Tharangambadi, also known as Tranquebar, is a small coastal town in the Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu, India. It is a town that bears witness to the legacy of Danish colonialism in India. Its unique history has made it a popular destination for history buffs and tourists. The Danes initially settled the town in 1620, and they established a trading post here that would become one of their most important bases in India. The Danes brought a distinct cultural identity, which is evident in the many buildings and monuments that dot the town’s landscape. Despite its rich history, Tharangambadi has been largely abandoned recently, and many of its buildings and landmarks have fallen into disrepair. 

Lost in Time: Tharangambadi – Danish History - Sheet1
Fort Dansborg, built in the 17th century as seen in 2007; part of the wall is now under the sea_©wikipedia

History of Tharangambad

The Danish East India Company was founded in 1616, and it quickly established several trading posts in India, including Tharangambadi. The town’s strategic location on the east coast of India made it an important centre for trade with other countries in Southeast Asia and Europe. Tharangambadi was originally known as Tarangambadi, which means “place of the singing waves” in Tamil. The town’s name was later changed to Tranquebar by the Danish, who established a fort and used it as a centre for their colonial activities in India.

The Danish established several important institutions in Tharangambadi, including a printing press, a botanical garden, and a museum. These institutions helped promote the town’s cultural and intellectual life and played an important role in shaping the town’s identity as a centre of learning and culture. The Danish also significantly impacted the town’s architecture and urban design. They built several important buildings and landmarks in the town, including the Dansborg Fort, the Zion Church, and the New Jerusalem Church. These buildings were designed uniquely, blending European and Indian architectural styles, a distinctive feature of Tharangambadi’s cultural heritage.

Lost in Time: Tharangambadi – Danish History - Sheet2
A view of the Danish settlement in Tranquebar with the Dansborg fortress in southeast India, 1658_©wikipedia

The Danish colonial period in Tharangambadi lasted until 1845, when the town was ceded to the British as part of the Treaty of Copenhagen. The British continued to use the town as a centre for their colonial activities in India. Still, they had a different cultural and intellectual impact on the town than the Danish had. After India gained independence in 1947, Tharangambadi became a part of the newly formed state of Tamil Nadu. The town’s historic landmarks and buildings were largely neglected in the following years and fell into disrepair.

However, there has been a renewed interest in preserving and promoting Tharangambadi’s cultural heritage in recent years. Several initiatives have been launched to restore the town’s historic landmarks and buildings and promote sustainable tourism. Tharangambadi’s rich cultural and colonial history has made it a popular destination for history buffs and tourists. The town’s unique blend of European and Indian architectural styles has become a distinctive feature of its cultural heritage. Tharangambadi could once again become a thriving hub of cultural and economic activity with continued investment in infrastructure and tourism promotion.

Reasons behind the abandonment of Tharangambadi

Tharangambadi’s decline began in the late 18th century when the British East India Company began to dominate the region. The Danes were eventually forced to cede control of the town to the British in 1845, and this marked the beginning of the end for Tharangambadi as a Danish settlement. Over the following decades, Tharangambadi was gradually abandoned as its residents migrated to other parts of India in search of work and better opportunities. The town’s strategic importance as a trading post also declined and was eventually relegated to the. status of a small, forgotten backwater. The town’s fortunes were dealt a further blow in 2004 when it was hit by the devastating tsunami that swept across the Indian Ocean. Tharangambadi was one of the worst affected areas, and many of its buildings and landmarks were damaged or destroyed in the disaster.

Lost in Time: Tharangambadi – Danish History - Sheet3
Historic map of Tranquebar_©https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Historic_map_Tranquebar.JPG

The reasons for the abandonment of Tharangambadi are complex and multifaceted. Still, the primary reason for the decline of Tharangambadi was the economic decline of the Danish East India Company. As the company faced financial difficulties, it was forced to cut back on its colonial holdings, including Tharangambadi. The Dutch, the British, and the French had their colonies in the region, and they competed with each other to control the lucrative trade routes in the Indian Ocean. The Danish needed to be able to compete effectively, and this put them at a disadvantage. Tharangambadi was in a politically unstable region and was vulnerable to attacks from neighbouring kingdoms. 

The Danish could not provide sufficient protection, making it difficult for them to maintain control over the colony. In the mid-19th century, Europe’s movement was growing against colonisation and imperialism. This sentiment was reflected in the Danish government’s decision to divest itself of its colonial holdings, including Tharangambadi. There was also significant resistance to Danish rule among the local population, who resented the imposition of foreign rule and the exploitation of their resources. This resistance contributed to the instability of the colony and made it difficult for the Danish to maintain control over the region.

