Pondicherry, or today’s Puducherry, has long been associated with colonial French heritage, given that it was a French colony back in the day. But few know that just three hours drive from here, on the edge of Bay of Bengal in South India, there’s a small fishing town that cradles a vibrant Danish heritage. Nicknamed the ‘Land of singing waves’, Tharangambadi is located 15 km from Karaikal in Tamil Nadu. It was a Danish colony from 1620 to 1845. But as history would testify, the traditional mellifluous name was too complicated for the Dutch in the 17th century. So they renamed, or rather mispronounced, it as Tranquebar.
After Danish ships landed on Indian shores from Ceylon in 1620, the merchants inked a treaty with the ruler of Tanjore kingdom Raghunath Nayak, who gave them the possesion of the Tranquebar town as well as permission to trade in the kingdom. But even before the Danes, the Arabs and Portuguese traders had plied the coast. To fortify their settlement, the then Danish General Ove Gjedde built a fort called Dansborg when he realised this place could be developed as a thriving trading town. The fort was a prime example of Scandinavian military architecture. From here they could export pepper to Denmark. It’s important to mention here that Tranquebar really came to life under the Danes, who later sold it to the British in 1845 for around Rs 1.25 million.
As you enter the town, you will be greeted with a 200-year-old antiquated gate called Landporten, which has the royal Danish seal embedded in it. There are several other scattered heritage structures such as colonial houses around the King Street, houses with thick stucco walls, huge verandahs on second storey buildings that rub up against small Indian houses, that serve as a constant reminder of its glorious Danish culture.
To absorb a distinct sense of the place, visit it’s golden shoreline, the Dansborg Fort and its numerous colonial structures that seamlessly weave its history with the present. It’s almost magical to hear the slow crash of the sea waves as you imagine the synthesis of the Indo-Danish culture in this quaint town back in the day.
Tranquebar is also a melting pot of diverse religions, right from Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. It’s interesting to note how all of them peacefully coexist without any inter-religious conflict in this small town. Several mosques, old churches and temples that date back to over 300 years are evidence to this fact. Tranquebar celebrates another very unique festival, special only to this town: The anniversary of Lord Ziegenbalg on January 14, which is celebrated on the same day as Pongal. Protestant missionaries Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg along with Heinrich Pluetschau were among the only two Lutherans from Germany who started work in 1705 in this Danish settlement. Ziegenbalg’s work was notable as he was widely credited with translating the Old and New Testaments into Tamil. To execute his plan, he imported a printing press, a first in India at that time, and eventally printed the New Testament in Tamil around 1714.
If there was one legacy of the Danes that is still exists in its entirety then its the education system. Most of the schools are still managed by the Catholic St Theresa’s Convent and the Tamil Evangelical Lutheran Church. Also, as mentioned earlier, the Dansborg fort’s museum also contains historical documents, one of which is the sale deed elucidating the deal between the Danish and the British.
Presently, the town has a very relaxed and sleepy vibe to it. Owing to the massive 2004 tsunami, the seaside town is still undergoing vasts amounts of restoration work. Tranquebar is everything but the ordinary. This is one destination very few people still know about.
How to reach
One can take trains from Chennai till Nagapattinam and Chidambaram. Besides, daily flights operate from Chennai to Trichy, which is around four hours away from the village.