Friday, April 12, 2013

The land of Singing waves - Tharangambadi aka Trankebar/Tranquebar

We know from history that Europeans had a fascination for  India.  They marked a few ideal places and  have left a stamp of their architectural legacy and cultural influence behind. Some places like Portugal Goa are famous while some like the Danish Tranquebar is pretty much unknown. It facades itself as a sleepy fishing town tucked some 200kms below Chennai, Sandwiched between an ancient maritime Chola port Poompuhar and another  French port Karaikal. Uncover it and you will discover a little slice of Danish life.  It is revived now, thanks to INTACH  and  due to the patriotic zeal and ancestral pride of the Danes who often travel from Denmark to feel the soul of their ancestors.

In 1620, a 23 year old Danish Admiral Ove Giedde landed on the coramandel  coast looking for a base to trade spices like pepper, tea, silk etc. He fell in love with this fishing village called Tharangampadi(the land of singing waves) .  He approached the Thanjavur Nayak king who was then ruling this to grant the fishing village for trade. King Raghunatha Nayaka who was in favour of international trade signed a treaty which  led to the creation of a prominent port of Danish East India company.

 What was till then the venue of 13th century Masilamaninathar temple and called Tharangampadi went on to become the base for Danish settlement called Trankebar(Danish) or Tranquebar in English.

The nearly 200 year old influence (1620-1845) has left behind a  Danish soul in the form of a Fort called Dansborg fort which is now the only surviving imperial fort on the coramandel coast . It also has a few colonial houses like the Governor’s bungalow, the collector’s bungalow, the town gate, The first protestant church in india, first printing press, a maritime museum and more.

This place was my destination precisely 8 years and 2 days after the deadly tsunami washed the place(dec 28,2012).

After the 100km road journey from the Mining town of Neyveli, as I entered the King’s street through the Town gate called landsdowne, I could feel the colonial influence. The street had colonial structures on either sides in the form of quaint houses, churches, men’s  teacher training institute.

 We first visited the Maritime museum on Queen’s street  which is now temporarily housed in a palm hut. It showcases the   life of fishermen, their paraphernalia  like fishing nets , boats, the remains of the Tsunami etc.,The main attraction is a  plank boat called masula boat*. The place is  small and manned by a local fisherman, he said it is maintained by a Dane as a tribute to the local fishing community since fishing plays a major role in the history and culture of Tranquebar. It also has a marine archaeology department whose object is to explore the sea bed along the tranquebar coast where many sailing ships during the Danish period have had ship wrecks. It is likely to be shifted to a permanent structure shortly.  It has a visitors register and when I signed in my name  at the closing hours of the day, I found my family were the only Indians who visited the museum that day, the rest were from Netherlands, Hongkong, and Mauritius.

From here we drove down  the same lane past the King’s street  to visit the Dansborg fort. A beautiful Scandinavian structure  built in Sandstone. We  walked up the ramp to reach the first storey of the two storeyed fort. It  is now maintained by TN government as an archaeological museum. Excavated ruins like  Porcelain Urns, plates,  locks, seals, cannons, agreement letters  between the king of Denmark and the Thanjavur king, palm script, the names of the Danish ships that travelled to the place, The list of the Dane governors etc are displayed.  Some Danish  coins are also exhibited and the records say, this was the only place outside Denmark where coins were minted some two centuries ago. As you walk out on the deck you also find  an execution place(galley).The base floor has a godown for the goods, a jail, stable for horses etc. All around the fort walls, nearly 13 cannon guns are mounted.  I must admit here that the exhibits did not impress me but the beautiful castle like fort did.

                            A view of the Fort from the rocky shores of the bay
After a tour around the fort,  we whiled a few moments on the remnants of the fort  jutting into the bay what was once the ramparts of the fort. The Fort has weathered many a strong tides and waves even the Tsunami of 2004. Much of the outer walls have been washed away by the sea leaving behind an eroded brick pier. This Pier was the bridge to transport the goods from the ship to the Fort and back to the ship.

