India’s Scandinavian secret

India's Scandinavian secret

On the edge of the Bay of Bengal in South India is a town whose name in the local language sounds as mellifluous as its meaning: Tharangambadi, or “land of the singing waves”.

But in the early 17th Century, this tongue twister of a name proved too difficult for the incoming Danes, who altered it to Tranquebar, by which it is still known to this day.

Although most people have heard of India’s French colony of Pondicherry, it’s little known that the Danes colonised part of India ­– especially a corner far removed from the major trading cities of Chennai, Kolkata and Mumbai.


India's Scandinavian secret
View image of Little-known Tranquebar sits quietly out of the limelight (Credit: Credit: Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo)

The Danish East India company, created in 1616 under King Christian IV for trade with India and Ceylon, had its eye on the Coromandel Coast in India’s southeast for its pepper and cardamom.

Danish ships arrived in Tharangambadi in 1620. And Raghunatha Nayak, ruler of the surrounding Thanjavur kingdom, willingly entered into a trade agreement with the Danes, giving them possession of the town for an annual rent of 3,111 rupees and allowing them to export pepper to Denmark.

Despite the region previously being ruled by the influential Chola and Pandiya Tamil dynasties, and later by the British – to whom the Danes sold Tranquebar in 1845 for 1.25 million rupees (approximately £14,400 today) – it was under Denmark that the seaside town came into its own.

A report published by the Danish Indian Cultural Centre of Tranquebar claims that “The long period under Danish rule transformed Tharangambadi from an Indian village into a hybrid Danish town encircled by a wall, grid pattern street layout and a strong fortress on the coast.”


India's Scandinavian secret
View image of Dansborg Fort is one of the most recognisable sights in Tranquebar (Credit: Credit: Dinodia Photos / Alamy Stock Photo)

In fact, one of the first things the Danes did upon arrival was to build the imposing Dansborg fort as their commercial hub. At its peak, this was the second largest Danish castle in the world after Kronborg (also known as Elsinore), the setting for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. They also brought Protestantism with them, following it up with India’s first printing press to print the Bible in Tamil.

And although this town of 24,000 people is officially Tamil, remnants of its Danish past are still evident everywhere.

The main entry into town is through the Landporten (Town Gate), part of the original fortification wall around Danish Tranquebar, which is painted white and sports the Danish royal seal.

The road signs of those days – with names like King Street (translated from Kongensgade by the British) – still exist in contemporary India, with imposing colonial buildings rubbing up against diminutive Indian homes.


India's Scandinavian secret
View image of Most schools in Tranquebar are managed by convents and churches (Credit: Credit: Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo)

And the education system in Tranquebar is entirely a legacy of the Danes: most of the schools are managed by the Catholic St Theresa’s Convent and the Tamil Evangelical Lutheran Church.

In March 2016, the fort’s museum contained interesting documents from the heydays of Danish rule, including a carefully preserved copy of the sale deed between the Danes and the British, old maps of the town and a collection of miniature Danish ships that first docked at Tranquebar.

But some of the fort’s main areas were cordoned off for restoration work. Unlike many colonial towns, where remnants of the past have been left to fade away, Denmark’s strong attachment to its first trading outpost can still be seen. 

The Danish Tranquebar Association, which is carrying out the fort renovations, is a volunteer agency formed by four friends in 2002. It now has more than 200 members.


India's Scandinavian secret
View image of Old Danish buildings are being carefully restored in Tranquebar (Credit: Credit: travelib prime / Alamy Stock Photo)

Poul Petersen, vice president of the association and one of the founding members, says that he was fascinated by Tranquebar from the time he studied it at school in Denmark. The retired headmaster visits twice a year and has brought students from his school to make sure the story of this shared Danish-Indian history stays alive.

“After that first round of the Dansborg fort restoration, we hoisted the Indian flag and the Danish flag on the top,” he said.

And this pride goes all the way to the top. According to SB Prabhakar Rao, the honorary Vice Consul of Denmark in Chennai, the Danish Government is honoured to have this shared history.

“The Danish government believes that their history is incomplete without a reference to this significant period. So they have preserved these historical records carefully in Copenhagen’s museums and archives. And Danes still like to visit Tranquebar to identify the graves of their ancestors in the local cemetery,” he said.


India's Scandinavian secret
View image of The Danish revival in Tranquebar has opened up more opportunities for the locals (Credit: Credit: Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo)

The Danish Tranquebar Association has restored the Danish Churchyard, one of the town’s oldest cemeteries where many Danes are buried, and more recently, the Danish Governor’s Bungalow. Their current project is the 18th-century Danish Commander’s home, which will eventually house a museum, library and a Danish-Indian cultural centre. But they initially won the trust of locals by helping out after the terrible tsunami of 2004, providing new boats for the fishermen as well as building a granite protection wall along the coast.

According to school teacher S. Marina, “Tharangambadi people welcome [the Danish people] because we can’t forget their help after the tsunami. Even before the government stepped in, they had helped us repair our homes and buy new boats.”

And for locals, the Danish revival means more visitors, which in turn means more economic opportunities. R. Sankar, Marina’s husband, has spruced up one of the rooms in his house and plans to add two more on the open terrace on top, as a homestay option.

“Many foreigners are coming to Tharangambadi now, but they don’t have budget hotels here,” he explained.


View image of At its peak, the Dansborg fort was the second largest Danish castle in the world (Credit: Credit: Hornbil Images / Alamy Stock Photo)

Depite tourist interest, while Pondicherry, just more than 100km away, is widely hailed as a slice of France in India, Tranquebar, with its rich European heritage, sits quietly out of the limelight. Yet Tranquebar still to this day has a mutually cordial and sustained relationship with Denmark.

As Petersen said, “The people of Tranquebar consider the Danish period as a good time, and think of us as friends.”

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