The Tranquebar fort on the Tharangambadi coast.
THARANGAMBADI, called the “land of the singing waves” for the humming sound made by the lashing sea waves at twilight, is a coastal town in Nagapattinam district. Formerly the Danish colony of Tranquebar, it has many structures that stand testimony to the distinct architectural and cultural commingling in the area. The Tranquebar fort, or Dansborg, on the Tharangambadi coast, is one such early instance.
Inscriptions from the 14th century describe Tharangambadi as a trading port that was part of the Thanjavur kingdom. A Danish colony was set up here after the arrival of the Danish team of Ove Gjedde to the court of the Nayaka ruler in 1620. Land was leased out to the Danes as part of a treaty between King Ragunatha Nayaka of Thanjavur and the King of Denmark. However, a threat of annexation came from the Nayakars following a disagreement, and this led to the fortification of Tharangambadi. The town gate at the entrance to King’s Street is part of this fortification.
The compartments in the lower level, adjoining the ramparts of the fort, served as godowns, prisons, and rest rooms for soldiers. The rooms in the upper level were the residences of the governor and the priests. It now houses a Danish museum displaying cannons, war weapons and vintage artefacts. In 1845, the Danes sold Tranquebar to the English East India Company for Rs.12.50 lakh. The sale deed is displayed at the Dansborg Museum. Tharangambadi retained its importance as a centre of trade and commerce until the setting up of a railway line in Nagapattinam in 1861.The Masilamani Nathar temple was erected on land granted by King Maravarman Kulasekara Pandian in 1306. Despite its dilapidated condition, it breathes a charm. Its rocky edges protrude some 50 metres into the sea; this part is said to be its frontal extension, which went under water owing to erosion. A section of the gopuram, destroyed by the December 2004 tsunami, lies beneath the boulders placed to check waves. The tsunami washed ashore a lingam, which is now housed in the Dansborg Museum.
A few metres away from the Masilamani Nathar temple is a Siva temple, which is being renovated by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage. The Zion Church on King’s Street, sanctified in 1701, is the oldest Protestant church in India. The New Jerusalem Church was constructed in 1718 following the arrival of German missionaries such as Bartolomaus Ziegenbalg in order to accommodate the growing Christian population. Its intricate ornamentation is reminiscent of the architecture of European churches.
The consolidation of Danish influence saw the arrival of Muslim traders, German theologians and missionaries, and Moravian entrepreneurs. Each community is said to have impacted on the culture of the area. The Danes pioneered several initiatives. These include the first evangelical Lutheran Church, the first printing press to print the Tamil translation of the New Testament, and the first girls’ school.
Danish architecture is marked by spacious rooms, columned verandahs, high ceilings and projecting pelmets. The predominant Danish streetscape did not wipe out the prevalent Tamil streetscape, as is evident from the houses on Goldsmith Street. INTACH renovated the five Tamil houses here, taking care to retain the charm of the old architecture. The dilapidated Governor’s Bungalow briefly functioned as a sessions court during British rule. INTACH is now renovating the structure.
The Ziegenbalg Museum complex, which has a prayer hall, reportedly housed the first printing press. The German government helped in the renovation of the house.
The Old Danish Cemetery to the west of the fort dates to the same period as the fort. There are about 33 heritage buildings in the area, of which the bungalow on the beach, the Nayak House and the Gate House maintained by the Neemrana Group provide high-end tourist accommodation. Besides, there is the Tamil Nadu Hotel, which provides budget accommodation.
P.V. Srividya in Nagapattinam
(Letters to the Editor should carry the full postal address)
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