Rev. Ziegenbalg of Protestant Mission, Tharangambadi, TN and first printing press in India

Rev. Ziegenbalg, and first printing pres

In the realm of modern  printing in India, the men  who  laid the strong foundation were  Rev. Ziegenbalg and his associates and printer Johann Gottlieb Adler at the Protestant Mission  in Tranquebar, Tamil Nadu. William Carey, a well-known Missionary based in NE India,  was not the father of modern Printing in India as it is believed. However, he  had popularized the printing since his arrival at the Danish Halle Mission in Serampore, Kolkata and published scores of works from there.

front page of Tamil Bible

The small, sleepy coastal village of Tharangambadi, (literally, Land of the Dancing Waves; anglicized name Tranquebar), has the unique distinction being home to the second largest Danish fort in the world -  Dansborg Fort - a symbol of Danish power in this part of southern India. It was built by Ove Gedde, Commander of the Danish Royal Navy and Tranquebar’s earliest Governor,

A trade treaty with the local ruler Raghunatha Nayak of Thanjavur Nayak kingdom (Nayak rulers were once the resident representatives of the Vijayanagara rulers)  facilitated the construction of a Danish colony here along with Church and other facilities. In 1620  Captain Roland Clippe of the Danish Navy successfully negotiated a 16-point trade treaty on behalf of the ruler of Denmark and Norway King Christian IV for a sum of Rs.3111.00 payable annually. The area covered included 25 sq. miles in the coastal area.The original 1620 treaty bearing the royal signature in Telugu on a gold foil was part of the International Archives in Copenhagen. 

Later over a period, the Danes built additional facilities, and by the 1770s, it became a well fortified trade-post, including Zion Church, the oldest Protestant Church in India. The fort is just  adjacent to the sea shore  in the back drop of a azure blue sea - the Bay of Bengal. A picturesque place that turns golden yellow at dawn in the glow of the sunrise.

Tharangambadi, now a  legacy of  colonial Danish culture is taking pride in the vestiges of whatever is left of the past glory. In the adjacent Parade Ground , there is a cross on a stone memorial, heralding the  arrival of the first ever Lutheran Missionaries to India on orders from the  Danish king Frederick IV to spread Christianity in this part. The arrival of Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg, then 23 years old  and his elderly associate Heinrich Plütschau at Tranquebar on 9 July, 1706, was an important event in the history of printing press in India. It was here  Ziegenbalg and his associate re-established  India’s first printing press and breathed life into it. 

Upon arrival here, Rev. Ziegenbalg,  did not lose his time to learn the local tongue Tamil, a highly advanced, perfect and  literature-rich Dravidian language. With the knowledge of native tongue he could take the message of Christ across the people here. As Rev. Ziegenbalg had a flair for languages, he learned the local language  with the help of a local informal teacher and gained mastery over a period of time. He realized  only through local language his missionary work would become easier. He set up schools in Tanjore (now  Thanjavur), Madras (now Chennai) and Tirunelveli (now Tirunelveli).

Prior to 1550s there was no printing press in India and after the arrival of European missionaries, in particular Portuguese, modern printing was introduced in India. Earlier Scriptures and literary works were written mostly on dried palm leaves. The basic purpose of printing press imported by the preachers  was mainly to print religious matter - Christian literature in vernacular. The press was mostly owned by the  Church. The Portuguese Missionaries  in Goa were in urgent need of a printing press for religious work. In 1556, a Portuguese ship arrived in Goa for victualing. The ship carrying 14 Jesuits, a printer and a press was bound for Abyssinia  (Ethiopia). The Missionaries had the authorities to make the press available to them. Accordingly, the press became available along with the printer. In the following 100 plus years printing in local languages spread along the coastal areas of south India - both on the west and east. 

For unknown reasons, printing paled into insignificance and finally died out after 1612. The 18th century India saw the revival of   of modern  printing press and this rejuvenation was quite helpful for generations of Indians later.

Again this time in the forefronts were the Christian Missionaries . It was here at Tharangambadi, the modern printing was revived at the initiative of  Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg and his co-workers.

Ziegenbalg  and his elderly associate  Heinrich Plütschau landed here on July 09, 1706 on orders from King Frederick IV. They took the honor of establishing the first formal Protestant Mission in  Asia. One Johann Heinrich Schloricke, a 30 years old printer  printed in Portuguese the Tranquebar Mission press's first publications in 1712/13. This heralded the revival of printing in India. The vast printing industries in India owe a debt of gratitude to Rev. Ziegenbalg and his associates at the Protestant Mission, Tharangambadi who gave life to the modern printing in the by-gone days. Rev. Ziegenbalg used the special Tamil typefaces made in Halle on his request.The Tamil typeface set arrived in Madras on June 29, 1713. It revolutionized the printing in Tamil. It was for the first time Tamil work was printed.  


01. The printing press arrived in  1712 Madras from London with the help from SPCK - Society For Promotion Of Christian Knowledge.

Danish fort, Tharangambadi , Tamil Nadu.

02. With the new press,  Rev. Ziegenbalg  published over 300 books in Tamil, including the first Tamil translation of the New Testament in 1715, notable being Bibliotheca Malabarke in 1708, Biblia Tamimilica in 1713.  He did many works on Indology, unfortunately they were not printed here. 

03. He was first to introduce Tamil  calendar, German hymns into Tamil. He was the first to preach sermon in Tamil and  translate Tamil stories into German.

04. Yet another fact is  Rev. Ziegenbalg was the first one to introduce free noon-meal scheme.    

05. A Guide to English Tongue by Thomas Dyche printed here is believed to be the first English book in Asia.

06. Johann Gottlieb Adler, printer and his brother  at the Protestant 
Mission devised a way to reduce the size of the Tamil typeface as the bigger ones earlier required volumes of paper that had to be imported. In July, 1715, Adler, using the new types, printed the New Testament (Putu Erpadu)in Tamil.

07. Adler's type foundry was set up at Porayar, near Tranquebar. He also started a paper mill in 1715 with help from the government and the Protestant Mission who shared the investment equally. Later printing ink industry came up; amazingly all facilities in one place. An interesting fact is all were the  first printing related  industries in India.

08. In the nest 100 years, the Danes printing activity continued and spread to places like Tanjore, Madras and Serampore, near Kolkata, yet another Danish settlement.

09.  Rev. Ziegenbalg died at a very young age of 35 and did monumental work within a short span of time. He was the founder and torch-bearer of modern printing in its infancy.

As for the fortified town, Danes controlled it till 1777  and later sold it for a paltry sum of  12.5 lakh rupees in 1845. In this transient world, their supremacy  was swept away by the waves for good.