Though printing technology came to India with the arrival of Portuguese at Goa in the middle of the 16th Century, it found resurgence in the early 18th Century at Tharangambadi, a coastal town in the present-day Mayiladuthurai district, with the arrival of the Danish-Halle Mission.
To have the presence of the Lutheran priests to render religious services in Danish settlements, King Frederick IV of Denmark, in 1705, invited the Pietists from Halle in eastern Germany to send priests to Tranquebar. Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg, a student of theological studies at the University of Halle in Germany, joined the Danish-Halle Mission for Tranquebar and arrived at the town by sea on July 9, 1706. This marked the arrival of the first Protestant missionary to India.
Tharangambadi, called Tranquebar by the Danes, came under the rule of the Danish East India Company, which obtained the piece of territory from Raghunatha Nayak, the Raja of Tanjore, in 1620. Soon after landing on the coast, Ziegenbalg found the need to learn Tamil to interact with the local population. Tranquebar was a thriving seaport and commercial town that had the presence of Danes, Dutch, Portuguese, and Germans, besides Tamil-speaking natives.
Calling him a born linguist, Samuel Manuel, director of the centuries-old Ziegenblag Museum, said Ziegenbalg was able to learn Tamil within three months from a multilingual scholar named Azhagappan, who taught him the Tamil alphabets by writing them on sand near the beach.
In 1708, he took up the task of translating the New Testament of the Bible into Tamil. He completed it after three years of laborious work. In 1709, Ziegenbalg wrote a letter to the Denmark King, which was forwarded to the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) in London, seeking a printing press. In 1712, SPCK sent a printing press to Tranquebar for printing in European languages. However, Ziegenbalg thought that the mission would succeed only if it could publish books and other literary works in Tamil. He forwarded the drawings of Tamil alphabets to Halle, requesting to create Tamil typefaces.
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. This marked the revival of the Tamil printing press. The printing of the first copy of the New Testament in Tamil was completed in 1715 at Tranquebar. Apart from the Christian literature, Ziegenbalg published grammar and textbooks, religious texts of Hinduism and translated Tamil books, including Ulaga Needhi (Universal Justice), into German.
The wooden printing press used by Ziegenbalg was damaged a few decades after his death, said Mr. Manuel, who added that a donor from Chennai donated a replica of the machine from Clymer and Dixon Columbian Iron Eagle Press. This is on display at the museum. Recently, the museum, run by Tamil Evangelical Lutheran Church (TELC) on the premises of the higher secondary school on Admiral Street at Tharangambadi, got a facelift. It showcases the contribution of the pioneer to the revival of the Tamil printing. Ziegenbalg also went on to start a boarding school for girls and taught them vocational subjects, including tailoring. Later, boys were also admitted to the school, which is now under the administration of the TELC.
In 1719, Ziegenbalg died at the age of 36 at Tranquebar. He was buried at the New Jerusalem Church on the King’s Street. The church, which he had built a year before his demise by incorporating the German architectural style, testifies to his legacy in the Tamil landscape.