The Grand Tour III-5: Tranquebar (Tharangambadi)… Danish India

1 - Fort Dansborg

Channeling Denmark in Tamil Nadu – Fort Dansborg, commissioned by Over Gjedde in 1620. It has undergone successive restorations, most recently in the 2000s.

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.

2 - Landporten

Landporten – City Gates, circa 1792. This is the side of the Gates facing Tranquebar. The gates have been (over-) restored.

Målning. Tranquebar. 9626.

View of Trankebar, 1658, with Fort Dansborg at left. [Public domain.]

4 - Ships

Model of a Danish East India Company sailing ship, in the Danish Museum (housed in Fort Dansborg).

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.

3 - LAnding

Memorial to the landing of Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg and Heinrich Plütschau in 1706. The memorial was erected in 1906.

6 - Tranquebar Mission

Another memorial, erected in 2006, commemorating the Ter-centenary of the Tranquebar Mission – today’s Tamil Evangelical Lutheran Church. The memorial incorporates a statue of Ziegenbalg.

7 - New Jerusalem Church

The New Jerusalem Church, built in 1718 in a Danish-Indian eclectic style. The Royal Monogram on the main facade is that of King Frederick IV of Denmark, who reigned from 1699 to 1730.

8 - Interior of Church

View of the interior of the church

9 - Tomb

Danish gravestones in the church.

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.

21 - Porayar Church

Bethlehem Church (1746), in Porayar.

22 - Church

23 - Tomb

Danish tombstone in the grounds of the Bethlehem Church.

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.

10 - Streets

Restored Danish-Indian style houses on the main street of Tranquebar.

11 - Bungalow

The former summer Residence of the British Collector has been restored as today’s Bungalow on the Beach (a boutique hotel where I stayed).

13 - Graveyard

The former Danish Graveyard.

12 - Houses by the Sea

Lovely waterfront esplanade leading to Goldsmiths Street – a restored row of traditional Tamil Houses.

14 - Temples on the SEa

View of the granite breakwater towards Masilamani Nathar Temple.

15 - Masilamani Nathar Temple

Close-up of Masilamani Nathar Temple. This is the city’s oldest temple, dating back to the 1300s. It is in ruins, part of it having been swallowed up by the sea. But you wouldn’t know it by looking at it.

16 - Fishermen

Fishermen taking their boats out to sea in the morning.

17 - Chinta Durai Pilayar Kovil

Chinta Durai Pilayar Kovil Hindu Temple.

18 - Vinayakar Kovil

Probably Vinayakar Kovil.

24 - Landporten again

And a final view of the Landporten – this time from within Tranquebar looking out. The gate sports the Danish Royal Seal.

About Kennie Ting

I am a wandering cityophile and pattern-finder who is pathologically incapable of staying in one place for any long period of time. When I do, I see the place from different perspectives, obsessive-compulsively.
This entry was posted in Art & Architecture, Cities & Regions, Culture & Lifestyle, Heritage, India, Landmarks & History, Photography, Sociology & Urban Studies, Travel & Mobility and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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