Home >Mint-lounge >Mint-on-sunday >The restoration of Tranquebar’s heritage

There is restoration work going on at Fort Dansborg in Tharangambadi (Tranquebar), Tamil Nadu. Piles of rubble line the courtyard, a citadel wall has collapsed, workers stride across the area carrying cement and paint.

A row of rooms found on the ground floor of the two-storey building bearing labels of what they once used to be—soldiers’ quarters, warehouse, poultry room, gunpowder room—appear to be inhabited by these local workers now. Reed

mats and upended steel utensils lie askew in these rooms; ragged clothes flutter on the clothesline outside them; a dish antenna is mounted on one of the stippled, salmon-hued walls.

Said to be the second largest Danish fort in the world—the first being Kronborg, also known as Elsinore, where Shakespeare’s Hamlet was set—it was the first thing built by the Danish on Indian soil, when they landed in the early 17th century.

The story begins with Prince Christian IV, who sent five ships to the Coromandel coast to start a trade station.

According to Knub Helles of the Danish Tranquebar Association, a society of private volunteers working to preserve Danish heritage in Tranquebar, “The Danish East India Company was set up in 1616 under Prince Christian. The king of Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) asked the king for help against the Portuguese, so he sent three merchant and two navy ships to Ceylon under the command of admiral Ova Gedde."

It took nearly two years to reach, he says—two long years at sea, by which time much of the crew had perished. The ones who remained managed to reach the kingdom of Kandy in Ceylon, “but the Portuguese influence was too strong", says Helles. “They could not stay there for too long."

Instead, Gedde entered an agreement with Raghunatha Nayak, the king of Tanjore. According to the treaty, signed in 1620, which is today preserved in the Royal Archives in Copenhagen, “We order the creation of a port named Tarangampadi here and allow the export of pepper to that country as it is not available there."

Thus began an association which went all the way till 1845, when the Danish state entered into a contract with the British about taking over both Tranquebar and Serampore in Kolkata, explains Helles. “Though I’m not sure how they could sell something they had simply leased," he laughs.


At noon, the quaint, little town located in the Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu is calm and tranquil. Fisherfolk sit in little groups on the beach mending their nets; a few young lovers are perched on the rocks bordering the shore, choppy waves beating a slow tattoo against it; a lonely goat meanders woefully across the cobblestone pathways leaving a pile of droppings in its wake.

According to a report on Tranquebar issued by the Bestseller Fund, an independent charitable fund that aims to assist people from economically challenged parts of society, “Tranquebar is a living museum containing more than two centuries of Danish heritage in India. The land of the singing waves, as it is known in Tamil, manages to integrate local Tamil culture with European influences."

The oldest monument to survive in Tranquebar is the Masilamani Nathar Temple, built by the Pandya king Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan in 1305 AD, located very close to the seafront. Most of the temple has been destroyed—time and the ferocious tides have ravaged it—but the tottering innermost mandapam has managed to survive.

Other religious monuments are in a better condition: an old mosque, the Zion and New Jerusalem Churches and the Shiva, Vinayakar and Angalamman temples.

Bringing back the glory

“When I see an aristocrat that has fallen on bad times, I feel terrible. I felt that way about Tranquebar," says A.K. Das of the Indian Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, or INTACH, a non-profit organization that aims to conserve and preserve India’s heritage.

According to him, Tranquebar was sold to the British in 1845 and then passed to India after Independence. “It was in a very dilapidated condition when I first saw it," he says. “I was on my way to Karaikal and saw the fort in the distance. So I took a detour and decided to visit."

“The very scale of the buildings told me that it was the centre of activity at some point," he continues. “And I knew I wanted to restore it."

In 1994, Danida, the Danish international development agency, contacted Das asking if it could help them restore the place. “Some headway was made but then the funding was curtailed by the Danish government," he says, a trifle ruefully.

