The Fort by the Sea – a trip to Tranquebar (Tharangambadi)

In her absorbing lectures, the renowned art historian Chithra Madhavan often laments about the lackadaisical restoration work carried out by ASI in some of the temples in Tamil Nadu. Ancient murals on temple ceilings plastered over or redone tactlessly, broken structures cemented in a manner of filling cracks as if in a regular construction scenario – many temples and monuments have suffered such fate. Thankfully no such misfortune has befallen in the upkeep of the Danish fort of Tharangabadi. Though the salty breeze that taunts the structure has accounted for erosion, the fort retains its charm despite the concrete wall hugging it, smothered in fading pink paint.

Built in the year 1620 by the Danish admiral Ove Gjedde who headed the expedition on behalf of the Danish East India Company to establish trade links with India, the fort was called Dansborg (stone house) before it was anglicized when it changed hands to the British. Thanjavur’s King Ragunatha Nayaka leased out Tharangambadi to the Danes following a trade pact. Tharangabadi was subsequently sold to the English East India Company in 1845 for an amount of Rs.12.50 lakh, the deed of which can be seen on display at the museum.

Inside the fort
Inside the fort

Another component of Tharangabadi’s ancient history is the sea-facing Masilamani Nathar temple, which was supposed to have been built by the King Maravarman Kulasekara Pandian in 1306. Despite the Danish occupation and the ensuing conversion of swathes of population in the coastal village, the temple still stands on the shores braving the winds, gesturing religious harmony.

Masilamani Nathar temple at a distance
Masilamani Nathar temple at a distance

I arrived in Tharangabadi as early as daybreak on a weekday, ignorant of the rhythms of life in a coastal village not used to many tourists. The only tourist footfall is during holidays and weekends when hordes of people throng the fort that also houses the museum. School going children gape at me and some daring ones asked their pictures to be taken, tea shops wake up from their slumber, their copper tea pots sending up swathes of smoke and students in the many teacher training institutes that dot the King Street uniformly dressed in many hues of blue and pink saunter on.

The Zion Church
The Zion Church

As in any other colonial invasion, Tharangambadi also witnessed an influx of Christian missionaries from far and beyond in an effort to proliferate the reaches of Christianity. Shortly afterwards, churches were built to accommodate the growing population of devotees. The Zion Church, The New Jerusalem Church and the Lutheran Church jostle each other for space in this coastal village. Of these, The Zion Church is considered to be India’s oldest Protestant church. The missionaries also brought the first printing press, subsequently printing the bible in Tamil for distribution among the local populace.

Steeped in cultural history and architecture, Tharangambadi is also home to as many as 33 heritage buildings of which at least two of them – The Bungalow on the Beach and The Gate House provide accommodations. The Pondicherry chapter of INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage), a non-profit working in the areas of heritage conservation and awareness is working in Tharangambadi to restore many structures in the village. Some of the structures restored include Bungalow on the beach – which was later converted into a heritage hotel run by Neemrana Hotels – and a few houses on the Goldsmith street.

the sea facing entrance of the fort
the sea facing entrance of the fort

Meanwhile, I trained my camera at the Landporten, the Town Gate, built to mark the entrance of Tharangambadi in the year 1660. The gate was built afresh in 1792 by the governor of the region Peter Anker at that time and bears the year on its forehead. Now though, part of it has been encroached upon by settlements, huts stand alongside the gate rubbing shoulders with it, nullifying its effect as an entrance to the village that stands testimony to a piece of history owing to its colonial past.

Landporten - the town gate
Landporten – the town gate

The fort and the museum associated with it didn’t open until after 10 a.m. and the beach is a good walk from the Town Gate – the street of which houses institutions starting from the Zion Church ending with the Bungalow by the beach property that almost touches the lip of the beach. Fisher folk prepare to set out for the day, sorting their nets out, and school bells herald the beginning of yet another day. The Masilamani Nathar temple stands facing the beach and is now awash in freshly painted glory – in preparation of an upcoming temple festival perhaps.

The fort - another view
The fort – another view

The fort has a rampart wall with bastions and also houses barracks, kitchen, church and lodging for the governor and other senior officials. There is also a lower storey used as arsenal storage. Though there were signboards announcing an ‘information center’ and ‘crafts on sale’, they are empty and fallen to disuse – understandably so owing to the insufficient visitors the fort attracts. The accompanying museum displays many artifacts unearthed in the area including lamps, decorated terracotta objects, sculptures, figurines, lamps and cannon balls.

