With its long religious heritage, the coastal city of Visakhapatnam stands as a symbol of culture with deep roots in Hinduism and even Buddhism. Not only is it home to some of the most revered Hindu temples, but the City of Destiny also plays host to the famous Ross Hill Church and the Ishq Madina Dargah and many more. The fact that the Holy Bible was first translated into the Telugu language here in Vizag by a pundit stands as a mirror to the religious diversity of the city. John Castellas, a heritage enthusiast and aficionado, narrates a detailed story of how a Telugu pundit from Vizag translated the Bible during the early 19th century.
Did you know that the first translations of the Bible into Telugu were started in the Vizagapatam Council House or Court House that was on the site that is today’s St John’s CSI Church? And did you know that Ananda Rayer was the Telugu pundit who was key to the translations? The translations were completed at the London Missionary Society (LMS) Mission House (today’s Andhra Baptist Church) and the first Gospels in Telugu were printed in Serampore in 1812.
In the late 1700s, the Council House in Vizagapatam was also the Governor’s House, the court and, on Sundays, the place of religious worship. A Chief (Governor) and a Council governed the factory at Vizagapatam. In the Council House, the East India Company’s officers met for their meals, their consultations, and for divine service. Vizagapatam was a station for European troops from 1759 till 1862. The Company’s Church and local custom was for the Senior Civilian in civil stations, and the commanding officer in military stations, to conduct divine service on Sundays in the absence of the Chaplain for the benefit of the rest of the English community. As a Chaplain was not appointed until 1817, the Judge conducted the services.
A distant illustration of the Council House is from a one-time Danish visitor, the Governor of Tranquebar (Tharangambadi, Tamil Nadu), Peter Anker. He was Governor of Tranquebar 1786-1808 and would have been the Governor’s guest in the two-level Council House.
There was open hostility between the East India Company (EIC) and missionaries whose promotion of Christian values and establishment of orphanages and schools for the masses was seen to be contrary to EIC interests. The Danish at Tranquebar were more encouraging towards Missionaries and it is here that two London Missionary Society missionaries Rev George Cran and Rev Augustus Des Granges first arrive in 1804 on a Danish ship from Copenhagen.
It was on 18 July 1804 that these first English missionaries, Rev Cran and Rev Des Granges, arrived in Vizagapatam having landed in Bimilipatam the day after boarding the ship Addington in Madras. They were cordially received by Judge Robert Alexander (then Zilla Judge of Vizagapatam) and offered temporary accommodation in the Council House (Governor House). On the site of the Council House, today’s St John’s Church was erected. The declared aims of Cran and Des Granges were to preach Christianity and learn Telugu so that they could translate scriptures and preach to the general population.
The Bible was first translated into Telugu (which was also called Waruga or Gentou or Telugoo) by the German missionary Benjamin Schultze (1689-1760). Parts of this translation were lost and the Bible was never printed.
Schultze started translating the New Testament to Telugu in 1726 and finished the book of Genesis in 1728. To print the Telugu Bible, Schultze turned to the Tranquebar press, but in vain. European type cutters found Telugu script too complicated despite Schultze’s repeated instructions. The Royal Library of Copenhagen presently holds 53 Telugu palm-leaf manuscripts of Schultze’s translations and the Francke Foundations Halle holds 162 Telugu palm-leaf manuscripts. The printing of Schultze’s Telugu Bible was programmed at Halle but did not materialise due to the evolution of the mission in Madras.
After finding some temporary accommodation, the Judge introduced the missionaries to the Zamindar in Vizag (Goday Surya Narayana Rao) who, on 26 January 1805, is reported to have donated 4 acres of land near the Petta Gate (town entrance) for the establishment of the mission. It was here that the first Protestant church in Vizag was established and the LMS Mission Chapel built-in 1836 (later sold to the Canadian Baptist Mission and is today the Andhra Baptist Church. The Governor had also agreed to pay them 10 Pagodas per month to preach to the English soldiers using the Court House as their church and the Judge’s Bench as their altar.
Building their Mission, learning Telugu and finding a scholar to teach them the language and assist in translations was still the missionaries’ main quest. Most of the early Brahmin scholars they met were more interested in discussing comparative religious beliefs and offered little assistance. In the meantime, Cran & Des Granges had first started a school within a fortnight of their arrival and taught Telugu children maths, geography and scripture. Their subsequent efforts resulted in starting of an Anglo Vernacular School in 1836, which is still in existence by the name CBM High School on the Main Road in Vizag. For accomplishing the second goal, the missionaries took up learning Telugu and in two years mastered the language but sought a Telugu Pundit to assist with the main translation task.
Coincidentally, one Subba Rayer who was a former member of Tippu Sultan’s army and was on a path to spiritual enlightenment approached the Roman Catholic clergy in Tranquebar. He was a Brahmin scholar who was fluent in Tamil and Telugu. He had endeared himself to some of the Protestant clergy and Tranquebar who, in turn, wrote to Cran and Des Granges recommending him as their Telugu Pundit. Subba Rayer converted to Christianity and changed his name to Ananda Rayer (aka Ananda Rayar or Anandarayer) joining the Mission in Vizagapatam in March 1809. In 1808, George Cran passed away and in 1810 Augustus de Granges too died. Rev Augustus Des Granges is buried in the Old Cemetery located among the crowded backstreets near Kurupam Market.
But Anand Rayer did not lose hope. By that time, three gospels, namely Matthew, Mark, and Luke, had been completed and were ready for printing. He took the manuscripts to William Carey at Seerampore in Bengal, who had by then translated the Bible into Bengali. Though it was only part of the New Testament, the first-ever printed version of the Bible in Telugu was printed in 1812. Later, Rev Edward Pritchett in Vizagapatam joined Ananda Rayer in 1812, and both took up translating the full version of the New Testament. And the first full print of the New Testament in Telugu came out in 1818. The full version was printed in Madras.
The Madras Auxiliary Bible Society discussed some of the difficulties in the Bible translation to Telugu giving examples such as there being no word for “Lamb” and they had to use the phrase “offspring of sheep” and neither was there an adequate word for “Saviour” or “Salvation” with the substitute words commonly used meaning “protector” and “protection” respectively.
To commemorate the contribution made by the Telugu pundit Ananda Rayer, the Bell at London Mission Memorial Church in Vizag is named after him as ‘Ananda Sunadam’ and, in 2018, a marble memorial was unveiled on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the Telugu Bible printing.
There are many heroes throughout human history that we laud for their great accomplishments. Whether we are referring to scientific discovery (Sir Isaac Newton, for example), political change (Mahatma Gandhi), social justice reform (Martin Luther King), or religious expression (Buddha), there are so many more names that have played an integral part in human achievements whose names we may never know. English Church history lauds Rev Cran and Rev Des Granges for their Telugu Bible translation endeavours. But in Vizagapatam, one such unsung hero was Ananda Rayer, the Telugu Pundit who translated the Bible to Telugu and saw it printed for publication.
Should you have an anecdote or history on Vizag, the author would appreciate you contacting him at [email protected]
Written by John Castellas whose family belonged to Vizag for 5 generations. Educated at St Aloysius, migrated to Melbourne, Australia in 1966, former General Manager of Engineering at Boeing & Qantas Airways, in retirement Lecturers in Aviation Management at Swinburne University and is a Vizag aficionado.
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