The Danish History of Tranquebar

Three hours away from Pondicherry lies a quiet, unassuming town - Tranquebar. Visitors are welcomed by a 200-year-old gate with the Danish emblem engraved on it, lending a hint of what’s to expect. Home to around 25,000 people, it is called Tharangambadi by the locals, but once upon a time, it was also called Tranquebar.

In the 17th century, the Danish king, Christian IV decided to establish trade relations with India. His representatives landed in Tharangambadi, which belonged to the kingdom of Tanjore. They were allotted the town to conduct trading operations, as a gesture of goodwill and friendship by Ragunatha Nayak, the then king of Tanjore. The Danes found the old name quite difficult to pronounce, so they renamed their new home Tranquebar.

Danish history of Tranquebar

The first Danish trading post was established here in 1620. They promptly built the imposing Fort Dansborg after receiving the land from the king. It is still the second-largest Danish fort in the world. Two hundred years later, trading opportunities for cotton and pepper from this little town on the Coromandel coast had dwindled, and the Danes sold their fort and the town to the burgeoning British East India Company in 1845. The fort is now a museum and houses artifacts and relics that showcase the Danish history of Tranquebar.

In 1706, almost a century after trade relations were first established between Denmark and India, two German missionaries were sent to Tranquebar at the behest of the Danish king, Frederick IV. They were Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg and Heinrich Plutschau, the first Protestant missionaries in India. Upon landing, they quickly went about their assignment of converting the local populace to Christianity. In the process, Ziegenbalg fell in love with the land and the language. So much so that he went to local schools and learned Tamil. He was heavily involved in translating the Bible into Tamil. In fact, Tamil was the first Indian language the Bible was entirely translated and printed into, credit to Ziegenbalg, who took it upon himself to import a printing press from Denmark. He was instrumental in printing it and distributing it among the locals.

A model of the original printing press that Ziegenbalg imported is on display at the Tranquebar museum, which was once Fort Dansborg. The Tranquebar mission also built Zion Church and New Jerusalem Church for governors and soldiers/general public respectively. The former is one of the oldest Protestant churches in India.

Tranquebar mission

The tsunami of 2004 extensively damaged the remnants of the Tranquebar mission like New Jerusalem Church and Tranquebar Fort. Most damages have been repaired, but hints of the destruction are still visible in some places.
When one thinks of former foreign colonies in India, Denmark is not the first name that comes to mind. Come stay at the Neemrana Bungalow on the Beach (which was also owned by the Danes at one time), and learn first hand, the history of the place they call 'land of the singing waves'.