The Tharangambadi fort
The Tharangambadi fort

On a clear day, the fort and its backdrop of azure blue sky provide excellent photo-ops. The breeze whips you up incessantly but it is a small price worth paying for a secluded spot of history tucked away in a remote corner of India’s colonial past.

Fact Sheet:

How to get there

Karaikal is the nearby town that is accessible by both road and train from major cities. From Chennai there are over night trains and from Bangalore there are buses to Pondy, from there Karaikal is 132kms away. From Karaikal, Tharangambadi is just a bus ride away (around 17kms).

Where to stay

Tharangambadi has premium range accommodations including the renovated ‘The Bungalow on the beach’ run by Neemrana hotels. If you want to do it in budget, Karaikal has numerous options providing clean and basic accommodation. I stayed at Atlantic Inn at Rs.600 per night, single bed. However, if you insist on staying on a budget, Hotel Tamil Nadu provides doubles at Rs.800 per night.

What to eat

The restaurant at the Neemrana run The Bungalow on the beach is legendary for its seafood. Tharangambadi has not too many eateries other than the tea-shacks, so plan your day accordingly if you do not want to stick around for food.

Nearby places of interest

Karaikal’s beach and port, Pondicherry’s beaches are worth visiting. If you are into temple architecture, visit Thirunallar, Thanjavur, Karaikal Ammayar Temple and the church of Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health in Velankanni.

Have you been to Tranquebar? Leave a comment and let me know.

This appeared in The Alternative and can be accessed here.

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A River Runs Through It – Karwar

Karwar has all the makings of a sleepy seaside town – tiny fishing boats moored on the shore that hugs the highway, the bridge on the NH17 that runs through the confluence of Kali River flowing into the Arabian Sea, the tiny tree-fringed islands strewn across the ocean and the beach huddled by the Western Ghats.

Being a prominent coast guard navy base, a considerable stretch of Karwar’s beaches falls in the navy’s restricted area and is hence inaccessible to public. The recent integration of INS Vikramaditya into the naval fleet has called for another expansion for which about 25 km of the coastline has been acquired by the Indian Navy. The expansion, called Project Seabird, will also include the tiny beach called Lady Beach which will be soon unavailable for public access.

the highway across karwar

I arrive in Karwar on a cold morning when the catch of the day is being sold to fish sellers over much haggling. Avinash, whom I meet and befriend at the Riveredge resort I stayed in, agrees to take me around. The thing though is that he rattles off just way too many things to wrap my head around – Sadashivgad Fort, Warship Museum, Devbagh beach, Tilamati beach, Majali beach, Kurumgad Island. We finally agree on the specifics and set out in his bike.

A resort stands in place of the Sadashivgad Fort that, according to the inscriptions, was built in 1715 by the Raja of Basavalinga of Sonda who named it after his father Raja Sadashiva but the Durgamma temple, restored and rebuilt in 1928, is still functional. The fort changed hands from Sonda dynasty to Portuguese to British. The approach road to the fort’s strategic view points, however, is non-existent. We ride an uphill road, precariously over loose gravel interspersed with huge gaping potholes. It is a wonder that even a miniscule of tourist population negotiates these tiny boulders to reach the resort.

The viewpoint amidst rusting cannons and boulders offer sweeping views of the estuary of Kali River. Thickly wooded rock faces emerge out of the ocean, as if strewn across hastily by some mighty force – Kurumgad, Devbagh, Lighthouse – Avinash cites the names of each island, pointing them to me. We tackle bushes and carved tree trunks to reach the other side of the resort for a different view – here, the NH17 runs through the river connecting Karwar to Goa in the north and the rest of Karnataka down south.

Serpent eagle’s soar overhead, scanning the landscape for possible prey. I can see the road hugging the coast. I am lured by the possibilities of boat rides to all these islands. A boat can be hired, I was told earlier. But there are also the best kept secrets – the beaches, visible from where I stand. We take a ride along the coast. At the Majali beach, crows and kites hover dangerously close to my head while picking the surplus shrimps shored up on the beach.

