’Art & soul
Early printing in India

There were objections when religious texts were first printed in the 19th century, says
B. N. Goswamy

Title cover of the work, Jugal Phag, by Pandit Rangilal Sharma. Printed at Benares; late 19th century
Title cover of the work, Jugal Phag, by Pandit Rangilal Sharma. Printed at Benares; late 19th century

Consider this description (quaint spellings, upper cases, and all) of an Indian palm-leaf manuscript by a European:

As for the Outside of these books they are of a quite different Dress from those in Europe. There is neither Paper nor Leather, neither Ink nor Pen made by the Natives at all, but the Characters are by Iron Tools impressed on a sort of Leaves of a Certain Tree, which is much like a Palm-tree. At the end of every Leaf a Hole is made, and through the Hole a String drawn, whereby the whole Sett of Leaves is kept together, but then they must be untied or loosened, whenever the Prints of these Characters shall appear and be read.

The words are those of Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg, the first Protestant missionary who came to India — as different from the Jesuits who were here much earlier — in 1706, devoted himself to first learn the language of the ‘natives’, in this case Tamil, and hoped then to convert many of them to Christianity. As he sat down with Tamil pandits day after day at Tranquebar, then a Danish settlement, he kept observing wide-eyed all that was around him: the people, their manners and customs, above all their manuscripts, some of which he started collecting, for in them lay all the learning that he wished to challenge or subvert. He harboured great plans to bring about a change, mostly with the aid of a printing press that he requested a Christian Society in England to send to him, along with 100 reams of paper on which he wanted to print Christian tract. He made limited headway.

But why, or how, do I come to Ziegenbalg? Essentially, because I was looking at the early history of the printing press in India. A former colleague from the San Diego Museum of Art, who is working now in her native Italy, sent me a query: which and where was the earliest sacred text of Hinduism ever printed? The question sent me off on a hunt. While searching, I came upon snippets of interesting facts. I learnt, for instance, that the first printing press in India — one speaks here naturally of the technology employing moveable type — came to Goa in 1556, and that by accident. The Portuguese had settled here, and it appears that a ship carrying a printing press from Portugal and heading towards Abysinnia, accompanied by some technicians and a high church dignitary, had to land in Goa. There, for some reasons, the dignitary was detained. Neither he nor the printing press was allowed to leave Goa. On that press, the first Christian tract, authored by St Francis Xavier, was printed. The year was 1556: the same year in which emperor Akbar came to occupy the throne of India. I also learnt that the first types of Devanagari characters were cast soon after, also in Goa, but it was the Roman script that was preferred by the missionaries, even for printing their texts in the local language. A long time was to go by before any of the Indian scripts came into wide use in printing.

On other counts, I had known that, close to the year 1800, the establishment of the Baptist Mission Press at Serampore in Bengal by three missionaries, including William Carey, is generally considered a benchmark in the history of the printing press in India. For it was from that press that so many celebrated works, initially nearly all in English, flowed. However, when some enterprising Indians decided to print texts in Indian languages and scripts, they had to tread most cautiously.

The story that when a printing press ordered by William Carey arrived, many Indians took the strange new contraption to be an idol that the Europeans worshipped, might have to be discounted a bit. But it is documented that when a Bengali version of the sacred text, the Srimadbhagavata, was printed by an Indian group in 1830, they had to declare and assure their readers that the compositors had all been Brahmins, and that only the holy water of the Ganga had been used in the making of the printing ink. Orthodox objections were not limited, it seems, to Bengal alone: there are accounts from elsewhere, including Maharashtra, that speak of strong reservations about, if not active opposition to, sacred texts being printed by unknown, and therefore suspect persons on strange and suspect, contraptions.

The story is long and absorbing. There are accounts of a gifted Bengali blacksmith, Panchanan, who established in the late 18th century a foundry for casting types and fonts in almost all the scripts of the East; it is recorded that in 1760 Sir Eyre Coote, the English general, brought as ‘booty of war’ a printing press from Pondicherry after defeating the French in a battle; English-Tamil and English-Bengali dictionaries are known to have been printed around 1780. But it was not till the middle of the 19th century that printing presses truly entered the lives of Indians. For around that time a host of them came up: chhapakhanas and mudranalays and matba’a-s, and the like.

Long lists have been compiled of the presses that mushroomed all over India, and names like Munshi Nawal Kishore’s press in Lucknow, the Nirnaya Sagar and the Venkateshwara Presses of Bombay, the Bellary Press of Karnataka, the Sikandra Press of Agra, the Safeer-i Hind press of Amritsar, were soon household names. An incredible amount started being printed. In terms of books alone, the range stretched from the classic Dastan-i Amir Hamzah to strictly popular, but now long forgotten, booklets like the Jugal Phag — two compositions in Ganga-Jamni verse, combining Hindi and Urdu, and celebrating the festival of Holi — the block-printed title cover of which accompanies this piece. This Jugal Phag, authored by Pandit Rangilal Sharma of Mathura, as the title page runs, was printed at Kashi by Lala Shyam Lal apparently at the request (hasb-i farmayish) of the author himself.

How one wishes that more than the title page of this Jugal Phag had survived: there might have been hidden delights within. But, on my part, I am still trying to identify and locate the first sacred text of Hinduism that was ever printed.