In October 2022, the Karnataka Circle of the Department of Posts released a special cover dedicated to Mangalore tiles with several images of the tiles and one of the Basel Mission Tile Factory. The tiles, which are a hallmark of houses on India’s western coast, were the brainchild of Georg Plebst, a German missionary who was a part of the German-Swiss Basel Mission.

Plebst “combined knowledge of tile manufacturing in Germany with observations of the traditional potters’ tiles in India,” the Department of Posts said in a press release. His efforts changed the way houses were roofed from Kerala to Maharashtra, but he first came to India with altogether different objectives.

Very little is known about the early life of Plebst, who was born in 1823. The Basel Mission’s archives contain information about him from the time he joined their seminary. “He originally specialized as a mechanic before undergoing four years of training at the Basel Mission’s home-based seminary,” Guy Thomas and Anke Schürer-Ries wrote in 2012 in a newsletter of the International Institute for Asian Studies. “He arrived in India in 1851 and was put in charge of reforming the printing techniques employed by his predecessors. He was thus chiefly responsible for forging two well-functioning Basel Mission printing presses for the Kannada and Malayalam languages in the modern Indian states of Karnataka and Kerala respectively.”

In her 2010 dissertation for the University of London titled The Basel Mission Industries in India 1834-1884: Improvisation or Policy?, Catherine Stenzl wrote that Plebst came to Mangalore to introduce letterpress printing. “He had been studying to become an ordained missionary but was unable to complete the course,” Stenzl wrote, so he was sent out as a “lay brother” instead.

By the time Plebst arrived in India, the Basel Mission had 11 mission stations and many substations. It had a presence in Hubli, Dharwad, Coorg, Calicut and the Nilgiris. Its lithographic press in Mangalore was opened in 1841 and initially focused on publishing translations of religious texts. Before long, the press started getting orders for print material from local governments, according to Stenzl.

Plebst initially focused on the printing press, but with time his attention shifted elsewhere. He noticed that the local pottery in Mangalore was brittle, porous and not glazed. It was the same problem with the traditional “Nada-Hanchu” tiles made by local craftsmen from ordinary clay that were common in the houses across the region.

Plebst urged the mission to set up an industrial pottery unit. He asked to learn the skills to make glazed earthenware products using special yellow clay found in the Netravati and Gurupura rivers. The mission’s initial response was lukewarm, but as a concession, a committee agreed to test samples of clay from Mangalore to see if the idea was workable.

“Plebst collected the soils of the riverbed of the Netravati River and had them tested in the laboratories of Switzerland and Germany,” Gowri Naidu, associate professor, Government First Grade College, Kolar, wrote in a 2015 paper titled The Role of Basel Mission in South Canara.

“Whilst on home leave from 1861 to 1863, Plebst acquired prolific skills in firing and glazing clay,” Thomas and Schürer-Ries wrote. He studied the most modern methods of tile-making in Alsace. “Upon his return to India, this experience inspired Plebst to apply his techniques to the manufacturing of tiles,” Thomas and Schürer-Ries added.

To make his dream a reality, Plebst relied on local expertise. “With the help of an Indian master potter, Plebst built an oven and started experimenting to establish the correct mixture of clay and sand, and on December 4, 1865, he started to produce tiles – 360 per day with just two workers and a few bullocks,” Stenzl wrote. The tiles became popular as they were lighter and could handle the monsoon rain better than the local varieties. This made tile works the fastest developing and largest industry for the Basel Mission.

Tile revolution

The opening of the Basel Mission Tile Factory (also called the Common Wealth Trust Ltd factory) in Jeppo, Mangalore was touted as a crowning achievement of the mission. In 1866, the Bombay Guardian published excerpts from the mission’s 1865 report, which proudly mentioned the opening: “We are glad to say that Mr. Plebst, of the managers succeeded in adding a new branch to our industrial undertakings, for the purpose of supporting our native congregations. Considering the deficiency of the country roofing material, he began to make tiles on a method lately invented, and has the satisfaction to see the technical difficulties removed and to witness both the usefulness of the new material and the ready sale it meets with.”

The factory used bullocks for 15 years, until 1880, when it began to rely on steam power. By that time, it was producing one million tiles per year. Even this volume, however, was not enough to meet the growing demand for Mangalore tiles from across India and abroad.

The architects of Bombay’s Victoria Terminus, Frederick William Stevens and Axel Haig, ordered the tiles for its roof. A number of colonial Indo-Saracenic-style buildings used them as well. The demand abroad for the tiles was such that comparisons were drawn with ships carrying spices from the Malabar Coast to West Asia and Africa. To the east, the tiles were sent to Burma and Australia.

The success of the mission’s tile factory “sparked the establishment of competing factories in Mangaluru, including Albuquerque & Sons, Rego and sons, Casia and Sujirkar’s Tile works,” said the Department of Posts when releasing the commemorative cover. Among these, Albuquerque & Sons was set up by Alex Albuquerque Pai, the son of a farmer who had learned the techniques from Plebst. Pai was the first Indian to establish a tile factory and he did so three years after the Basel Mission factory opened. His factory, like others in Mangalore, didn’t just make roofing, ceiling and floor tiles – they also made other forms of terracotta work and bricks.

Plebst’s legacy

While in India, Plebst was constantly plagued by health problems. To get reprieve, he would periodically retreat to the hills once the tile factory was up and running.

When he left the country in 1868, the Basel Mission highlighted his achievements in modernising its printing facilities. An excerpt of a report of the mission published by the Bombay Guardian in May 1869 said that Plebst had for many years devoted “his time and strength to the printing establishment”, which he found in an undeveloped state in 1851.

The report added that the German left the printing establishment “in a high degree of perfection,” furnishing the mission with “very nicely printed books”. The Karnata F Kittel Kannada font was believed to have been created by the Basel Mission under Plebst’s supervision.

Thirty-three families were employed by the printing establishment, according to the report. Most of them were from lower castes who had converted to Christianity and shunned by society for doing so. By hiring the families for the press, the mission was ensuring they could earn a livelihood.

Plebst died in 1888, but his innovation outlived him. On the western coast of India, the red shining Mangalore tiles still dominate the roofs of traditional houses, despite the woes that the industry he founded now faces.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @ajaykamalakaran.