In the centuries since Vasco Da Gama led the first Portuguese expedition to India, the subcontinent developed into a key possession and trading post for all the major European powers. The British, French and Portuguese all had their East India Companies and colonies in the region. While the British went on to take over almost the entire country, and the Portuguese and French left an indelible influence on Goa and Pondicherry, another European power was also active in the subcontinent. The small fishing village that was the centre of influence for the Danish East India Company is now a quaint fishing village that remains frozen in time on the east coast of Tamil Nadu.
Tranquebar, now known as Tharangambadi, is an easy single-day’s drive from Chennai, 300-odd kilometres down the East Coast Road (ECR) which runs all the way down the eastern seaboard of Tamil Nadu from Chennai to Tuticorin.
Drive out of Chennai early after breakfast, hit the ECR and reach the tollgate at Kanathur just outside city limits. From here, a Rs 45 ticket will take you through till the outskirts of Pondicherry, and that’s the only toll you pay on the drive.
Unlike a lot of other major roads in Tamil Nadu that have been expanded into dual-carriageways, ECR remains firmly two-lane. The lack of a divider means you need to be a lot more alert behind the wheel and keep a sharp look-out for errant pedestrians and animals as well as oncoming traffic.
Driving at a leisurely average speed of 70-80kph, you’ll cross the temple town of Mahabalipuram (well worth a day’s stay in itself if you have the time) and reach Pondicherry before lunchtime. And if you are indeed in time for lunch, take a short detour onto the Auroville road and stop at Tanto’s Pizzaria. Tanto’s is now a Pondicherry landmark and it is easy to see why.
The most popular items on the menu are obviously the signature wood-fired pizzas, but you can also order a variety of salads, pastas and seafood. The restaurant itself is an unpretentious roadside eatery, but the freshness of the ingredients ensures that you will keep coming back for more. We visited on a Monday afternoon; by the time we left, almost every table was full.
Back on ECR, you need to take the outer (bypass) road around Pondicherry and continue on (having crossed back into Tamil Nadu) past Cuddalore towards Chidambaram and Nagapattinam. The ECR is the arterial road in the area and over the years, short bypasses have been built to help you speed past almost all the towns on the route.
As you get close to Tharangambadi though, it’s advisable to have Google maps or a GPS device enabled as there aren’t too many signboards around, except for the small roadside boards pointing the way to Hotel Tamil Nadu and Bungalow On The Beach, the only places to stay at Tranquebar. The final 20km to the village are on narrower roads with many sharp curves, and you’ll need to be alert to avoid the many Pondicherry transport buses that drive like they’re racing Sebastian Vettel to the chequered flag.
Enter Tharangambadi through the old archway and it’s like you are driving into another world. In the years after the devastating tsunami of December 2004, this small fishing village has been rebuilt and there are almost no traces left of the damage wrought by the large wall of water.
Bordered on two sides by the Bay of Bengal and the backwaters of one of the many tributaries of the Cauvery river, this sleepy fishing village has an outer ring of traditional Tamil village buildings. But once you drive past the outer walls of the citadel, the traditional European style of architecture is unmistakable and, at first glance, appears quite otherworldly.
Drive past the church of Zion and the monument to Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg (one of the first Protestant missionaries to come to India) and you arrive at the newly rebuilt waterfront. Your eyes are immediately drawn to the remains of Fort Dansborg (construction of which started in 1620), the erstwhile headquarters of the Danish East India Company.
On the left is one of the old colonial homes that’s been converted into The Bungalow On The Beach, a Neemrana Group-run heritage hotel that, along with the substantially cheaper Hotel Tamil Nadu (also managed by Neemrana), are the only places to stay in the area. If you can budget for it, The Bungalow has to be the place you stay at for the full Tranquebar experience.
The hotel’s eight guestrooms feature high ceilings, wooden floors and antique-looking furniture, and open onto a balcony that offers stunning views of the Danish fort and the ocean. The rooms are creatively named – we stayed at Christianus Septimus, a room with a garden view, named after a Danish ship that sailed into Tranquebar in the 17th century.
Once you’ve checked in, you can spend the rest of the day at the beach, where you’ll find a surprising number of day trippers and tourists from all sections of society watching the crashing waves as night descends over the Bay of Bengal. Since Tharangambadi is now a fishing village, the fresh seafood should certainly be a large part of any meal you have here, though the only place to eat is at the hotel restaurant itself.
Wake up early next day to catch the sunrise. Since our visit was during the monsoon, our plan to do so was thwarted by the remnants of the previous night’s thunderstorm. Even at that early hour though, the water front was beginning to get busy, with the local fishermen heading out to sea for their day’s labour, while the tourists made good use of their proximity to the ozone-rich air by setting out for a long morning walk.
After breakfast, you can head to the Danish Fort complex, open to tourists from 10am to 5pm, with an hour’s lunch break in the middle of the day. An entry ticket for Indians costs Rs 5, while foreigners pay Rs 120. A still camera pass costs Rs 30, while there’s a Rs 100 charge to shoot video (no tripods allowed).
The old fort complex is relatively well preserved, with different sections of it in various states of repair. A single-storied building runs alongside the main walls on the southern, western and northern sides (the erstwhile troop barracks, warehouse, kitchens and jail), while pride of place on the eastern seafacing side goes to the dual-storied main fort complex, built to protect Denmark’s small pocket of influence in India. The lower storey of the main fort complex, once the magazine (ammunition depot)
and a warehouse for the Danish East India Company, now plays host to some administrative offices and a museum that showcases items that document the Danish influx and influence.
A leisurely walk through the museum room will reveal some old gear, anchors and cannons from the ships that once braved the oceans to come to Tranquebar, exoskeletons of some large (and quite frightening) fish, pottery and ironwork. There are also copies of the original treaties between Admiral Ove Gjedde and the then local ruler Raghunatha Nayak, which gave the Danes control over the area.
Your next stop is the Zion church. Sanctified in 1701, it is the oldest Protestant church in India and the remarkably well-preserved building is a striking reminder of the architectural prowess of the times.
Across the road from the Zion church is the memorial to Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg, one of the two Lutheran missionaries who arrived from Germany in 1705 to establish a mission in Tranquebar. While the memorial calls him the very first Protestant missionary to come to India (he is usually credited with being one of the first), he was also responsible for setting up one of the first printing presses in India when he set about reprinting the New Testament in Tamil in 1705. While the printing press itself is long gone, the building that housed it, now a youth hostel for boys, remains in the neighbourhood.
Once you’re done with the culture tour, head back to the hotel and settle down on the balcony with a cold drink, breathe in the ozone-rich air, feel the heavy breeze wash over you and relax. In fact, that’s the one thing we would recommend to anyone who has been inspired to take the drive to Tharangambadi.
While it is an easy two-day trip from Chennai, we suggest you factor in a day or two dedicated simply to recharging your batteries on the seafront. While Tranquebar was undoubtedly a busy trading post in its day, the tranquil fishing village that is Tharangambadi today undoubtedly lives up to the Tamil meaning of its name — land of dancing waves.