On a summer morning in 1715, Frederick IV, the king of Denmark-Norway, was informed by his secretary that he had a couple of visitors who had come all the way from the southeastern coast of India. The kingdom at that time was overwhelmed by the Great Northern War, in which it supported the Tsardom of Russia against the Swedish Empire, but it was still interested in India, where it had a trading post in what was then called Tranquebar. Frederick IV agreed to meet the visitors – German Lutheran missionary Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg and his student, a young Tamil boy by the name of Peter Malaiappan.

The meeting was documented by Erich Beyreuther in a book titled Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg: A Biography of the First Protestant Missionary in India, 1682-1719. “According to oriental custom he [Malaiappan] prostrated himself before the king who bade him rise,” Beyreuther wrote. “In a brief well-sounding German speech, the young Tamilian thanked the king in the name of the Indian Christian congregation at Tranquebar for having called into being this mission work and asked him not to discontinue it so that the Gospel of Christ might be spread further in the Orient.” Frederick appreciated the Tamil boy’s speech, made in fine German, and expressed his happiness about the activities of Malaiappan’s teacher, Ziegenbalg, a pioneer of cultural and linguistic exchange between the Tamil and German-speaking world.

By the time he met Ferderick IV, Ziegenbalg had been living in India for nine years. He would shortly return with Malaiappan to Tranquebar.

Mission to India

Born in 1682 in the Saxon town of Pulsnitz, Ziegenbalg had a childhood that was marked by ill health and inner conflict. While studying at the University of Halle (now Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg), he came under the influence of Pietist Lutherans, who wanted to spread their faith around the world. Along with his collegemate Heinrich Plutschau, Ziegenbalg was recruited by Frederick IV’s court chaplain to go to Tranquebar (now called Tharangambadi), a trading post established in 1620.

In 1706, Plutschau and Ziegenbalg arrived at the Coromandel Coast filled with a missionary zeal to convert Roman Catholics and Hindus to the Lutheran faith. Their determination had hardened after a seven-month-long voyage that tested them mercilessly. High winds forced them to anchor along the coast of Brazil, from where they sailed east towards Africa and south of the Cape of Good Hope, before finally heading towards India. Ziegenbalg called the voyage an “academy of death”.

The Danish and German residents of Tranquebar did not welcome the two with open arms, instead holding them in deep suspicion. John Sigismund Hassius, the Danish Governor of the trading post, had not been informed about the arrival of the duo and treated them discourteously. “Everything seemed to go against Ziegenbalg and his companion,” Beyreuther wrote. “By silent consent these two men, who lived in the poorest and most disreputable section of the town among Indian slaves and people of mixed descent, were shunned by the Europeans.” They were seen as spies of Frederick IV and their ideas of converting people to the Lutheran faith were dismissed by the authorities in Tranquebar. Unlike other Europeans in India, the Danes and Germans were focused almost exclusively on acquiring wealth and did not care about the religious beliefs of the locals.

At that time the lingua franca between Indians and Europeans in most parts of southern India was Portuguese. Ziegenbalg, who had learned Greek and Hebrew in university and Latin as a schoolboy, set out to master both Portuguese and Tamil, so that he could understand the people of the region better.

Tamil scholarship

At the very outset, he came up against a stubborn challenge – he didn’t have a link language with his first teachers. Portuguese became his de facto option, but even then, it was difficult to find someone with adequate bilingual skills in Tranquebar.

Ziegenbalg and Plutschau decided to invite a 70-year old Tamil teacher to conduct his classes in their home. “In the midst of Tamil pupils, who gazed upon them with astonishment, they soon were sitting in the sand and writing the artistic, complicated and beautifully formed Tamil letters, but did not understand the meaning of the words since the aged teacher was not able to translate them into Portuguese,” Beyreuther wrote.

Ziegenbalg managed to find a Tamil polyglot named Aleppo who was fluent in several European languages, including German. “With the help of Aleppo, he selected 5,000 Tamil words and tirelessly learnt to use them,” according to Beyreuther. It took Ziegenbalg eight months to speak Tamil fluently. By this time, Plutschau had given up.

As he became more comfortable with Tamil, Ziegenbalg began to reach out to members of the oppressed castes in Tranquebar. His message resonated with the fishing community, which could relate to the story of Jesus and the miraculous catch of fish. The Lutheran missionary also built a small Lutheran church in Tranquebar called Jerusalem, set up a mission school, where children like Peter Malaippan were taken under his wings, and installed a printing press.

German translations

Wary of social problems between caste Hindus and Danes and Germans in Tranquebar, Hassius, the Danish governor, tried to put an end to the missionary activity and virtually forced Ziegenbalg out of the trading post. In a 1967 article published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, noted historian Albertine Gaur said Ziegenbalg went on an arduous journey to Madras, where he would discuss his faith and that of the locals every evening in village squares. The Lutheran missionary developed a great deal of interest in Tamil Hindu texts and began the process of translating them to German.

Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg leaving Tranquebar. Credit: London Missionary Society/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

“Ziegenbalg’s service to the study of Tamil is considerable,” Gaur wrote. “Though his Tamil style was never as elegant and poetic as [Italian Jesuit and Tamil scholar Constanzo] Beschi’s, he put infinite pain and labour into his studies; in 1709, three years after his arrival in Tranquebar, he was able to say: ‘It [Tamil] is as easy to me as my mother tongue, and in the last two years I have been able to write several books in Tamil.’”

Ziegenbalg published the first Tamil-German and German-Tamil dictionaries, besides compiling a dictionary of poetic Tamil words and phrases. This was in addition to his translations of books from the Old and New Testament of the Bible to Tamil. Over time, he took it upon himself to acquire, translate and catalogue classical Tamil texts, often from palm leaf manuscripts.

“From the outset of his stay in Tranquebar, Ziegenbalg seems to have been busy collecting Tamil palm-leaf manuscripts,” Gaur wrote. “At first he had them ‘transcribed, at no small expense,’ but he soon realised that this was too expensive and time-consuming a method.” Brahmins viewed Ziegenbalg with suspicion and rebuffed him when he tried to buy manuscripts. The German, however, managed to purchase a large number of written works from widows of Brahmins who found little value in the palm leafs. His long series of letters suggest that Ziegenbalg had managed to collect close to 300 manuscripts.

A catalogue compiled by him in Tranquebar in German titled Verzeichnis der Malabarischen Bücher (List of Malabar Books) is in the possession of the British Museum. “The term Malabarisch (Malabari in English), which the author uses for people and language alike, is the name by which Tamil was generally known among the Portuguese and the Europeans who reached India soon afterwards,” Gaur wrote. The catalogued books cover a range of topics from history, poetry, traditional medicine and fortune-telling to Hindu philosophy, ceremonies and rituals.

The catalogue found its way to the British Museum via Germany, where a lot of Ziegenbalg’s translations and other works were sent after his death in 1719 in Tranquebar at the age of 37. They formed the earliest basis of Tamil language scholarship in Germany.

In 1845, the Danes sold Tranquebar to the East India Company. While the former trading post’s Scandinavian heritage is celebrated, the story of the Lutheran missionary who acted as the first cultural bridge between Tamil Nadu and Germany is largely remembered only in academic and missionary circles.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2022.