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Tryst with the coast­­

Lakshmi Sharath, Feb 2, 2013

Uncovering the past

REmnants of the glorious past (Clockwise from top) View from Kuthiraivetti (Photo by author); Dansborg Fort , Tharangambadi (Tranquebar); Alamparai Fort, Kadapakkam; the ancient Pallava port of Mahabalipuram.

Lakshmi Sharath traverses down the Coromandel coastline, unearthing nuggets of history that the dusty fishing hamlets held within them, buried by the sands of time.

The smell of the sea lures me. The waves tell a tale of their own. Dripping with foam, they gather around my feet as my toes snuggle into the sand, refusing to let go. It is early morning and the sun is yet to keep its appointment with the horizon. The fishermen are out at sea, their boats gently tossed by the waves. A thin streak of pink appears on the horizon, but it remains just a streak, even as the day breaks. I stand on the edge of the shore and watch a pair of juvenile brahminy kites dive into the sea. They miss their catch, but they continue to scoop down into the waters until they succeed.

Elsewhere, the echo of laughter drowns the rhythm of the waves. The silent shore suddenly transforms into a bustling market. The fisher folk arrive, brightly clad with a variety of catch. The women carry their baskets while the men drag their trawlers ashore and fold their nets. The boats bob on the surface as the women display their fares. It is business as usual. I catch snippets of gossip. Their loud voices, pierced with laughter, cuts through the silence. The women try to sell me the crabs and prawns, but I walk away towards the backwaters close-by, where the nets are still cast by the fishermen. A pied kingfisher looks down from the branch, scanning the surface for fish. I lose myself in the crowds and carry on with my journey.


It has always been my dream to traverse down the Coromandel coastline and lose myself in dusty fishing hamlets. Each village seems to clone the other, yet their shores narrate stories that have been buried by the sands of time. They have their little secrets, their own personal histories as they once wore a cloak of a different identity. These villages were erstwhile thriving ports of powerful Indian kingdoms or bustling settlements of European traders, but are lost today in a maze of huts and fields overlooking the shores. While some have become popular tourist spots, a lot remain hidden behind the garb of a simple fishing village. My tryst with the Coromandel coast begins with the quest for these lost pieces of history.

It has been a long journey to Tranquebar from Chennai as we drive along the coast towards Mahabalipuram. History says that a sandy stretch was leased over to the British by the local Nayaks centuries ago. The fort grew into a settlement and later into the bustling metropolis as we see it today. Driving along the Marina Beach, I discover pockets of more settlements as the Portuguese had arrived at Santhome long before the British had landed on these shores.

It is not just Chennai, but the entire coast of Tamil Nadu that seemed to have beckoned traders from various parts of Europe. The Portuguese, the Dutch, the French, the Danes and the British have all left their footprints behind in forts, lighthouses, churches, cemeteries and mansions that are hidden along the coastline.

The East Coast Road rushes past stretches of blue and green as the casuarina groves interrupt the ocean view. We buzz past the ancient Pallava port of Mahabalipuram and drive down towards Kalpakkam, the centre of atomic research near Chennai. My first destination was an erstwhile battlefield.

They say the power of imagination can recreate anything. However, it took me a while to imagine that a quiet fishing village with a handful of shops could be anything close to a battlefield. The seas were then choppy and filled with fleets which fought each other. I am in Sadras or Sadarangapatinam, looking at a restored 17th century Dutch fortress and a cemetery that tell the story of the Battle of Sadras, fought between the fleets of the British with the French and the Dutch. An inconclusive battle, the wars were an aftermath of the 18th century European politics set against the American War of Independence. The canons, a watch tower, the warehouses and the tombs at the cemetery are the possible reminders that this was once a centre of power.

Date with history

Sadras, however, has a history that even dates earlier to the Chola feudatories and later on was ruled by the Vijaynagar empire. A weaving centre, it is known for muslin which was exported to Europe. The watchman shows me around the Dutch cemetery. The tunnels which used to open into the sea are now closed. But one of the enclosures seems to have a huge gaping hole, where the central structure has collapsed. I climb up the roof and listen to the roar of the sea. As I leave Sadras behind, images of skeletons from the graves play in my mind.

Back on the road, we take a detour from the village of Kadapakkam and enter the portals of another port lost amidst the ruins, located right next to the seashore. Bordered by coconut trees, the backwaters look inviting. A few boats lie scattered. Coconut and palm groves shelter the broken bricks as the rubbles resonate with the glory of the past.
We are at the 17th century Alamparai Fort that was ruled by the Nawab of Carnatic and was later on gifted to the French for their support. The British eventually destroyed the fort and the dockyard which was more than 100 metres long.

The seaport was used for trade by the Arcot Nawabs and zari, salt and ghee were exported from here. Coins were minted from here as well and later on the mint was shifted to neighbouring Pondicherry. A rusted ASI board mentioned that the mint built on a highway near Alamparai here even housed a Shiva temple, a choultry and a pond, and was built for the benefit of travellers coming down this route towards Rameshwaram.
The sun gets kinder as we drive towards what is left of French India in Pondicherry. The smell of the salt however makes us pause at Marrakkanam. The entire stretch is filled with heaps as a group of workers extract the salt.

The French connection with Pondicherry is often waxed eloquent by tourists. But not many speak of the Portuguese, Danish and Dutch who have all laid claim to this port which was another centre of trade. Eventually, the French, though defeated by Dutch, bought it from them for 16,000 pagodas. Pondicherry, or Poudoucheri as it was called, became the capital of French India. On the streets they speak French, the clock in the tourist centre shows the time in France, the policeman in his tall hat looks out of the French era, and the streets and guest houses have French names.

