The Dutches and the Danish- Lesser known colonists of India, Part II

My visit to the Danish fort at Tharangambadi or Tranquebar was undertaken as part of a larger trip to visit Kumbakonam. The visit was planned as a leavening to all that dough of Kumbakonam temples 🙂 Admittedly the costal route hitting Mahabalipuram, Sathurangapattinam, Pondicherry and then Tharangambadi would have been the ideal way to visit colonial relics of Tamil Nadu, if one has a private car at one’s disposal. However, I am a great fan of train journeys in India and my mother is a great fan of temples, so putting the two together, taking the train to Kumbakonam and then a car to the Danish fort was the best answer.  While the direct car route from Kumbakonam to Tharangambadi is via Karaikal, the latter is part of Pondicherry Union Territory and so requires a permit for vehicles to enter. Moreover, Karaikal itself is rich in colonial history worth a separate visit especially as we go to all the trouble of acquiring a permit. But if we did that, then there wouldn’t be time to do Tharangambadi as well and return to Kumbakonam. So after lot of deliberating we decided to leave Karaikal to another day and take a slightly lesser travelled route to Tharangambadi through some local highways.

While national highways are these broad, well laid roads teeming with dangerously fast traffic, the local highways are quite different. They are not well laid roads, in many places they are plain mud roads that turn to slush at the first hint of rain. They are very narrow, barely wide enough to allow a car and a two-wheeler to travel abreast. However, they too are teeming with traffic at 35 kmph, which given the above road conditions is dangerously fast indeed. But the biggest difference between the two, at least in the Tanjore district, is the scenery that one travels through. While NH are abutted with eateries of all kinds and medians with carefully spaced arali trees withering away in the smoke and the heat, the country highways pass through a time warp. When you travel these roads you are taken back to the time when inter-city roads used to go through villages and small towns teeming with local shops lit with glittering lights highlighting their wares, people driving bullock carts with bales of hay or other harvest hanging out the sides, little road side temples with their vibrant crimson and white walls, temple tanks and rows of square fields gleaming with the early spring green of crop plants. Sure your butt is begging for respite from all the bouncing around potholes, but your eyes and other senses are too preoccupied with the refreshing surroundings that your butt takes a back seat.*

After only minimal stops for directions we finally entered the town of Tharangambadi around lunch time. As we were all of us quite hungry and I had read a lot about “Bungalow on the Beach” we headed there. Originally the Danish admiral, Gjedde’s house, the bungalow passed on to the British administrator in the 1800s and finally to the founder of the Tamil Nadu Mercantile bank (Nadar bank) whose family lived there for over a hundred years. Currently, the Neemrana Hotels run it as a resort and to them the credit goes for a fantastic restoration effort**. Not only is the building restored to an antique authenticity, but the gardens are beautifully laid and well maintained. They positively cool the eye in the midst of the glare of a south Indian midday sun. The interior is cool and tastefully decorated with antique furniture and other artifacts***. The best is of course the restaurant. We arrived at a time when there were hardly any guests around, so the wait staff had all its attention focussed on us. They were super friendly, courteous and completely unfazed by all the dietary restrictions and demands we threw at them. And the food…ah the food! I have, and this is no exaggeration, never had a meal like that before or since. Coming as it did right after some disastrous meals in the Kumbakonam hotels, this was like manna, heaven, little violin strains in the air, fireworks, eternal salvation and all other hyperboles rolled into one. In other words, it was awesome! It was so awesome we told them to make some more for us to take back to Kumbakonam and they happily obliged. So having refreshed our bellies and eyes and cooled our bodies down back to normal temperature, we ventured back out in the mid-day heat to visit the neighboring Danish fort.

Dansborg, the main trading post of the Danish East India company stands majestically on the rocky shores of the Bay of Bengal. Unlike the Dutch fort in Sathurangapatinam, this one has an intact and strong compound wall facing the sea and the inside is much better restored. There was still some restoration work going on in some parts of the fort, but the main entrance and the museum was open. The museum is very well “stocked” with a lot of artifacts belonging to the Danish period, including the original charter from the Nayak of Tanjore giving them the land on which the fort stands. There are as usual a number of artillery and armory exhibits and also some stamps and coinage of that time. The best part of the fort is that it is very well ventilated. The breeze from the sea cools every corner of the building that I didn’t see a single fan in use. We spent a long, pleasant afternoon sitting on the parapet and “watching the ships that go sailing by”****. There were a lot of families with young kids and a class excursion of primary school children having a picnic in the premises. And I must say I was pleasantly surprised to see all of them being very careful about picking up the litter after themselves. Finally after about an hour or so of this we decided to make our way to the 14th century Pandiyan temple on the other side of the bungalow.

Masilamani Nathar kovil*****, built by the Pandiyan king Maravarman Kulasekaran at the turn of the 14th century stands at the edge of the beach on a rocky outcropping. Recently, I believe after the Tsunami of 2004, this got a face-lift by the government (?) and stands now with a multicolored gopuram almost daring the sea to wash it away. It is remarkable that despite the devastation that the Tsunami caused in that area, and the constant hit it takes from the yearly monsoons, this temple has stood there for over 700 years! I think I read that some of the shrines have been washed away or submerged by the encroaching sea in all these years, but the main shrine still stands. I would not be able to tell you what I saw inside because it was locked when we got there. Trying to make our way to the other side of the entrance to peek through a possible window, we stumbled our way over some rocks only to run into some drunkards sprawled on the doorway. Seeing us, one of them rushed at us waving his arms and shouting unintelligibly and thoroughly freaking my mom out. But his companions soon dragged him off and we quickly scrambled back to the safety of the shore!

It was an eventful trip, full of good food, good sights and great adventure. What more can one ask? As usual, photos up here.

*sorry for the bad pun. But to misquote the Cops theme song, : whatchya gonna do when the come for you? Bad Puns, Bad Puns…?” Why, put them in a blog post is what!

**not one but two. The original restoration was completed and the hotel was inaugurated on Christmas eve, 2004, only to have the Tsunami batter it the next day. Kudos to their resilience in retaking another restoration, completing it and operating a really great resort. I read recently they are negotiating with the government to renovate the fort and open it as a luxury hotel also. I look forward to that.

***I found these incredibly beautiful, authentic golu bommais (painted clay dolls) that adorn some nooks around the entrance and the great hall. I dogged the manager and the watchman and found out that they got it at antique stores in Pondicherry and Auroville.

****with due apologies to Sinatra. And of course they were not ships, but boats, but even so!

*****another unique name for a temple. The only “Masila” I know is the one that comes in this song from which I take the meaning to be “darling”. So…”Darling Pearl Lord” temple?! Let the suggestions and comments flow!

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7 Comments

  1. Oh this was the fruit salad place huh? Please post at least some pics along with narrative no, it would feel so good to see the pic immediately after reading your description. As it is keeping track of your *s is getting to be hard at the end of the blog.

  2. Awesome. Gladdens my heart to see something restored — not once but twice. How many such treasures lie in the trash heap now! Well, very very happy. Great adventure. Kudos to you for having found these places.

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