It gave a heady feeling standing on a piece of history and watching  the bobbing ships in the faraway horizon while the strong breeze was enough to push me away. It was rejuvenating and relaxing to inhale the air while watching the children play with the waves and pick the sea-shells. There are not many bayside eateries or cola, gola and candy shops except for a lady selling sundal( boiled peas) and just one pushcart selling icecreams. 

 We then walked a few steps along the shore to the oldest structure in the area, the 13th century Masilamaninathar temple.This temple when built by a Pandya king  originally had three gopurams(temple tower). Two of which have been washed away by the sea while one still remains. The temple is not very active except for the lighting of the diya by the priest in the evening. The priest is one of the tsunami survivor,On the fateful day, the gurukkal said(priest) he held on to the Shivling and chanted mantras and waited for three days  till the water receded. The temple is still facing a losing battle with the sea. 

 Just beside the temple and across the Fort is the Danish Governor’s residence which is now a Neemrana Property. An employee at the property said, they have acquired a few local houses like the nayak and nadar houses and converted them into home stays like the Gatehouse (the first house on King’s street) . He also said the Danes are proud of their heritage and ancestors and often visit the Danish cemetery to pay their respects. The Danes relate and celebrate their culture here  and take a leisurely stroll around the artefacts in the museum. Infact, a group of Danes who are  proud of their heritage want to conserve the Danish heritage  and so they have come together to form an association called Danish Tranquebar association. Nearly two crores have been spent to cobble the pathways and for lighting by the association and INTACH. This heritage town is now  heading towards as a candidate for the  UNESCO’ world heritage site. 

The nearby Collectors’bungalow is being renovated to make way for a library. 
Beside the Bungalow on the intersection of the King’s street and Queen’s street is a statue you can’t miss. The statue of Bartholoaeus Ziegenbalg built in 2006. 

This place also conserves many other reminders of Danish heritage, most of them being colonial houses  which reminds us of the times when this port must have been a busy trading outpost of the Danes.

It was already 6.p.m. Two hours flew by too soon, leaving me with a decided sense of wanting to stay longer. There is so much to see, hear, feel and experience like the stories from the locals,the craft center, the interiors of the Zion church, the first rays of the morning sun, inhaling the clean  air etc.,  But in all, I had a satisfying feeling of having absorbed a beautiful slice of history, a pristine beach side, an ancient little temple. I left a little of myself here but holding so much in my camera.

Pin Tranquebar on your tourist map in case you are a history buff, photo enthusiast, have love for traditional architecture or simply If you want to relax, rejuvenate in a quaint beach town with no touristy airs.

 Oh!........  and....... i forgot to tell you........ while here on the beach, don’t forget to take a deeeeeeeeeeep breath and fill your lungs to the maximum. Because, this is one of the two places on the planet where the  Ozone readings (thickness)  are  high( the other is in Switzerland). 

Check this long photo tour( click on the pics to enlarge):

                        The 'landsdowne' town gate to enter into King's street. Note the Danish seal at the top

          Tranquebar maritime museum housed in a palm and bamboo hut has a few fishing paraphernalia, a model fisherman house, a few old  maps. This will soon be housed in King's street where a house is being renovated for this purpose.

The Masula boat is unique to the coramandel coast. It has several planks sewn together thus making it elastic. These boats helped the ships to transfer the goods to the fort. The making of the boat will be shown live to the visitors  when the museum shifts to its new premises.

           That's the Scandinavian structure Dansborg  built in sand stone. The second  largest Danish fort after Kronborg in Denmark, the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Hamlet
                                   The history of Dansborg fort at the entrance to the fort( click on it to read)
                                          A glimpse of the bay through the window of the fort. In the foreground is a cannon which is now silent but from here you can hear the crashing giant waves of the bay
              Letter from the Thanjavur king Raghunatha nayak displayed in the museum(click on it to read the message)
                                                        An old map of Tranquebar displayed in the museum
                                                    Some excavated ruins and remains

The original drawing of the fort with the outer walls which were eventually washed by the waves of the sea.

