 4: 6-8;  Hb 10:32-34; 11:33-40; 12: 1-2.  A follower of Christ is called to imitate Christ in everything. This following is compared to the life of an athlete who is undergoing serious training and preparation for combat which will eventually give him the crown of victory. The early Christians made use of this imagery to explain the life of a martyr. A martyr is compared to an athlete. Martyrdom is a combat. But here it is a spiritual combat leading to a spiritual crown. Without serious spiritual training and discipline he is not going to attain victory and the crown.

            In the patristic literature of the second, third and fourth century the athletic imagery became very popular especially in the ascetical circles (1 Clement 5:1, Ignatius, Polycarp   1:3; 2:3; 3:1, Letter of the Church of Lyons, Passion of Perpetua, Tertullian,  Mart. 3, Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 7:3, Origen, Exhortation to Martyrdom 1, Cyprian, Epistle 58).

            In the 4th century, Syriac world of Aphrahat, Aprem and the Anonymous Author of the “Book of Steps”, we come across many examples of the above mentioned spiritual athlesis. Two 4th century Syriac works attributed to Aprem, the life of Abraham Qidunaya and the life of Julian Sawa contain the same concept with  some details. These Abraham and Julian were heroic examples of ascetical life in the 4th century Syriac world. The monastic ideals of these spiritual leaders cultivated the ideal Christian life of their times. According to them, life here on earth is a kind of spiritual warfare. The crown of victory is waiting in heaven for the champions. The ultimate goal is final victory and reception of the crown.

             Martyrs and ascetics have only one goal in their hard disciplined life style and training – to attain the crown of spiritual victory in the Kingdom of Heaven. They long for the day when Christ will give them the crown of victory. Their life is a spiritual combat as long as they are here on earth. Every effort is meant for the final victory other than which they have no interest. The memory of Olympic Games and the famous champions captivated the attention of the popular imagination. The Judeo Christian communities might have drawn inspiration from the Maccabaen period. We do not forget the fact that similar ideas of spiritual training and spiritual combat was popular also among Stoic groups.  The early Christian fascination for ascetical movements in Egypt, Palestine and Syria promoted the idea of spiritual athlesis. Early Christian iconography and epigraphy contain some illustrations of this concept.

            Fr. John Bosco Thottakkara (Guru Yohend) from Poonjar was a relative and close friend of Fr. Emmanuel Thelly. Both were beloved students of saintly Fr. Placid J. Podipara, whom they consider as a life-long source of inspiration. They loved the oriental and Syriac heritage of Marthoma Nazranis of India. They also contributed to the spiritual awakening of the Syro-Malabar identity in the second half of the twentieth century. Their association with Fr. Placid and Cardinal Tisserant had a lasting influence in their theological and spiritual vision and mission.  Fr. Thelly was ordained at Mangalapuzha seminary by Cardinal Tisserant on the 8th of December in 1953.  Cardinal Tisserant, the greatest friend of Mar Thoma Nazranis, was the Prefect of the Congregation for Oriental Churches and the Dean of the College of Cardinals. His proverbial love for this much neglected Church of India is well known.

            Guru Yohend founded an association called ‘Navajeevaparishad’ in 1957 but it took a few years to bear fruits. The foundation was made through the influential lay leaders and scholars. A periodical called “Nazrani” was published for a few years. In 1965, a memorandum “Hendo: The Church of India” was sent to the second Vatican Council. It had been described: “a bomb shell in the Council”. The rest is history! But many do not know this courageous group which demanded all India jurisdiction for the Marthoma Nazranis and establishment of a Patriarch (or at least a Major Metropolita) of India. The boundary of the Church was confined to a small corner of India in those days. The memorandum questioned the colonial legacy behind this. Heated discussions took place in the second Vatican Council, especially among cardinals from France and Germany. What is happening in India?, they asked. Young German scholar John Madey approached Fr. Placid and said: “I want the address of Punnoose” (baptismal name of Fr. John Bosco). Since then Madey and Punnoose were in close contact until death. The Decree on Oriental Churches added a few clauses on the basis of the discussions that followed the memorandum. The commentators specify this in their footnotes.

