The earliest printing in the Tamil language and role of European missionaries centuries ago - a brief note

 The first printing press was set up by the Portuguese in Goa in 1556 CE through Joao De Bustamante. Thanks to the Portuguese jesuits who were on a mission to India along with the Portuguese explorers in the 15th century to spread Christianity in India.  St paul's college controlled by the jesuits had a printing press.  'Catecismo da Doutrina Cristã' written by Francis Xavier himself  was the well-known book printed in India  five years after his death. In India, the first printed works were not books, but were Conclusoes just lose sheets. The printing press published its second book, Catecismo da Doctrina Christã. 

The person responsible for the initiation of printing in India was one Joao De Bustamante (rechristened Joao Rodrigues in 1563), a Spaniard who joined the Society of Jesus in 1556.  Being a professional printer along with his Indian assistant,  Bustamante, had set up the new press and began to operate it. 


Closely linked to Portuguese entry and settlement in Goa, India, Henri Henriques (Anrique Anriquez), a Portuguese Jew who became a jesuit, was  the first man to make this feat. In 1547, the 27 year old landed on the eastern coast of Tamil Nadu to pursue missionary work, following the footsteps of St. Francis Xavier. He, being the first European scholar of any Indian scholar stayed in India till his death. Born  Jew he became a jesuit  and  produced five 5 different books printed in Tamil script and language.

 The very first printed Indian language was Tamil: Doctrina Christam en Lingua Malauar Tamul (Thambiran Vanakkam; the first of the Henriques’ five books ) in 1558 with paper imported from China, a 1539 Portuguese Catechism and  and prayers. They were  published at Lisbon in 1554. The second printed Tamil book was only 16 pages long, but a third Catechism of 127 pages, a Tamil translation of the popular Portuguese text by Marcos Jorge, was printed again with new type in Cochin on November 14, 1579.  The Tamil text was printed using Roman letters as noTamil types had yet been cast. Three decades later in 1577 a Tamil catechism was issued by Portuguese Jesuits  in Goa. For the first time Tamil letters were used, making this the first work ever printed in an Indianscript. A Confessionary (Confessionairo) 1580 (214 pages) and Lives of Saints (Flos Sanctorum), 1586 (669 pages) were Henriques’ s oher books.

missionaries on a mission to spread Christianity in India

For a long period no printing was done in Tamil and the printing press was not active for unknown reasons. It was the Danish missionary Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg who started the first Protestant mission in a nondescript village (in present day Mayiladuthurai district,TN), revived the printing in India and On June 29, 1713, another wooden printing press from Halle-Orphan House that could print the Tamil fonts, reached Tranquebar and was put into operation at the mission.  The first publication was produced by Tranquebar Press including New Testament in Tamil in 1715.  Ziegenbalg only completed  his New Testament translation ( Pudu Erpadu) in March 1711 after two and half years of laborious work. No printing facilities were available then, so the lutheran missionary had to depend on  professional Indian scribes to copyout parts of his translation on to palm-leaves with an iron stylus, following traditional methods of preparing India manuscripts. It was used as a teaching material in the mission's Tamil school. 

Oldest Tamil  Bible

Above image:  300 year old world'first Tamil translation that was printed at the Dansidh Mission in Tharangambadi by Lutheran missionary Ziegenbalg in 1715

.First Christian literature in print in Tamil 18th

Above image: Missionaries from Denmark in the then Danish settlement at Tharangambadi (now Mayiladuthurai district of TN began  printing an edition of the four Gospels and Acts of the Apostles in Tamil; first Biblical translation ever printed and attempted  in an Indian language. It is believed to be the a landmark in the history of Indian Christian literature. Ziegenbalg  also wrote the first Tamil dictionary and translated Tamil grammar prose into Latin.............................

Earlier a Tamil lexicon of twenty thousand words was printed by Ziegenbalg  and  by 1712 he had doubled the number. Tamil, being a rich classical language  it was not easy to  master: it had both literary and   a colloquial form, the latter had no codification  in written form. Ziegenbalg gave the written codified colloquial language to the Tamils which could easily be understood. This codification is still being in use. In 1716 published his Grammatica Damulica, the first Tamil grammar to use Tamil.  

 The wooden printing press  on display in the museum being run by Tamil Evangelical Lutheran Church (TELC), is a replica of the one (machine from Clymer and Dixon Columbian Iron Eagle Press) used by  Ziegenbalg. It was  donated by a person from Chennai.  Printing made a foray into the field education in the later period and the teachers found the printed materials useful while teaching. In the second decade of 1800, excellent work was done by  Calcutta Book Society in the field of reprinting science textbooks printed in Europe and publishing them  According to  Baptists based in Kolkata whooping  710,000 schoolbooks had been printed in various regional languages by 1820.

Bu 1857 here was a huge awareness among the natives  about the vast usefulness of  printed materials that could be used in many fields including administration of the government.  It was conducive to the spread of knowledge and  could be used as a tool to  exchange of ideas and information among different communities in the various parts of the country.