New Delhi, India
February 5, 2010
The cross is the first sight we really see up close when we arrive in Tranquebar, and fittingly, too—since Ziegenbalg and Plutschau were to play such an important part in the life of not just Tranquebar, but India as a whole too. These men, as the plaque notes, were the first Lutheran missionaries to arrive in India; what the plaque doesn’t mention is that they were also the people to perform the first protestant conversions, and the people to set up the first printing press in India. Within a few years of their arrival in Tranquebar, Ziegenbalg and Plutschau had translated the Bible from German into Tamil, and the printing press they set up in Tranquebar was turning out the first printed books—Tamil Bibles—in the country.
Present-day Tranquebar has many reminders of Zeigenbalg (poor Plutschau, though he outlived Ziegenbalg by close to 30 years, seems to have been largely forgotten). Walking down the main street of Tranquebar—King Street, originally Kongensgade—from the cross on the seashore, we come to the Zion Church, on the right. With its square spire and its somewhat dumpy appearance, the Zion Church isn’t a particularly pretty building. The fact that the moisture in the air has blackened the pale yellow-and-white plaster doesn’t help either. When we knock at the gate, a dog comes yapping and an old caretaker lets us into the churchyard, with its old gravestones and a well. The interior of the church is equally unprepossessing: white and fairly well maintained, but too, too modern. It’s been decorated with glittery tinsel and streamers (for New Year’s, perhaps?), and that, combined with the plastic chairs that make up half the pews, detracts from the historicity of the church.
And it’s very historic! Well-polished brass plaques on the wall reveal that the first five Indian protestant converts of the Danish mission were baptised in the Zion Church in 1707, and that the formation of the Church of South India (the organisation that today governs all of peninsular India’s Anglican churches) owes its origin to meetings first held here. At the back of the church are two very old and very dusty bells that sit near the baptismal font, but other than that, there’s little evidence of how very old the Zion Church actually is (it was built in 1702).
Next to the Zion Church is another Tranquebar landmark: Ziegenbalg’s House. This has been taken over by an evangelical society and is now called the Ziegenbalg Spiritual Centre. When we visit, there’s nobody around—but we see the main hall, where evangelical literature and choral music CDs in different languages is sold. The interior, very kitschy and tastelessly modern, bears no resemblance to what it must have been in Ziegenbalg’s time, and there’s very little left of the exterior, too—perhaps the heavy columns and the arched doorway? The very Tamil decoration on either side of the arch, the vivid green paint and the corrugated roof are definitely very modern and indigenous.
Ziegenbalg’s house is reputedly the place where he translated the Bible. The printing was done at the printing press, on Tranquebar’s Paper Mill Street. Looking for this, we end up running into a gentleman who knows exactly where it is, and offers to give us a guided tour. Our guide gets into the taxi with us, then leads us outside the town and into a small settlement of dalit (‘untouchable’) Christians. About 35 families live here, devout Christians who haven’t, despite conversion, been able to erase the taint of being ‘low caste’. But many of them are highly educated: our guide introduces us to his sisters, one of whom is an MA, while another is doing her PhD. Impressive.
He then takes us to the place where Ziegenbalg’s printing press once stood. The machine itself was shifted, many years back, to the town of Salem in Tamilnadu; the building has collapsed too. We realise we’ve come all this way only to see a prayer house—but it has a link with Ziegenbalg: the Bibles are the same version that Ziegenbalg translated from German to Tamil.
No entry fees are charged at the Zion Church, the Ziegenbalg Spiritual Centre, or the prayer house, though donations are welcome. The church is worth a visit because it’s so historic, but the prayer house and the Spiritual Centre can be given a miss unless you’ve plenty of time to kill. The prayer house, in any case, is hard to find on your own.
From journal Take a Deep Breath in Tranquebar