A small historic town on the east coast of the province Tamil Nadu in southern India
. It was badly hit by the 2004 tsunami
, and there are various reminders of that catastrophe. In addition it is a very pleasant, and very unusual little place with deeply Christian and Danish (!!) roots.
More background info:
There was just a little coastal village here with a Shiva shrine until the Danish arrived in the early 17th century. That's right: Denmark
also had colonial aspirations in India
, just like Portugal
, the Netherlands
), and, of course Britain
. And the Danish also had an equivalent to the British East India Company (which until 1857 basically “ran” the British colony in India), namely the “Danish East India Company”
The Danish founded “Dansborg” here – a settlement and fort, now only known simply as the Danish Fort. The Danish colony lasted from 1620 to 1845, when Denmark ceded its Indian possessions and the Fort was sold to the British. Yet the place is still known as Trankebar in Denmark and there many cultural connections holding with Denmark to this very day.
In between, Tranquebar also became the first entry point for Christian missionaries in south India. And in this case it was a Lutheran missionary
who started it all: Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg
, who arrived in Tranquebar in 1705.
He was not only a religious missionary, but also an educator – and a keen learner of the local customs and languages himself. He went on to produce the first translation of the Bible into Tamil, and by means of an imported printing press (also the first to arrive in southern India) printed the first copies of the New Testament in Tamil in 1714. He is buried in the village's second oldest church, the New Jerusalem Church, which he had also founded in 1718. Other Germans followed to continue his work.
To this day, Tranquebar remains a Christian colony of sorts, with both Ziegenbalg's New Jerusalem Church and the older Zion Church (1701) still fulfilling their original purpose, plus there are a number of Christian schools/missions and convents – alongside a few Hindu temples and a mosque, all coexisting peacefully.
Like so many places in India
over the last few decades or so, Tranquebar was also renamed, probably to bring its name in line with the local language and ancient references to the place. So, officially Tranquebar has since 1986 been called Tharangambadi
, and you'll find it as such on most modern maps. But the old name still coexists with the new one, and as a tourist destination the old one still sticks. Hence I will also continue to refer to the place as Tranquebar.
The rich colonial architectural heritage in Tranquebar fell somewhat into disrepair over the decades since independence, but in recent years concerted efforts have been made to refurbish many of the old buildings to their former glory (sometimes overdoing it a bit, as in the case of the Danish Fort, which is now painted a rather garish pink). The work is still ongoing.
, the devastating Boxing Day Tsunami
, that started with a massive earthquake in the Indian Ocean off the Indonesian
coast at Banda Aceh
, also hit the Indian
coast around Tranquebar. The flood waves reached about one storey high and hundreds of people were killed. The infrastructure of the place, and its fishing industry, were also badly affected.
Following the disaster, Tranquebar received help from various NGOs and funds came from abroad for rebuilding and redevelopment. For instance there is a new fish auction hall that was built with tsunami-relief funds and a vocational school funded by the Hope Foundation and Manpower Inc.
But even without the tsunami, the sea constantly battering the coastline has caused a lot of erosion. In fact a whole part of old Tranquebar around where Salangaikara Street used to be was swallowed up by the ocean. Even before the tsunami, a “rubble mound sea wall” was begun to provide protection for the village. After the tsunami these efforts were intensified, and now this kind of breakwater should prevent further such serious erosion (hopefully).
What there is to see:
I had Tranquebar worked into my three-week itinerary of India
in 2016/17 to represent the topic of the 2004 tsunami
(cf. Banda Aceh
in Sri Lanka
). Of course many places were affected by this disaster all around the southern coastline of India, but Tranquebar offered the advantage of being quite well established for tourism in these otherwise not especially touristy parts of Tamil Nadu.
This is mainly thanks to the rather unique historical legacy of this place (see above
), which also made for some not quite so dark but still very interesting sights.
The No. 1 attraction is obviously the old Danish Fort. Photos I've seen from only a few years back showed a much older looking place with peeling paint and crumbling walls in places. But it has now been completely refurbished and seriously spruced up. Although that's been done in a not altogether convincing fashion – with that rather kitschy, garish pink colour they chose to paint the walls with it almost looks artificial.
You can go inside (a small admission fee is charged: 50 rupees + 30 for a photo permit) though there isn't really that much to see. In the courtyard some niches branching off into the main bulwark are labelled indicating their former functions (e.g. 'beer and wine storage'). One marked 'room for gun powder' was once reputed to be the entrance to a secret tunnel system, but that myth has since been debunked.
The main building of the Fort is home to a museum, but there isn't all that much to see inside either. A few maritime artefacts, Danish documents, cannonballs, a swordfish sword, whale bones … plus some text panels providing a bit of history. But nothing of particular interest in dark-tourism terms.
A slight indication of something a little darker is to be found just west of the Fort, namely the old overgrown cemetery, the Danish “Nygade churchyard
”, behind the New Jerusalem Church. It looks quite atmospheric from the fence, but you can't access it. A plaque says it was renovated in 2004 by the Tranquebar Association of Denmark
A lot of renovation of other parts of the town has also taken place in much more recent years – not just the old Fort, but also the gatehouse, the churches, the old colonial administrative buildings and so on have received a new coat of paint and some structural work. Much of this work is still ongoing at some of these buildings. But the main street, King Street, is already completely done up again.
