Monday, November 10, 2008

Tranquebar - the place of the singing waves and reiterating history

Another trip which I had been planning for a long time. Tranquebar, the European version of Tarangambadi which means the place of the singing waves. The place is famous for Dansborg Fort, a Danish fort, in fact the only Danish fort in India.

3:40 at night, I reach Tranquebar after seven hours and changing two buses, the last one a three and a half journey from Pondicherry. Sharing a triple seat with two oversized men, I don’t know how much of sleep I managed. Or if at all I managed any.

The first thing I see as I step out of the bus is a group of fishermen waiting for buses to go to places and sell their catch. As I walk off the highway, I see goats sitting, sleeping and walking on the road. A truck comes along the way, waking up a couple of them. I then spot a tea shop. I have a tea, converse with the locals asking them about the places and what all there is to see, apart from the fort. To this, one of them quickly replied “we’re here”. They told me I was way too early. I thought nevertheless, I could go and see the beach.

As per the directions they had given, I walked straight through the dark night and dark roads. Ahead in a distance, a colony was visible with a decent amount of lighting. I move towards it. And there’s an old gateway at the entrance, the gateway of Tranquebar. Just as I enter, the sound of the waves reaches me, a loud and spooky sound. As I move forward, the sound gets lost. I make my way through a few European architectural structures. A few of them seemed to be churches and a few others were hotels. And then I reach a rocky beach. Towards the southern direction was a huge structure. Even though the lighting was meager, I could figure out it was the Dansborg Fort.

I moved closer to the sea. The “place of the singing waves” was at its melodious best. The waves in the darkness were very loud, spooky and mysterious. So I decided to sit on a rock there and kill time. But the scary sounds of the wave made every muscle in my body tighten. In due course of time, I conquered my fears and sat on the rock, slowly starting to enjoy the music. It was still just 430. Waiting for the sunrise, I sat down and started to pen down a few thoughts, stimulated by the sound of the waves.

Tranquebar and the symphony of mystery
The waves roar louder and louder
Bringing alive many an emotion!
They join hands to create a symphony
Or melancholy, yet of rejuvenation.

When the night is at its darkest
and stars are hidden by clouds,
the waves collide with rocks
and create that enigmatic sound.

The sound can not be deciphered by mind;
It converses with the soul.
It elevates you to a higher level,
A euphoria one can not control!

Thoughts just wander aimlessly
in a pensive state of mind.
Searching for answers and reasons,
we trivial humans can never find.

I’m still waiting for the sun to come out of the sea
and give it’s first rays, still rubbing it’s eyes
To give a new dawn and shed some light
over nature’s musical instruments in disguise

Slowly the sea turns from black to dark blue
The sun is on it’s way
A shooting star falls from the sky
What more can I wish for today?

As I write it, the sun is slowly rising. After that, I move closer to the sea. A man was standing there. A localite who had just come to see the sunrise. I break into a conversation with him. Navaneetha Krishnan tells me about the beautiful sunrise at the ozone rich beach. “The high contents of ozone helps maintain the cool temperature of the breeze and it’s ideal for people with breathing problems” said the high school physics teacher. We then were talking about nearby places. He mentioned the karaikal beach and velankani church as other places which have to be seen.

Then he pointed at a structure towards the northern direction. It was a 13th century temple built by the pandiyans, the Masillamani temple. “It is the only Indo-chinese temple” he said, a temple which was built by collaboration of the Pandiyans and the Chinese which incorporated both styles of architecture as well as prayers. Alas, the temple was reduced to a single structure due to sea erosion, cyclones and the tsunami. It was initially a temple of three mandapams which were built into what was now the sea. We went closer to have a closer look of the temple as the temple.

While taking a stroll back from the temple, I was being told about the tsunami. Navaneetha Krishanan said he was in Pondicherry at that time and he returned to see a flood of dead bodies. The rocks which were in the sea caught my eye. The looked like a group of bricks. They were in fact, the walls of the temple, another victim of the devastating Tsunami!

