I franctically tried to explain to the conductor and driver that we had come past the turn of Tharangambadi and that it was better that they drop me on the highway itself. I told them I will hitch a ride with some local and get to Tharangambadi (local Tamil name for Tranquebar). Even with the language barrier, they had understood their mistake but in the attempt of correcting this error they made an even more grave error and continued till Karaikal. I was flabbergasted and the three other passengers in the bus joined in the shouting spree. In the end, I was put on another bus from Karaikal with a request to the driver to drop me at the turn for Tharangambadi on the highway.
Thus began my day trip to Tranquebar! I was staying in a cute little hut in Auroville and after the bright French façades of Pondicherry, it was time to explore the little known Danish history with India. I had heard of Tranquebar long long ago and remember visualising it as a fairytale place with a fancy bar! (Ha ha, so much for imagination.)
I’d driven my rented scooter from Auroville to the bus stand in Pondicherry and parked it there for a measly 8 Rupees for the entire day! The next step was finding a bus that would go to Tharangambadi or even Tanjore (Thanjavur) via the East Coast Road. My joy knew no bounds when the first bus conductor I asked replied yes for Tharangambadi. Since there was time for the bus to leave, the driver and conductor said I can have breakfast. 20 Rupees brought me idli, vada and sambhar, chutney on a banana leaf and my heart sang with delight!
I was quickly brought down to earth with a thud when I couldn’t find the bus. Even after asking at the enquiry, there was no proper answer. Dismayed at the loss of a handkerchief, I sought about finding another bus and sat in one bound for Karaikal. In hindsight, I was happy to not have listened to the driver-conductor duo who wanted me to leave my bag in the bus to reserve a seat. There were very few passengers in the bus and we roared along the ECR highway (East Coast Road). The ECR is a pretty road and is never too far from the coast, ensuring fresh air from the sea and scintillating views.
When I was finally at the turn off to Tharangambadi, it was around noon and the harsh sun made me feel as if I would faint. A huge banner with a torn signboard signalled that all the attractions of the Danish colony were close to each other. I asked some locals and started walking towards the Dansborg Fort.
Even the 100m amble in the sun had drained me of all energy and I asked an auto guy if he would be interested in showing me all the sights of Tranquebar. He was an amazing fellow and asked for only 100 Rupees, even though I had told him that I would like to take it slow and spend time at places. In fact, he even suggested that Tranquebar is so tiny, that the best method of seeing all the Danish attractions and historical sights is on foot.
Introduction to Tranquebar – Trankebar – Tharangambadi
Apparently, the name Tharangambadi itself means ‘the land of singing waves’, which is very apt for the village because of the constant sound of the sea that provides background music throughout the streets of Tranquebar. As per popular legend, Tranquebar was a name coined by the Scandinavians because they had huge difficulty in pronouncing Tharangambadi. This quaint seaside town on the Coromandel post was once the trading post of the Danish East India Company.
A large part of Tranquebar village was damaged due to the tsunami in 2004. With the help of Tamil Nadu State Archeological Department and the Royal Danish family, the Danish Tranquebar Association has managed to restore some parts of Tranquebar.
But the sun doesn’t generally agree with me and Wroom… went the auto and took a left turn.
I was instantly enamoured by the aquamarine waters juxtaposed against picture perfect beaches, quaint streets lined with colourfully-painted old homes and the feeling of time having stood still for centuries. And while it is normal to have this sort of feeling in so many places; the fact that this was an erstwhile Danish colony for more than 220 years only accentuated the pleasure.
Here I list down the places and attractions to visit in tiny Tranquebar; so that this post also doubles up as a Travel Guide for interested folks who want to visit this former Danish colony.
Gateway to Tranquebar
In front of us was a huge gateway in white; it was also called the gateway to Tranquebar. The year ‘Anno 1792’ has been inscribed on the top of the gateway and it is the start of the King’s Street. In Danish documents, it is described that the main entry into Trankebar is through the Landporten (Town Gate). It is also described that the original Town Gate was destroyed in 1791 and that the present gate was built after that.
