First copy of Tamil Bible stolen from Saraswathi Mahal Library traced to London

The Idol Wing of CID Police said the Bible lost in 2005 will be retrived soon.

July 01, 2022 03:45 pm | Updated 05:28 pm IST - CHENNAI

The first copy of the Tamil translation of the New Testament of the Bible.

The first copy of the Tamil translation of the New Testament of the Bible. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The copy of what is touted as the first Tamil translation of the Bible, which was reportedly stolen from Saraswathi Mahal Library, Thanjavur,  has been traced by Idol Wing CID Police to London.

The theft was first reported in 2005 and later closed without any progress. Now, the case was reopened and reinvestigated by the Idol Wing CID Police officers led by Director-General of Police K.Jayanth Murali. 

The first Tamil translation of the New Testament was printed in 1715 by Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg, a missionary. It was presented to Tulaji Rajah Serfoji by Schwartz, another missionary and a close friend of the King. After the takeover by the Tamil Nadu government, the antiquarian book became an exhibit in the Saraswati Mahal Museum for public viewing. 

On October 10, 2005, the Deputy Administrator of the Serfoji Palace filed a complaint at the Tanjore West Police station alleging the theft of the antique Bible. The case was closed citing that it was not traceable. However in 2017, the Idol Wing CID received a complaint on the disappearance of an antiquarian Bible from Saraswathi Mahal from E. Rajendran and it led to the registration of a case of theft and the Idol Wing CID took up the matter. 

Mr. Jayanth Murali said, “We reviewed the case afresh since there was no headway in the earlier investigation. We intensified the investigation and made headway after a special team was constituted to trace the missing Bible. A perusal of the visitor's register revealed that there had been some foreign visitors to the museum on October 7, 2005, the day the book went missing. Further inquiries revealed that those visitors had come to India to attend a function to commemorate Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg, the Danish missionary, and so when the suspicion was pointed out to the foreign visitors, we launched a search on the websites of various museums in the world, as also collector's websites and organisations connected with Ziegenbalg.

“ After several days of browsing multiple websites of various museums abroad, our officers stumbled on the collection of George III which included thousands of printed books, manuscripts and pamphlets, most of which are rare. Hidden amongst the thousands of books, our officers discovered the stolen Bible, the first translated antiquarian Bible in Tamil that was printed in a printing press at Tharangambadi in the 17th century with the signature of Rajah Serfoji of Tanjore himself. The antiquarian Bible that was available on the website of the King’s collection tallied with the picture of the stolen book. Further enquiries with the concerned confirmed our findings,” said Mr. Murali. 

Inspector-General of Police, Idol Wing CID R.Dhinakaran said, “ We have taken steps to retrieve the Bible from the collector and restore it to the Saraswathi Mahal library under the UNESCO treaty soon. We have written to concerned authorities in London and soon we will bring it back.” 

How the book reached Serfojis

Danish missionary Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg was born in Saxony in 1682. He studied at the University of Balle, then the centre for the Pietistic movement in the Lutheran Church. Responding to an appeal from the King of Denmark for missionaries. In September 1706, he and Heinrich Plueshau arrived in Tranquebar (Tharangambadi), a tiny Danish colony on the east coast, close to Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu, on the southeast coast of India, as the first Protestant missionaries in that country.

He soon set up a printing press and published studies of the Tamil language and Indian religion and culture. His translation of the New Testament into Tamil in 1715 and the church building he and his associates constructed in 1718 are still in use today. He died on February 23, 1719, at age 37. He left behind a Tamil translation of the New Testament and Genesis through Ruth, many brief writings in Tamil, two church buildings, the seminary, and 250 baptized Christians.

Another missionary named Schwartz became a close friend and advisor of Tulaji Rajah Serfoji. In commemoration of their friendship, there is speculation that Schwartz handed over the first copy of the New Testament, which Ziegenbalg printed and left behind, to Tulaji Rajah Serfoji.

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