Stolen 17th century Tamil bible traced to London after 17 years

08:42 PM Jul 01, 2022 | PTI |

It is not just idols and artefacts that are stolen from the ancient temples of Tamil Nadu. Even an antiquarian Bible, said to be the world’s first Tamil version and printed in coastal Tharangambadi of the State in the 17th century, was not spared. The holy book was stolen by a group of foreigners 17 years ago, the Tamil Nadu Idol Wing said on Friday.


The Wing traced the bible with the signature of Rajah Serfoji of Tanjore to a museum in London. The sleuths said it has initiated steps to restore the bible to the Saraswathi Mahal Library, Thanjavur, from where it was stolen in 2005.

Though the police registered a CSR (community service register) following a complaint by the Deputy Administrator of Serfoji Palace with the Thanjavur West police station on October 10, 2005, stating that the bible was stolen, the case was treated as ”closed.” On October 17, 2017, the Idol Wing-CID received a complaint from an individual E Rajendran on the disappearance of the bible from Saraswathi Mahal and a complaint was registered.

As no headway was made in the investigation, Tamil Nadu Idol Wing Director-General of Police K Jayanth Murali, Inspector General of Police R Dhinakaran, and Superintendent of Police B Ravi intensified the investigation. A special team under Inspector of Police Indira was set up to trace the holy book.

A perusal of the visitor’s register revealed that there had been some foreign visitors to the Saraswathi Mahal library on October 7, 2005, the day the Bible went missing. Further inquiries revealed that the visitors had come to India to attend a function to commemorate Bartholomeus Ziegenbalg, a Danish missionary.


Suspecting them, the Wing launched a web search of various museums in the world and collector’s websites and organizations connected with Bartholomeus Ziegenbalg. ”Several days of browsing multiple websites of various museums abroad, we stumbled upon the collection of George III which included thousands of printed books, manuscripts, and pamphlets, most of which are rare,” the Wing said.

Hidden among thousands of books lay the stolen bible. ”The antiquarian Bible that was available on the website of the King’s collection tallied with the picture of the stolen Bible and this was corroborated,” Jayanth Murali said.

”The Idol Wing hopes to retrieve the bible and restore it to the Saraswathi Mahal library under the UNESCO treaty soon,” he said.

The copy of the holy book, given by a Danish missionary to the then Tanjore King Serfoji, is a rare manuscript of the Maharaja. Its value gets further enhanced by the fact that the cover of the book bears the signature of the then King of Tanjore Serfoji. ”All efforts are being made to restore this rare bible to Saraswathi Mahal Library,” he added.

Responding to an appeal from the King of Denmark for missionaries, Bartholomeus Ziegenbalg, born in Saxony in 1682, accompanied by Heinrich Plueshau, arrived at Tranquebar (anglicized form of Tharangambadi), a tiny Danish settlement, close to Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu as the first Protestant missionary in the country in September 1706.

He set up a printing press and published studies of the Tamil language and Indian religion and culture. His translation of the New Testament into Tamil in 1715 and the church building he and his associates constructed in 1718 are still in use today.

He died on February 23, 1719, at the age of 37 and left behind a Tamil translation of the New Testament and Genesis through Ruth, many brief writings in Tamil, two church buildings, the seminary, and 250 baptized Christians.

Another missionary named Schwartz became a close friend and advisor of Tulaji Rajah Serfoji. In commemoration of their friendship, it is said Schwartz handed over the first copy of the new testament, which Ziegenbalg printed and left behind, to Tulaji Rajah Serfoji. After the Tamil Nadu government took over, the book became an exhibit in the Saraswati Mahal library for public viewing.


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