Dansborg Fort is the Danish highlight in Tharangambadi. It was built in 1620 (Borg means Fort in Danish) and overlooks the Bay of Bengal. The building is constructed with columned structures and high ceilings, and the fort is unlike other forts in India. Maybe it is a Scandinavian design (I’m not sure though). The rooms on the lower floor are named as per their use and I spotted a wine room as well!
At one point of time, this imposing fort is said to have been the second largest Danish castle in the world. The 10 Danish trading ships that came to India to trade in spices, silk, gold and other items landed at Dansborg Fort; and trade continued in exchange of Indian pepper and cardamom.
The Dansborg Fort was constructed over 2 floors and most of the enclosures and gates are now locked. The lower floor used to function as a storage space and also functioned as the residence for soldiers as well. The upper floor was once the Governor’s house and also had a church inside the fort. It has now been converted into a museum, exhibiting Danish culture from that time. There is also a cannon pointing towards the sea on the front side of the Dansborg Fort.
A placard in the fort premises states that the the Dansborg Fort was protected as a monument by the Tamil Nadu State Department of Archaeology from 1977. It also states that ‘A thematic Danish Site Museum was established in the year 1979 at this fort, to bring out the political, social, trade and cultural contacts between India and Denmark.
Museum at Dansborg Fort
The museum at Dansborg Fort contains all the information one might want about Danish rule. Among other treasures, the museum contains interesting documents such as a copy of the treaty between the Nayak King and Denmark East India Company, carefully preserved copy of the sale deed between the Danes and the British (from 1845), old maps of Trankebar town and a collection of miniature Danish ships that first docked at Tranquebar.
There are also old Hindu sculptures from the surrounding region, and also local artefacts, coins and pottery. Also on display, are replicas of Danish ships that docked in Tranquebar and also artefacts used by the Danes during their time in this region.
Sri Masilamani Nathar Temple
Also called Manivaneswaram, the original temple was built by Maravarman Kulashekhara Pandian in 1306 AD. It is a Shiva Temple that is now located on the beach itself. During the Tsunami of 2004, the temple’s Vimana (tower) broke off and fell into the sea. Although there was no one around who who could confirm the same, the current temple looks like a recently built structure. Apparently, after the tsunami the temple has come closer to the sea. There is also an inscription on a wall (exhibited at Dansborg Museum) that denotes the origins of the Masilamani Nathar Temple from the early 14th Century.
The Zion Church was consecrated in 1701 and is the last building on King’s Street. It lies inside a lovely compound with greenery and seems to have been well maintained with constant renovations. Inside the church, polished brass plaques on the wall signify that the first five Indian protestant converts of the Danish mission were baptized in Zion church in the year 1707.
New Jerusalem Church
The Jerusalem Church was built in 1707 and the New Jerusalem Church was built in 1718 on King Street to accommodate more people. It is the oldest and first protestant Lutheran church of India and is definitely the prettiest of all the churches in Tranquebar. The New Jerusalem Church was built in a mix of architectural style by missionaries Bartolomäus Ziegenbalg and Heinrich Plütschau in 1718.
Tranquebar’s most famous personality, Ziegenbalg died in New Jerusalem Church in 1719 and was buried here as well. His tombstone is also in the same place. There are a lot of burials within the church premises, and some have epitaphs in Danish language as well.
Danish Governor’s Bungalow or Governor’s Bungalow
On the opposite side of Dansborg Fort, parallel to ‘Bungalow on the Beach’ is the Governer’s Bungalow that was constructed sometime around 1780. It was also alternatively known earlier as the Collector’s House and functioned as a private residence of the Danish Governor and was brought by the Danes in 1784. It is a very pretty European sight; of a yellow building with lovely windows and doors and huge pillars.