Later he talked about the dutch colony which had settled in the area. The Danish came in 1602 and built the Dansborg fort. They sent two german missionaries for propogating crhistianity and for social service, Barthalomeus Ziegenbalg and Plutschau. Ziegenbalg was apparently a friend of John Guttenburg who invented the printing press. Ziegenbalg, brought the printing press to India. He learnt and mastered Tamil in two years and printed the Tamil Bible. That was the first book printed in India, in the first printing press in India.

Later on Navaneethakrishanan returned and I went around seeing the place, waiting for the fort to open at 10 AM. There was a cross erected besides the sea. A memorial dedicated to Ziegelbalg and Plutschau. There was a New Jerusalem church built in the 17th century, a Zion Church and a few schools, some of which were boarding schools. One interesting fact about Tranquebar is that it is a place of great religious harmony. With numerable churches, mosques and temples in the same area.

Next I see a Ziegelbaulg memorial which enlists his achievements. I instantly developed a great admiration for the man, not only because he mastered Tamil in two years and I am still not able to talk Tamil properly, (even though I have heard it all my life and have been in Chennai for over 7 months now) but because he was the first to do many things in life. I have always believed it is more important to be the first, rather than to come first. And here was a man who was the first to carry out several tasks. Apart from the previously mentioned accomplishments of the Tamil Bible and printing press, he was also the first to start a girl’s school, first to write the Tamil dictionary, calendar etc. He also wrote a great deal on south Indian gods and conducted inter religion dialogues. I’m surprised how much a man can do in a lifetime.

Then I move along the beach in order to kill time, take pictures of the rising sun, and relax on boats on the seashore, enjoying the ozone rich breeze. Right besides me, a fisherman comes out of water with his catch. I get to see the process of taking fish out of the net. I never thought it was so tedious. The fish’s jaws are stuck to the net when it is caught in the net. So the net which comes like a huge ball is unwound and then spread out and fish which are stuck to the net are pulled out. The funniest is to see crabs being pulled out. When the fisherman manages to release legs on one side of the body and goes to the other end, the crab again entangles its legs on the first side to the net. The whole process took half an hour and the amount of fish was only enough to half fill a bucket.

So now with two hours in hand, before the fort opens at 10, I have breakfast and roam around when a man comes out of a white ambassador car. Since the car looked like a government car, I thought he had come to open the fort. But he was another visitor like me, a doctor from Thanjavur who has written a few books on traveling, a great history enthusiast. We waited for some time and the gate opened at 10 am sharp. The fort is a big structure, though not occupying a lot of space. It would hardly be 2 acres of land.

It was in a colour and architectural style alien to us at India. It was nothing similar to the other European structures in Delhi or Pondicherry or even the other structures in Tranquebar; the churches were built in german architectural style. The first floor was the godown, prison and rest area for the soldiers. The first floor was the residence of the governors and the priests. The ground floor consisted of many empty rooms and hallways which were ideal for lovers to write their names and spoil a structure of archeological and national heritage. This aspect was used to its full potential with names scribbled in all languages. Anybody could find his/her name there.

The second floor was converted to a Danish Indian museum. There were many things from pots to weapons used by the Danes. The old history enthusiast doctor loved it so much, it looked like he was getting nostalgic and as if he had eaten from those pots. A small museum rather which extended to three rooms. From the first floor, It was a nice view of the sea. It was breezy and airy.

The fort was built by the Danish in 1620. Tranquebar or Tarangambadi was a very busy port and the capital of Thanjavur back then under the Chola king Vijaya Raghunatha Nayak. They first bought the land as trading centre from the king and with his permission, the Danish built the fort. Tranquebar was the first colony of Denmark at a time when Norway was also a part of Denmark. The fort marked the beginning of the Danish East India Company. By 1777, Tranquebar was completely under their control. In 1845, the fort was bought by the British and is now under the control of the Archaeological department.

By 11, I leave tranquebar. It was a short affair as I had to come back home and catch up on a lot of sleep.

Tranquebar, a place like no other, is a place of so much historical importance, yet not a part of our history text books. It is a matter of shame for us that despite such importance and beauty, tranquebar is still one of the lesser known tourist destinations.