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Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg Part 3

George M. Ella | Added: Jul 06, 2022 | Category: Biography


From the start the two missionaries Ziegenbalg and Plütschau had language help from an educated Indian named Modaliapen as we read in a letter from Ziegenbalg to Prof. Francke dated 1st October 1706, shortly after the missionaries arrived in Tranquebar. Modaliapen had boarded their ship before the missionaries were able to go ashore and asked them if he could enter their service. His reason was that he wished to be instructed in Christianity. After being with the missionaries a week, his request to remain permanently with the Mission was accepted. This was seen as an act of God introducing the new missionaries to India, and well-educated Modaliapen proved of immense value as the Europeans in Tranquebar ignored him so he was free to work for the Mission unhindered and served as a mediator and translator between the Mission and the King of Tanjore. This royal person had been ‘paid off’ by the Danish East India Company but still had a good deal of influence. Ziegenbalg persuaded local traders to give their slaves two hours of freedom each day to be instructed in the gospel and receive a basic education. A number of German traders (Ziegenbalg says ‘viele’, that is ‘many’), asked Ziegenbalg to preach to them weekly. The Danish chaplains protested strongly against this move as it meant the Germans would not attend their services but receive the gospel from one more able to preach it.

How the missionaries learnt Tamil

Now happy to be with the poor, casteless people of Tranquebar, Ziegenbalg and Plütschau made speedy headway with the languages used around them. Ziegenbalg soon started catechizing in Tamil, using Luther’s catechism which he had quickly translated. Ziegenbalg described how he and Plütschau learnt the language:

We did indeed have a Malabar teacher of our own. However we did not know where we should get the vocabulary and an understanding of the construction of this language, since the school master could show us reading and writing but knew no Portuguese and could not explain anything to us. After this we got acquainted with a Malabaree who … besides his own language spoke Portuguese, Danish, Dutch, and German well. Him we employed at fixed pay as our translator, and through him daily acquired many Malabar words, up to several thousands, and memorized them well. After that, we busied ourselves to get the declensions and conjugations, and began to read books in this language. God let everything progress well. Then the Commandant recommended to us a grammar in the Portuguese language, written by a missionary of the King of France. We obtained a number of books in the Malabar language, prepared by Catholics, which almost led us into dangerous heresies but not into an understanding of the language or a Christian style of writing. We had no means of knowing with what words and expressions we should explain spiritual matters in order not to give them a heathen flavour. The best book, so necessary and so useful, was their Gospel-book. This we examined first of all and took all the vocabulary and expressions to make ourselves well acquainted and use them in our daily conversations. After that we worked through other books so that in eight months had come so far that with God’s grace I was able to read, write, and speak in this very difficult language and understand the conversation of others. 

The Tamil scholar who was now employed by the missionaries was Atakapa, a former translator for the Danish East India Company.

Three years of reading Tamil literature

In the documents preserved by Arno Lehmann, Ziegenbalg tells us that for the first three years he had hardly read a book in any other language than Tamil so that he could master the language. Each morning from seven to eight he practised the words and phrases he had just learnt in speech and writing. Then from eight until noon, he studied books in the Tamil language, writing down expressions he could use in preaching and catechising, guided by a Tamil teacher who helped Ziegenbalg put the poetic words which few ordinary Tamils understood into colloquial speech. There was no literature available in the common tongue so Bartholomäus had to be creative. Favourable books were read over a hundred times in Ziegenbalg’s ‘spare time’ so that he could secure every word and its pronunciation in his memory. Even at meals, the missionary had Tamil texts read to him whilst eating. After preaching and witnessing and organising the Mission for several hours, in the evenings, Ziegenbalg had books read to him in Tamil from seven to eight o’clock, partly to save his eyes and partly to be sure of the pronunciation. He then went out into the streets and practised what he had learnt through witnessing for Christ. He was then active until well into the night in spite of his poor health. 