At the eastern end of King Street stands a relatively recent monument
in honour of the early Christian missionaries, in particular Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg
) who is represented here (in that typical Indian way) as a shiny golden life-size statue.
Along the street stretching westwards you then come to the two oldest churches of the place, facing each other across the road: the 1701 Zion Church to the north, the 1718 New Jerusalem Church to the south.
Inside the latter you can find Ziegenbalg's grave and also see the German-language inscription by the altar (an English version hangs on a side wall). In the churchyard outside there is also a pirate's grave, complete with the classic markings of skull and crossbones.
King Street ends towards the west at the old main Gate
to the fortified town (bits of wall are still there to the left and right of the gate). Next to it one of the old colonial buildings, simply called The Gate House
, has been converted into a historic hotel. The old governor's mansion at the eastern end of the town, right opposite the Danish Fort and overlooking the coast has also been turned into a charming historic hotel, now called “Bungalow on the Beach
” (see below
under accommodation). Just north of this is the old Shiva temple
Still within the inner old core of the town, along Queen Street (aka Rani Street) is Tranquebar's simple “Maritime Museum
”. On the promise by my guide that this would contain a section about the 2004 tsunami
, I insisted on visiting it, despite the inflated admission fee of 50 rupees (for foreigners – Indians get in for 5).
Inside, however, there was nothing at all relating to the disaster. The curator said those bits had been moved to the museum at the Danish Fort – yet I never saw anything like this there either. To “make up” for it he sold me a CD ROM (for another 50 rupees) supposedly containing footage and images of the disaster – but when I got home I found it wouldn't play on any of my computers (neither Mac nor PC).
The museum's “exhibition” in general is more of a jumble room, all crammed into a single simple hall. Unless you enjoy looking at old seashells, ropes, fishing nets and the like, don't bother.
Tranquebar's main 2004 tsunami memorial is to be found just outside the inner town core's gate, a bit to the north, close to the canal. It's a black marble obelisk with names of the victims at the bottom. Another, smaller and simpler tsunami monument can be seen a bit out of town 2 miles (3 km) to the north.
My tour of Tranquebar also included a visit to a vocational school built with tsunami-relief funds where I was shown around the classrooms, which at the time of my visit were largely empty and quiet. But you could see that much of the instruction provided here is on textile manufacturing skills.
I couldn't see any remaining tsunami
damage as such, or at least I couldn't be sure. There were some ruins and dilapidated structures around, but these may well have been in the state they were without the tsunami having been the culprit, just fallen into disrepair over time.
A bit north of the Shiva temple on Tranquebar's seafront is a model of the town
, or more like a relief map. And on this you can see how much of the town has been swallowed by the ocean through coastal erosion – marked in a darker tone of colour on the map/model. From here you can also see the “rubble mound sea wall” put here to protect the town from further erosion (see above
Looking north, or down the coast further south, e.g. from the Fort, you see the unprotected beach with its fishing boats. On the coast directly in front of the Fort old broken bits of wall battered by waves are the ruined remnants of the harbour that this once was.
All in all
, my visit to Tranquebar may have not have been especially dark – with some of the tsunami
-related sights rather on the small scale and a bit underwhelming, but overall I was quite smitten with the town as such. It was certainly a lovely respite from the grimy, hectic and noisy India I had encountered in so many other places in the weeks before. I was also pleasantly surprised to see how much effort was being put into preserving the old colonial heritage here. That's also something you don't get everywhere in India (cf. e.g. Nicholson Cemetery
, and India
, lies directly on the coast, roughly in the middle of the Indian
south-eastern coastline of Tamil Nadu
, some 145 miles (235 km), as the crow flies, south of the state capital Chennai
, and about 65 miles (100 km) from Pondicherry
. The nearest other regional town of any significance is Karaikal, 7.5 miles (12 km) to the south.
Google maps locators:
Access and costs: Quite some way off the usual tourist routes and with limited public transport; mid-range, price-wise.
getting to Tranquebar isn't so easy. Doing it on public transport would certainly be quite a hassle. I had a hired car with driver, which is obviously the more expensive option, but that at least got me from door to door without hassle, other than the ca. 6-7 hours it took for the drive each way from/to Chennai. (And unless you are experienced with Indian traffic, driving it yourself cannot be recommended – see under India
for comments on road traffic in this country.)
There are buses serving the East Coast Road down from Chennai, but I have my doubts the ca. 200 miles (330km) journey can even be done in a single day that way (or at least it would have to be a very long day, so you'd need at least two nights in Tranquebar).
Theoretically Tranquebar also has a railway station – allegedly, going by the map in the brochure I was given at my hotel. But I never saw any trains, not even from a distance, on my way there and back. So I can't say whether rail travel would really be an option.
