Coromandel Trail - Following the Danish to Tranquebar

Lakshmi Sharath
Lakshmi Sharath

It barely takes 20 km to reach Cuddalore from Pondicherry but I spend more than an hour looking for the remains of the British headquarters, which was the foundation of the East India Company before Fort St George in Madras took over.

I drive to the ancient port that wears the mask of an industrial town. The old harbour still has warehouses from the colonial era. I cross the river Gadilam and the bridge takes me to a bustling fishing village, full of life and colour as the fish is transported from the barges to trucks. But I still find no sign of Fort St David, until a local person directs me to the beach. There is no sign of habitation but for a ruined house. Then I see another building with a security guard standing outside. He shows me the way to a ruined bungalow in a vast open space surrounded by dense vegetation. This was the old fort. A plaque on the gate confirms that fact, though I do not find the name, Fort St David, inscribed anywhere. A family living opposite informs me that they are the caretakers as the building is now under the administration of the Arcot Lutheran Church.

Water flows alongside the walls of the bungalow like a moat. The caretaker tells me that the tunnels are closed.  A white grave stands in the middle of nowhere. I learn that the fort was under the control of the Marathas and was later bought by the British. The story goes that the purchase was decided based on a shot from a gun. The area which came under the range of the cannon included the entire town and Cuddalore became a  British settlement. I drive further and see a couple of houses belonging to the Chennai-based Parrys & Co. And finally, I see the name on the bungalow: It reads Fort St David, although the locals insist that the original fort was the ruined old house surrounded by water.

I move on as cannons echo in my ears. Another detour takes me to a crowded town. “This is where the Parangis stayed, so its called Parangipettai,” says a local as he guides us towards the old lighthouse near the beach. There are small shops near the beach, provided as part of rehabilitation efforts after the Asian Tsunami of 2004. An old man tells me the entire old port is destroyed and nothing remains of Porto Novo, as it was known back then. He adds, though, that he has heard that the Nawab of Arcot minted Porto Novo Pagoda, the gold coins from here.

In Tamil, Europeans are referred to as Parangis, but this small port was a trade centre for Arabs and Yemenis as well. Parangipettai, or Porto Novo as the Portuguese called it, was also colonized by the Dutch and English. I walk around the old harbour imagining big ships docking here. Local trawlers bring their haul home as some fisherfolk are loading their catch into trucks. It is late afternoon already and I am still nowhere near my destination - Tranquebar or Tharangambadi.

The breeze lifts my spirits. The roads get narrower as I finally get to hear the music from the seashore. Tharangambadi means just that – the town of the singing waves. As I walk towards the water, the lilting tune haunts me. The waves gently stroke the rocks, which seem to be the remnants of an old wall. It is twilight and the moon is up. I enter the portals of  the restored British Collector’s Bungalow and walk into my sea-facing room named “The Crown Prince Of Denmark.” The music from the waves lulls me to sleep.

At dawn I wait for the sun to rise. The beach is littered with colourful boats. A couple of fishermen are at sea. A herd of goats saunters around. A few old men sit by the rocks and catch up on local gossip. Boys hold hands and walk unhurriedly to school picking up wildflowers and shells from the sands. The fort, lit by the rising sun, wears its morning glow.

Tharangambadi or Tranquebar (Trankebar), as this Danish settlement was called, found its way onto the history map in the 17th century when the Danish East India company built the Fort Dansborg. In 1620, a Danish fleet landed here and the captain identified it as a strategic trading centre. The village was then ruled by the Nayaks from Thanjavur. A deal was struck between the king, Vijaya Raghunatha, and the Danish admiral Ove Gjedde. A small strip of an insignificant fishing hamlet was leased from the king for an annual rent of 3111 rupees and Trankebar was created with the Dansborg Fort built right in the centre of it. While the Danes traded in spices and silks, it was finally sold to the British for 12.5 lakh rupees in 1845.

Today the fort, which has a Scandinavian feel about it, opens into the sea. It is now a museum that tells the story of a busy port that has now become a wind-blown village.

When we enter the portals through the “Landporten” or the town gate, we walk into a past that has a washed-out charm. The gateway sports the Danish royal seal and leads us through a row of colonial bungalows and ancient churches. The streets still sport their old names – King’s Street, Queen’s Street, Admiral’s Street, and Goldsmith’s street. The task of restoring the streets, and the bungalows and houses, is the province of INTACH, which also runs a craft shop here. There is the Gate House and the Nayak House, both sporting an old-world charm.

I walk into the erstwhile home of the Danish Governor, which is being restored as a museum and library. Elsewhere, inside the town, is the Maritime Museum in a thatched hut showcasing the life of the fishermen.

Along the shore is the ravaged Masilamani Nathar temple, the oldest monument that has survived in Tranquebar. An inscription tells us that this partially eroded temple was built on land granted by King Maravarman Kulasekara Pandian in 1306. The village was then known as Kulashekarapattinam, or Thayangambadi.

In the middle of the beach is a small cross that commemorates the visit of German missionaries Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg and Heinrich Pluetschau, who were apparently invited here by the Danes. Tranquebar seems to owe much of its development to them rather to the traders. “Ziegenbalg was not even treated properly by the Danes here but he studied Tamil, translated the Bible into English, built churches and a printing press here,” narrates a local schoolteacher. Tranquebar still proudly presents his house and school, which are also being restored.

I walk back to the beach and wade in the water. Dripping with foam, my toes snuggle into the sand refusing to let go. Sipping a cup of ginger tea, I sit on the rocks as the melody from the waves reaches a crescendo. It is almost like a haunting tune from the past. As I pen my travel diary, the snippets of history from these forgotten ports play on my mind. The passage of time may have eroded their identity and they might have slowly faded from political maps, but the glory of these long-lost towns will probably never fade away. Tranquebar is hidden, waiting to be discovered…