The evening before I went to Tranquebar, I was puzzling over a question: "What on earth were the Danes doing in this part of the world?" A friend of mine, a German writer with a brilliantly dry sense of humour, said, "Looking for Norway."
Um, no, Stephan. They weren’t looking for Norway. In fact, they were looking for anyone who’d allow them to settle down and buy a few spices. The Dansk Ostindisk Kompagni—the Danish East India Company—had dispatched its first ships from Copenhagen in 1618. By 1620, they were hovering around the south-western coast of India, having already been disappointed in their quest to set up a trading post in Sri Lanka, where the Portuguese had managed to win the race. The Danes, fortunately, found refuge in a small coastal town in India.
The town (more a fishing village then) was called Tharangambadi—‘the place of the singing waves’—and the local ruler, the Nayak, was willing to enter into an agreement with the Danes. So, in 1620, the Danes, led by Admiral Ove Gjedde, set up shop in Tharangambadi (which, since it was too convoluted a name for their Western tongues to pronounce, they shortened and simplified to Trankebar, or Tranqeubar). They established a fort, laid out a main street (Kongensgade, or King Street) and flung themselves into the spice trade in a big way.
In the early 1700’s, another important Western force arrived in Tranquebar: the missionaries. Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg and Heinrich Plutschau, evangelical Lutheran missionaries, came, began learning Tamil, and eventually set up India’s first printing press, which printed the Bibles they translated into Tamil. Simultaneously, churches were built in Tranquebar: the Zion Church was built in 1702, and the New Jerusalem Church (where Ziegenbalg was later to be buried) was built in 1718. The first five converts of the Lutheran mission were baptised in the Zion Church in 1707.
Tranquebar grew. At one time, it had a population of 3,000, which made it Denmark’s sixth largest city. It was also the only place outside mainland Denmark where Danish coins were minted. But by the early 1800’s, the sheen began wearing off. The Great Northern War (1700-1721) adversely affected the country’s economy, and the Napoleonic Wars, from 1799 to 1814, made matters worse. By the 1800’s, Denmark could no longer afford to maintain overseas colonies. There were, fortunately for them, people who were willing to buy over the colonies and factories the Danes wanted to abandon: in 1845, the British East India Company bought Tranquebar (along with two other Danish colonies, in Serampore and Balasore) and the Danes went back home.
Today, Tranquebar is a quiet, sleepy little town by the seaside—so small, in fact, that it doesn’t even have roadside eateries where you can stop for a plate of idli and sambhar. If you’re driving in from Pondicherry, this looks like any other small Tamil fishing village. But then, suddenly, you find yourself going through an arched gateway, white-plastered, decorated with the coat of arms of the Danish royal family, and with the words Anno 1792 emblazoned across the top. This gate is the landporten—the gate between the port and the inland. Through it, and you’re in a different time, a different world. The main road leading from the landporten to the sea is King Street, and this is where all of colonial Tranquebar’s biggest and most famous buildings are concentrated. There’s the heritage hotel known as The Bungalow on the Beach, once the house of the Governor of Tranquebar. There are two churches—the Zion Church and the New Jerusalem Church. There is the Ziegenbalg Spiritual Centre, which was once the house of Ziegenbalg himself. There are rounded columns and arches, balconies and shuttered windows that are architectural imports, not home-grown. There is even, next to the New Jerusalem Church, a Teachers’ Training Institute for Men, the arched gate of which is flanked by two figures made of plaster and dressed in distinctly 17th (or is it 18th?) century Danish fashions!
Looking out over the seafront is the Dansborg, the Danish fort that is now partly a museum. There is a sea wall, and the small, ruined stone structure known as the Masilamani Nathar Temple. There are rocks covered with dried, bright green lichen. There are seashells, half-ground by the relentless pounding of the sea. And there are the waves, singing gently as they wash over the rocks that fringe Tranquebar.