“I am taking you to places where tourists don’t bother to reach,” Avinash tells me. “You sure are,” I reply. He points to a lone, humungous rock just a few meters from the sea and tells me that the locals call it the bucket island. “Because it is shaped like a bucket,” he says. “An upturned one for sure,” I think. Along the ridge of Majali, just on the other side of the mountain is the Tilamati beach, the black sand beach.

Legend has it that Rabindranath Tagore wrote his play Prakritir Pratishodh in the Karwar beach. Honoring his love for the beach, the beautiful beach is named after him. I walk across the highway towards the beach benches and the vantage point and the deck for viewing sunset. A tattooed, dreadlocked biker couple lounge on a concrete bench gazing at the sunset over conversation – possibly on their way to the Karnataka’s hippie haven, lesser Goa, Gokarna. A bunch of snack vendors position their push cart for the evening’s business of heaped golden yellow bhel and tiny, crusty gol gappas. They are early as the sun is only now preparing to descend down the misty sky. They set their business up and lay in wait for truckers passing by and the locals who are out for an evening walk.

There is a lingering indolence to everything in this listless coastal town. The confluence of the river and sea seems to snuff out the tide’s vigor so the beach is laidback. Owing to the geographical location, the town straddles between the thickets of the forests of Western Ghats on the one side and the sea on the other. In Karwar, time seems to slow down. And the locals are oblivious to these endowments. Avinash only seems to agree.

The Coast of Many Colors – Coastal Karnataka

Karnataka’s Karavali coastline extending from Mangalore in the south to Karwar in the north along the Arabian Sea for about a little more than 200 kms is undiscovered and hides in plain sight numerous unspoiled beaches, temple towns and opportunities to take pleasure in water sports. These virgin beaches have yet to descend into the main tourist circuit and they also lack proper tourist amenities and infrastructure but unbidden guests persist in discovering the coastline’s unique splendor of river-sea confluences, estuaries and tiny islands off the coast.

 

Karwar's estuary view
Karwar’s estuary view

Karwar

The first vision of Karwar you catch sight of as the bus enters into the sea-side town is that of a still-watered beach huddled between the peaks of Western Ghats. But that beach though is not open for public since it is located inside coast guard premises – few of the coastal town’s beautiful beach stretches are housed inside the naval base in Karwar and hence inaccessible. Much of what is accessible for public in Karwar will require a tiny bit of effort to get to owing to lack of above mentioned civic amenities – barely-there roads and virtual non-existence of road signs.

I am of the persisting kind and I befriend a local as soon as I land in Karwar amid the strong smell of fish with crows and kites fighting for leftover fish as fishermen and sellers prepare their catch for sale. Avinash, a resident of Goa who has moved to the riverside village of Hanakon off Karwar recently after having bought property agrees to take me around. Having worked and lived in this region for a few years now, Avinash has contacts in the hospitality industry and hence I get access to the view point at a resort that is built among the ruins of the Sadashivgadh Fort.

The Kali river flows into the Arabian Sea in Karwar and the resultant estuary could be the reason for the tide-less beach in the town. Standing atop the fort ruins gives me the aerial view access of the kite flying just above my shoulder. The numerous islands – Kurumgad, Oyster Rock Light House, Devbagh and the Tagore Beach fringed with thickly wooded trees are visible. I persuade Avinash for a ride along the coast and to the lesser popular beach of Majali. We watch biker couples enroute Gokarna relax on the beach benches on the highway gazing at the sunset and talk to the speed boat operator about possibilities of hiring a boat to a visit to all the islands.

Gokarna

While Karwar revels in its raffish charm, in a sort of unchartered magnificence, Gokarna thrives in its popularity as the lesser Goa. It doesn’t have the full fledged attention deserved for Goa (for the lack of Goa’s festive vibe) but as a destination approachable within Karnataka and with an instantly recognizable vibe of a hippie culture – tattooed, dreadlocked Caucasians with sunburst hair, skin et al– Gokarna preens in the glory of its handful of pretty beaches.

Kudle exudes an air of a commonplace beach destination, Om and its eponymous Namaste beach shack is a jaunt for brief holiday makers – college going kids, young professionals and honeymooners. Paradise though prides itself with an unattainable aura that requires one to negotiate spiky boulders and rock faces on foot. But if you do take the effort, staid tranquility lingers. You will also spot lone artists – writers or musicians from far, far away land that may or may not be on the verge of breakthrough with their creative pursuits. They stay in shanties, will engage you in a conversation for the sake of humoring you and they know you can’t stay the night in paradise beach.

