The 23 year old who changed south India
How do we influence nations for good?
The documentary Beyond Empires takes us to the world of a 23 year old German from three centuries ago, who believed he had a responsibility to do so. And he did. The first ever Protestant missionary, Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg, arrived in India July 9th, 1706, with colleague Heinrich Plutschau. But Ziegenbalg would become like St. Patrick to Southern India after settling at the port of Tranquebar.
In July of 2006, India honored his memory with a week of celebrations, even issuing a postage stamp to commemorate the 300th year since his arrival in Tamil Nadu. Yet, he’s forgotten in the west and even by the western evangelical tradition he pioneered. Few beyond India recognize the name of Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg or his extraordinary contribution to the rise of the independent global power that is modern India.
Ziegenbalg speedily learned Tamil language and won the hearts of the local people. He created the first schools in India for girls, as well as educating boys, in the indigenous language. He imported India’s first printing presses for Tamil literature, and designed a written form of the vernacular language from the classical literary script, which is now the language used in Tamil newspapers. He publicly debated with religious scholars, and translated and taught the Bible to Tamils. By these means at his death 13 years later, age 36, his work had liberated hundreds of people in the city of Tranquebar from many generations of caste based illiteracy and impoverishment under their particular religion and politics, an exploitation made worse by the economic domination of European powers. As the first indigenous Protestant church, these hundreds multiplied his legacy forward to millions, in a benefit to all Indians, and well recognized at a national level today.
With considerable aid from his Tamil mentors, Ziegenbalg’s achievements for Indian culture were many but they came at great personal cost. He defied the empire agendas of European colonizers, suffering imprisonment and their sabotage. He confronted with his intellect the misguided piety of the Danish Lutheran board that governed him, suffering their censure, censorship and financial penalties. Local religious leaders slandered him and created many obstacles to his work. More than all of these setbacks, he struggled with a lifelong illness that under the heightening stress of European persecutors eventually took his life age 36. He died broken, without seeing the fulfillment that an independent India celebrates today.
Few people have their lives celebrated hundreds of years after their deaths, and fewer by foreign nations. After five days of community and government sponsored remembrance events in Chennai, ten thousand Indians of all walks of life joined visitors from many other nations to make the pilgrimage to the tsunami devastated Tranquebar on July 9th 2006 to express their affection for the young German who spent his life for them. And but for two scholar’s textbooks, this story has never been told in English language media.
Very few stories of missionary efforts are told through the eyes of the peoples affected. Empires and their associated institutions edit their own stories and mostly affirm their culturally bound missions and visions. But seen from below, stories become different, the main actors are really those who were previously confined to the margins. In this case there is much more to the story than converts.
Ziegenbalg’s legacy is not the property of one group, the Christians. It has a spill over affect to admiring Indian Muslims and Hindus, which in turn shaped several ideologies in Europe.
By his primary allegiance to the Kingdom of Christ, Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg unbound himself from the hubris of cultures and empires. His radical ability to live with and manage necessary conflict with Indians, Danes, English, Swedes, Portuguese and Germans is a leadership quality usually found in the Christian Church at the start of its great advances. It wasn’t just religious piety but an intellectually focused lifestyle of empire inversion that Ziegenbalg among very few in history captured from the Gospels in order to provide an enduring legacy for Tamil and other Indian peoples. Ironically, in the west it contributed to suspicions about his orthodoxy and his story, contained and preserved in many of his original documents, has long been archived.
No English speaking film, nor book for a general audience, has ever told the story of Batholomaus Ziegenbalg. We’ve found when Anglo-westerners watch the trailer of Beyond Empires, they are shocked and take umbrage that they haven’t even heard of this man. When just some of his achievements and the celebration of them by an emerging global power like India is known, his invisibility in the west seems an incomprehensible injustice. Of the scholarly books concerning him, most are in German and study his missionary method, or the sociological impact of his life in Tamil culture.
Well known to most Protestants is English missionary to India, William Carey, a Baptist shoemaker, nearly a century later. He enjoyed the patronage of Ziegenbalg’s grandson from a base in Sarangpur near Calcutta. Gottlieb Ziegenbalg provided him official Danish shelter from expulsion by the British East India Company. Thus Carey suffered similar persecutions and reaped a similar veneration by Indians for a legacy modelled on Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg.
Prevailing scholarly wisdom regards this as exceptional, not normal for European missionary impact upon indigenous peoples. As we listen for the first time to those who inherited their legacy, this now seems a false conclusion. Ziegenbalg is the forgotten father of the modern missionary movement, and his pattern imitated by Carey, but also by many invisible Christians since, engaged with the local people in resisting and overcoming the brutalities of the colonizing Empires, through literacy, including Biblical literacy, and comprehensive education. The story told in Beyond Empires will explore this from the perspective of those whose lives Ziegenbalg affected, the Tamil people of southern India.
A significant issue in this story is how the enthusiasts that made up the missionary movements of both catholic and protestant churches were, at best, only marginally supported by their central institutions. At worst, like with Ziegenbalg, and more with the Jesuits in South America, there was conflict and punishing opposition from colonial trading companies in league with European based church hierarchies. Such conflict proves perennial for missionary Christians, across all generations and national settings.
There are few experts on Ziegenbalg’s life, the foremost, Dr. Daniel Jeyaraj, is an Indian expatriate and Professor of World Christianity at Andover Newton Theological School in Boston. He has agreed to be the primary expert witness on this project on location in India. Scottish national Andrew Walls, acknowledged as the foremost living scholar on Christian Missionary History is also willing to participate further in Beyond Empires. He now lives and teaches in Ghana.
The celebrations in Madras & Tranquebar in July 2006 were filmed in HDV 1080i especially for inclusion in the documentary. The DVD Trailer is however down-converted to standard DV.
BEYOND EMPIRES is a work in progress aimed at public television internationally. For that it requires a sizeable budget and the fundraising has begun in earnest to enable filming in India, Germany, Denmark and the UK.
If you would like to be a financial partner in Beyond Empires, or assist in raising funds please contact us at:
Lamp Post Media
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Beverly MA, 01915
Phone: +1 978 969 2821
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