Johann Ernst Hanxleden

[Arnos Paathiri] (1681- 20 March 1732 / Ostercappeln, Lower Saxony / Germany)

Biography of Johann Ernst Hanxleden

Johann Ernst Hanxleden poet

Johann Ernst Hanxleden, known as Arnos Paathiri (or Arnos Padri) was a German Jesuit priest, missionary in India and a Malayalam / Sanskrit poet, grammarian, lexicographer, and philologist.

Journey to India

After doing philosophical studies in his home town, Osnabruck, Hanxleden volunteered for service in India. Together with the Jesuits Wilhelm Weber and Wilhelm Meyr, and a doctor, Franz Kaspar Schillinger (who left us an account of the perilous voyage), he set forth (30 October 1699) on a long arduous overland journey to India, traveling through Italy, Turkey, Syria, Armenia, and Persia, and set foot in India at Surat (in contemporary Gujarat) on 13 December 1700. During the journey Hanxleden was formally accepted as a member of the Society of Jesus. Weber and Meyr had died at sea, before reaching Surat. Left alone Hanxleden proceeded to Goa where there was a large community of Jesuits.

In Goa and Kerala

After completing his spiritual formation (novitiate) in Goa, Hanxleden was sent to the Jesuit seminary at Ampazhakkad in Kerala, where he did Theological studies in immediate preparation to his becoming a priest. He took time also to initiate himself to the local language, Malayalam, and more importantly even, to the liturgical language of the Thomas Christians of Kerala, the Syriac. He was ordained priest in 1706.

Linguist and Pastor

Kerala became and will remain the field of his activities: Hanxleden learnt and appreciated its culture, along with identifying with its people. In addition to his mother tongue German, and his mastery of Malayalam, Hanxleden also had a good command over Latin, Syriac, Portuguese, and Tamil. He moved to Palayur and, after surmounting several formidable barriers, learnt Sanskrit too and improved his Malayalam from two Namboothiri Brahmins, Kunjan and Sankaran from Angamaly, who were students in the Trichur Sanskrit school.
From 1707 to 1711 Hanxleden served as secretary to John Ribeiro (who was Archbishop of Cranganore). During this time he travelled the length and breadth of Kerala on various tasks such as preaching and catechesis. It is recorded that he served as the vicar of the main church in Malabar (the present Mother of God Cathedral Church of the Diocese of Calicut).

Settling in Velur

Hanxleden moved to Velur, a small village near Trichur, in 1712 and built a church there. This would be his abode for most of his remaining life.

John Ernest (Arnos Pathiri) learned Sanskrit and Malayalam, and wrote Puthen Pana based on the New Testament, sitting by the well of Pazhuvil Forane church.

From 1729 onwards, he lived at Ampazhakkad, Pazhuvil, and Palayur. He died on 20 March 1732 at Pazhuvil of a snake-bite, and was buried there in the church. Later a memorial (Mandapam) was built outside the church, and his mortal remains were removed to it. In order to maintain his memory a historical museum has also been started.

Poetic and Religious Writings

The Puththenpaana, a Malayalam epic on the life of Christ, is his most celebrated poem. This is one of the earliest poems written in simple Malayalam. It has been an inalienable part of Christian (not restricted to Catholic) life in Kerala since the time of its composition; its paadhams [cantos] are sung in a characteristic manner in Christian households on various solemn occasions, the most notable ones being Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and other days of Holy Week and Lent, and evenings preceding funerals. The poem consists of fourteen paadhams; the couplets are written in the sarppini vruththam [metre], except for those in the twelfth paadham, which are in the nathonnatha metre.

The twelfth paadham on the lament of the Virgin Mary at the crucifixion and death of Jesus is the heart of the poem. Other important paadhams are concerned with the Fall of Man (second), the Annunciation (fourth), the Nativity (fifth), the Sermon on the Mount (seventh), the Last Supper (tenth), the trial and Crucifixion (eleventh), the Resurrection (thirteenth), and the Ascension (fourteenth). The first paadham has the poet telling us that he is writing the poem at the request of Antonio Pimental, Archbishop of Cranganore; since Pimental held the ecclesiastical office from 1721 to 1752, the poem was composed some time during the period 1721-1732.

The Chathuranthyam is a mystic poem on the four ends of man: maranam [death], vidhi [judgement], moksham [paradise], and narakam [perdition]; parts of the poem are sung on occasions similar to the Puththenpaana recitals.

While his poems are written works, they also have a strong oral tradition; many pious Christians retain his poetical works in their minds and are able to recite it by heart.

The linguist and Grammarian

Hanxleden was the first to compile a Malayalam dictionary. His lexicon describes Malayalam words in both Sanskrit and Portuguese (the then predominant European language in India). He also wrote a short and succinct grammar for the Malayalam language.

Hanxleden and his predecessor, Heinrich Roth, were the pioneering European Sanskrit scholars: he was the first European to write a Sanskrit grammar (Grammatica grandonica), and also the first European to compose Sanskrit verse. The manuscript of Hanxleden's Sanskrit grammar surfaced in May 2010 in the Convento di San Silvestro, Montecompatri, Italy.

A preliminary pdf version of the Grammatica grandonica is freely available online thanks to the kind courtesy of the Carmelite Fathers of the Convento di San Silvestro.

Fame and Remembrance

Hanxleden came to be known in Europe thanks to Paulinus of St. Bartholomew [Johann Philipp Wesdin, known as Paulinus Paathiri (1748-1806)] of the Carmelite order, who had lived in Kerala from 1776 to 1789. The friar brought some of Hanxleden's works, such as his Sanskrit grammar, to Europe; he also wrote about Hanxleden and quote him extensively in his memoirs.

His Velur home, and the church he built (St. Francis Xavier forane church), are preserved as historical monuments (John Kalliath, a teacher, was instrumental in organising the people of Velur towards preserving them). Among various exhibits at the museum are the bed used by Hanxleden, and the chathurangam (the Indian ancestor of chess, which Hanxleden used to play) columns marked on the floor of his home.

Trivia

Mar Francis Vazhapilly, Bishop of Trichur from 1921 to 1942, used to stay at the Velur 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.

Johann Ernst Hanxleden's Works:

Puththenpaana [Mishihaadaey paana / New song-poem] (Malayalam poem; published by St. Joseph's press, Mannanam)
Chathuranthyam [Naaluparvvam / The four ends] (Malayalam poem)
Genevieva punyacharithram [The epic of St. Genevieve] (Malayalam poem)
Ummaadaey dhukhkham [Mater dolorosa / The sorrow of Mother] (Malayalam poem; thought to have later become the twelfth paadham of the Puththenpaana)
Malayalam-Portuguese nighandu [Dictionarium Malabarico-Lusitanum] (published in 1988 by Kerala sahithya academy)
Malayalavyaakaranam [Grammatica Malabarico Lusitana / Arte Malabar] (Malayalam grammar; published in 1993 by Ranjima publications, with original in Portuguese and English translation by Miss Pinto; Editor: P. V. Ulahannan Mappila)
Samskrutham-Portuguese nighandu [Dictionarium Samscredamico-Lusitanum] (completed by Julia Lederle (2002). "Bischopinck, Bernhard". In Bautz, Traugott (in German). Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon (BBKL). 20. Nordhausen: Bautz. cols. . and Archbishop Antonio Pimental)
Samskruthavyaakaranam [Sanskrit grammar]
Ave Maris Stella [Hymn; not extant]

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