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Saint Thomas, one of the 12 disciples of Jesus at the ancient seaport Muziris (present day Kodungalloor) on the Kerala coast in AD 52. It is the third-most practised religion constituting 18% of the population according to the Indian census. Although a minority, the Christian population in this SW Indian state is proportionally much higher than that of India as a whole and they are quite visible and play an active role in nation building. It was only a few centuries ago, translations of The Bible into Malayalam were available to the Christians here. The translation work on The Bible into the native tongue was invariably done by the foreign missionaries like Benjamin Bailey ( 1791 -1871 and Rev. Dr. Hermann Gundert
(1814 – 1893. Yet another German missionary made a solid contribution to Bible translation and and made a name. He is none other than Volbrecht Nagel, who took to Christian preaching in his very young age.
Can you imagine, during the colonial period under the British crown, a German missionary in Kerala took keen interest in Malayalam, the local language spoken there and did pioneering work in that language and made a mark in the development of that language? His work was mostly related to Christian prayers and translation of The Bible into Malayalam. Volbrecht Nagel (1867–1921) came to the town of Cannanore in 1893 as an ordained missionary to preach Christan faith to the natives there.
Nagel's work was to head the Basel Mission center in Vaniankulam and manage the mission school and the small scale industry being run by the mission. His idea of managing an independent ministry was his dream, but here it did not materialize. A chance encounter with a native man gave him inspiration to act on his own and stay at Kunnamkulam instead of Vaniankulam that had a long history of Christianity. On his own, he carried on his evangelical and humanitarian ministry in Kerala
Born on 3 November 1867 in Hesse, Germany in a religious family, at an early age of 18 Nigel became a preacher. He lost his parents, who were saddlers, when he was very young. He attended the school briefly and gained knowledge only through self-study as he could not afford college education. The inspiration came from a cobbler - turned preacher who enlightened the people, explaining Christ;s Gospel of love. He was born again and decided to dedicate his life to the service of Christ. Resolved to become a missionary, he, in 1886, joined the Basel Mission Training Institute in Switzerland and graduated in 1892. In 1893, he was ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Mission. This membership allowed him to preach the Christ's Gospel of love any where in the world.
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Realizing the importance learning the local language to move closely with the natives, and be familiar with their tradition and culture, he learned Malayalam well enough to communicate with the local community and be at ease with them. Being a German, not only did he gain the spoken and writing ability, but also undertook in depth studies in Malayalam. His flair for the languages stood him in good stead and the local Christian community loved him and his his real interest in the native culture. He mastered Malayalam so well to the level of translating the German Bible hymns in Malayalam.
Nagel wrote a book called Christian Baptism in
1898. He also wrote many songs and hymns in Malayalam that are being widely used today in church services by Kerala Christians regardless of their denominations. Thus, a German missionary from a humble family with no college education, became a household name among the Malayalee Christians who still hold him in great esteem. Natives used to call him "Nagel Saipu". Scholars in Malayalam acknowledge his valuable contribution to the early growth of Malayalam in the realm of Christian faith.
In 1906, began his social work as part of his missionary duty with the start of an orphanage for girls and a home for widows at Nellikunnu near Thrissur. This was in tune with an old adage "Service to people is service to God". The charitable institutions were of great help to those widows and orphans who were not well taken care of by the various communities then. The institution was called Rehoboth and, now, it has several homes catering to the unfortunate ones.
In 1914, when he was 47 years old, Nagel's plan to make a trip to England regarding his children's education, then to Germany and later return to Kerala within six months, ran into headwinds because of intervention of World War I. Being a German, he could not enter British administered Malabar. As WWI intensified, he moved over to Switzerland. His wife Harriet and three children were back in Malabar Coast, while the two older children were in England.
While teaching at Weidenest Bible School, Nagel had a stroke and and was bedridden for sometime. He died on 12 May 1921 and was buried there. He was just 57. Mrs. Harriet was with him in his last hours of suffering and pain. Among his translations in Malayalam, the following one is worthy of mention:
Samayamam rathathil njaan swerga yathra cheyyunnu ... (In the chariot of time I am on my homeward journey ...) - Death.
Among his many translations in Malayalam, the following are quite soul-stirring and they bring out the essence of devotion to God.
........ "Papakadam theerkuvan ... (What can wash away my sins) by Robert Lowry
....... "Yeshuvil en thozhane kande" (I have found a friend in Jesus) Charles.W.Fry