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Tranquebar land of the singing waves

Tranquebar land of the singing waves
When the travel bug bites, it shows its effect on me immediately or maybe later. From the time I first heard its name about four years back, I was planning to visit this small, almost forgotten Danish colony of yesteryears with the most romantic name I ever heard. Tharangambadi or Tranquebar in Danish, means “Land of the Singing Waves”. Located in Nagapattinam district of Tamilnadu, near the mouth of a distributary of river Kaveri, it was a Danish colony from 1620 to 1845. Tranquebar is located off the main road along the Coromandel Coast at a distance of 270 km from Chennai. The town is a cultural concoction that has been brewing over hundreds of years, a beautiful mix of languages, cultures, races and religions. Two centuries of Danish heritage have left important cultural and architectural imprints which can be seen in colonial houses, churches, cemeteries, and most particularly, the Dansborg military fort. Tranquebar was gravely affected by the devastation caused by the Tsunami in 2004. Private organisations and the government came together for its 
restoration, and today this demure town is in the spotlight again.

This small town finds a place in the 14th century inscription by the name ‘Sadanganpade’. Before the Danish, it was ruled by Cholas and the Pandyas between the 10th and 14th century. In the 15th century, it was ruled by Thanjavur king Vijaya Raghunatha Nayak. 

History reveals that Danish explorers on a sea voyage happened to visit the serene seashore and thought it an excellent place to trade. The Danes approached King Raghuntha Nayak and a settlement was set aside for their trading. The visitors were enthused by the favourable treatment accorded them by the Indian King, and the fruitful relationship was formalised as the Indo-Danish pact during the King’s reign. Amazingly, Rs 3,111 per year was the price that King Nayak received to rent out Tranquebar to the Danish. During this time, Tranquebar became a major commercial hub and did trade with the Arabs and the Portuguese.

With India’s independence in 1947, Dansborg fort became a protected monument. The State Archeological department of Tamilnadu maintains the fort, inside which a museum displays artefacts of Danish and Indian origin. On a sultry August afternoon, I started off from Chennai for a three-day trip in which Tranquebar was my second destination. Due to heavy outbound traffic from Chennai, my drive to Chidambaram took two extra hours. After Chidambaram, my next destination was Tranquebar, about 50 km away, which took one and half hour’s drive to reach. Masilamani Nathar (Shiva) temple on the beach, built in 1306 on land given by Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan, is the oldest monument in Tranquebar.

It was restored after the Tsunami. Despite the Danish occupation and the ensuing conversion of swathes of population in the coastal village, the temple still stands on the shores braving the winds, in a quiet gesture of religious harmony. The town also has a mosque and processions led by 
different faiths are quite common. 

In 1620, when the Danish came, Danish admiral Ove Gjedde felt the place had great potential and built the Dansborg fort. But a Jesuit Catholic church was already in place before that, catering to the Indo-Portuguese community. The Catholic church was probably demolished to build the fort. The fort was the residence and headquarters of the governor and other officials for about 150 years. 

Among the first Protestant missionaries to set foot in India were two Lutherans from Germany, Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg and Heinrich Pluetschau, who began work in 1705 in Tranquebar. Ziegenbalg translated the Old and New Testaments into Tamil, imported India’s very first printing press, and printed the New Testament in Tamil in 1714, considered the first book to be ever printed in India. They were forced to learn broken Portuguese, the lingua franca between Indians and Europeans at the time, and later on translated the Bible into the local Tamil language. They also established a printing press, which within a hundred years of its establishment in 1712 had printed 300 books in Tamil. At first they made little progress in their religious efforts, but gradually the mission spread to Madras, Cuddalore and Tanjore. Today bishop of Tranquebar is the official title of a bishop in the Tamil Evangelical Lutheran Church (TELC), founded in 1919. A unique festival which is confined only to Tranquebar is the anniversary of Lord Ziegenbalg (14th January), on the same day as Pongal. On this day, people of every faith, including the Printers’ Association come together for a procession and feast.