Kagal

“You could have called me from Om beach and I would have sent you a boat,” the sinewy, beads-wearing, overgrown beard sporting, Kamal who owns the Nirvana Beach Resort tells me. Kagal is that rare beach, the existence of which is only spread word of mouth. Or you have to stumble upon it somehow when you take beach hikes.

Located off the Agnashini river estuary, Kagal is tricky to locate – even the local rickshaw drivers draw a blank when asked to be taken there. But if taking long walks on beaches with only dogs (Kamal has six of them, most of them Rottweilers and a few strays) for company while spotting humungous crabs burrowing themselves into the sand at approaching footsteps is your thing, Kagal might suit you. That boat ride to reach Kagal though, will be something.

Murudeshwar

The name Murudeshwar evokes the image of a towering Shiva statute at 123 ft, alongside the 20-storey temple complex overlooking the beach. Murudeshwar has religious significance and receives excessive footfalls on festive occasions. On such occasions, palmists line up the street leading to the temple peering into the hands of youngsters seemingly predicting their future. A stream of sari and burqa clad pilgrims and their families pour in and out of the narrow road that’s lined with stalls selling orange colored jalebis freshly being fished out of the boiling oil alongside shops hawking pink teddy beards. The beach becomes a hub of activity, crammed with tourists taking a dip in the ocean and indulging in parasailing and jet skiing.

Few miles away from Murudeshwar, Netrani Island has become a popular spot in Southern India for diving and snorkeling owing to its visibility with divers being able to spot varieties of tropical marine fish and corals.

Marvante

When you take the bus from Murudeshwar enroute Udupi, you will see the beautiful and bare Marvante beach. The NH17 hugs the beach and its noisy waters on the one side and the river Souparnika and its tranquility on the other side, making it one of the most beautiful studies in contrast as far as the intensity of water bodies are concerned.

I take a walk along the beach to the Turtle bay resort to get my fill of coastal cuisine – lady fish curry and rice over beer. While I eat my lunch alongside empty hammocks swaying in the breeze, I learn about the possibilities of snorkeling just off the coast, arranged by the resort. The lure of boat rides on the backwaters of Sowparnika, encircled by coconut palm trees, is also impossible to resist.

Kapu, Malpe & St.Marys

To explore the beaches along Mangalore coastline, I choose the little known coastal village of Kapu whose claim to fame is the century old lighthouse and (lately) the beach property called Blue Matsya. I have lengthy discussions with S, who owns the property. She tells me that she has furnished the property entire from salvaged wooden doors and windows (otherwise antique) and asks me to feel the walls by running my hands across them. “I have used a mixture of egg white, egg shells and lime, an age old technique, to plaster my walls,” she tells me.

Kapu's shoreline
Kapu’s shoreline

Blue Matsya’s caretaker Sarasakka makes tender neeru dosas upon order for breakfast and I persuade her to cook dinner for us – fish curry and fry with the fish her husband Ramanna brings back from the sea. Ramanna fills me with stories of dolphins ruining his nets and the trawlers driving recklessly into his fishing space destroying his catch. “I shine lights at them but they are usually asleep and do not know where their trawler boats are meandering into,” he says.

Soon, I set out in an auto and ride on a road that runs along the coast with Pangala river’s backwaters on the other side to the ferry point to Malpe. From there a ride to St. Mary’s island is taken in a boat along with picnic makers who haul with them impossible amounts of food in plastic containers and carry-bags only to leave their trash behind. St. Mary’s is a declared geological monument and the basalt rocks in the island are formed as a result of volcanic activity millions of years ago.

Malpe’s vast coastline is conducive for long walks and the beach is a hub of parasailing and jet skiing. If you are into less populist adventures like surfing, Mulki, 32 kms from Udupi and its Mantra Surf Club is the place to visit.

st marys island

Back at Blue Matsya, as I sit ergonomically unsafe on a bean bag on the verandah, gazing at the sea and the lone fisherman who fishes in the near shores with the help of a bright orange life jacket loop, a kite swoops down on the beach as if he needs a break from his hunting ritual. He lifts his feet and spreads his body on the sand extending his wings lying flat bellied on the beach, basking himself in the sun. He was sunning, not unlike me, but without human comforts of bean bags and hammocks.

