Tranquebar: Dancing waves and a Danish dream

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY walk through India’s only Danish outpost on Tamil Nadu’s Coromandel Coast to see a Scandinavian fort, exotic churches and the first printing press in the country

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At dawn, the sea at Tranquebar had turned into molten gold. We watched tongues of shimmering waves sweep across the empty shore from our balcony at Neemrana’s Bungalow on the Beach. To the left, the crumbling Masilamani Nathar Temple was being slowly reclaimed by the sea. On the right, burnished by the Midas touch of the sun, stood the stolid Dansborg Fort, symbol of a grand dream of kings and queens across continents. A dream that took birth nearly four centuries ago in 1620 when Captain Roland Clippe of the Danish Navy negotiated a 16-point trade treaty on behalf of King Christian IV with Raghunatha Nayak of Thanjavur.

Seduced by visions of prosperity that captured the imagination of faraway Denmark, the small coastal village of Tharangambadi (literally, Land of the Dancing Waves) was transformed into ‘Trankebar’, the only Danish outpost in India. Leased for a princely sum of Rs.3111, the Danes fortified the town and assumed complete control by 1777, eventually selling it to the British for 12.5 lakh rupees in 1845. It wasn’t a bad business deal, but in acceding to the British supremacy over maritime trade, the Danish dream had slipped into the waves…

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Today the sleepy town, a pale shadow of its former self as a bustling fortified port, was the only relic of Danish culture in India. The sort of place that makes you pause, take a deep breath and smile for no apparent reason. Or perhaps, it was because we woke up in Christianus Septimus, a period room named after one of the many Danish ships that sailed to Tranquebar. The large four-poster complemented the wooden floors while ceiling-to-floor curtains billowed gently in the breeze.

Located on the first floor between other quaintly named rooms (Princess Louise and Countess Moltke), a long verandah offered a splendid view of the garden and the seascape. Infused with the old world charm of antique furniture, blue-and-white porcelain and attentive personnel at your beck and call, it was tough to leave the former summer residence of the British collector. But after a hearty breakfast and tall glasses of fresh juice, we were ready for our heritage walk of Tranquebar.

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A herd of goats butted each other playfully by the gate as we stepped into Dansborg Fort. For Rs.50, you can walk in the hallowed precincts of the Danish stronghold that dictated trade in India for around 250 years. Built by Ove Gedde, Commander of the Danish Royal Navy and Tranquebar’s earliest Governor, the fort was a unique specimen of Scandinavian defense architecture. The first floor served as the Governor’s residence while rooms on the lower level were used as godowns, prisons and refuge for soldiers. There were separate rooms for security, arsenal, storage of beer and wine, stables and pigeon coops.

Tucked away in the fort’s central chamber, the Danish Fort Museum was a cache of Danish artefacts, miniature ships, cannons, lists of Danish Governors and ships that docked at Tranquebar, besides a copy of the trade agreement between King Raghunatha Nayak and the Danes. The original 1620 treaty bearing the royal signature in Telugu on a gold foil was part of the International Archives in Copenhagen. Despite being a protected monument, the fort languished for decades after India’s independence and was renovated in 2002 by the Tranquebar Association of Denmark, State Archaeology Department and the ASI nearly 382 years after being built.

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The adjacent Parade Ground was once a venue for ceremonial parades and bazaars. Today, the odd local walks up to tourists to peddle undecipherable metal pieces as ‘Danish coins’. A cross on a stone memorial marked the arrival of the first Lutheran missionaries to India. Ordered by Danish king Frederick IV to spread spiritual and religious service in India, Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg and Heinrich Plütschau landed at Tranquebar on 9 July, 1706. Here Ziegenbalg established India’s first printing press, which published over 300 books in Tamil, including the first Tamil translation of the New Testament in 1715.

Kongensgade or King’s Street was lined by stately buildings and old churches ending at the arched Landsporten or Town Gate. Workers were busy renovating the Governor’s Bungalow, formerly the private residence of Governor David Brown, as it was being converted into a museum. The adjacent Commander’s or Halkier’s House was a Teacher’s Training Institute run by the Tamil Evangelical Lutheran Church. Nearby Zion Church, the oldest Protestant Church in India, consecrated in 1701, symbolized the spread of the Danish population from Dansborg Fort to surrounding areas.

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When the church proved small for the growing Christian community, Ziegenbalg built the New Jerusalem Church in 1718, a marvellous fusion of Indo-German architecture. Stained glass windows above the altar cast rainbow streaks across the tomb of Ziegenbalg. A few gravestones paved the garden while a small lane led us to the old cemetery behind the church on Kavalamettu Street.

We continued on King’s Street past the former home of Danish Governors, Van Theylingen’s House and Rehling’s House, with impressive white pillars. To adapt to Tranquebar’s tropical climate the original pitched roof was replaced by a flat one and a verandah and porch were added. Just beyond Danish engineer Muhldorff’s House was the Gate House, a converted Neemrana heritage hotel set in a beautiful lawn.

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For a surprisingly short distance, it took forever to reach Landsporten, first built in the 1660s. When the old gate crumbled, Governor Peter Anker commissioned Muhldorff to build the present one in 1791. Local autorickshaws, bikes and school children crossed the historic arch, oblivious of its significance.

But Tranquebar had other layers under its Danish exterior – the Perumal Kovil temple, Muslim houses, mosque, dargah and old homes displaying vernacular Danish-Tamil architecture. Getting on to Borgan Street, we crossed Pastor Johann Gründler’s House, who co-authored several books in Tamil with Ziegenbalg. The house functioned as a boys’ hostel while Ziegenbalg Museum Complex with the old printing press was now a school.

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Our heritage walk ended at the INTACH Museum on Goldsmith Street, a complex of five renovated Tamil houses with exhibits and panels by Best Sellers Foundation, INTACH’s renovation efforts and a small art café. The Tranquebar Craft Centre sold bags, terracotta toys, coconut shell curios, key chains, hand-woven baskets and Tsunamika toys that funded tsunami relief projects. The Nayak House nearby had also been renovated into a Neemrana hotel.

As we returned to our bungalow via Queen’s Street, we paused at the gilded statue of Ziegenbalg. Erected during the Tercentenary celebrations of the Tranquebar Mission (1706-2006), a sign encouraged visitors to ‘always be the first’, listing 21 pioneering efforts of the German missionary. He was ‘the first protestant missionary to India, the first royal missionary from Denmark, the first to introduce the printing press, start a paper mill, print a Tamil calendar, translate German hymns into Tamil and Tamil books into German, preach a sermon in Tamil, the first to introduce the free noon meal scheme…’

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Phew! We don’t know whether it was Ziegenbalg’s list of achievements or the magical sunset, but we were left breathless. A lone catamaran bobbed on the waters and a gust of wind blew across Tranquebar’s ozone-rich beach. And we could see why it was so easy to bear roots here forever.

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Nearby: Velankanni Church (43km), Chidambaram Natarajar temple (52km), Kumbakonam (57km) and the French enclave of Pondicherry (120km) are short excursions.

Getting there: Jet Airways flies to Trichy, from where Tranquebar is 145km via SH-22.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the September 2012 issue of JetWings magazine.

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