             The territory of the Church was extended beyond the borders of Kerala. This process got started by the establishment of Chanda as an Eparchy. Later on, eparchies were established throughout India, one in America – Canada and most recently one even   in Australia - New Zealand. A Major Archbishop was also enthroned when Guru Yohend was still alive. But who remembers that Guru Yohend was seriously condemned and punished for his role in formulating and forwarding the memorandum! He pleaded for the Church and it was maligned and accused as anti-Christian. Only an appeal to Rome and a commission of inquiry in the person of Fr. Placid saved Guru Yohend from excommunication and expulsion! Once, Fr. Placid revealed a secret: when Chanda Eparchy was erected, he was asked: “Who should become the Bishop of Chanda?” His replay was prompt: “make a statue of Fr. John Bosco and erect it in Chanda and then you can consecrate anybody in front of that statue”. The sufferings of such a great lover of our Church should not be forgotten.

            Occasional publications of Navajeevaparishad continued until recently. Guru Yohend had a dream to establish “Malankara Institute” for the promotion and research of the spiritual heritage of St. Thomas Christians. He had collected a lot of books for its library. He worked like a one man army. But unfortunately his dream for a study centre did not come through, though new seminaries got started.

            Navajeevaparishad established an award for those who heroically served the cause of Marthoma Nazranis. In those days, it was a courageous and new venture; such awards were almost non-existent in ecclesiastical circles in India. This award was called Asletha d-Hendo and it was given to M.O. Joseph Nedumkunnam (1966), Fr. Thomas Nangachiveettil (1984), Mar Sebastian Valloppilly (1992) and V.M. Joseph Vellappattukunnel (1997). One final dream was the re-establishment of the Archdeacon of all India. He used to reveal this to some of his visitors and friends. Restoration of Palliyogam, empowerment of laity, harmony between laity and hierarchy, re-discovery of a congregational ecclesiology of apostolic times etc. were his favourite ideas for the future of the  Church.

            In 1999, Guru Yohend and Fr. Emmanuel Thelly were present with their prayerful blessings for the foundation of Beth Aprem Nazrani Dayra. Ever since, Fr. Emmanuel Thelly serves as the expert Syriac Teacher (Malapana Hendwaya) in the Dayra. After the demise of Guru Yohend, Beth Aprem Nazrani Dayra received the Syriac books, manuscripts and some museum items he collected for the Malankara Institute. So the Dayra considers as its privilege and honour to continue the dream and plans of Navajeevaparishad as far as they are relevant. One of the items we take up herewith is the re-establishment of the Award “Asletha d-Hendo”. Considering the life long serviceof Fr. Emmanuel Thelly for the cause of our Church in India, its Syriac, liturgical, spiritual and theological heritage, the Dayra has decided to give over this Award to him.  He is the greatest Grammarian and Lexicographer of Syriac language in India today. His Syriac-English-Malayalam Lexicon is a lasting contribution appreciated by the  Syriac scholars all over the world.  His translation of the 3 volumes of Hudra of Paul Bedjan remains unfortunately unpublished. His whole life is dedicated to the teaching of Syriac and translation of Syriac liturgical texts into Malayalam. He is another Placid of the Indian Church. At present he is the last scholarly links to the Syriac past of India.  He writes poems in Syriac, Malayalam and English. He has dared to write Syriac Grammar in poetry. Hundreds of his Malayalam poems remain in private hands and unpublished. His 90th birthday was on 5th February 2014. He used to drive his Scooter and climb on high Mango trees until a few months ago – indeed adventurous acts for a man of 89. Innocent like a child, industrious like a student, teaching like a master, active like a squirrel, smiling like a friend, correcting like an erudite scholar, ready to help always and for ever an ihidaya par excellence! 

 

 
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