Then Francis Wacziarg of the Neemrana group of hotels, best known for creating heritage hotels out of crumbling monuments, became interested in Tranquebar. “There is a sea-facing property that belonged to a Nadar family that was brought over by the Tatas—they wanted to construct a boutique hotel there. That project was never implemented," remembers Das.

So, the Neemrana Group in association with INTACH renovated this building, maintaining the ancient architecture. “We started the work in 2002 and we completed the restoration in 2004. Our soft opening was slated for early January—the flooring hadn’t yet dried when the tsunami hit," he remembers.

The waves hammered down a compound wall and flooded the hotel, ruining much of the work. However, it was redone and the hotel today is one of the most popular destinations in the town.

Step inside and you will see why. The wooden-floored portico that directly faces the sea is furnished with pristine white cane chairs and blue-frocked tables. The crockery is antique—slightly chipped, thick pottery is a prepossessing shade of blue.

There are artefacts scattered all around that verge on the baroque: curved tables, gilded lamps, mosaic mirrors, carved, weathered chests and four-poster beds. The rooms of the hotel are named after Danish ships; a wooden staircase winds all the way up while ancient watercolours grace the walls.

“This was once the British collector’s office and was the headquarters of the Nagapattinam and Tanjore districts," says Arun Elagovan, regional manager, Neemrana Group. “We get a lot of foreign tourists here today."

In addition to this hotel, Bungalow on the Beach, the Neemrana Group has also renovated another property called The Gatehouse.

The Bestseller Fund, a private philanthropic organization that mostly works among underprivileged communities in Africa, China and India, also decided to invest in Tranquebar. They restored several buildings on Goldsmith Street and had, in association with INTACH, drawn plans to create a new access road, better sewage systems, improving the parade grounds and solid waste management.

“Then relations between Bestseller and INTACH soured due to a personal reason and they withdrew funding support," says Das, candidly.

Rajendran, the manager of the Bestseller Fund, says that while they continue to be actively involved in other development activities in the Nagapattinam district, they no longer support the restoration attempts here, “We have no funds left for this," he says, declining to comment further.

Of course, there have been other attempts at restoring the former trading port. Historian and archaeologist R. Nagaswamy, who headed the Tamil Nadu archaeology department between 1966 and 1988 recalls: “Sometime in the 1970s when I was the director of archaeology, we declared Fort Dansborg to be a protected monument."

That was when Danes started visiting Tranquebar, he says, and they in turn attempted to help with its restoration.

Poul Peterson, vice-president of the Danish Tranquebar Association, was one of them. “I first came here in 1889. I was the principal of a boarding school back then and I was invited to Tiruvanamalai in Tamil Nadu as part of a school project," he says.

The headmaster of the school offered to take him to Tranquebar and he took the night bus there, he recalls. “I saw that the fort was in a really bad condition and decided that I wanted to work on restoring it. We got permission from the government of India and managed to raise money to get this done," he says, adding that he has invested Rs10 lakh of his own money into it.

This initiative inspired the government of Tamil Nadu to take a more active interest in the place he believes. “They took over and completed the restoration," he says. “The restored fort was inaugurated in 2002 with both the Indian and Danish flag flying from the top of the tower."

The Danish Tranquebar Association came into existence at this time, he says, and they went on to complete other restoration projects including the cleaning and restoration of the Danish cemetery in New Street, the restoration of the Danish governor’s bungalow and the Protestant missionary Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg’s prayer house in Admiral Street, and the establishment of the Tranquebar Maritime Museum. Most of these projects were in association with a number of other stakeholders including INTACH, the Tamil Nadu government and Bestseller Fund.

Peterson says that he hopes to be able to keep the Danish governor’s bungalow open for public viewing and convert it to an Indian-Danish history and educational centre. He also wishes to help the convent here start a new college and obtain better education facilities for the people of Tranquebar. “Education is a must," he says.

Helles chips in: “We are talking about 225 years of shared Indian and Danish history here. I want more people to know about it. This is the only way we will succeed in preserving it."

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