Bringing Christianity to India: The First Translation of the New Testament into an Indian Language


Though the Portuguese introduced Christianity to India in the sixteenth century, it wasn’t until the Bible was translated into the local languages, beginning with Tamil, that it became widely accessible to the people. The first Biblical translation in an Indian language, the Tamil New Testament, was published in 1714 using large Tamil types that were cast at Halle in Germany specifically for the Protestant Danish Mission in India.


Bartholomew Ziegenbalg, the German Missionary who arrived at the Danish settlement of Tranquebar in 1706, was the force behind the ambitious translation.  Like Serampore in Bengal, Tranquebar, on the Coromandel coast south of Madras, was a tiny Danish colony, and its press was therefore beyond East India Company control. Immunity from censorship and prosecution meant that, in the history of printing and publishing in South Asia, these two tiny colonies were immensely important, out of all proportion to their size and influence otherwise.


Within six years of Ziegenbalg’s arrival a printing press was in operation, a remarkable example of international Christian cooperation: the privilege of running a press without censorship from the local Governor was granted by the Danish King, Frederick IV; the missionary manpower, including the printers, came principally from Germany, from the Lutheran Ostindische Missionsanstalt at Halle, near Leipzig; and the press itself and most subsequent supplies of printing materials (paper, ink, etc.) were provided by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge in London.  Unfortunately, a printer named Jonas Finck sent out by the Society in 1711 was lost overboard during the voyage, allegedly while drunk.


Ziegenbalg finished his translation of the New Testament and completed the Old Testament up to the Book of Ruth when he died in 1719. His work was resumed by Benjamin Schultze, another German missionary. The Tranquebar Mission Press was the longest-living and most prolific of all the 18th century presses in South Asia – indeed it continued operating well into the 19th century.


Zeigenbalg’s portrait is depicted in the engravings of a rare volume in our collection, The Augspurgisches Lubel, published in Augsburg in 1730 to commemmorate the bicentenary of the Augsburg Confession. These engravings also illustrate the early printing press in Tranquebar.


The first leaf of the Tamil New Testament, the contents page, is printed in the larger "Halle" Tamil font. For this second part of the New Testament they used smaller types cast locally from the lead wrappings of imported Cheshire cheese. The smaller font saved significantly on the precious commodity of paper, always in short supply. Locally produced varieties had proved unsuitable for printing purposes, so the press was reliant on imported paper from Europe.


According to a history of the Bible Society of India, as a result of the Bible’s printing in India, "the palm leaf manuscript was translated into the printed page, making it a battleground in which many political and religious wars were waged."[1] Our previous post  [LINK TO THE POST] referencing the immense importance of print media to the Mahatma Gandhi’s campaign for Indian independence, specifically regarding the population addressed in Harijan, echoes this statement of the tremendous impact of this first translation of the Tamil New Testament.


Stock number: 66700



[1] [THE BIBLE SOCIETY OF INDIA 1811-2000 — Imaging the Word a Millennium Perspective: Chiranjivi J. Nirmal, G.D.V. Prasad; The Bible Society of India, Post Box No. 320, 206, Mahatma Gandhi Road, Bangalore-560001. Rs. 185.]