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The Ziegenbalg legacy

Published : Jul 28, 2006 00:00 IST


A photograph of palm-leaf manuscripts comprising more than 600 questions a Tranquebar teacher addressed to European theologians in 1709.-SHAJU JOHN

A photograph of palm-leaf manuscripts comprising more than 600 questions a Tranquebar teacher addressed to European theologians in 1709.-SHAJU JOHN

ONE of the highlights of the tricentenary celebrations of the Danish Halle Mission (Tranquebar Mission) in Chennai in early July was an impressive week-long exhibition - "The Ziegenbalg Legacy in Tamil Nadu: 300 years of Indo-European Intercultural Dialogue" - conducted by the Roja Muthiah Research Library Trust in collaboration with the Consulate-General of the Federal Republic of Germany, Chennai, and the Francke Foundations, Halle. Photographs of some valuable documents, paintings and other objects relating to the Tamil life since the early 18th century were on display.

When Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg and Heinrich Plutschau, both of German origin, landed at the small port of Tranquebar (Tharangampadi in Tamil) on the eastern coast of southern India 300 years ago, little would they have realised that their arrival was the beginning of a long process of intensive cultural and religious encounters between India and the West, particularly Germany. The first and foremost contribution of Ziegenbalg as a missionary is the vast information he was able to gather about Tamils and Tamil life, according to Daniel Jeyaraj, a scholar in Zieganbalg studies. Ziegenbalg mingled with the masses and sought to learn about their beliefs, value systems, thought processes and behaviour patterns, which threw light on their lifestyle and living conditions, the economy, health care systems, social relations and so on. His quest required the knowledge of the local language and this led Zieganbalg to learn Tamil and its literature. The information that Ziegenbalg so painstakingly gathered was sent to Halle, where it has been documented meticulously and preserved by the mission headquarters. Copies of a few such documents were among the exhibits. For instance, one of the photographs on show was a copy in sheet-gold of a treaty between the Danish king Christian IV (1588-1648) and the king of Thanjavur, Raghunatha Nayak, on the use of the Tranquebar colony, which came into being in 1620. The copy was brought from Copenhagen. Photographs of the cover of Zieganbalg's Tamil version of the New Testament and also of Grammatica Damulica were among the documents displayed.

Ziegenbalg's study of the local art, literature and culture enthused him to write on South Indian deities. A photograph of an ornamental box with images of the deities handed over to the mission by a baptised widow was also on display.

The arrival of the printing press at the Tranquebar Mission enabled the early publishing of the Tamil version of the New Testament and enlarged the scope for taking religion to a larger section of the populace. It also marked the beginning of printing in Tamil. The mission trained its own printers, book binders and type founders so that it could run the press and have links with presses in Colombo, Chennai and Kolkata. Photographs of the models of a modest printing machine and letter case were exhibited.

Also among the exhibits was a palmleaf manuscript containing 608 questions that Kanapati Vattiyar, who taught Tamil to Ziegenbalg, had addressed to the theological professors at Halle.

S. Viswanathan

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jul 28, 2006.)



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