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.

Black and white

HAVING PARENTS WHO WERE BROUGHT UP IN RACIALLY conscious South Africa, I feel easier calling the two parts of old Pondicherry by their French names, ‘Ville noire’ and ‘Ville blanche’, rather than their English names, ‘Black Town’ and ‘White Town’. The English names are redolent of the sad days of racial segregation in apartheid South Africa.

While Pondicherry was a French colony, most Europeans lived in White Town, and people of local Indian origin lived in Black Town. This kind of racial separation was not unique to the French in India. The British were also keen to keep races separate. Bangalore, for example, was divided into the Cantonment (European area) and the City (local Indian area).

A rather malodorous partially covered canal or drain separates White Town from Black Town (now called ‘Heritage Town’). White Town lies between Black Town and the shore of the Bay of Bengal.

Today, more than 60 years after the French ceased to Govern Pondicherry, the White Town continues to retain its appearance as a French colonial town. Many of the buildings were built by the French and are distinctly European in architectural style. The streets are neatly laid out, tree lined, and wide. There is none of the hustle and bustle associated with most Indian towns and villages. This might be because there is little commercial activity apart from tourist related facilities (accommodation and eateries). You can enjoy a good but costly meal in White Town, but buying a newspaper or fruit and vegetables is hardly, if at all, possible.

Since our last visit to Pondicherry five years ago (just before the great storm that flooded Chennai in late 2015), the city’s authorities have placed plaques along the streets of White Town. Written both in Tamil and English (not French!), they provide short informative histories of the streets’ names.

Cross the covered drain into what used to be called ‘Black Town’, and familiar Indian urban life is flourishing. The streets are crowded; there are shops aplenty; the area is full of traffic: two, three ,four (and more) wheeled vehicles; and there are Hindu temples (as well as churches). Apart from tiny roadside Hindu shrines, the only places of worship in White Town are churches.

In contrast to White Town, the architecture in the old Black Town is not so fine. There are a few traditional Tamil style buildings, but much of the architecture is relatively new and generally lacking in visual appeal.

Apart from being a very pleasant place to visit, Pondicherry and its well preserved historical layout offer an interesting reminder of colonial life and its less savoury racist aspects. That said, the place and its beautiful seaside promenade is a joy for all visitors whether or not they have any interest in history.

Revolution in north London

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Between 1965 and 1970, I studied at Highgate School (founded 1565). Its main Victorian gothic building perches on the summit of Highgate Hill. About two fifths of a mile south east of the school, an architecturally unexceptional late Victorian residential building stands on Cromwell Avenue (number 65). Although this brick edifice may not look special, it harbours the ghosts of a lesser-known episode in the history of India’s struggle for independence from the British Empire. The only thing that hints at the interesting history of number 65 is a blue plaque commemorating the fact that the Indian patriot and philosopher Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, a father of Hindu nationalism, lived there once.

In 1905, a wealthy barrister and scholar of Sanskrit, Shyamji Krishnavarma, bought number 65 Cromwell Avenue and named it ‘India House’. He intended it to be a home away from home for Indian students studying in England. However, it became more than that. It became a centre where Indian politics was discussed and acted upon.

Very soon, India House became the nucleus for Indians who wanted India to break free from the British Empire by any means possible. These included: sending propaganda and literature (including bomb-making manuals) regarded as ‘subversive’ and ‘treasonable’ by the British to India; smuggling weapons and ammunition into India; and political assassinations both in England and India. Valentine Chirol, the Foreign Editor of the Times newspaper wrote that India House was “…the most dangerous organisation outside India…”. As such, India House was under the constant vigilance of Scotland Yard, but despite this, its members were able to carry out real-life exploits that rivalled the derring-do of characters in John Buchan’s fiction.