The Governor’s House seems to have been restored but is not being actively used and was locked when I visited. I was told that the keys of Governor’s House are kept in Dansborg Fort and that the doors can be opened after making a request to the manager at the museum. Later during the afternoon, I saw a few goats sprawling in the verandah of the Governor’s Bungalow while some locals were enjoying their lunch and siesta!
Old Danish Cemetery
Just behind the New Jerusalem Church, lies the large Old Danish Cemetery that is most in ruins. It has been in use since the early 18th Century. Names of many prominent Danish colonial officials who served in the Danish East India Company and traders can be found carved into the headstones. The Old Danish Cemetery has some epitaphs that date back to 1708.
Ziegenbalg Museum Complex
This place on Admiral Street was a chance find. After having seen the Printing Press building from outside, we were going back to the bus stop when the auto guy stopped and said if I want to go inside to see the Press. Once inside, on the right side is a building currently being run as a school, the middle one seemed like a church and the left building is a pretty house in white with huge pillars. There was an INTACH Signboard there but the building was closed. Adjacent to the school, in the open playground there was a state of Ziegenbalg with the customary flowing hair!
The Ziegenbalg Complex was brought in the 18th century to accommodate the growing Lutheran mission. The white building is said to be Ziegenbalg’s Residence, which is an old building that has been recently refurbished.
We came across a small building with the words ‘Ziegenbalg Press’ inscribed on the outside. It is said to be the first printing press in India and was originally housed in Mission House on King’s Street.
The building was closed and didn’t look in great condition. It is widely believed that Zieganbalg used this press to print the Bible in Tamil in 1708, after he had learnt the Tamil language. When I went inside the Ziegenbalg Residence complex, the auto guy noticed that one of the doors where the Press was housed was missing.
Ziegenbalg Spiritual Centre
Close to Zion Church, is Ziegenbalg’s house; Tranquebar’s most famous personality. It has now been taken over by the Church authorities and is now called the Ziegenbalg Spiritual Centre. I was astounded by the incredibly pretty door of the house and asked the auto guy to stop here. Someone informed me that the writing table, pen etc used by Ziegenbalg are preserved in this place.
Ziegenbalg’s contribution to the Danish history in Tranquebar has been immense. He even learnt the local language Tamil and translated the Bible in Tamil. Entry to the spiritual centre is possible by requesting someone at the church.
Tranquebar Maritime Museum / Danish-Indian Cultural Centre
This was earlier known as the Danish Commander’s House and has now been converted into the Tranquebar Maritime Museum as a part of the restoration project undertaken by The Danish Tranquebar Association. It is under the aegis of Danish Indian Cultural Centre and the first part of the same was inaugurated in January 2017. There is also an impressive collection of books on sale inside the Maritime Museum and Queen’s Library has a few tables where one can sit and read.
The exhibits inside the maritime museum delve into the life of the local fisherfolk. There is an old ship also on display and a small collection of objects from the Danish ships. Tales of tsunami and a few personal stories of affected people are also shared in the same exhibit.
Bungalow on the Beach
With the dreamy location of the 17th Century Dansborg Fort on one side and the endearing blue of the Bay of Bengal on the other, this heritage structure is maybe my most prominent memory of Tranquebar. I could only imagine how gorgeous it must be on a crazy monsoon evening, when it pours down, and there is a joy in solitude; or perhaps a moment of crazy love in the balcony with a lady interest on a moonlit night.
In its heyday, it functioned as the summer residence of the British collector. Subsequently, the ‘Bungalow on the Beach’ fell into active disrepair, until it was brought for a sum in 2002. After extensive restorations that went on till 2004, it was converted into a Heritage non-hotel by Neemrana Group. An interesting feature of the property is that the rooms are named after the Danish Ships that landed in Tranquebar.
Walk on Tranquebar Beach
Just across Dansborg Fort, the promenade leading to the beach can give a complex to the one in Bandra and Marine Drive in Bombay! It is lined with pretty lights and leads to an endless expanse of blue. Strolling on the Tranquebar beach with endless views of the Sea has to be one of the must-do things when you visit this ‘land of singing waves!’
