Tranquebar – a slice of Denmark in India

By Anand Yegnaswami

In the ruins of Tranquebar lies the story of Denmark's failed attempt at colonizing the East IndiesThe orange ball of fire rose gently as the fishing boats swayed to a music I couldn't hear. I stood watching awestruck from a wall torn down by the elements of nature — a bungalow on one side; a fort on another.  I looked into the vast expanse and, as I sank into deep thought, I heard a mental rendition of a song in Hindi by the band Silk Route. The lyrics went: "I remain sunk in your thoughts."

The Silk Route lost its charm after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople and the maritime Spice Route gained significance leading to the rapid colonization of South Asia. I stood at the heart of a European nation's little-known attempt at gaining a foothold in the trade in South Asia.

I had headed from Bangalore to the coastal town of Tranquebar in Tamil Nadu's Nagapattinam district, hoping to find the surviving relics of the Danish colony that once thrived in this port town. I was primarily interested in Fort Dansborg, the only Danish fort surviving in India. The imposing structure of the fort is so appealing that the sea makes a desperate attempt every day to plant a moist kiss on the ramparts of this fort but recedes away disappointed. Fort Dansborg, while not gigantic, would have nevertheless been an intimidating structure in its heyday. Cannons and short cannons on the fort wall defended the fort from hostile forces.

A view of Tranquebar Fort, built by Danish settlers. The Danish enjoyed the support of the British and were more traders and missionaries than military colonialists. They, however, had their eye on the island of Nicobar. less 
1 / 22
Yahoo Lifestyle | Photo by Anand Yegnaswami / The Green Ogre
Thu 12 Apr, 2012 4:30 PM IST
Across the fort is a building that once used to be the Governor's Bungalow. Throw a stone from here and you are bound to hit other buildings that are legacies from the Danish colony — the Commander's House, Gruendler's House, Van Theylingen's House and many more.

In my cerebral canvas I began to paint a picture of how this Danish port trading in saltpeter, pepper and cloves would have looked back in the 18th century. A rude noise sent my easel crashing and the painting was lost. The gobble of turkeys had roused me from my reverie and I found myself staring at a derelict building with bills pasted over its walls.

As the sun rose higher, I saw the glimmer of hope in which the town basked. The Charitable Foundation of Bestseller, Denmark, together with INTACH, is working passionately to reinstate the town's architecture to its erstwhile glory by restoring buildings.

The town also boasts of the Oldest Protestant Church in India, the Zion Church. The short walk to the town gate took me past the New Jerusalem Church. Ambling along Post Office Street and Queen's Street I came across a curious-looking Post office and an equally atypical Maritime Museum.

The cannons are silent in Tranquebar but the sound of singing waves still enthrall the traveler.Sauntering along King's Street I looked back at the Fort one last time, searching for stories. For the Danes the settlement in Tranquebar was part of a larger agenda of colonizing the Nicobar Islands, an agenda they failed to realize despite repeated attempts. The time came when the Danish dream was no longer viable and when the British came knocking the colony was sold to the British East India Company for 1.25 million rupees.

I went back up on the broken wall beside a sea gilded by the sun. I saw fishing boats swaying to an inaudible tune again, and then it dawned on me that the boats were dancing to the rhythm of the waves.

Tranquebar was Danish for Tharangambadi — "the town of the singing waves."

Anand Yegnaswami, an IT consultant based in Bangalore, is a history buff and nature admirer. He enjoys travel, movies and reading nonfiction. He writes at The Green Ogre

Stop bragging, start blogging

Follow exclusive coverage of Jay's bike ride to Kashmir

Follow us on Facebook