The back view of the fort, the basement has a jail, godown for stocking the goods,gunpowder,  stable for horses etc.
                                                             One of the basement cells
 A view of the collector's bungalow from the terrace of the fort.This INTACH renovated house will soon turn into a library.

  A view of the lovely little  Masilamaninathar temple, two of its three temple towers built in 13th century  have  been swallowed by the sea.

A close-up side view of the temple. The Front entrance is towards the bay.
 The brick pier through which goods where transported from the ship to the fort at the far end. The beach shores are covered with black sand.


 A view of the  INTACH restored Neemrana property ' The Bungalow on the beach'.  Neemrana is the delhi based group which refurbishes dilapidated  heritage property into a hotel property without disturbing the feel of the bygone charm. They rightly call themselves as non-hotel hotel. There is no air of a commercial space when I entered the property. A nice place for the vacationing family to stay, relax, rejuvenate and experience the Danish charm. The 13th century temple is to the right of the property.The pathways have been cobbled and ornate lamp posts  adorn the area between the fort and Neemrana hotel.

 After renovation, this hotel was thrown open to public on Dec 24, 2004. Two days later a deadly Tsunami struck the property and disrupted the functioning of the hotel for three months. It was restored later and the interiors are earthy, warm  and  stunning and  it transports you to a  bygone era, you wished you belonged to.

The corridors of the hotel on the ground floor facing the swimming pool. The terrace of this place serves as a view deck for the Bay. A nice place to relax, rejuvenate on a  vacation.
This statue of Bartholoaeus Ziegenbalg built in 2006. To commemorate the 300th anniversary of the German Missionary who was sent by the King of Denmark to spread the gospel. He was the founder of Lutheran mission and translated the bible into Tamil after learning the local language in three months time.  To print the bible the first printing press was started in India here and from  here Lutheranism is supposed to have spread across India. Hence Tranquebar is called ‘The Gateway of Protestantism to India’ and also bibliophiles know that The tamil bible is the first book to be printed in India.
 An old nadar(business community of Tamilnadu) house has been brought by the Danish association  on King's street. This is now being renovated to house a catering institute.
 The renovated Flora cottage opposite the maritime mueseum houses some of the Danish tourists.
 This is the first house on King's street called 'The Gate house'  a lovely accomodation for tourists. The  above are a few properties which are restored into quaint original Danish homes to retain the charm of the place.


  1. A scintillating post and surely, a collector's item. You've brought out the romance of Tarangampadi brilliantly. Full of charming historical anecdotes, I bet few are aware of.

    Anybody who reads this is going to be tempted to go there.

  2. Aha! A kand of history and heritage, culture and traditions... sounds like a great place to explore and enjoy! Thanks for giving us a virtual tour!

  3. Dear Asha,

    We thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog about Tranquebar.

    Do let us know whenever you choose to visit our 28 historical properties across India !

    Warm Regards,
    Team Neemrana

  4. Thank you Team Neemrana. I am glad you enjoyed reading and thanks for linking the post to your site.I am honored:)

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  6. Why not give information about 2nd Old Church in India(ZION CHURCH)

  7. I, a dane, have been in Tharangambadi/Tranquebar/Trankebar twice in 2016, and monday 23.rd of January I am going there again. It is such a lovely place, people are warm and welcoming, and very much aware of our shared history. Right now we are restoring the Commanders House, right behind the golden statue of Ziegenbalg at the end of King's Street. On the 4th and 5th of we shall celebrate the inauguration of the first part of the Danish-Indian Cultural Center. The Collector has announced his pressence, as have the ambassadors, and you are hereby all invited!