The locals call it Tharangambadi, meaning the “town of the singing waves”. Trankebar or Tranquebar, a Danish colony from 1620-1845, is a 3-hour drive south of Puducherry. It all began, according to historian Peter Ravn Rasmussen, in 1615 when “two Dutch merchants, John de Willom of Amsterdam and Herman Rosencrantz of Rotterdam, offered King Christian IV a proposal for the foundation of a Danish trading company that might compete with the British East India Company and Dutch United East India Company to enrich both the king and the shareholders.” Five Danish ships set sail for the East on 29 November 1618 under the command of 24-year-old Ove Gjedde, who later became the grand admiral of the Royal Danish Navy.
After futile negotiations in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Gjedde arrived on the Coromandel Coast in October 1620. At the court of the nayak of Tanjore, he succeeded in signing a treaty by which Tranquebar became a rented property of King Christian IV. The Danes were allowed to build a fortress at the village of Tranquebar to commence trading in spices.
Today, the ochre-coloured Fort Dansborg looks like a giant sandcastle rising from a beach lined with traditional fishing boats and catamarans. It has stood its ground since 1620. From the ramparts, one gets an elevated view of the beach and the long line of boats. With rusty cannons that still point to an imaginary enemy far out at sea, the fort serves as an excellent perch for the scavenging Brahminy Kites that are ever alert to pick up any bits of marine catch left unattended. Inside, there is a small museum which showcases the porcelain dolls, glassware, jars and other period items of the Danish settlers. A black and white photo titled Cannon of Tranquebar, and another one named Fredrick, are the only visual memories of the past. There are a number of Danish documents on display; one that stands out has the names of all the ships that visited the port. Other items include coins, smoking pipes and cannon balls.
Today, entry to this picturesque settlement is through the restored arched town gate which still boasts the royal Danish crest of 1792 and leads me to the main thoroughfare of King Street. The essence of Tranquebar revolves around King Street, which seems to be right out of period films. Starting from the town gate, which was a part of the original fortifications, and was called Landporten, one is bombarded with a kaleidoscope of 17th century architecture, which is sometimes a cocktail of Danish and Tamil aesthetics. There is the Gate House, Muhldorff’s House, Port Master’s Bungalow (rechristened Bungalow on the Beach), Rehling’s House-a relic of colonial architectural finesse with winding verandas, a tall colonnaded façade and pitched roofs. Other important buildings include the New Jerusalem Church built in 1718 and Zion Church, the oldest Protestant church in India, built in 1701.
Photographs by Ananda Banerjee