Getting around: Many of the sights within the core of Tranquebar itself can be explored easily on foot. For some of the places mentioned above that are a bit further out, you'd need transport. I was on tour with a local historian guide and for transport we used the car and driver who had taken me to Tranquebar before the transfer back to Chennai. Of course, you could try local motorbikes and auto rickshaws, but the language barrier may be a bit harder to surmount down here than in the big cities.
Accommodation in Tranquebar is provided by a small number of hotels and guest houses – of which the prime one is the “Bungalow on the Beach” right on the square opposite the Danish Fort and with views over the seafront. It's marketed as a “non-hotel” by the local small chain of heritage hotels that runs it. In this case the historic building is the converted former governor's house. The colonial charm of the whole place is indeed absolutely lovely, including the rooms. The best bits are the high-ceilinged central hall and the wrap-around balcony on the first floor (where most of the guest rooms are). The hotel also has a pleasant pool and restaurant service. The place alone is worth travelling down here for, in my view.
Personally, I really couldn't find fault with the hotel, though some reviewers judge the facilities and the restaurant service a bit too basic for the price charged. True, you are a captive audience here since there are no other restaurants or even dhabas anywhere around, and the food and drink
provided by the hotel isn't of the widest range, but I loved what I was served and didn't find it too overpriced. Note, though, that no alcohol is served here. The room I had may not have been as flashy as in a modern hotel, but it had everything needed (even a room safe) and was oozing atmosphere by the bucketful.
Time required: My guided tour around Tranquebar lasted about four hours or so, but you may want to explore on your own a bit as well, so a whole day can probably be easily spent here sightseeing. And if you also just want to enjoy the peaceful tranquillity of the place, you can stay any amount of time really. A British visitor I met at the Bungalow on the Beach had already been there two weeks!
Combinations with other dark destinations: None that I am aware of that could be easily visited by foreign visitors …
The only other indication of tsunami
commemoration I noticed were some amateurish paintings by the roadside in a town north of Tranquebar, seen from the car on my drive back to Chennai. (It may have been in Cuddalore, south of Pondicherry, though I can't be quite sure.)
For those with an eye for the dark aspects of environmental problems
, there are some places en route between Tranquebar and Chennai and the wider area that could be of interest, especially chemical industrial plants (cf. Bhopal
!), also on the northern edge of Chennai, as well as large lignite strip-mining pits a bit inland from the coast. But none of these are in any way commodified
, the capital city of Tamil Nadu and hence the most likely entry point for visitors to this state, is also one of the springboards for trips to the Andaman Islands
(the other being Kolkata). Its airport also has connections to Sri Lanka
to the south as well as international destinations further away (including even direct ones to Europe, such as London
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Tranquebar itself is in the main a rather more non-dark destination – though I'd hesitate calling it “mainstream” (that's part of its charm that it isn't so overdeveloped for tourism and more of an insiders' secret). Some of its attractions have already been covered above
Foreign tourists I encountered here were primarily French, but Danish visitors are naturally also common here, followed by Dutch, German and, of course, British. The French connection is certainly due to the fact that Tranquebar isn't that far from Pondicherry, which is a veritable French outpost in India. (Yes, the French also had a dabble at colonialism in India, just like the Danish). Pondicherry also has lots of colonial-era architecture as well as a popular seafront (though sea erosion has affected its beaches as well).
Further north still, Tamil Nadu's modern capital city Chennai
(formerly Madras) is also emerging as another main tourist destination in the south of India
- Tranquebar 01 - main square
- Tranquebar 02 - the seafront at dusk
- Tranquebar 03 - the old Danish Fort at dawn
- Tranquebar 04 - inside the Danish Fort courtyard
- Tranquebar 05 - not a secret passage
- Tranquebar 06 - contemporary Danish plaque
- Tranquebar 07 - overgrown old cemetery
- Tranquebar 08 - atmospheric relic
- Tranquebar 09 - King Street
- Tranquebar 10 - missionary monument
- Tranquebar 11 - New Jerusalem Church
- Tranquebar 12 - German inscription inside
- Tranquebar 13 - Ziegenbalg grave
- Tranquebar 14 - Zion Church
- Tranquebar 15 - Hindu temple
- Tranquebar 16 - old gate
- Tranquebar 17 - former missionary residence
- Tranquebar 18 - restoration work in another colonial house
- Tranquebar 19 - Bungalow on the Beach
- Tranquebar 20 - inside Bungalow on the Beach
- Tranquebar 21 - wrap-around balcony
- Tranquebar 22 - inside another 17th century restored house
- Tranquebar 23 - less glamorous
- Tranquebar 24 - lost street eroded away by the sea
- Tranquebar 25 - two-tone model of the town indicating the losses to the sea
- Tranquebar 26 - in the Maritime Museum
- Tranquebar 27 - main tsunami memorial
- Tranquebar 28 - that fateful date
- Tranquebar 29 - another tsunami monument
- Tranquebar 30 - vocational training centre
- Tranquebar 31 - theory
- Tranquebar 32 - coastline
- Tranquebar 33 - tsunami depictions