Singing Waves, Sea Shells and Time Travel to Tranquebar

Sea shells are usually found hidden under rocks or buried in the sand. One has to keep a close eye to discover these elusive creatures.

Picking up a shell from the shore I wondered, if Tharangambadi too, was similar to a sea shell. It is a charming, but under the radar town. It has an interesting legacy, of the Danish occupation. It is shadowed by neighboring Pondicherry, a well-known town with French legacy.

Tharangambadi’s past can be compared to the ridges on a sea shell. Each ridge tells a story of power, religion, human adaptability and struggle…

My thoughts were interrupted with the deafening sound of the grey waves pounding the sandy shore. Tharangambadi means, land of the singing waves, but to me they seemed to be shouting for attention.

Walking towards the shore I gaze at the panoramic view that lay in front of me.

A Cross surrounded by a group of men who had raised their hands in prayer. Fishing boats on a nearly empty beach. An imposing fort with a fascinating past. A heritage bungalow converted into a star hotel. An ancient temple looking out into the sea.

It seemed as if, a time portal  was open, beckoning me into the 17th Century, to experience the Danish occupation.

Year 1620 – Tranquebar

Danish Admiral, Ove Gjedde had sailed the high seas in search of business opportunities and discovered the land of the singing waves in 1620.

He made a proposal which the current Nayak ruler could not resist. The ownership of Tharangambadi transferred to the Danes.  Tharangambadi was christened as Tranquebar and so began the Danish occupation from 1620 to 1845.

A Landporten or entrance gate was constructed to mark the territory, which proudly greets visitors even today.

The construction of the Dansborg fort in 1620 laid the foundation for the Danish occupation.

Looking at the wide courtyard I could imagine, the place to be abuzz with soldiers, sailors and staff.  The lower levels were used for storage of foodgrains, weapons and wine. The upper level were offices and residences.

The ramparts offer a mesmerizing view of the Indian Ocean. An epicenter of trade and business, the fort was in active use till the 19th century.

Year 1701 – The Church of Zion

India’s first Protestant Church was an exclusive place of worship for the Danish. The church’s whitewashed exteriors reminded me of a Grecian villa. Sunday mornings would have been a social occasion to see and be seen. I could imagine the pastor and his congregation greeting each other after service.

Year 1706 – Mission Impossible

Danish King, Frederik IV sent two German missionaries, Bartholomæus Ziegenbalg and Heinrich Plütschau with a mission to introduce the locals to Christianity.

Ziegenbalg and Plütschau had to overcome the challenges of learning the local language and adapting to the local culture. They did this and much more.

A teacher’s training school, a printing press and a children’s school were built to benefit the local community.

The printing press was used to publish Tamil literature. Ziegenbalg also translated the Bible from English to Tamil in the year 1714, consequently localizing the Christian faith.

I happened to stumble upon the printing press and school as I wandered around. A gulmohar tree with bright orange flowers welcomed me.

I was as surprised to know, that the school functions even today. It is a well maintained stone structure with arches and open balconies. A dilapidated chapel stands adjacent to the school. The brick and stone are weathered and exposed. The roof is ready to collapse.

The printing press stands opposite to the school. It is now a museum housing fascinating historical memorabilia.

A couple of smiling ladies were at the entrance to register my visit at the museum. As I chatted with them, my eyes fell upon a quirky machine in the inner room. One of the ladies, followed my gaze and gestured to go inside.

An all-black vintage machine made of metal stood in the room. A golden eagle, and a couple of dragons, carved of wood, enhanced the machine. Now this was a cool printing press which still functioned. The lady was happy to give a quick demo on using it.

I browsed through the other artifacts for the next hour, but for me the quirky press was the best.

Year 1718 – The New Jerusalem Church

Ziegenbalg built the The New Jerusalem Church, as the Danish had apprehensions to accept the new local converts into the Church of Zion.

It’s modest interiors feature high ceilings and a tiled roof, wooden pews and an altar.  The graves in the backyard give me a glimpse of the Danish families who had lived here during the occupation.

Year 1845 – Transfer of Power

In the 1800s the declining trade resulted in Denmark selling Tranquebar to the British, in 1845.

The British left India in 1947 and Tranquebar went back to its original name Tharangambadi.

As life went on, Pondicherry became a popular destination. Tharangambadi continued to be offbeat and undiscovered.

Year 2004 – Tsunami

The Tsunami that rampaged the east coast of India, did not spare Tharangambadi. It almost wiped out the original buildings near the shore. Reconstructive work had to be done. Residents were forced to move inland. A new life had to be built.

Present Day

I walk towards the sea as if completing my time travel and  gaze at the views around me.

The Cross stands looking towards the fort as a protective guardian. It was built in memory of Ziegenbalg and Plütschau. The prayer group has dispersed.

A couple is holding hands walking on some old ruins.

A few kids are playing on the beach.

Standing on these shores since the 14th Century, the Masilamani Nathar, temple has witnessed the twist and turn of events that have shaped this town.

Time seems to be standing still…The past and the present coexist…

The tree lined streets with its white washed houses. A fort standing strong at the sea shore, ancient Churches, a printing press and a school. A town where multiple rulers changed hands, influencing the culture and traditions.

Tharangambadi continues to be elusive. It’s discovery, is similar to finding a rare but pretty sea shell buried in the sand on a hot day at the beach.

Travel Essentials

Nearest Airport – Chennai

Nearest Railhead – Chennai, Nagapattinam, Chidambaram

Best travel option – Do the scenic road trip as the roads are in good condition. It is a 6 hour drive from Chennai airport.

Can be done alongwith Pondicherry. Tharangambadi is a day trip town.

Read more about – My Pondicherry Potpourri

Food and Stay – Bungalow by the Beach, a heritage property managed by the Neemrana Group.

Explore – via foot, the town is small and accessible.

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