The Identity of various Indian-Christian communities is drawn from an extensive repository of historical experience. Sadly, this is routinely forgotten. The collective failure to look at the native face of Indian Christianity is unfortunate.
The Christian identity in South India during the 18th century was an ingenious mix of Pietism and Tamil culture. Prof. Jeyaraj writes, “the Church’s social life exhibited an integration of biblical values brought in by the pietistic missionaries and some marks of the Tamil way of conduct and life”.
Local leadership also contributed to the growth of Christian communities.
Indian Church history is strewn with indigenous attempts to re-imagine the Christian identity. The native face of the Danish-Halle mission in Tranquebar is a fascinating story. This article looks at the forging of the new Christian identity and the aspects that helped create it.
Christian Identity as Parangi identity
At first, Christianity was defined mainly by European identity. Christianity was known as the ‘religion of the Portuguese’ (Paranghis). The local populace disgustingly looked down upon the Paranghi way of life such as meat eating, excessive drinking and losing morals.
After the Portuguese, the Dutch trading Company quickly established settlements and trading posts across the sub-continent. The Dutch received many Chaplains to minister in their settlements.
The Tranquebar Mission grew in influence due to its engagement and exchange of ideas with the wider culture.
The Dutch Company was keen not to jeopardise its commercial interests and did not allow Missions. The clergy were only permitted to serve military, trade and administrative personnel.
Native Christians and their newfound identity
At the turn of the 18th century, the Danish king Frederik IV sent Bartholomeus Ziegenbalg and Heinrich Plutschau to work in Tranquebar. Interestingly, the King sent German missionaries who were trained in Halle.
The two German Missionaries began work in Tranquebar after they arrived in 1706. This was the earliest Protestant Mission in India. The Tranquebar Mission provided the impetus for developing a new identity far removed from the ‘Paranghi’ identity.
Started by Tranquebar Mission, nurtured values, work ethics and worldview. This resulted in a new generation with a refreshingly new sense of Christian identity.
The Tranquebar Mission focused on developing a Christian identity different from the European one. The native Christian way of life was based on insights drawn from Pietism as well as the rich local cultural traditions.
The Contours of Native Christian Identity
A Local Identity
The Dutch East India Company discouraged the Tranquebar Mission as they did not want to jeopardise trade relations and colonial interests. Therefore, the efforts of the Tranquebar Mission were independent of the colonial enterprise.
Ziegenbalg and Plutschau bore the brunt of the Danish Commandant Hassius’s deep-seated hostility towards religious work. Hassius kept Ziegenbalg in solitary confinement for four months. Jeyakumar writes, “Though they came to Tranquebar with the royal patronage, they were not given even the facility to get out of the ship and come over to the shore”.
The native Christian way of life was based on insights drawn from Pietism as well as the rich local cultural traditions.
Further, the Company did not appoint mission school students in their offices. The hostile attitude of the Company made the local population believe that the Tranquebar mission did not represent the colonial enterprise.
The local Christian identity was shaped by personal, spiritual regeneration and holy living. The Native Christians were deeply influenced by Pietism which emphasised a different way to live the Christian faith,
Moreover, The Boy’s school (1707) and the Girl’s school (1711), started by Tranquebar Mission, nurtured values, work ethics and worldview. This resulted in a new generation with a refreshingly new sense of Christian identity.
Cultural sensitivity and openness
Secondly, Ziegenbalg and Plutschau studied Tamil and translated Christian teaching materials into Tamil. By 1711, the translation of the Tamil New Testament was complete.
The Tranquebar Mission grew in influence due to its engagement and exchange of ideas with the wider culture. Christian communities sprouted all over Tranquebar and up to Madras (now Chennai) due to the emphasis on the vernacular within Tranquebar Mission.
Thirdly, Local leadership also contributed to the growth of Christian communities. Rajanayakkan (1700—1771), a soldier in the service of the Tanjore King, was instrumental in founding the Lutheran church in the Kingdom of Tanjore.
Similarly, the witness of Wedappen, a temple priest in the village of Anandamangalam, prompted many to embrace Christianity. Clarinda, a Maratha Brahmin woman, established the first Lutheran church at Palayamkottai in the neighbouring district.
The Identity of various Indian-Christian communities are drawn from an extensive repository of historical experience. Sadly, this is routinely forgotten.
The Tranquebar Mission also had native ordinands. Pastor Aaron was the first Indian Lutheran who was ordained in 1733. Another prominent leader Sattiyanathan was ordained in 1790.
Local Christians struggled with widespread socio-cultural disgust for the Parangi way of life usually associated with Christian identity. However, local Christians in and around Tranquebar developed a distinct Christian identity rooted in a new cultural imagination and theological flourish.
The development of a distinct Christian identity by local Christians of the Tranquebar mission is truly a fascinating story.