Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg, the great missionary of South India, was born in Saxony in 1682. He studied at the University of Balle, then the center for the Pietistic movement in the Lutheran Church. He responded to an appeal from the King of Denmark for missionaries, and in September 1706, he and Heinrich Plueshau arrived in Tranguebar (anglicized form of Tharangambadi in Tamil language), a very small Danish colony on the east coast, close to Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu, on the southeast coast of India, as the first Protestant missionaries in that country.
Ziegenbalg began his life in Tranquebar first with the help of interpreters and translators. However, he was determined to learn the local language Tamil, and mastered it in such a way that he would be able to use it for the translation of the Bible and to communicate with the natives in their own language. He and Heinrich persevered in their efforts.
They began preaching and baptized their first converts about ten months later. Their work was opposed both by militant Hindus and by the local Danish authorities. In 1707/08, Ziegenbalg spent four months in prison on a charge that by converting the natives, he was encouraging rebellion.
More than the opposition, he had to cope with the climatic conditions in India. Ziegenbalg wrote: “My skin was like a red cloth. The heat here is very great, especially during April, May and June, in which season the wind blows from the inland so strongly that it seems as if the heat comes straight out of the oven”.
Ziegenbalg began to learn write Tamil letters immediately after his arrival. The missionaries invited the local Tamil Pandit (teacher) to come and stay with them and to run his school from their house. Ziegenbalg would sit with the young children in this school on the floor and practice writing the letters in the sand, a very traditional practice that was in vogue even in early 1650s in Tamil Nadu villages.
Following was an account of his hard work to master the Malabar (Tamil) language:
From 7 to 8 a.m, he would repeat the vocabularies and phrases that he had previously learnt and written down. From 8 a.m. to 12 noon, he would read only Malabar language books which he had not previously read. He did this in the presence of an old poet and a writer who immediately wrote down all new words and expressions. The poet had to explain the text and in the case of linguistically complicated poetry, the poet put what had been read into colloquial language. At first, Ziegenbalg had also used the translator, namely, Aleppa, whom he later gave to one of his colleagues. Even while eating, he had someone read to him. From 3 to 5 p.m., he would read some more Tamil books. In the evening from 7 to 8 p.m, someone would read to him from Tamil literature in order to avoid strain on his eyes. He preferred authors whose style he could imitate in his own speaking and writing.
He soon set up a printing press, and published studies of the Tamil language and of Indian religion and culture. His translation of the New Testament into Tamil in 1715, and the church building that he and his associates constructed in 1718, are still in use today.
He married in 1716, and about that time, a new and friendly governor arrived, and he was able to establish a seminary for the training of native clergy. He died on 23 February 1719 at the age of 37 when he left a Tamil translation of the New Testament and of Genesis through Ruth, many brief writings in Tamil, two church buildings, the seminary, and 250 baptized Christians. Ziegenbalg accomplished great things for God in the prime of his youth and that too, in an alien country, despite the inclement climatic conditions and the hostile attitude of the local people to the preaching of the gospel.