Johann Ernst Hanxleden (Arnos Pathiri)

Pazhuvil Kerala India

1681 - 1732

Johann Ernst Hanxleden (1681-1732), better identified as Arnos Pathiri, was a German Jesuit priest and missionary, best known for his contributions as a Malayalam and Sanskrit poet, grammarian, lexicographer, and philologist. He lived in India for most part of his life and became a scholar of Sanskrit and Malayalam languages before authoring Puthen Pana, a poem on the life of Jesus Christ, Malayalam–Portuguese Dictionary, the first dictionary in Malayalam as well as two linguistic treatises, Malayalavyaakaranam and Sidharoopam.

Johann Ernst Hanxleden was born at Ostercappeln, near Osnabrück, in Lower Saxony, Germany in 1681.[1][note 1] While studying philosophy at his home town of Osnabruck, he met Wilhelm Weber, a Jesuit priest to whom he volunteered for service in India as a part of the then Jesuit mission in Malabar.[3] On October 30, 1699, he set out on a long journey to India, along with Wilhelm Weber and another Jesuit priest, Wilhelm Meyr, travelling through present day Italy, the Ottoman Empire, Syria, Armenia, and Persia to reach Surat (of present-day Gujarat), India on December 13, 1700.[note 2] During the journey, he entered into a novitiate and proceeded to Goa where there was a large community of Jesuits.

After completing his spiritual formation (Novitiate) in Goa, Hanxleden was sent to a Jesuit Seminary at Sampaloor in Thrissur District of the south Indian state of Kerala.[note 3] It is at St. Paul's Seminary in Sampaloor, he did his theological studies for preparing himself to receive priesthood.[5] He took time also to initiate himself to the local language, Malayalam and more importantly studied the Syriac, the liturgical language of the Thomas Christians of Kerala. He was ordained priest in 1706. In addition to his mother tongue German, and his mastery of Malayalam, he also had a good command over Latin, Syriac, Portuguese, Sanskrit, and Tamil.[1]

After moving to Palayoor, Hanxleden studied Sanskrit too and improved his Malayalam, learning under the tutelage of Namboodiri scholars such as Kunjan and Krishnan from Angamaly and Thekkemadom from Thrissur.[4] From 1707 to 1711, he served as secretary to John Ribeiro, the then Archbishop of Cranganore and visited many places in Kerala on tasks such as preaching and Catechesis. It is recorded that he also served as the vicar of the main church in Malabar. Later, he moved to Velur, Thrissur, a small village near Thrissur District in 1712 and built the Velur Forane Church.[6] From 1729 onward, he spent his time between Velur, Sampaloor, Palayoor and Pazhuvil and it was at Pazhuvil he suffered a snake bite which resulted in his death on March 20, 1732, at the age of 51.[7] He was buried there but, later, when a memorial was built outside the church, his mortal remains were transferred to it; the memorial also houses a historical museum.[4]

The church and his home in Velur have since been declared as a protected monument by the Government of Kerala.[8] Among various exhibits at the museum are the bed used by Hanxleden and the chathurangam (which Hanxleden used to play) columns marked on the floor of his home. Mar Francis Vazhapilly, Metropolitan Archbishop of Thrissur from 1921 to 1942, used to stay at the Velur Forane Church for a few days during Lent so that he could sleep on the bed used by Arnos Paathiri and drink from the well dug during his times.[9]

He had also mastered German, Malayalam, Latin, Syriac, Portuguese and Tamil along with Sanskrit at a time when learning Sanskrit was a taboo even for non-Brahmin Indians. He also compiled Malayalam-Portuguese and Sanskrit-Portuguese dictionaries.

“It is surprising that the Padre was so conversant with Sanskrit and Malayalam that he even wrote books in these languages. His writings enabled the outer world to understand the culture, history and customs of the places where languages developed from Sanskrit are used’’, observed Prof. Christophe Vielle, one of the scholars.

His life has been documented in many books; Arnos Pathiri - a Biography, written by A. Adappur, a Catholic priest[4] Arnos Pathiri, written by Mathew Ulakamthara[10] Arnos Pathiri - Jeevacharithram of N. K. Jos[11] and Arnos Padri, written by C. K. Mattam count among them.