I visited Thrissur in the month of Aug 12 for review of my program.During the last day of stay I got spare time of 4 hours and wanted to explore the places around Thrissur.I got an able guide and friend Dr.Sybil from Thrissur medical college. Luckily for me,he seemed to know many historical places within the radius of 20 kms around Thrissur !
Our common interest was historical churches in and around Thrissur. As a first destination he took me to Velur which is around 15 kms from Thrissur. I was completely thrilled to see this 300 years old St.Francis Xavier Forane church still maintained brilliantly.
Velur is centered around the St. Francis Xavier Forane Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, which is a protected monument in the Archdiocese of Thrissur with considerable antiquity and spiritual heritage. Historically this Forane church has been the mother church of many parishes. Four Forane divisions have come into existence out of this church. The fame of the church is closely linked with the fame of its founder, Fr. Johann Ernst Hanxleden, who is popularly known as Arnos Padiri.This Jesuit priest from Germany has given his energy not only to Velur but to the whole world through his literary works. It is believed that the Velur church was founded by Arnos Padiri about three centuries ago on 3 December 1712 in honor of St. Francis Xavier.
Johann Ernst Hanxleden (1681 at Ostercappeln, near Osnabrück, in Lower Saxony, Germany - 20 March 1732, at Pazhuvil, in Trichur district, Kerala, India), known as Arnos Paathiri was a German Jesuit priest, missionary in India and a Malayalam/Sanskrit poet, grammarian, lexicographer, and philologist.
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 , 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 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.
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.
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).
He 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.He 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.
He 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.
He 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.
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.