To the south of Pondicherry sits a somewhat laidback and half-forgotten port city, which for more than 200 years, was the capital of a modest Danish colonial empire in India. This is the city of Tranquebar, or Trankebar in Dansk.
The Danish East India Company, established in 1616, arrived on the shores of the Coromandel Coast in 1620. At a settlement known by the local Tamils as Tharangambadi, they would set up shop literally, leasing a tiny waterfront plot of land from the ruling Tanjavur Kingdom; and from this waterfront settlement, exporting pepper and other Indian and later, Southeast Asian goods back to Europe.
One of the first things the Danes – led by Danish Admiral Ove Gjedde, whose name is still commemorated in the city – then proceeded to built here, was a large medieval fort and castle known today as Fort Dansborg. For a time, this was the second largest Danish fort and castle in the world, after Kronborg Castle in Helsingor (the basis for Elsinore in Shakespeare’s Hamlet).
Around the castle, they would built a walled Danish town, with orderly gridlines and European houses. The entrance, or Landporten, of the town still stands – this was built in 1792, and very recently (over-)restored – but the rest of the wall no longer exists.
Another important Danish import was the Tranquebar Mission, established in 1706 not by the Danes but by two German Lutheran missionaries, the Herrs Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg and Heinrich Plütschau. The former gentleman is perhaps the most important personage associated with the city. He it was, who established the city’s main church – the New Jerusalem Church in 1718. The church still stands today – and Herr Ziegenbalg’s remains are interred in its premises, alongside those of other Danes who had lived in the city.
At its peak, Tranquebar was the capital of a Danish India that included Serampore in Bengal, the Nicobar Islands, and a few other, shortlived outposts. Tranquebar itself was the heart of a larger Danish settlement that extended landwards to the town of Porayar. In Porayar, today sits another important Church established by the Danes – the Bethlehem Church – the second Protestant Church in India, established in 1746.
The Danes would sell Tranquebar to the British in 1845, after having occupied it for 225 years. This transfer of sovereignty sealed the city’s fate, and it dwindled from a major port and transhipment hub, to a sleepy backwater town. The Tranquebar Mission remained, however, and continues to cater to the local Christian community to this very day.
Since 2002, significant efforts have been made by the Danish Tranquebar Association and the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) to restore major monuments and historic buildings in Tranquebar. And so many of the major monuments – not just the European buildings but also some Hindu temples and Tamil houses – have been immaculately restored.
In my view, however, some of the buildings have been overly restored – a case in point is the 14th century Masilamani Nathar Temple, the oldest temple in the city, which stood in ruins a few years ago, part of the temple complex having been swallowed by the sea. The remaining structures have been repainted so vividly that the temple feels brand new.
The town was hit hard by the 2004 tsunami, and a new granite breakwater was also constructed off the coast, where local fishermen continue to take their boats out to sea daily to fish. Restoration and reconstruction continues to this day.