Touch of the latest

Walking along the beach in the old French town, the statue of Dupleix looks down at me. At the other end is a Gandhi statue surrounded by ancient pillars. “There was once a jetty here, even a railway line with a wagon car,” says Ashok Panda, co-convenor of INTACH, as we walk along the colourful streets painted in pink and yellow. He points to some of the old warehouses that are still around, although some of them seem to have found a new lease of life as shops and restaurants.

The traffic shakes us out of our reverie as we continue towards Cuddalore, an ancient port which wears the mask of an industrial town. We drive past the old town that boasts of a Roman connection. But Cuddalore, controlled by the British, was the foundation of the East India Company in many ways. Battles have been fought between the arch rivals here on the sea here. We skim through layers of history and learn that Fort St David, an erstwhile fort on the banks of River Gadilam, was the headquarters of the British before Fort St George in Chennai took over. It was under the control of the Marathas and it was later on bought over by the British. The story goes that the purchase was decided based on a shot from a gun. The area which came under the range of the cannon included the entire town, and Cuddalore became a British settlement.

I drive to the ancient port that wears the mask of an industrial town. The old harbour still has warehouses from the colonial era. I cross River Gadilam and the bridge takes me to a bustling fishing village where the fish is transported from the barges to trucks. But I still find no sign of Fort St David, until a local directs me towards the beach. There is no sign of habitation, but for an old ruined bungalow located in a vast open space surrounded by dense vegetation. A small plaque on the gate announces that it is the old fort. A family living opposite informs me that they are the caretakers as the building is now under Arcot Lutheran Church. Water flows alongside the walls of the bungalow, like a moat, as I walk around it. The caretaker tells me that the tunnels are closed. A white grave stands in the middle of nowhere.

We move on as cannons echo in our ears as we take another detour to enter a crowded town. “This is where the parangis stayed, so it is called Parangipettai,” says a school teacher with whom we have a cup of tea at a local stall. In Tamil, Europeans are called parangis, but this small port is a trade centre for the Arabs and the Yemenis. Parangipettai, or Porto Novo as it was called by the Portuguese, was also colonised by the Dutch and English. I couldn’t find any ruins here, but I heard that the Nawab of Arcot minted the Porto Novo Pagoda, the gold coins, from here. I am finally on my way to Tranquebar or Tharangambadi.

The breeze lifts our spirits. The roads get narrower as we finally get to hear the music from the sea shore. Tharangambadi means just that — the town of the singing waves. And as we walk towards the waters, the lilting tune haunts us. The waves gently stroke the rocks which seem to be a remnant of an old wall. The beach is littered with colourful boats. The nets are scattered as kids run around. A big Indian family jumps on to a boat and takes pictures, while a few enjoy a swim. Couples stroll around as I watch the skies come alive with the evening colours.

Tharangambadi, or Tranquebar (Trankebar) as this Danish settlement was called, found its way in the history map in the 17th century when the Danish East India company built Fort Dansborg. It was in 1620, a Danish fleet landed here and the captain identified it as a strategic trading centre. The village was then ruled by the Nayaks from Thanjavur. A deal was struck between the king, Vijaya Raghunatha, and the Danish admiral, Ove Gjedde. A small strip of an insignificant fishing hamlet was leased from the king for an annual rent of Rs 3,111, and Trankebar was created with the Dansborg Fort built right in the centre of it. While the Danes traded in spices and silks, it was finally sold to the British for Rs 12.5 lakh in 1845.

Today the fort, with a Scandinavian feel about it, opens out into the sea and is now a museum that tells the story of a busy port which has now become a windblown village.
When we enter the portals through the ‘Landporten’ or the town gate, we walk into a past that has a washed out charm. The gateway sports the Danish Royal seal and leads us through a row of colonial bungalows and ancient churches. The streets still sport their old names — King’s Street, Queen’s Street, Admiral’s Street and the Goldsmith’s Street. Restoring the streets and the bungalows and houses is INTACH, which also runs a crafts shop here. There is the Gate House and the Nayak House, sporting an old world charm.
I walk into the erstwhile home of the Danish Governor which is being restored as a museum and library. Elsewhere inside the town is the Maritime museum in a thatched hut, showcasing the life of the fishermen.

Moving on

Along the shore is the ravaged Masilamani Nathar temple, the oldest monument that has survived in Tranquebar. An inscription says that this partially eroded temple was built on a land granted by King Maravarman Kulasekara Pandian in 1306. The village was then referred to as Kulashekarapattinam or Thayangambadi.

In the middle of the beach is a small cross that commemorates the visit of German missionaries Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg and Heinrich Pluetschau, who were apparently invited here by the Danes. Tranquebar seems to owe much of its development to them rather than to the traders. “Ziegenbalg was not even treated properly by the Danes here, but he studied Tamil, translated the Bible into English, built churches and a printing press here,” narrates a school teacher. Tranquebar still proudly presents his house and school, which are getting restored as well.

I walk back to the beach and wade in the waters. Dripping with foam, they gather around my feet as my toes snuggle into the sand, refusing to let go. Sipping a cup of ginger tea, I sit on the rocks as the melody from the waves reach a crescendo. It is almost like a haunting tune from the past. As I pen my travel diary, the little snippets of history from these forgotten ports play in my mind. The passage of time may have eroded their identity and they may have slowly faded away from the political maps, but the glory of these long lost towns will probably never fade away. It is hidden, waiting to be discovered...

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