A forgotten Danish past

A forgotten Danish past

It is a crisp January morning. We are at Tranquebar, a sleepy town nestled in the Coromandel coast, 150 km south of Pondicherry. Tarangambadi, its original name, means the land of the singing waves.

Nearly 400 years ago, a group of Danish sailors happened to land at this picturesque coastal town that had been the domain of the Cholas and the Pandyas between the 10th and 14th century. When they arrived, it was under the reign of the Thanjavur king Vijaya Raghunatha Nayak. The sailors were charmed by the strategic location of the place, which seemed an ideal trading post. In November 1620, Ove Gjedde, the Danish captain, signed a treaty with Ragunath Nayak, on behalf of the Danish king Christian IV.

The treaty allowed the Danish to build a fort and export pepper and other spices to Denmark. They renamed the town Tranquebar and called the fort, Fort Dansborg. The Danes ruled over Tranquebar until 1845, when they sold it to the British. During this period, the place became a major commercial hub when the Danes had trade relations with the Arabs and the Portuguese as well.

Remains of a rule

Incidentally, this windy beach town is the only remaining pocket of Danish culture in India. The whole area has a fascinating feel of washed out old world charm. As it is a small place, we decided to explore it on foot. “Landporten”, as the Town Gate is called in Danish, forms part of the fortifications that were built around Tranquebar in the 1660s. In 1791, the original gate was destroyed and the existing one constructed in its place. Apart from the fort on the seashore, the churches and the old monuments are all reminders of the Danish heritage.

Some of the old houses still retain a touch of Dutch glory. You can almost imagine what the town must have looked like during its hey days, when you look at the stucco walls, pillars, verandahs, carriage porches and arched entrance pillars, which are distinctly Danish.

Along the King Street is a memorial where the Danes had first landed. Three of the churches here are the oldest and most important. We amble across to the pretty, whitewashed New Jerusalem Church, built in 1718, after the arrival of the German missionaries when the existing chapel became too small for the growing Christian population. Bartholomaus Zeigenbalg, a Danish missionary, lies buried in this churchyard.

The Zion Church with its combination of colonial and Indian architecture, also on the same road, was set up in 1701 and is the oldest Protestant church in India. The Danish cemetery in the nearby Kavalamettu Street has the graves of several Danish colonial officers and tradesmen. Then there is the Tamil Evangelical Lutheran Church, particularly popular with tourists.

Best of the beach

Finally, we were at Fort Dansborg, which faces the coast. The construction of this fort started soon after the Danes signed the agreement. It was built by Ove Gjedde with the help of local labourers in Danish style. The fort is the second largest Danish fort after Kronborg, which had inspired Shakespeare’s immortal tragedy Hamlet. Until the end of the 17th century, it was mainly used as a residence and also for storing things. But the subsequent increase in population prompted the people to move out and occupy the surrounding areas.

Though small, the fort offers a lot of interesting reading material and artefacts belonging to the Danish East India Company. These include Porcelain ware, Danish manuscripts, glass objects, Chinese tea jar, steatite lamps, decorated terracotta articles, figurines, lamps, stone sculptures, swords, daggers, spears, figurines made of mortar, Megalithic urn and some Chola period utensils, among others.

There is also the sea-facing Masilamani Nathar Temple, which is said to have been built by King Maravarman Kulasekara Pandian in 1306. Despite the Danish occupation and the wave of conversion that followed, the temple still stands on the shores braving the winds.
But the best part of Tranquebar is its gorgeous beach with its clean, silky sand full of pretty shells, parts of the fort walls that still remain after the 2004 tsunami and the wild, turbulent sea beyond. What we like best is the fact that there are very few tourists and no inevitable garbage or clutter caused by crowds.

We are told that the best place to have a meal/stay overnight is a resort known as Bungalow on the Beach, run jointly by Neemrana and Tamil Nadu tourism. The best part of the resort is its view of the beach with the Masilamani Nathar Temple on the left and the fort on the right. The cool and refreshing breeze soon drove off the feel of exhaustion and made us look forward to a really decent lunch.

We returned to the beach once more and found a place to sit on one of the broken walls. We stayed until twilight to watch the gorgeous sunset before driving back to Pondicherry.