The Danish town


The Danish settlement of Tranquebar or Tharangambadi is not as well known as the other colonial settlements of the British, the French and the Portuguese. This little town, almost an outpost to European adventures in India, is reasonably well-preserved, and a small gem, says Sonali Pradhan, who visited the town recently.

Despite having lived in Chennai for half my life and having spent two years in Pondicherry while I completed my Masters, I had not heard of this quaint little town called Tranquebar (renamed ‘Tharangambadi’, the place of the singing waves).

Years after I left Chennai, while browsing for offbeat destination where I could spend a relaxed weekend, I came across Tranquebar. This is the only city that is a former Danish colony. While parts of India were colonised by the other European countries, the Danes were happy with this town.

Looking at the images of the sunrise, sunset and the only boutique hotel in the town – ‘Bunglow on the Beach’ (BoB), and I was sold. I was ready to pack my bags and head to spend the weekend in Tranquebar. A friend showed interest and we were all set to explore a new place. I was glad I had company as we could then share the expenses. BoB is a pricey accommodation, but well worth it.

We caught the earliest flight we could at 5 a.m., and landed in Chennai well before the restaurants opened their doors to serve breakfast. I miss this city, Chennai, if not for anything else, the sambhar and ven Pongal! Thoughts of having breakfast at Saravana Bhavan, A2B or Murugan Idli were dashed, as we didn’t want to waste an hour commuting in the city.

I asked the driver of the vehicle we had hired, to take the ECR (East Coast Road) route via Pondicherry. Driving past Marina beach, ECR evoked nostalgia, it was beautiful at that hour. The salty sea breeze, rows of casuarina trees framed against old, damaged boats moored on the sandy beach – it was a beautiful drive.

En route we stopped at Sangeeta’s for breakfast and later at Auroville for the mandatory morning fuel. It was well into lunch time when we sighted the town gate of Tharangambadi; the gate badly needed a coat or two of paint. We were excited – both of us for different reasons. My friend was happy that she could stretch her legs and take a short nap before exploring the city, and I because the beach was calling to me. 

While the hotel staff completed our registration formalities, we looked around, and were awestruck by the property. A bell boy saw our fascination and informed us that BoB was once the summer residence of the British collectors, that the Neemrana Hotel Group had restored into a boutique hotel. They have very few rooms – seven or eight across two levels. The rooms are spacious and very well maintained. When we entered the room allocated to us, we realised this was nothing like the typical hotel room. We thought each piece of furniture, bed, wall décor, bathroom had been handpicked with great thought and attention to detail. The four-poster bed with lace curtains, the writing table with a chair, the window curtains, lighting of the room, décor – everything was tastefully done. Instead of the usual bedside table, there were barrels. We were told these were from the ships that made many voyages between the two countries – India and Denmark! The room had a view to the sea. Oh! what more could one ask for? There was another door that opened to a path that led to the swimming pool, restaurant, and one could take a walk within the hotel premises. 

While the breakfast is included in the room tariff, lunch and dinner can be ordered from the limited a la carte menu. The options of dining out are limited. There are shacks that serve limited meals or “parotta”, and Chinese food, but you have to swat the flies that seem to be everywhere. It’s best to dine in, the food is tasty, and is hygienic.

Exploring Tharangambadi

The Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health

Post lunch and a short nap, we decided to explore the town. We did not need a guide or our vehicle, as one can do a walking tour. We decided to visit the beach last so we could watch the sunset and the sky turn hues of orange and pink before it disappeared into the horizon. Our first stop was the ancient Masilamani Nathar Temple built in 1305. It is close to the beach and still bears the scars of the 2004 tsunami. We then headed towards the town gate (Landporten as the Danes called it). As we walked through the small town, we saw buildings from the colonial era, carriage porches, and stucco walls. Since the city has a small population, many of whom were either indoors or at the beach, we felt we owned the streets. We had multiple stops in the middle of the roads for numerous photo sessions. It didn’t feel like we were in India! We stopped by the majestic churches, each of which had a pristine white exterior. Walking past the Fort Dansborg, Dansborg Archaeological museum, the Governor’s Bungalow, we headed to the beach. The serene beach soothed our nerves, lulling us into a soporific mood. We took a leisure stroll along the coastline, spotting vendors selling their fare – chaats, ice creams, balloons, and other trinkets.

As the darkness grew, we headed back to BoB. We decided to eat at the restaurant – they have a small indoor restaurant, but we decided to take a table near the pool, on the verandah. A good choice. We had the view to the pool, the hotel and the sea. It was then we realised we were probably the only Indians in the hotel! Conversation flowed easily and we were no longer strangers in the town! We got to know some of the other guests who were from USA, Europe, and Japan. It wasn’t a surprise considering the not so budget friendly tariff of the property, many Indians prefer to stay in the nearby towns – Nagapattinam or Chidambaram – both of which are under an hour’s drive from Tranquebar.

The waves crashed against the rocks (so yes, the beach is not a safe place to swim!), and that sang us a lullaby as we drifted to a sound sleep. At the crack of the dawn, we slipped through a side gate to the beach – it was a private beach at that unearthly hour! The rhythm of the waves can have such a calming effect on any stress one may feel. As the sun’s rays tried to slip through the dense clouds, we spotted a few fishermen cast their nets, a few joggers, and many like us – just watching the sunrise that did not happen, as it was a cloudy day .

Post the breakfast, we checked if we could be shifted to a room on the upper floor for a better view of the sea. It was possible since there were a couple checking out. Shelling out a little more for a bigger room that had a better view of the sea, we dumped our backpacks and headed to explore the Dansborg Fort and the Archaeological Museum housed within it. If you have been to Rajasthan – do not conjure the images of those forts. In comparison, the Dansborg Fort is much smaller. It houses a collection of curios and artefacts from when the Danes ruled – coins, fish bones, porcelain, weapons, paintings.

While we were in there, a group of school students came in. As their teacher gave them a guided tour, we hung around to get a free lesson in history of the fort, the place and other trivia. The students were more curious to know about us than the museum! Since we both could speak the local language – Tamil, the kids were happy and asked us many questions. Since we were not in a hurry, we spent some time with them before heading to Velankanni. An hour’s drive later we arrived at the Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health, also known as the “Lourdes of the East”. This time our driver acted as our guide and told us the miracle stories of this place. We also passed the mass burial ground, and it was a sad sight to see the tombs of the victims of 2004 tsunami.

Post lunch at one of the many restaurants, we headed back to Chennai to catch our flight home!

Sonali Pradhan

Sonali Pradhan when not at work, enjoys exploring places and interacting with the locals. She loves to binge watch crime thriller series and/or movies. Sonali is a memomagnestist – has over 900 magnets that she has curated from her travels and/or have been gifted to her.