An initiative that backfired

A look at what the first Indian Bible, printed 300 years ago in January 1714, specifically achieved, and the chain of events it unwittingly sparked off.

January 04, 2014 04:56 pm | Updated May 13, 2016 07:09 am IST

The front page of the Bible in Tamil printed in 1714.

The front page of the Bible in Tamil printed in 1714.

One sharp pull on the hand-press bar and the Indian Bible was born. Three hundred years ago — on January 3, 1714 — missionaries in the tiny Danish coastal colony of Tharangambadi began printing an edition of the Four Gospels and Acts of the Apostles in Tamil. This was the first Biblical translation ever printed in an Indian language — and a landmark in the history of Indian Christian literature.

Nearly 500 pages long, the Tamil edition took nine months to print, until September 25. It was hailed by its creators as “a treasure in India, which surpasses all other Indian treasures”. The translator was Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg, a German Pietist who had arrived at Tharangambadi in 1706 with his fellow countryman, Heinrich Plütschau. They were the first of many Protestant missionaries to India.

Just two years after beginning to learn Tamil, in October 1708, Ziegenbalg started translating the New Testament. This was a remarkably ambitious initiative for a young man just 26 years old. One month later he had already translated as far as the 23rd chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel. Then came an unwelcome interruption. The Danish Governor imprisoned Ziegenbalg for four months without pen, ink and paper, indicative of the opposition the missionaries faced even from their fellow Europeans. In any case, the work of translation could not be continuous. It had to be fitted in between other pastoral duties — instructing catechists, running a school for Tamil children, and undertaking preaching tours. Little wonder Ziegenbalg only completed his New Testament translation in March 1711, two and a half years after he had begun.

In the absence of a printing press, Ziegenbalg paid professional Indian scribes to copy out parts of his translation onto palm-leaves with an iron stylus, imitating traditional Indian manuscripts. The resulting texts were used as teaching materials in the mission’s Tamil school and also distributed to the local population at every opportunity. When a Tamil press was set up in 1713, the missionaries started steadily with some smaller works. These included the pamphlet Akkiyânam — “Ignorance” — introducing the anti-Hindu polemic to Indian Christian literature.

The 1714 edition of the Gospels and Acts was the first great product of the new Tamil press. It was emblematic of the international evangelical collaboration that made the Tharangambadi mission possible. The printing-press and paper used in its production were gifted by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge in London. The text was set in Tamil types cast at Halle in Germany and based on drawings of Tamil characters sent back by Ziegenbalg. The printers were also supplied by Halle, headquarters of the Pietist movement, where Plütschau and Ziegenbalg had been trained. From Copenhagen, the Danish King Frederick IV granted the missionaries permission to print Christian works without censorship by his administration at Tharangambadi. A copy of the Gospels and Acts — specially bound for him in red velvet — can still be seen in the Royal Library, Copenhagen.

But does this anniversary really matter in Indian cultural and historical terms? Is it worth remembering by anyone other than bibliophiles and book historians? Arguably it does in two senses: for what was specifically achieved, and more significantly for the chain of events it unwittingly sparked off.

Tamil and Tamil Nadu have always been at the forefront of Indian printing and publishing history. The first work ever printed in an Indian language in Europe was a Tamil and Portuguese catechism and prayers published at Lisbon in 1554. The Tamil text was printed using Roman letters as no Tamil types had yet been cast. Three decades later, in 1577, a Tamil catechism was issued by Portuguese Jesuits at Goa. This time locally cast Tamil letters were used, making this the first work ever printed in an Indian script. Another century on, in 1679, Antão de Proença’s Vocabulario tamulico was published at Ambalakad near Kochi — the first dictionary of any Indian language to be printed.

Much later, after the present anniversary, in 1761 Chennai became the first of the British Presidency capitals to acquire the services of printing, well before Mumbai and Kolkata. This was due to a French press, taken as booty by the East India Company at the siege of Puducherry. Rather than lose his livelihood, the hapless French printer Charles Delon followed his press to Chennai and eventually retired on a Company pension. In 1794 Chennai became the birthplace of Armenian journalism with the appearance of Azdarar — “Herald” — reflecting the Indian Armenian community’s desire for the restoration of an Armenian homeland. Thus the achievement in 1714 of printing the first Biblical translation in an Indian language fits into a long line of innovation, both earlier and later.

To prepare and print Christian literature was not enough. By itself it could not deliver the desired result of increasing the number of Indian converts. Nothing would be achieved if Bible translations never left the mission’s book depository. Christian literature would only impact society if actively promoted to the people for whom it was intended. As John Murdoch, the ‘godfather’ of Protestant missions in 19th-century India, warned: “As much energy must be devoted to securing a circulation for books in India as is expended in their preparation, or they will lie as lumber on the shelves”. So perhaps we’ve already just missed the more significant anniversary.

In the second half of November 1713, one of the missionaries embarked on a preaching tour down south from Tharangambadi along the coast to Nagapattinam. For the very first time, he took with him copies of printed Christian tracts. they had printed. His route deliberately took in well-known Hindu religious centres in the vicinity where he would preach and distribute tracts. These included Karaikal and Thirumalairayan Pattinam with its Ayiranlaiamman temple. He also presented tracts to village headmen and Hindu schools along the way. On previous tours, the missionaries had only limited numbers of Christian texts copied on palm-leaves to give away. Now, thanks to printing technology, they could distribute evangelical literature on a large scale.

Tharangambadi had set the precedent. This modest beginning unleashed the enormous industry of Christian tract publication and distribution that characterised the 19th century. The tour also displayed two of the strategies routinely adopted by missionaries later. They ‘plugged into’ the existing network of religious sites and the annual cycle of festivals and pilgrimages to maximise the audience for their literature. They also targeted the impressionable minds of children as potential carriers of the Christian message into whole families, signalling the start of missionary intervention in Indian education beyond their own schools.

Inevitably these aggressive tactics provoked responses from indigenous religions, most notably Hinduism and Islam. Both felt an urgent need to defend their communities against attacks by Christian missionaries and more positively to evangelise on their own behalf. The missionaries now found the very methods they had used turned against them. New educational institutions were established and a whole variety of social reform initiatives undertaken. In this process of turning the tide, print played a vital role. Religious presses were founded; magazines and newspapers published; tract societies set up.

In Chennai, R. Sivasankara Pandiah was just one of those who adopted these tactics. In 1882, he began teaching young people the fundamentals of Hinduism in his home before raising sufficient funds to open the Hindu Theological High School in 1889. For Pandiah, print was as crucial as education in the modernising process. In 1884, he began publishing The Hindu Excelsior Magazine and, in 1887, set up the Hindu Tract Society that sent its own evangelists all over South India with anti-Christian pamphlets in their thousands. The first in the Hindu Triumph Series was named ‘One hundred and fifty contradictions of the Bible’. Its sub-title declared its defiant purpose: “A Bible hand book for mission school students and inquiring Christians”. This was Hinduism on the counter-offensive.

From cultural and religious revival came a resurgence of national identity and growth of political consciousness, all the while print carrying the messages of modernisation. Ultimately, through the rapid production of nationalistic posters and collections of patriotic poems and songs, print proved an essential component of the freedom movement.

The printing press, revered by the missionaries as the great engine of conversion, had become an effective tool of subversion, not only of Christianity but of the colonial power itself. The Indian Bible’s birth — at Tharangambadi in 1714 — had backfired.

The writer was formerly Head of Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections, The British Library, London. E-mail:

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