The Man who Produced the First Tamil Bible

In the early 1600s, Portugal, Holland and Britain, Europe’s superpowers at that time, were embroiled in a struggle to dominate India. Even while they were fighting it out, Denmark quietly managed to establish a colony in Tranquebar in 1620. Tranquebar is Danish for Tarangambadi, a seaside town about 280km from Chennai. As the little colony prospered, the Danish King Frederick IV decided to “civilise” his Indian subjects with Christian values. But this was easier said than done. No Danish preacher was willing to travel all the way to distant India. 

Just as the Dutch Mission seemed set to fail, two German missionaries volunteered. One of them was a man called Barthalomaus Ziegenbalg. Even before Ziegenbalg set off, he realised he had a problem on his hands. How was a German going to preach to the locals who spoke neither Dutch nor German? The only solution was to learn some Portuguese. Why Portuguese? Well in those days there was already a Portuguese settlement in that part of India, and they had managed to convert locals and even teach them some Portuguese. But when he finally landed in Tranquebar, Ziegenbalg grew interested in the local language, Tamil, and soon bloomed into an erudite Tamil scholar. 

A portrait of Barthalomaus Ziegenbalg Public Domain

He invited a Tamil Pundit (scholar) to stay in his house and run a Thinnai-Pallikkoodam which literally means ‘school at the doorstep’. He sat along with local children and learnt to write on the sand, Indian-style. He set himself a punishing academic routine, from 7 am to 8 pm. Even his lunch-hour was not wasted: his assistant read out Tamil texts as he ate. By 1708, he felt ready to translate the New Testament. He completed the task in 1711 but took another 3 years to revise it to his satisfaction. 

Then there was a new problem. Ziegenbalg had no printing press for publishing. Help came from an unexpected quarter: the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London (SPCK). The British East India Company had regularly denied the SPCK’s requests to evangelise in India. Since Ziegenbalg was evangelising locals himself, the SPCK generously supplied the tools needed to print the Bible. The first Tamil Bible was published in 1715. In fact, it was the first Bible to be printed in any Indian language!

A page from the Ziegenbalg & Fabricius’s Bible, 1723 Public Domain

The journey was never easy. The Hindu orthodoxy routinely opposed his preaching and the resident Portuguese Catholic priest, Fernandez de Guevara, was jealous and conspired to derail the project. ; These were understandable reactions, but surprisingly enough, the local Danish administration itself was unsupportive. Dutch Governor Johann Sigismund Hassius thought Ziegenbalg’s activities disturbed commerce; and Ziegenbalg’s impetuous assertions that he was the royally appointed missionary, did not help their relationship. Hassius even put him in jail for 4 months on a flimsy pretext. Ziegenbalg transcended all those hurdles and succeeded in his mission. But all the stress took its toll. He fell ill and died in 1719. He was barely 37. 

Ziegenbalg Leaving Tranquebar Public Domain

Ziegenbalg was more than a mere Bible publisher. The New Jerusalem Church that he built in 1718 was the first Indian Lutheran church and the precursor of the Tamil Evangelical Lutheran Church. It has a rich tradition of Tamil liturgy even to this day. In 1707 he started a girls’ school: a pioneering step in women’s education! His greatest works were related to Indology — covering Tamil Grammar and Literature and Hindu scriptures. Sadly, many of these received recognition only about 2 centuries after his death, because Europe was not ready to acknowledge that art and wisdom could exist in the East. He was laid to rest in his beloved New Jerusalem Church. The Indian government released a postage stamp honouring him on the 300th anniversary of the Tranquebar Mission.

You can hear a lot more about the history of Christianity in South India on Steeple Chase, the  Storytrails tour that takes guests through Chennai’s most interesting and historic churches. 

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