Documented history refers to Vocabulario Tamulico com a significa am Portugueza compiled by Antão da Proença printed in Goa in 1679 as the oldest Tamizh–Portuguese dictionary. Constanzo Giuseppe Beschi (Viramãmunivar; Constantine Joseph Beschi 1680–1747) also compiled the Tamizh–Latin, Latin–Tamizh–Portuguese, and Tamizh–French dictionaries. The key contribution of Beschi was the Tamizh–Tamizh çatur-agarãti (a four-way lexicon), which included words, synonyms, categories of words, and rhymes. Beschi’s çatur-agarãti was constructed on a mixed design: the general layout was similar to that of a Tamizh nikandu, whereas the contents conformed to the style followed in European language dictionaries, viz., alphabetization and in prose style. Due to various reasons, Beschi’s çatur-agarãti remained a manuscript until 1824, after which it underwent several printed editions.
Because Tamizh was the first south-Asian language to develop printing capability, Madras commenced printing of books earlier than the other three major Indian cities.
Thanks to the efforts of Benjamin Schultze (the author of Grammatica Telugica and Grammatica Hindostanica), a printing press enabled with Tamizh and Telugu typefaces came to exist in Tarangampãdi (Tranquebar) in 1713. After moving to Madras, Schultze organised the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (SPCK) in Vepery (the Vepery Mission) — a little ‘outside’ of then Madras. The English army commanded by Sir Eyre Coote attacked Pondichéry in 1761 and acquired the printing press at the Governor’s house along with typefaces and the French printer, Charles Delon. SPCK convinced Sir Eyre to hand over the printing press and the typefaces (and Charles Delon, as well) to them on an agreement that any printing requirement from Fort St George would take precedence in work over those of the Vepery Mission. In 1762, the SPCK issued a calendar, followed by several Tamizh books, pre-dating the books printed in Calcutta and Bombay at least by a decade.
By 1766, the Vepery Mission acquired its own press enabled with printing gadgets. Therefore, the press and typefaces acquired from Pondichéry, given by Sir Eyre, were returned to Fort St George, which led to the establishment of the Government Press in Mount Road. The Vepery Press became the SPCK Press, managed by Johann Philipp Fabricius, who prepared and printed a slim Tamizh book on catechism in 1766 with Tamizh typefaces cut in Halle, Germany. By the 1770s, the SPCK Press cut its own typefaces and using them, the SPCK Press printed and published Fabricius’s translation of the New Testament (1772), his Dictionary of Tamil and English, based on Tranquebars’ Malabar English Dictionary (1779), and Oru parateçiyin punyaçaritram (a translation of John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress; 1793). Notable is that Fabricius’s Tamizh–English dictionary appeared exactly 100 years later to Antão da Proença’s Tamizh–Portuguese dictionary. In the mid-nineteenth century this press was sold to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (the American Board Mission [ABM]) in Çintadaripet. With ABM’s withdrawal from India in 1866, the press was secured back by the SPCK–Diocesan committee and the name of the press changed to the Diocesan Press, which continues today as CLS Press.
Myron (Miron-?) Winslow’s A comprehensive Tamil and English dictionary of high and low Tamil appeared in 1862, printed at the American Mission Press, which included 67,452 words. Winslow marked c. 3000 words as ‘provincial’ and explained the term to mean that those words were peculiar to Tamizh used in Jaffna.
Madras takes the credit for the first Hebrew book printed in India (the New Testament in Hebrew) edited and printed by Thomas Jarrett in 1817, issued for the use of the English mission. The types were cut by an Indian Jew (identity unknown), and the proofs were corrected by an European Jew in Cochin. This context refers to the first-known involvement of an Indian Jew with Hebrew printing in India. A Hebrew edition of catechism was also published by the English missionaries in Madras, again under the editorship of Thomas Jarrett.
Entitled Sefer Hinukh behire y-h (literally translating into Education book for fearing of God), this is Calvin’s catechism as translated into Hebrew by the sixteenth century grammarian John Immanuel Tremellius.
This book was for a time considered the first original Hebrew composition printed in India, although not by an Indian Jew, nor written in India, but only a translation.For those interested further in this topic, please read Stuart Blackburn’s Print, folklore, and nationalism in colonial south India (2003) published by Universities Press (India) Limited, Hyderabad, which includes a list of Tamizh books printed in Madras between 1800 and 1830, in addition to many other fascinating details.