Memorable mission

Published : Jul 28, 2006 00:00 IST

AT AN EXHIBITION in Chennai during the tercentenary celebrations of the Lutheran Mission to India, a picture showing Indian medicine men. - SHAJU JOHN

AT AN EXHIBITION in Chennai during the tercentenary celebrations of the Lutheran Mission to India, a picture showing Indian medicine men. - SHAJU JOHN

The tercentenary of Tranquebar Lutheran Mission is celebrated in Chennai.

THE year 2006 is significant for at least two principal Christian denominations - the Roman Catholics and the Protestants. For the Roman Catholics, the year marks the 500th birth anniversary of St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552) and Bl. Peter Faber (1505-1546), who together with St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) and a few others founded in 1540 the Society of Jesus, an international religious institution serving particularly in the field of education. The Catholics also observe the 450th death anniversary of St. Ignatius of Loyola on July 31. As for the Protestant Church, the year marks the 300th anniversary of the launching of its first missionary venture in the world - the Danish Halle Mission (1706-1845), also known as the Tranquebar Lutheran Mission, at Tranquebar (Tarangampadi), now in Tamil Nadu.

India's engagement with Christianity is believed to have begun as early as the beginning of the Christian era. Tradition has it that St. Thomas, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ, landed at Kodungallur (now in Kerala) on the west coast of southern India in A.D. 52. After 20 years of religious activity in the country, he was murdered, it is believed, at Little Mount, now a part of Chennai. Sixteen centuries later, St. Francis Xavier himself was in India for missionary work. St. John de Brito (1647-1693), also belonging to the Society of Jesus, followed him a century later.

The Tranquebar Mission was patronised by King Frederick IV of Denmark. Two British organisations, the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SPCK) and the Society for the Propagation of Gospel (SPG), supported the mission.

Scores of missionaries have come to this country ever since and a substantial number of them have left their imprint in fields other than religion, particularly in education, health care, art, culture and literature. Educational institutions established and run efficiently by the Society of Jesus and similar missions dot the country. Tamil Nadu abounds with such institutions. Many of them have grown into institutions of excellence with universal, secular appeal. Besides, several missionaries have contributed in no small measure to the development of regional languages and their literature. To mention a few, scholars such as Fr. Beschi, Robert Caldwell and G.U. Pope have enriched the Tamil language. Less known among such missionaries is Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg (1682-1719), one of the first two German theologians who landed in Tranquebar on July 9, 1706, to head the Tranquebar Lutheran Mission (Frontline, May 8, 1998).

Ziegenbalg's many-sided contributions to Tamil society were recalled by participants at a seminar that formed part of the week-long tercentenary celebrations of the Tranquebar Mission held in Chennai in July. Tamil Nadu Governor S.S. Barnala inaugurated the celebrations, organised by the Gurukul Lutheran Theological College and Research Institute, Chennai, together with the National Council of Churches in India, the United Evangelical Lutheran Church in India and the Tamil Evangelical Lutheran Church. Tributes were paid to Ziegenbalg for his pioneering efforts to publish several books on the Tamil language and culture and for translating the Bible into Tamil for the first time and also getting it published. Ziegenbalg initiated steps to universalise education by putting an end to gender- and caste-based discrimination. He was also commended for promoting printing technology, which was at a primitive stage then, by introducing improved methods and add-ons such as foundries to make typefaces and manufacture paper.

Daniel Jeyaraj, who has to his credit a number of scholarly publications on Ziegenbalg, identified three major aspects of the missionary's contribution to Indian studies: providing information on India, its religious practices, social and economic conditions and education; his attempt to change the attitude of Europeans towards Indians; and establishing intercultural bridges.

Ziegenbalg was born at Pulsnitz, a tiny village in Germany. His parents, who traded in corn, were Lutherans and pietists. Right from childhood, religion and religious faith played an important role in his life. He lost both parents when he was quite young, but his sisters, and later on other relatives, raised him. Left alone, he learnt from his friends and teachers the importance of interacting with people from all walks of life. So, the early training he had at home and schools as well as pietistical institutions enabled him to understand the Indian mindset when he became a committed missionary.

One of Ziegenbalg's striking contributions is his voluminous writings on Indian society, sent as reports to the missionary headquarters at Halle. "He was not the first European to write about India. But what distinguished Ziegenbalg from the others was that few of them had learnt any Indian language before writing about them. They depended on interpreters. Ziegenbalg, on the other hand, interacted with the people in their own mother tongue," observes Jeyaraj. Also, the others only wrote about palaces and temples and did not show any real understanding of the people. Ziegenbalg studied Tamil literature, observed Indian religious practices and interacted with many persons who were knowledgeable on Indian systems of thought. This enabled him to have a better insight and provide authentic information. This led to a proper understanding of Indians among a section of Europeans who were until then prejudiced.

Ziegenbalg's study of the socio-economic conditions made him conclude that the Indian economy was "largely oriented to palaces and temples". He saw the imbalances in society and when he wanted to intervene on behalf of the exploited sections, friction arose between the poor and the Indian landlords and the Danish colonial authorities, whose main aim was to maximise the gains through exploitation. These conflicts of goals landed Ziegenbalg in prison for four months. He believed that service to the soul could not replace service to the body. For him, service to the soul and service to the body were interdependent.

Another area in which Ziegenbalg made substantial contribution was education. According to Daniel Jeyaraj, Ziegenbalg's reports contained enormous information on education, particularly about the thinnaippallikkoodam (verandah school), where children learnt from a single teacher a variety of subjects, ranging from the Vedas and Upanishads to the 64 arts and neethi sastras. About the prevailing education system, Ziegenbalg observed that although children were taught for six years to read and write, only a few achieved perfection. In a significant observation, he said: "Girls do not learn to read and write except those who will serve the idols in the temples and are called servants of god [devadasis]." He believed that access to school was essential for girls. In 1707 he instituted a separate girls school, perhaps the first of its kind in the country. "This was against the prevailing cultural practice and a path-breaking development," said Daniel Jeyaraj. Ziegenbalg's intention was to provide education to all without any discrimination. The concept of boarding schools took root during this time. The English schools that came up later during British rule adopted many of the innovative practices introduced by the Lutheran educationists. A large number of people benefited from such progressive changes in the system.

Thanks to the efforts by Ziegenbalg to build intercultural bridges, many Europeans took interest in the Tamil language. He arranged to send a Tamil teacher to Europe. For the benefit of the European learners of Tamil, he brought out in 1716 a volume of Tamil grammar, Grammatica Damulica, on the English-Latin grammar pattern. Apart from rendering the New Testament in Tamil, he also translated into German more than 145 letters written by Tamil scholars. Besides, he wrote 76 songs in Tamil. These were just prosaic hymns through which converts learnt about Christianity.

In 1708, Ziegenbalg compiled a detailed catalogue of 119 Tamil literary works ranging from Tolkappiam to the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Tirukkural. Tiruvilaiyadal Puranam and Sivavaakkiam were among his favourite Tamil works. His Genealogy of South Indian Deities in German is another major work. Daniel Jeyaraj said he found the German original and published it in 2003. He translated this into English and had it published last year.

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