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In search of India’s first printing press in Tranquebar,a former Danish colony and now a quiet town

Written by Madhulika Liddle |
August 8, 2010 2:03:39 pm

In search of India’s first printing press in Tranquebar,a former Danish colony and now a quiet town
A January noon in Tranquebar,a town on Tamil Nadu’s Coromandel coast,is pleasant. And we’ve reassured ourselves that gulping in lungfuls of this cool air will do us good,for Tranquebar is one of the world’s most ozone-rich places.
It has other equally unusual attractions that intrigue Srilata and me.
K Srilata,novelist and academician,is in Tranquebar—officially Tharangambadi,‘place of singing waves’—to research a novel. I am here because I’d read that Tranquebar was once a Danish settlement. What were the Danes doing in India? In 1620,having travelled all the way from Denmark to Sri Lanka to establish a colony—and subsequently discovering that Sri Lanka had no more room—the Danes came here. A treaty with the local ruler resulted in the setting up of a fort,which still stands,though the Danes relinquished control of Tranquebar in 1845 to the British.

Here we are,therefore,on the seashore of a town so ridiculously tiny it doesn’t even have an idli stall. We begin by visiting the Dansborg,the 17th century fort built by the Danish naval captain Ove Gjedde in 1620. It’s a pale yellow building and looks more like a large bungalow than a fort. But it’s deliciously colonial,and houses a museum with a modest collection of artefacts—from a whale’s backbone to tiny cannonballs.

We then stroll down King Street,crowded with churches and colonial buildings. At its end is Landsporten. Built in 1792,it is the gate that separated the port from the hinterland. It’s emblazoned with the Danish coat of arms,now all peeling plaster,yet charming.

At the edge of the water is the half-submerged Masilamani Nathar temple. Nearby is a plaque on a stone cross. It reads: “1706-1906. Here by the grace of God,landed on the 9th of July 1706,the first ev. Lutheran missionaries to India: Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg and Heinrich Plutschau. Erected by the grateful congregations of the Leipzig ev. Luth. mission in the jubilee year 1906.”

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Ziegenbalg is a familiar name in Tranquebar. On King Street is the house where Ziegenbalg lived,now renovated,its paint colourful and its aesthetics questionable. But it continues Ziegenbalg’s work: it is today the Ziegenbalg Spiritual Centre,dispensing evangelical literature and CDs.

Ziegenbalg’s zeal was literally missionary. He learnt Tamil,produced treatises on South Indian literature—and translated the New Testament and part of the Old Testament into Tamil. To spread the translated Bible among the local populace,he imported a printing press,the first to arrive in India. The Tamil letters for the press were cut in Halle,Germany; the press and the paper were British—and in 1712,the press arrived in Tranquebar. Ziegenbalg’s Tamil New Testament was printed in 1714.

So far,our attempts to find the press have failed. At the fort,the ticket seller has stared blankly at us. At a hotel,someone has said we should “ask for Paper Mill Road.” And now,at the Ziegenbalg Spiritual Centre,we’ve discovered it’s lunchtime. Everybody has deserted their posts for tiffin.

Paper Mill Road seems the only clue. Unfortunately,nobody knows where even that is. Our taxi driver asks passers-by,but gets only puzzled shrugs. Then,serendipity. A lean man stops when he overhears us asking a scooterist for directions. He asks why we want to go to Paper Mill Road. “There’s an old printing press there,” Srilata says.

“They took it to Salem years ago,” he says. His name is P Vincent,and he climbs into our taxi to take us there. We drive out of town,past yellow-green fields and toddy palms. Down a maze of confusing lanes,finally stopping at a small bridge across a stream.

Vincent leads us past tiny houses,painted sky-blue and pink,fenced with coconut thatch. Hibiscus blooms around us,and a curious black goat trails behind. There are no men here—all are away at work. There are women, among them Vincent’s sisters. One,sitting on her haunches and peeling shallots,asks Srilata,“What’s your topic of research?” Vincent tells us she is doing her M Phil. “I am the least educated of my family,” he admits ,as he’s a high school graduate.

This community is of Dalit Christians—Dalit since pre-Ziegenbalg days—who lived outside town,and even now are beyond the pale. There are 35 families here,says Vincent,as we arrive at a nondescript one-room house. A toddler on the verandah looks up from a lunch of rice and sambar. A woman cleaning utensils watches as Vincent ushers us into the room—and we are at the end of our journey.

This room,with a crucifix at one end,is the prayer house. This is where Ziegenbalg’s printing press once stood. The press has gone to Salem. The building that housed it has collapsed. Our efforts have been in vain.
Vincent goes to a rack near the door. On it are stacked dozens of blue-bound books. He picks up one and brings it to us. It is a Tamil Bible—an imprint of the translation Ziegenbalg made 300 years ago.

Suddenly,holding a piece of history in my hands,I realise that our quest hasn’t been completely pointless. There is something here,perhaps just the mere fact that in this tiny community,held together by its faith,there is a reminder that footprints last long.
(Madhulika Liddle is the author of The Englishman’s Cameo)

Getting there: Board a bus or hire a taxi from Pondicherry or Chennai
Best time to visit: December-February
Must-see: Dansborg,New Jerusalem Church,Zion Church,Landsporten,The Bungalow on the Beach,Ziegenbalg Spiritual Centre,Masilamani Nathar Temple
Where to stay: The Bungalow on the Beach (originally the residence of the Danish Governor of Tranquebar,it was built in 1784,and restored by Neemrana as a heritage hotel in 2004),the Tamil Nadu Hotel,Gate House and Nayak House

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