300 Years Ago, India’s Very First Bible Was Translated Into Tamil By A German Missionary

300 Years Ago, India’s Very First Bible Was Translated Into Tamil By A German Missionary

Over three hundred years ago on January 3, 1714, the first Indian Bible was translated by a German missionary to Tamil. As the first Biblical translation printed in an Indian language, needless to say it was something of a historic moment for Indian-Christian literature. Bartholomaus Ziengenbalg, who is said to be the first Protestant missionary to visit India, came to the country in 1706 with fellow countrymen, Heinrich Plutschau, upon request by the King of Denmark. Arriving in the Danish coastal town Trankebar (today known as Tharangambadi) in Tamil Nadu, neither Ziengenbalg nor Pluetshau got a very warm reception, Hindu natives and even fellow Europeans suspected their intentions, both for different reasons. The Hindus felt threatened by the incoming and possible imposition of Christianity and the Danish officials feared that new converts would stand to challenge the colonisers authority.

Ziengenbalg soon began learning Tamil and in 1708 started his work on translating the New Testament, with the help of Johann Ernst Gründler. Although he completed his work in 1711, with no existing printing press in the region he would get Indian scribes to copy his words onto palm-leaves with an iron stylus, the form used for the creation of numerous traditional Indian manuscripts. It is said that Ziengenbalg is the one who called for a printing press to be sent to Tamil Nadu for the publication of his Bible translation. By 1714, after numerous revisions to his text and the replacement of a large typeface by a smaller one that was reportedly cast specially from lids of metal cheese boxes by the printer, Johann Adler. The result of Zeingenbalg’s incredible endeavour was India’s first Bible in a local language; he even worked on a Tamil dictionary, but unfortunately was unable to complete his translation of the Old Testament before he passed away in 1719.

His contributions to India, with the importing of the printing press and Biblical translation, were immense as the events that they set in motion have defined the history of India. Graham Shaw discuses the importance of these contributions in his detailed report for The Hindu, click here to read more about it.

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