Apart from Krishnavarma, those who congregated or lived at India House included well-known Indian patriots and freedom fighters, such as Madame Bhikaiji Cama, VVS Aiyar, VD Savarkar, Lala Lajpat Rai, Madan Lal Dhingra, and Har Dayal. The place was also visited by MK Gandhi (the future ‘Mahatma’), Charlotte Despard, David Garnett, Dadabhai Naoroji, and VI Lenin.

India House thrived until late 1909. During that year, one of its members carried out an assassination in London. After that deadly deed, activities at India House declined rapidly, and it was closed for ever by the beginning of 1910.

My new book, “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets”, describes the history of Highgate’s India House and the activities that originated there. In addition, it explores the ideas that led Krishnavarma to ‘create’ India House and the lives led by people who lived in, or congregated, at the place. Also, it contains the background to the replica of 65 Cromwell Road that can now be viewed and entered by visitors to Kutch, an arid part of the western Indian state of Gujarat.

Until I visited Kutch in 2018, forty-eight years after leaving Highgate School, I had not known that my alma-mater is situated so close to the site of such an exciting short episode in the history of anti-colonialism. Boldly, I suggest that this story is also unknown to most pupils, who have attended Highgate School since 1905. Furthermore, Highgate’s India House and Shyamji Krishnavarma are practically unknown amongst many educated Indians, with whom I have spoken. I hope that “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets” will help to make the exploits and aspirations of the members of India House more widely known.

 

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Thrown out of a library

When she was about two years old, our daughter dressed in a unisex romper outfit, rushed into the Men’s Bar at the Bangalore Club. An elderly gentleman conducted her back to the entrance of the bar, saying: “You can’t come in here yet, young man. You’ll have to wait until you’re twenty one.”

My wife explained that our child is a girl. The gentleman replied: “In that case, my dear, you will never be able to enter the Men’s Bar.”

The Bangalore Club was founded by British officers in 1868 at the time when Mahatma Gandhi was born in faraway Gujarat. Until after about 1945, women were not allowed into the main Club House. There was a separate annexe reserved for women. And until 1947, with the exception of servants and a very few high ranking military officers, no Indians were permitted to enter any part of the Club.

The Bangalore Club and many other similar still existing colonial era clubs in India maintain many of the old-fashioned rules that applied in elite clubs in the UK. For many years, men could only enter the Club House at the Bangalore Club wearing ‘proper’ shoes, not sports shoes or sandals. Now, sandals are allowed providing they have a back strap around the ankle.

Once, I stayed at the Kodaikanal Club deep in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Dress code seemed to be non-existent there until I stepped into the club’s small library. Within a few seconds, a member of the library staff escorted me out of the library. I was wearing sandals. I was told that one could only enter the library if formal leather shoes were being worn.

Well, if you join a club, you should respect its rules however idiotic they might seem. Vide the UK and the EU.

As time moves on, rules change. A couple of years ago , for reasons best not explored here and they were nothing to do with gender equality, women were permitted to enter and use the Men’s Bar at the Bangalore Club. Since that date, the formerly masculine sanctuary has been renamed “The Bar”.

The old gentlemen who evicted our daughter from the Men’s Bar is probably no longer alive. I wonder what he would have thought when his prediction proved to be wrong. Let’s finish by raising a glass to his memory.

African Art Fair 2018

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“The Contemporary African Art Fair (1 – 54)” is held annually at London’s Somerset House. This year it was a very exciting show full of vibrant, creative artworks mainly, but not exclusively, created by Africans with little or no European ancestry.

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Many of the works use recycled waste materials such as bits of paper, engine parts, spent bullets and retired armaments, electronic components, and so on. Almost every art work is a fine aesthetic object when seen as a whole. Looking into any of these works in detail is like beginning to explore Africa, its troubled past and challenging present.

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Africa is beginning to emerge from its colonial past. Africans are taking control of their destinies. Yet, at this exhibition, which is where a series of galleries display thier wares, mot of the dealers, who earn considerable commissions are ‘White’ Europeans. Maybe colonialism is not quite dead yet!

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