Ziegenbalg’s first mistake

As most of the Danish officials held slaves, and the caste system was prevalent, both missionaries first sought to bring the slaves and the low castes under the gospel. They provided extra care for the Pariahs or ‘untouchables’ who had no caste at all. It is here, however, that Ziegenbalg acted unwisely and gained opposition from a number of Indians. The event made Ziegenbalg thoroughly ashamed of his action and he confessed openly that he had done wrong, winning back those whom he had angered. Ziegenbalg visited a pagoda or small temple which displayed porcelain statues of Isparae, the local name for Siva, and being ‘full of godly zeal’, as he thought, on the spur of the moment knocked the heads off a number of figures and entirely smashed others. However, instead of lynching the missionaries, the priests of Siva explained courteously that the ornaments the missionaries destroyed were not gods but merely representative of the forces God employed in the world. They also explained to Ziegenbalg with many true examples how pagan they felt Europeans were. Ziegenbalg agreed with them. Indeed, Ziegenbalg could not help agreeing with the Tamils concerning many of his fellow Europeans who assumed the name of Christian.

Ziegenbalg and the caste system

When one reads Ziegenbalg’s description of the caste system in his book Malabarisches Heidentum one quickly notices his descriptions neither tally closely to those of previous writers nor those of later ones. This is perhaps because Ziegenbalg had mostly to do with the down to earth lower castes which were classified either according to occupations or to the lack of them whereas the higher castes were supposedly related to the gods and were not considered truly as people of this world. The Jesuits had kept up the caste system because they thought it reflected Western social classes which they accepted as God’s will. Indeed, it is obvious that they assisted in caste classification and thus influenced the Indians. On the whole, Western Colonials kept up the caste system placing themselves at the head of it. Ziegenbalg, however, saw the caste system as more according to temporary social status rather than godly connections and sees his Sudras and other lower castes leaving room for development either up the social scale or down it. On page 198 he thus writes:

Each individual must abide by the profession into which he is born. If, however, he is able through skill or prudence to become a person of rank, he is free to do so. In the same way, if he cannot sustain himself by his profession, he can start up a business or enter the service of others.

This would mean that a person could possibly gain a higher caste or lose his caste for a lower one, or become casteless. Ziegenbalg even gives examples of castes which later dealt with different occupations and social ranks. Anyone, however, dealing with the Hindu caste system from the earliest times to the present age will see that caste theories have altered considerably over the centuries. Though Ziegenbalg taught that all were equal in Christ, some later missionaries built churches with three or four wings to isolate caste from caste.

Early successes and difficulties

Though still in their first year the missionaries made a good number of converts but these were rejected by their families and treated as Pariahs. As conversions increased, they were accepted more and more by their Hindu and Muslim neighbours as everyone saw the great change in the behaviour of the newly converted. Thankfully, Ziegenbalg found that the ancient Tamil writers criticised the caste system so he used their works to persuade the inhabitants of Tranquebar forward against the practice. It was easier to denounce the practice when it came from an Indian rather than European source. It was also his desire that when Indian’s became Christians there should be no caste system to prevent them worshipping together. 

Hassius allies with the Jesuits

Indeed, it was not the native Hindus with their caste-system which gave the missionaries most opposition but the Jesuits who had allied with the supposedly Protestant Danes and become extremely malignant. Hassius’ the local commandant of the Danish East India Company, treated the missionaries most erratically, variously allowing them freedom to preach and treating them as unwanted intruders. He allowed, for instance, Ziegenbalg to baptize his first converts in the Danish Zion Church in 1707 when he preached in Tamil, but when a further fifty or more were ready for baptism, Hassius became aggressive towards the Mission again. The young Church defied him by building their own place of worship in stone at the other side of the road facing the Danish Church in June 1707, just a year after Ziegenbalg’s and Plütschau’s arrival in Tranquebar. Because of difficulties with the Company Hassius led, this was formerly opened for worship in August of the following year. Ziegenbalg found a newly baptised convert eager to preach the gospel to his own people so started to train him as a catechist. Soon several more volunteered to go out into the highways and byways with the gospel.