Denmark in the tropics

I HAVE WANTED TO VISIT TRANQUEBAR (now called Tharambangadi) since I first heard of the place when I was a teenager in the 1960s. Danish settlers established a fort and their first trading post in India there in 1620. I had already visited the former Danish colony at Serampore (established by 1770) on the River Hooghly, and was keen to see what remains of Tranquebar.

We drove south from Pondicherry for three hours through flat terrain, passing huge rice paddies, negotiating sprawling towns and villages, and crossing numerous rivers and streams.

Tranquebar, a sleepy little place on the wave washed shore of the Bay of Bengal, contains a sizeable collection of buildings constructed by the Danes during their tenure of the town, which finally ended in 1845, when the Danes sold it to the British.

During the Danish era, there were three main churches. One of them built by the seashore was been destroyed by the sea long ago. The Zion Church, the oldest Protestant church in India, was consecrated in 1701. It is now used by the Church of South India. It was founded by a German Bartholomew Ziegenbald (1682-1719). He was educated at the University of Halle, where my great great grandfather received his doctoral degree in the early 19th century, and was sent (with his fellow student Heinrich Plütschau) by the King of Denmark to become the first Lutheran missionary in India.

Ziegenbald was a remarkable man. During the last few years of his life, which were spent in India, he was involved in Lutheran missionary work (countering the activities of Catholic missionaries), literary work, translating the Holy Bible into Tamil, running a printing press, and conducting church services.

The New Jerusalem Church, larger than the nearby Zion and designed with its nave equal in length as its transept, was consecrated in 1717, two years before Ziegenbald died. He was buried in it. The church remains a Lutheran place of worship. Its parish priest, Mr Samson, guided us around its plain interior and told us that about sixty local families worship there regularly. The church is partly surrounded by a small cemetery, some of its gravestones bearing Danish names.

Ziegenbald’s home, now located within the grounds of a school, contains a small museum. The groundfloor contains a portable reed organ, some manuscripts related to Ziegenbald, and two printing presses that were acquired long after Ziegenbald died. One of these presses, made in London in the 19th century, was being demonstrated to a group of Tamil Lutheran visitors.

I watched as Tamil letters were covered with red ink before being covered with a sheet of white paper. The press was then operated manually. When the paper with Tamil letters was removed and shown to the visitors crowding around with cameras poised in readiness, everyone applauded. Then, the demonstration completed, the group sung a hymn in Tamil, praising God for creating such a technological miracle.

The Ziegenbal house museum is currently curated by a German, Jasmine. She encouraged us to see a small bur lovely exhibition of artworks by two German artists from Halle, where Ziegenbald studied long ago. Then, she introduced us to an Indian artist Asma Menon, who is creating a Cabinet of Curiosities similar to a very old one that is kept in Halle and contains objects collected in India long ago. Her creation that will be housed in a cabinet similar to the one in Germany will contain a series of object that captures the ‘essence’ of Germany, as she found it on a recent visit to Halle and other German cities. We spent time talking with Asma and a young volunteer from Germany.

Aaron Hall, next to the former home of Ziegenbald, is named in memory of Reverend C Aaron (1698-1745). A Tamil, he was the first ever non-European to be ordained as a Lutheran pastor. He was ordained in December 1733. He had been baptized earlier by Ziegenbald. Jasmine told us that when Aaron was ordained, there had been massive objections to this back in Germany, but the ordination took place despite these.

The Neemrana “non-hotel” hotel at Tranquebar is housed in the picturesque former British Collector’s Bungalow close to the sea shore. Unfortunately, its restaurant proved to be rather a ‘non-restaurant’: poor food and very poor service. Most of the other diners were late middle-aged Danish tourists nursing cans of Kingfisher beer. Foolishly, I ordered pasta with “aglio olio”. What turned up was penne drowning in an a virulently bright reddish orange coloured sauce that tasted as if it contained tomato ketchup as its main ingredient.

Lunch over, we strolled along the beach passing a monument recording the arrival of Ziegenbald in India. This overlooks a small harbour surrounded by partially ruined stone walls. Men were bathing in its water which was calmer than the sea around it. From where we were walking, we could see row after row of foam crested waves breaking on the shoreline that stretched away to the southern horizon.

The fort built by the Danes under the command of Admiral Ove Gjedde (1594-1660), Fort Dansborg, is still pretty much intact. It contains a small museum with an odd assortment of exhibits – a bit of a jumble. I was intrigued by several fading Maratha paintings and a 12th century Indian stone carving in good condition.

As I stood by the well in the large central open air courtyard of the Fort with the afternoon sun beating down on me at the temperature well in excess of 30 degrees Celsius, I wondered how the Danish settlers and soldiers coped with a climate so different to what they were used to in Denmark. I was able to dive back into our air conditioned taxi after a few minutes in the sun. This option was not available in the centuries when the Danes and Germans spent months and years in Tranquebar. Even the interior of the Fort, with its thick walls, was not greatly cooler than outside.

The Fort is separate from the former British Collector’s Bungalow and the former Danish Governor’s House by a spacious sandy maidan. The Danish Governor’s House neighbours a smaller and more recent edifice named “Danish Indian Cultural Centre”. This contains a library and a small museum. Amongst the exhibits, there are several drawings and paintings by the former Danish Governor Peter Anker (lived 1744-1833; governed 1788-1806). All of his attractive artworks on display are of Indian subjects.

The former Danish Colony of Tranquebar is in Tamil Nadu. About ten kilometres or less the coastal road leading south from Tranquebar leaves the state of Tamil Nadu and enters a part of the Union Territory of Pondicherry separated from the city of that name by over a hundred kilometres of Tamil Nadu. Like Mahe, a tiny part of Pondicherry on the coast of the Arabian Sea and Chandernagore in West Bengal, this southern territory, containing the town of Karaikal, was a French colony. Yanaon, surrounded by Andhra Pradesh, was yet another French colony and is now part of the Union Territory of Pondicherry.

Karaikal became a French colony in 1674 and remained as such until about 1954. At first sight, it looks like a typical, unexceptional modern Tamil urban area with a few decaying old buildings stuck within a mass of architecturally unexceptional buildings. However, our driver, a Tamil named Pierre, drove us to see what little remains of French colonial Karaikal.

The most notable souvenir is the former French Governor’s mansion. Well conserved, the Governor lived on the first floor and his administration used the ground floor. This building, which is well over 200 years old, is now the Collector’s Office of Karaikal. Nearby, there is a French war memorial commemorating those who died in the two World Wars. The monuments single out campaigns in Algeria and Indo-China. Near this, there are a few architectural details that might have existed during the French era, but little else.

Unlike Pondicherry, which has retained its colonial charm and attracts many tourists, there is little to attract the average tourist to Karaikal. I am glad we went there because I find places like this, which hint at their largely forgotten history, very evocative and fascinating.

While I would not reccomend a visit to Karaikal, a few hours or more spent in Tranquebar will be very rewarding both to those interested in history and to lovers of the seaside.

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