Architecture in Tharangambadi

The Danish built the Dansborg Fort in the 17th century in Tharangambadi, a significant landmark in the town. The fort combines European and Indian architectural styles and features a watchtower, a moat, and a courtyard. The New Jerusalem Church, built in 1718 by the Danish, blends European and Indian architectural styles and features a Dutch gabled roof and an Indian-style entrance. The Masilamani Nathar Temple, dating back to the 13th century, features a mix of Dravidian and Pallava architectural styles. The Ziegenbalg House, built in the 17th century by the German missionary Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg, is another example of colonial architecture in Tharangambadi. The house blends European and Indian architectural styles with a thatched roof and a central courtyard.

Lost in Time: Tharangambadi – Danish History - Sheet4
Fort Dansborg – Established in 1620 and partially renovated in 2002 by the Tranquebar Association, View from the governor’s bungalow_©wikipedia

The current condition of Tharangambadi

Today, Tharangambadi is a shadow of its former self. Many of its historic buildings and monuments have fallen into disrepair, and the town’s streets are quiet and largely deserted. There are only a handful of shops and restaurants in the city, and most residents are fishermen who eke out a living from the sea. Despite its dilapidated condition, Tharangambadi remains a popular tourist destination, drawn to its rich history and unique cultural heritage. Visitors can explore the town’s many landmarks, including the Dansborg Fort, the Zion Church, and the Danish Governor’s Bungalow.

Efforts to preserve and revive Tharangambadi

Recent efforts have been made to preserve and revive the cultural heritage of Tharangambadi. The Tamil Nadu government has allocated funds to restore many of the town’s historic buildings, and several of these have already been restored to their former glory. In addition, the Tamil Nadu Tourism Development Corporation has launched several initiatives to promote tourism in the area, including constructing a new museum that showcases Tharangambadi’s rich cultural heritage. Despite these efforts, however, Tharangambadi still faces many challenges. The town’s infrastructure needs to be improved, and many buildings urgently need repair. The lack of basic amenities such as clean drinking water and sanitation facilities has made it difficult for the town’s residents to lead comfortable lives.

The future of Tharangambadi

Despite the challenges that Tharangambadi faces, there are reasons to be optimistic about its future. The town’s unique cultural heritage and historical significance make it a valuable asset, and efforts to promote tourism and preserve its heritage will help to attract visitors and boost the local economy. Several initiatives are also underway to address some of the town’s most pressing challenges. The Tamil Nadu government has announced plans to invest in the town’s infrastructure, including constructing new roads and providing basic amenities such as clean drinking water and sanitation.

The Danish fort of Dansborg, built in 1620 at Tranquebar (Tarangambadi), faces outward to the sea_©http://www.childrencare.dk/rejse/Tranquebar26ST.jpg

In addition, several grassroots organisations are working to promote sustainable development in the town. These organisations are focused on creating new job opportunities for residents, promoting eco-tourism, and preserving Tharangambadi’s unique cultural heritage. One of the most promising initiatives is the Tharangambadi Heritage Project, a collaboration between the Tamil Nadu government and several local NGOs. The project aims to preserve and restore the town’s historic buildings and landmarks while promoting sustainable tourism and creating new job opportunities for residents.

The project has already made significant progress, with several buildings and landmarks restored to their former glory. The project has also helped create new job opportunities for residents, including skilled artisans trained in traditional crafts such as wood carving and pottery. In conclusion, Tharangambadi is a rich town in history and culture, but it has fallen into disrepair in recent years. However, many efforts are underway to preserve and revive the town, and there are reasons to be optimistic about its future. Tharangambadi could once again become a thriving hub of cultural and economic activity with continued investment in infrastructure and tourism promotion.

Reference

  1. www.neemranahotels.com. (n.d.). Danish History of Tranquebar | Tranquebar Mission | Neemrana Hotels. [online] Available at: https://www.neemranahotels.com/blog/the-danish-history-of-tranquebar.html 
  2. ‌Rangan Datta. (2022). Tranquebar (Tharangambadi), Former Danish Colony in Tamil Nadu. [online] Available at: https://rangandatta.wordpress.com/2022/01/26/tranquebar-tharangambadi-former-danish-colony-in-tamil-nadu/ 
  3. ‌Wikipedia. (2023). Tharangambadi. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tharangambadi#:~:text=The%20place%20dates%20back%20to 
  4. ‌www.telegraphindia.com. (n.d.). Tranquebar — A piece of Denmark on the coast of the Bay of Bengal. [online] Available at: https://www.telegraphindia.com/my-kolkata/places/exploring-the-danish-history-and-coastal-charms-of-tharangambadi-or-tranquebar-near-puducherry-in-tamil-nadu/cid/1870111 
  5. ‌Turuhi. (n.d.). Tharangambadi : The Land of the Singing Waves in India. [online] Available at: https://turuhi.com/story/the-land-of-the-singing-waves 
  6. Far (2021). Tharangambadi – The Danish Town In Tamil Nadu. [online] Adotrip. Available at: https://www.adotrip.com/blog/tharangambadi-tamil-nadu.
Author

Khushi is an interior designer who believes the key to understanding is communication, and what could be a better medium than words? She finds joy in little things as they matter a lot. She enjoys rom-com literature and poetry, always keen on learning something new.