Entry to this town is through an impressive two hundred year old Town Gate built in Danish style in the 1660s as part of the fortifications. Tranquebar conserves many other reminders of Danish heritage, most of them colonial houses scattered around Kongensgade (or King Street), the main street of Tranquebar. Homes with thick stucco walls, massive pillars supporting classical pediments, verandahs on second storeys, carriages porches, statuary, etc attest to this heritage. As soon as you cross the ‘Landporten’ as the Town Gate is called in Danish, a transformation happens. You enter the town of the Singing Waves, where the walls stand mute testimony to the struggle between colonial powers to gain control of the lucrative spice trade in India. 

King Street, the road to the town, winds past some beautiful historical buildings like Zion Church, New Jerusalem Church, and Old Danish Cemetery, and leads you to the most remarkable legacy of Danish architecture, the famous Dansborg (Stone house) Fort. On a clear day, the fort and its backdrop of azure blue sky provide excellent photo-ops. Its construction started in 1620 and it’s been reconstructed several times. The rampart wall is a fairly large four sided structure, with bastions at each cardinal point. A single storied building was constructed along three inner sides of the rampart, with barracks, warehouse, kitchen and jail. The rooms on the southern side remain in good condition, but the rooms on the western and northern sides have been substantially damaged. On the eastern side of the fort, there was a two storied building facing the sea. It was the main building of the fort. 

The vaulted lower storey served as a magazine and a warehouse, while the vaulted upper storey contained the church and the lodging of the governor, the senior merchants and the chaplain. The sea on the eastern and western side protected the fort.The fort was surrounded by a moat, access to the fort being over a drawbridge. The moat has completely disappeared. The fort’s museum displays antiquities connected with the colonial period and Danish settlement, including porcelain ware, Danish manuscripts, glass objects, Chinese tea jars, steatite lamps, decorated terracotta objects, figurines, lamps, stones, sculptures, swords, daggers, spears, sudai (stucco) figurines, wooden objects, part of a whale skeleton and small cannonballs.

The Zion church in Tranquebar was sanctified in 1701, and is the oldest Protestant church in India. You can still attend services in this church. In 1718, The New Jerusalem Church was constructed. Moravian Brethren missionaries from Herrnhut, Saxony, established the Brethren’s Garden at Porayar near Tranquebar and operated it as a missionary centre for a number of years. An Italian Catholic Father Constanzo Beschi, who worked in the colony from 1711 to 1740, found himself in conflict with the Lutheran pioneers at Tranquebar, against whom he wrote several polemical works.
Tranquebar came under the control of the British in February 1808, during the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, but was restored to Denmark following the Treaty of Kiel in 1814. Along with the other Danish settlements in India (Serampore and the Nicobars), the Danes eventually sold the entire Tranquebar area to the British for a sum of Rs 12,500,000. Tranquebar was then still a busy port, but it later lost its importance after a railway line was opened to Nagapattinam.

Steeped in cultural history and architecture, Tharangambadi, as the locals call it, is home to as many as 33 heritage buildings of which at least two – The Bungalow on the Beach and The Gate House – provide heritage accommodation. 

As an avid architecture photographer, I was thrilled to walk through King’s Street with all the magnificent buildings lining both sides of the street. It was like getting into a time machine to the 17th Century.

One important establishment in Tranquebar is the Old Danish Cemetery on Kavalamettu Street. It is a small cemetery that holds the whitewashed graves of several Danish colonial officials and tradesmen, a compound with a locked gate and poignantly inscribed headstones standing forlornly on a 
barren patch. 

The Ziegenbalg Museum Complex on Admiral Street has a very interesting sign, “First Printing Press” though this was originally housed in on King’s Street. Rehling’s House, one of the stateliest buildings in King’s Street, can be traced to the first half of the 18th century.

The second storey was added in the second half of the century; the portico, around the turn of 
the century. The aquamarine waters, long sand beaches, streets lined with quaint, colourfully painted old homes and red bougainvillea-sprouting gardens made my trip more worthwhile than I ever thought.
Suprakash Ghosh

Suprakash Ghosh

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