Missionary Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg - pioneer in printing industry' in India

The misconception in the western world has been that, India is a Hindu country  and  Christianity was first introduced only during the Portuguese period. That Christianity has been around the subcontinent for more than 1800 years is a fact, and especially  in the state of Tamil Nadu, India, it is believed to be almost 2000 years old.

Bartholomäus_Ziegenbalg. en.wikipedia/commons

 First introduced in Kanyakumari district, TN  by St. Thomas, the Apostle, one of the Apostles of Jesus Christ who  first landed on the Malabar Coast (modern day Kerala) in AD 52, there are many Christian denominations  living here. They belong to the Roman Catholic Church (Latin Rite), the Church of South India, the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church and, among them,  Saint Thomas Christians  are the oldest group living here, There is a much larger group of Saint Thomas Christians living in the adjacent state of Kerala. The Latin Rite has a homogeneous presence throughout the state. Roman catholics form the largest group with 15 dioceses including the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Madras and  Mylapore and  the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Madurai, followed by  the Church of South India with 8 dioceses in Tamil Nadu. They are Coimbatore Diocese, Kanyakumari Diocese, Madras Diocese, Madurai-Ramnad Diocese, Thoothukudi - Nazareth Diocese, Tirunelveli Diocese, Trichy-Tanjore Diocese and the Vellore Diocese. Church of South India Synod, the highest administrative body of the Church of South India, is in  Chennai Syro - Malabar Catholic Church-1979 dioceses were recent additions.

During the colonial period,  a large number of  Portuguese, Dutch, British, and Italian Christians came to Tamil Nadu and other states. In order to cater to their much needed Christian services in a strange land, they sought the help of Christian priests. So, subsequently there was a wave of Christian preachers  landed in Tamil Nadu and other places. Though Christians form a minority in Tamil Nadu - about 7% to day  most of them live in the southern Tamil Nadu. 

Through out India, for a long time, the Christian preachers faced an uphill task to convert the natives to Christianity because of their deep conviction and belief in the superiority of their faith in terms of moral, ethical and spiritual orientation and moorings.  K.P Kesava Menon, in his forward to Christianity in India (Prakam, 1972), described a church (in the Indian scenario) typical of that tradition  as "Hindu in culture, Christian in religion, and oriental in worship."

The first ''Priest missionary'' to India was  Bartholomäus  Ziegenbalg (10 July 1682 – 23 February 1719), a member of the Lutheran clergy. With the support  of King Frederick IV of Denmark, Ziegenbalg, along with his fellow student, Heinrich Plütschau, became the first protestant missionaries to arrive on the Indian sub-continent and began their revisionary project in  Tranquebar, a coastal village then of the present day Tamil Nadu. On 9 July, 1706  they arrived at the Danish colony of  Tranquebar (Thanrangampadi) which was a 25 mile acre spread granted by the Maharajah of Thanjavur in 1920 to the Danish East India Company for trading purpose.

 Ziegenbalg and printing press:

Ziegenbalg  took the credit of  bringing for the first time  Lutheranism and a printing-press to Tanjore region  by ship (1712). As a matter of fact, he was a pioneer who laid the foundations for the printing industry in India. Education is a quite indispensable part of Christian work. So, he wanted to learn Portuguese and his student to learn the native tongue Tamil.  Their religious work continued till the British conquer of Tranquebar in 1845. An important part of Christian preachers work was supply of Christian related pamphlets, etc to ease the spread of Christian  faith among the natives. The arrival of the first press in Goa (1556) during Francis Xavier period  for the purpose preparing some written materials  was a boon to the preachers. The press was, however, mainly used by the Church of Portuguese  in their settlements and there was no printing press owned by the natives in the rest of India.

First page of the Bible (New Testtament).en.wikimedia.org
 Above image: First page of a Tamil bible (new testament) printed in Tranquebar/Tharangambadi by Ziegenbalg. The Tranquebar press was established in 1712. The Tamil alphabet types were made in Germany by Ziegenbalg's friends. The Pica sized types were bulky, missing some letters and were not carved properly. Christian Literature. commons.

Ziegenbalg and his assistant established the Danish-Halle Mission at Tranquebar. They baptized the first Indian converts on 12 May 1707. Ziegenbalg himself learned the local language Tamil to communicate with the natives and  became proficient enough to write Tamil translation of the Bible - New Testament(1708 to 1711) and other Christian works. He also found suitable typeface for his work. After the arrival of a printing press from Denmark he  made a valuable
contribution to Christian works to make the locals understand the new faith. This way he introduced the first printing press in India. He was ably assisted by Johann Gottlieb Adler, a type founder, printer and mechanic who later set up (1715)  a paper mill in Porayur, near Tranquebar and printing ink making unit. The press was active till 1817. The printing activities continued in other Danish missions in  Serampore, Calcutta and other places. Over a span of 35 years, the press here produced works in 40 languages, out of which 33 were Indian. 

In  1708 Ziegenbalg  had compiled his Bibliothece  Malabarke, listing  the 161 Tamil books he had read and describing their content.  Also in 1713 the press produced what was, perhaps, the first Almanac to be printed in India. Then, in 1716, there appeared what was probably the first  book printed in  Asia in English. He also wrote books on Hinduism and Islam that were printed 150 years later in Europe and Madras. About the Hindu society, he was highly critical of caste distinctions and discrimination at every level. Occasionally he had  tough time with the local militant Hindus and also with the local Danish authorities. Ziegenbalg was imprisoned for four months on a charge that by converting the natives, he was encouraging rebellion. Along with the political opposition, he had to cope with the  tropical climatic conditions in India. The Indian summer with soaring heat and hot wind  had affected him physically, but not his pursuing  his missionary work with ever-lasting zeal. He wanted to spend every coin in the coffer for the needy Christians and their social progress and at the same time had a soft corner for the natives.

He died on 23 February 1719, at the age of thirty-six. He spent his last 13 years in Tranquebar with  vigor  and  succeeded  in  laying  the foundations for  German scholarship in Tamil that continues  even to this day.


Beyreuther, Erich (1955). Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg. The Christian Literature Society. pp. 54–55.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bartho _Ziegenbalg