Down south in the Indian subcontinent lies a land of the singing waves, now called Tharangambadi. Then, Tranquebar. A remnant of a danish colony, this town is a standing reminder of the east’s competition to dominate the coveted spice route.
Tharangambadi is a little village by the bay, in the district of Nagapattinam, TamilNadu. An ancient danish fort stands as the landmark of this village which is dotted with old churches and pieces of the Danish heritage.
The story of a danish fort and India’s first printing press
Tharangambadi is one of those places where history witnessed the origins of modern technology. This very land where India’s first printing press printed the New Testament in Tamil, is the land that the Chola and Pandya kings once ruled.
The oldest monument in this place is the Masilamani nathar temple. This temple was built in 1306, on a land donated by a Pandya dynasty king, Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan I. Interestingly, an inscription from this time period calls Tharangambadi, ‘Sadanganpade’.
Tharanganbadi, was an area of importance back in the 10-14 centuries when it was ruled by Cholas and Pandyas. The rulers of Sadanganpade were so famous that in the 15th century, the Danish king King Christian IV sent his envoy Ove Gjedde here. Raghunatha Nayak of Tanjore was ruling Tranqubar when Ove Gjedde first arrived.
The beginning of the Danish colonisation in Tranquebar and fort Dansborg
Ove Gjedde arrived in a land by the ocean that was a major trading port, flourishing in commerce with the Arabs and Portugeese. Looking at the potential this port town holds, the Danish captain made a treaty with Vijaya Raghunath Nayak which led to building the second largest danish fort.
With the treaty signed, the Danish built a magnificent fort in 1620, called Dansbourg. This fort marked the beginning of colonisation of the south. Quickly, the Danish East India company was in full swing, exporting peppercorns and spices back to the Danish land.
The Danish ruled over Tranquebar till 1845 before selling it to the British.
The architecture of India’s only remaining Danish fort at Tharangambadi
The side of the fort that is facing the sea is of two layers or ‘floors’. The lower floor housed servants, soldiers, and prisoners. On the upper floor was the Danish governor’s residence. The upper floor also housed the priests, a church, and now a museum. Adjacently in the lower floor was a warehouse, storeroom and horse stables.
The entire fort is shaped like a trapezium. You can clearly see the nearby Uppanar river gushing in the background.
Interestingly, today, none of the fort’s doors and windows have doors in them. It is believed that during the end of their colonisation period, the Danish ran into financial issues. To make ends meet, they pulled out the metal doors, molded them into weapons and sold them.
Notably, rustic yellow walls and ceilings distinguish the Tharangambadi fort from the others. Back in the day, the architects mixed egg yolk, limestone, calcium powder, nutmeg and inknut to make a unique limestone plaster. They then added calcium sulphide once the mixture fermented. This gives the fort walls a rustic smooth finish.
However, due to bankruptcy, the Danish were forced to sell this beautiful fort to the British East India Company in the mid 1800s.
The Dansborg fort has been renovated in recent times by the government of Tamil Nadu with the help of the Danish Royal family and the state’s archeology department.
The fort that survived 2004 Tsunami
The most interesting aspect of the tharangambadi fort is that it stood the test of nature’s biggest challenge. In 2004, the Tranquebar fort survived the tsunami that hit the Indian subcontinent. Even with just being 100 meters from the ocean, the Tranquebar fort did not suffer much loss. This excellent Danish architecture withstood the tsunami that wiped away houses and killed almost 700 people in Tharangambadi alone.
The arrival of India’s first printing press and Ziegenbalg
Back in the 15th century, the Danish were not the only foreigners. The Portugese soon joined the band, but this time, the foreigners spread literature rather than trade.
With the arrival of Portuguese, came in one of the notable protastant missionary and a lauded tamil literary scholar, Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg.
Zeignbalg played a key role in the growth of tamil literature alongside preaching the protastant gospel to the locals. The Tharanganbadi locals revered him for his knowledge even while some within the Danish fort itself were against it.
But one of the important events that put Tharangambadi in the map of Indian history, is the arrival of India’s first printing press.
Specifically, in the year 1709, Zeigenbalg requested the Denmark government to send him a printing press. The Danes forwarded the appeal to London to the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. With SPCK’S efforts the first printing press with type, paper, and ink started its journey to India in the year 1712 .
Zeginbalg writes about this in his letter on April 7th, 1713 as,
“We may remember on this Occasion, how much the Art of Printing contributed to the Manifestation of divine Truths, and the spreading of Books for that End, at the Time of the happy Reformation, which we read of in History, with Thanksgiving to Almighty God.”
Following the printing press’ arrival, Zeignbalg’s tamil translation of the Bible’s New testament became the first book to be printed on Indian soil.
Tharangambadi tourism: Best places to visit in Tranquebar
Tharagambadi is located just 35kms north of Nagapattinam on the east coastline of Bay of Bengal. This danish village is home to the Tranquebar fort Dansborg and India’s first printing press. But, these aren’t the only interesting places in Tharangambadi. It is also home to several other historic locations such as,
- Tharangambadi Arch (Gateway of Tranquebar)
- New Jerusalem Church
- Zion Church
- Tharangambadi Maritime Museum
- Governor House
- Tharangambadi Beach
- Masilamaniswarar Shiva Temple
If you ever visit Tharangambadi, do not forget to peek into all these places. Especially the Maritime Museum and the 1718’s Zion Church is a site to view! Additionally the inside of the governor’s house is sure to remind you the mesmerizing Thirumalai Nayakar Mahal in Madurai.
I am sure they’d take you back in time to a town which was once the famous Danish colony of india.
How to reach Tharangambadi?
Tharangambadi is easily accessible by road, train, or by air. Here’s how to reach Tranquebar easily,
Locals: You can reach Tharangambadi through several district buses or by local autos and cabs.
Other district/ state visitors: Quickest way to reach would be by reaching Trichy by air and then taking the local transportation such as state run buses or local cabs. Tharangambadi is also easily reachable from districts and states through its extensive railway and by road connectivity.
Foreign visitors: If you do not have a direct connecting flight to Trichy, you can take a flight to Chennai International terminus, and then a connecting flight to Trichy.
While you are there soaking in the beauty of the bay of bengal, why not take a ride to a little ghost town at the tip of India – Dhanushkodi. I am sure, its tragic past would give you the chills!
Finally, been to Tharagambadi or simply liked its story?
Do let me know in the comments below.