Tranquebar - an unexpected Danish settlement

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February 17th 2015
Published: February 17th 2015
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Our first stop after leaving Pondicherry is the vast temple at Chidambaram. Another of the important Shiva temples of south India, and considerably less hassling than those we have visited so far. This is clearly a very rich temple. There is an important ceremony of some sort taking place. The temple is full of Brahmins in their distinctive white sarongs, with the Brahmin string diagonally across their chests and with partly shaven heads, and the crowd is massed outside the gold roofed inner sanctum, which on this occasion we are allowed to approach. But given the crush of devotees straining to watch the priests perform the ceremony, we can see very little. Much ringing of bells and clashing of cymbals; somewhere inside there a priceless bejewelled image of Nataraja, but it is not visible. We drift off around the vast pillared walkway around the sanctum, intermittently turning off to visit yet another shrine to a different deity. And always the heavy dominant smell of the temple, a mix of flowers and scented oil and ghee and that indefinable smell of the massed ranks of humanity. We leave the first temple and wander slowly – very slowly, given the heat – towards the tank, the holy body of water which is almost invisible behind high walls. We find a second temple, with painted ceilings and columns that makes up what it lacks in size and grandeur with the quality of the decoration.

Onwards to Tranquebar. Established by the Danish East India Company (yes they had one too) in 1620, the Danes sought to use it as a trading base with varying degrees of success until 1845 when they rather gave up and sold it to the British for a few bob. It has a ruined fort, and several Protestant churches established in the 17th and 18th centuries. All neat and well ordered, not Indian at all. We stay in a heritage property called Bungalow on the Beach despite having two floors. Nobody can tell us how old the place is, but it looks as if it could date back to Danish times. We visit the Danish fort and ponder how tough the earliest settlers had it. At one point it was 25 years before the next Danish ship made it safely to Tranquebar, by which time there was only one Dane left alive. Luckily he was the fellow in charge of the port!

The village was badly affected by the 2004 tsunami. Over 800 people died, mostly women and children, but there are no obvious signs remaining, apart from a memorial stone.

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