Mary Ann Issac
Visit a Danish village in India- Tranquebar
Updated: Aug 27, 2020
Tranquebar, also referred to as Tharangambadi, was the Danish outpost in India for over 200 years. This beautiful beachside town in Tamil Nadu overlooks the Bay of Bengal, and is a treasure trove of a history that remains unknown to most.
The drive to Tranquebar is through nondescript villages that seem to have missed the wave of modernisation. Low, thatched roof, mud houses in clusters line either side of the road. Farming is the mainstay of society here, and lush green paddy fields are seen till the horizon.
Brief History of Tranquebar
The Danish fleet led by Ove Gjedde landed in Tranquebar in 1620, after an almost 2 year expedition during which they sailed through England, Africa, and lost more than 300 of their crew. They negotiated rights to fortify Tranquebar with King Ragunatha Nayak of Thanjavur & established the Danish East India Company.
Tranquebar’s story would not have been what it is, if not for the work of the Lutheran missionary Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg. He was instrumental in the propagation of protestantism in India, and was the first to conduct a sermon in Tamil. He established the first printing press in India in Tranquebar, from where the first Tamil language New Testament was printed. It is from this press that the first Tamil calendar, and school textbooks were printed. His efforts led to the establishment of the first school for girls in India, and the free noon meal system in schools.
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10 Must see architecture in Tranquebar
1. Town gate or Landporten
Enter Tranquebar through the famous Town gate, or ‘landporten’, as it is referred to in Danish. The original gate built in the 1660’s as part of the fortification of Tranquebar, was destroyed, and the present gate was constructed in 1792. The gate marks the transition from a Tamil town like any other, into a colonial Tamil town. The architecture changes from low roofed houses, to imposing colonial buildings and a beautiful cobbled promenade leading to the beach.
Over years of neglect, Tranquebar was reduced to a seaside village with a lot of dilapidated buildings. It is through the efforts of the Danish government, State Archaeological Department, & the Tamil Nadu Department of Tourism, that Tranquebar is seeing a wave of restoration work being done.
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2. Fort Dansborg or The Danish Fort
The most famous of Tranquebar’s architecture is Fort Dansborg, or the Danish Fort. It was built in 1620, and was the base for the Danish settlement. In 1845 when the Danish could no longer afford maintaining colonies abroad, they sold all of their assets in Tranquebar to the British. What was till then a bustling trading port, soon lost its strategic importance, as Tranquebar was not an active port for the British.
The museum in the fort has original documentation of treaties made during Danish reign, other artefacts, and an in-depth history of the Danish in Tranquebar. The fort was used to house soldiers, and as a warehouse for food, and artillery. The different rooms are now marked for tourists to see what they were once used for.
The Fort also grants the perfect vantage point to the ocean on the right and the promenade on the left.
3. Masilamani Nathar Temple
The beautiful Masilamani Nathar temple dedicated to Lord Shiva is the oldest building in Tranquebar. It was built in 1306, commissioned by the erstwhile Pandya King, Maravaram Kulasekara Pandyan. It was built in a mix of Tamil & Chinese architecture, possibly to attract Chinese traders. The temple’s once expansive grounds over time has been claimed by the sea. Now, a cluster of buildings remain, and they have been recently renovated courtesy the efforts of devotees, and foundations like REACH & INTACH. But it still remains one of the most beautiful sights in Tranquebar, as it is right at the sea!
4. New Jerusalem Church
The New Jerusalem Church on King Street was built under the leadership of Ziegenbalg in 1718. Ziegenbalg is buried in this church, though his crypt is off limits to visitors. There are gravestones in the church compound and in the Danish cemetery nearby of the Danes who once called Tranquebar their home. It is not uncommon to spot young Danes in search of their ancestors, visiting these graves.
5. Zion Church
The Zion Church, the first Protestant church in India was built in 1701, which was also built under the leadership of Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg. It is a functioning church that regularly conducts services.
6. Ziegenbalg House
Ziegenbalg’s residence, ‘Ziegenbalg house’, is now restored and functions as a museum on intercultural dialogue. The house is an important monument of Indo-German heritage, and the revival of the same was a joint venture by the Tamil Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Mission in Lower Saxony, the Francke Foundations Halle, and the Leipzig Mission work. The project was generously funded by German Federal Foreign Office, and the United Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany.
The Ziegenbalg house under the leadership of a young German woman, Jasmin Eppert regularly organises activities and events to promote inter cultural dialogue. They have recently secured funding for a research centre and an extensive library, which they hope will come into fruition in the near future.
The museum organises historical walking tours of Tranquebar, which are a great way to learn of the sights and their significance in the history of the town.
On site, there are three printers from the 18th &19th century, of which one of them, an Eagle printer, is now in working condition, & are used for demonstrations.
7. Walk the streets
Goldsmith, King, & Queen Streets have the majority of colonial architecture. Goldsmith street is now a heritage street that with the help of the Danish government has been restored. The low roofed houses with large verandahs are now being converted to guest houses, but they aren’t functioning as yet. It is a popular location for movie shoots.
8. Mosque Street
Opposite Goldsmith street is Mosque Street, at the end of which is the site of a 14th century Mosque, and the tombs of two Sufi saints who were responsible for bringing Islam to Tranquebar. Their tombs are no accessible for visitors. There is a large, fairly new, functioning mosque on the premises now.
9. Governor's Bungalow
The Governor’s Bungalow on the promenade is yet to be renovated, after which It will be the location for a museum & visitors’ centre.
10. Maritime Museum
Located on the promenade, the museum has an extensive library that carries books on the history of Tranquebar, its Danish, and German connections, religion, the Danish monarchy, and lots more. It also has maps of Tranquebar from 1733, and the more recent 2017, which shows how much of this seaside town was reclaimed by the ocean over time, and during the Tsunami of 2004.
Tranquebar beach is the only ozone rich beach in India, which means that the presence of ozone in the atmosphere is much larger than elsewhere. Ozone prevents the harmful UV rays of the sun from entering our atmosphere- so even on the sunniest days, it is safe to be on the beach!
Road: Tranquebar is 444 km from Bangalore, which is an approximate 9 hour drive. Chennai is at 283km, a 6.5 hour drive.
The closest airport is at Trichy, a distance of 158km, from where taxis are available.
Rail: The closest stations are Nagapattinam (35km), and Chidambaram (45km)
Having a car makes it easy to travel to nearby points of interest. Within Tranquebar, it is best to explore on foot, or to hire a bicycle.
Best time to visit
Ideal time to visit is between November and March when the weather is pleasant and ranges between 21-32 ℃. Summers can get extremely hot, and can make exploring during the day difficult, with temperatures ranging from 28-40℃.
History buffs, and beach lovers looking for a relaxing holiday.
Hope you get to visit Tranquebar soon! Let me know your thoughts on the article, or if you have any questions about visiting in the comments below!