Among other important historical sights in Tranquebar is a mosque which reportedly has its origins in 1350. There are various old Danish buildings such as Muhldorff’s House, Van Theylingen’s House which is locally called Pillar House has been renovated by INTACH. Rehling’s House is one of the most beautiful buildings in Tranquebar and dates back to the early 18th Century. It was used as the St.Theresa’s Teachers’ Training institute and has now been renovated.
‘Halkier’s House’ is another 18th Century structure. The entire King’s Street, which connects the gateway of Tranquebar and the beach, is full of monuments and sites that showcase Scandinavian influences. Also, if you take a walk across Tranquebar; the town still retains its classical streetscape and old names : King’s Street, Queen’s Street, Admiral Street, Goldsmith Street, Mosque Street, etc. The administration has done a good job with the sign boards and life in Tranquebar surely does feel like walking back in the past.
History of Tranquebar
In the early 17th Century; Denmark set up an East India Company to enable them to trade with the sub-continent. They sent a fleet of ships to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and India, which first landed in Tanjore. The Danes requested the ‘King of Tanjore’ to let them establish a settlement on the coast in return for an annual tribute.
Raghunatha Nayak, ruler of Thanjavur Kingdom, entered into a trade agreement with the Danes, giving them possession of Tharangambadi for an annual rent of 3,111 Rupees and allowed them to export pepper to Denmark. After around 220 years of running Trankebar, the Danes sold it to the British in 1845 for 1.25 million rupees. Tharangambadi was renamed by the Danes as Trankebar and the English anglicised the name as Tranquebar.
Danish History in India
After having been to Tharangambadi, I got inquisitive if there were other Danish colonies in India. Turns out they were; and namely are Nicobar Islands, Serampore in Bengal (famous for the St. Olav’s Church), Balasore in Odisha, Calicut in Kerala… Also the Danes established a number of factories throughout India.
How to reach Tranquebar?
Tranquebar is located at a distance of 280 kms from Chennai and 120 kms from Pondicherry. There are regular buses that run via ECR (East Coast Road) to Karaikal. Tharangambadi is the local Tamil name that is more widely used and it is quite possible that the locals haven’t even heard of Tranquebar. It is a very small town on the coast with limited population and fishing is the main occupation of the locals here.
Distance from Karaikal to Tharangambadi is around 10 kms. Distance from Thanjavur to Tranquebar is 100 kms, and from Chidambaram – Tranquebar is 50 kms away. Trichy (Tiruchirapalli) is approx. 150 kms away from Tharangambadi.
Hotels in Tranquebar
As per my conversations with the locals, there are no budget hotels in Tranquebar. If one wants to stay overnight there are two-three heritage properties owned by Neemrana Group and Bungalow on the Beach is the most popular one. The other two are Gate House and Nayak House, although I’m not really sure if they are currently functional or not.
Most tourists in Tranquebar are day visitors and do not stay for the night. Although, after having done the same; I seriously think staying in Tranquebar can be tranquil and magical. There may be possibilities of finding a cheap homestay or guest house after speaking to the locals. Karaikal may be an easier place to stay because it has a variety of hotels at a range of prices.
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I stood on the highway and a bus came in no time. My efforts of having a proper lunch in Tranquebar had failed as there was no restaurant serving the same. I was still hungry having just had the meagre breakfast and was super happy when the bus stopped at a dhaba at around 4 pm. I was in a tearing hurry to get some food but luck seemed to have other plans. The old man and woman at the dhaba didn’t understand hindi or english and of course I had no knowledge of Tamil.
Sign language worked and in no time food was being served on a banana leaf. The tongue-twister names produced some super tasty accompaniments to the rice and sambar and I ate like a beast. I gulped down numerous glasses of spiced buttermilk. It remains my favourite meal on that particular trip. The old lady fed me like her own child and the man took just 65 Rupees from me. It felt like I had come home. The poorest people have the richest hearts.