While not all Tamils share the same joy in the souls Ziegenbalg led to Christ, they are grateful for Ziegenbalg’s contribution to the development of their language and culture. In fact, even from a historical point of view, Ziegenbalg’s writings…are still one of the best sources for the study of South Indian history and traditions.
While William Carey’s role in the evangelization of India is undisputed, few remember a two-men team who preceded him by 88 years. In reality, the German Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg and Heinrich Plütschau, who landed in the Indian region of Tranquebar in 1706, can be considered the first Protestant missionaries to India. Their endeavor is known as the Tranquebar Mission or the Danish-Halle Mission (since it was sponsored by the Danish king and the students and faculty of Halle University – especially theologian, A. H. Francke).
A Tamil Bible
Born in 1682 and 1676 respectively, Ziegenbalg and Plütschau were both Halle graduates– both known for their piety, devotion to the Scriptures, sacrificial love, and interest in education. Of the two, Ziegelbalg was the most linguistically talented. Within six months of his arrival at Tranquebar, he was able to read, write, and speak Tamil, a local language that was particularly difficult for Europeans to master.
In 1708, being fluent, he began translating the New Testament, finishing his first draft in two and a half years – an impressive record, if we consider he also fulfilled his pastoral and evangelical duties while troubled by ill health. He also translated Luther’s Catechism and several hymns and prayers, and started the Old Testament, going as far as the book of Ruth.
Far from being content with a wooden translation, Ziegelbalg spent time studying the nuances of the Tamil language as they appeared in their cultural context. He did so through conversations and through the study of Tamil classical literature, both on his own and in local schools.
He later described his cultural discoveries in two long ethnological treatises which became popular in Europe. These volumes, together with a Tamil grammar book for future missionaries, helped to launch the study and appreciation of Oriental languages and cultures in Germany and have been influential in dispelling the negative conceptions many Europeans had fostered about India.
Although he had brought his own printing press, he had to request the presence of two Dutch blacksmiths to create Tamil character molds. There was also a scarcity of paper. Most Tamil classics were written on palm leaves. He solved this problem by setting up a paper manufactory.
To Bring Many to Salvation
As most missionaries, he had times of discouragement. “If we consider the success of this Mission from its first beginning; it hath not yet indeed been answerable to our desires: the iniquity of the times, fewness of the laborers, the perverse lives of some Christians among us, the rudeness of the pagans, the dignity of the employment itself and our own insufficiency for it, the want still of more necessary helps, together with other impediments, have been the cause why this work has hitherto made no greater advances,” he wrote, in Latin, in 1716 – at the end of a two-year visit to Europe, where he got married.