Weekend vacations: A slice of Danish history3 min read . Updated: 05 Feb 2016, 03:11 AM IST
An old fort, the rhythms of the sea, and stories of the tsunami
It’s cheesy, I know, but this place should really be called “Tranquilbar". Or, at least, be known only by its Tamil name, Tharangambadi, which means “land of the singing waves" (say the name aloud, it feels like a lilting melody). The song of these waves, punctuated by the steady drumming of rain on rooftops, gave us company through our two days in Tranquebar.
My husband and I had reached Tranquebar after a few days of hectic temple-hopping in and around Thanjavur and Kumbakonam, en route to Bengaluru. The heart of Tranquebar, the Danish fort of Dansborg, was visible from our hotel balcony. It was built in 1620 to control this trading port, after the Danes signed a trade pact with Thanjavur’s Raghunatha Nayak. This was where Denmark’s ships landed when they set sail towards the East, as part of their own “East India Company" mission. And both, the Danes and the British, seem to have preferred a more tongue-friendly name, Tranquebar, to Tharangambadi.
Tranquebar changed hands a couple of times, between the British and the Danes, in the 18th and 19th centuries before settling eventually with the British in 1845. The Danes traded in spices from here, and gave Tranquebar Protestantism and India’s first printing press.
There is really nothing much to do in Tranquebar except enjoy the rhythm of the sea, explore the fort and walk aimlessly around its narrow lanes. But we weren’t complaining. Our hotel, a Neemrana property, was the erstwhile British Collector’s residence. We stayed on the first floor and spent most of our time on the cane chairs in the huge veranda, just outside our room.
When the guilt over our sloth became overwhelming, we would step out reluctantly for a tour of the town. The entry to Tranquebar is through Landporten, the Town Gate, built in 1660 and now restored to its former glory. As I stood there taking photographs of cycles and cars passing through it, a small, curious crowd gathered around me—foreigners are a common sight, Indian tourists aren’t.
The only bit that remains of Dansborg is the central citadel that stands facing the sea, forlorn and weather-beaten. There was a lot of restoration work going on, with most parts closed to visitors. So we spent only a few minutes at the museum on the first level of the citadel, before perching on the ramparts for more glorious views of the sea.
The beach itself is a quiet affair: vendors busily peddling snacks and ice cream, fishermen going about their work among the nets, and couples and families enjoying the sea breeze. We walked along the promenade, taking in views of the fort from another angle. The fishermen were reluctant to talk, responding in monosyllables to my questions in Tamil. But not the vendor selling milagai bajji (chilli fritters) down the path—he wanted to tell me all about his life, and find out about mine in turn.
We walked around the town with a local resident, listening to stories of the 2004 tsunami, those few days that are printed indelibly in Tranquebar’s collective memory—the town suffered considerable damage. We sauntered through Goldsmith Street, its old bungalows ranged in a neat line with their tall pillars, open verandas and red-tiled roofs—it’s now being promoted as a heritage street. The Danish government is once again active in Tranquebar, helping the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage with conservation and restoration work.
As we left Tranquebar, we took one last look at the fort. It stands resolute, facing the lashing waves, as it has stood for centuries now, enticing visitors to unwind in its welcoming fold.
Charukesi Ramadurai tweets at @charukesi
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