The day progresses languidly and I visit the charming Kapu market for supplies, followed by a visit to the light house at the end of the beach in the evening. After which, I sit on the beach bench watching the approaching distant lights of fishing boats while dogs scamper around playfully in circles. The sky erupts in shades of purple and orange before dissipating into a liquid dark, revealing the stars – like tiny light freckles appearing through the holes of a huge circus tent. I dust myself and walk home.

Fact File

I took the Karwar – Gokarna – Kagal – Honavar – Marwanthe – Kaup – St.Mary’s island – Mangalore route and used public transportation largely. If you want to be mobile, hire a car and start from Mangalore or vice versa.

This appeared in JetWings International, March’14.

 

The Hidden Hamlet – Manappad

The name Manapad stimulates merely a fleeting interest that subsequently turns into faint registration of the tiny fishing hamlet off Kanyakumari. I had asked more than a handful of strangers since I got into the bus in Kanyakumari (that ordeal of finding a bus to take me to Manapad makes for a different story altogether) and most drew blank – the bus conductor, the matter-of-fact local passengers and even the shopkeeper who sold me dosas during the journey’s breakfast break looked at me amusingly before helpfully rattling off names of other important churches in the vicinity because he has only ever heard of pilgrims visiting Manapad. So if I am visiting Manapad, I might as well visit the other churches – his perfectly rendered logic.

View from the Manappad church
View from the Manappad church

During my research of Manapad, before making it the last leg of my coastal Tamil Nadu trip, I came across numerous legends laced in historic facts on the tiny fishing village – that the catholic church there was built in the 1500s, that Francis Xavier – the Catholic missionary whose embalmed body is now in Goa’s Basilica of Bom Jesus – performed miracles in this village, that the cave in the beach near the church has a well, the water of which is considered to have healing powers attracting hordes of pilgrims from far-fetched places. In recent times, I also read about a Chennai based couple who made Manapad their base in their effort to convert it into a surfing destination.

Meanwhile, the piercing August sun notwithstanding, my bus spewed me out before disappearing down the undulating road. I had boarded the bus at about eight in the morning from Kanyakumari hoping to get to Manapad before it gets too sunny. Having that purpose defeated, I needed to figure out a place to stay because my requests to the only tourist accommodation in the village (run by the aforementioned couple) went unanswered earlier because presumably – I was too late and also that I was a single traveler.

All Manapad hosts, other than the Catholic Church, is a tiny cluster of houses just wedged between the main road and the seafront. To get to the seafront, however, I will need to take another local bus that will drop me straight on the beach or wait for a shared auto / jeep. I attempted conversing with the local folks at the tiny bus stand to figure out if there is a chance to stay over. Nobody answered in the affirmative but for the elderly woman whom I met in the local bus asked me to walk up to the church and seek accommodation. “The church has options for pilgrims to stay. If there are free rooms, you will get it,” she told me.

But by the time I disembarked from the bus and the assault of briny sea breeze began, I had forgotten about the harsh sun. I did traipse up the long walk to the church, located in close proximity with the beach but decided against renting a room out. Rather, I sat at the porch-like structure facing the sea along with a bunch of college going children who are evidently bunking their classes by hanging out in their secret hideaway. I felt like an intruder barging into their privacy, having discovered their tiny little secret and walking in on them. Soon enough, they left and I was left all by myself with an absolutely unoccupied beach.

The Manappad Church
The Manappad Church

The view from where I sat was of the beach, beyond the plunging sand dunes extending till my eyes could travel. There are knolls of bushes, a smattering of them, being whipped up vigorously by the sea breeze – only greenery in the otherwise blue-gray landscape. On the other side though, the fishing boats were moored amid tiny islets of ocean. Locals drudge along the beach to carry drinking water, from a fresh water well dug up on the beach. I take it all in and slip into a glorious siesta despite having had an abysmal breakfast of poorly made dosas.

Lunch was an issue, I soon realized. The village has absolutely no tourist facilities and though the church houses a very tiny shop that sells objects to cater to the pilgrims, it stocks nothing edible for human consumption. The eatery, I was told, is back in the village. Fortified with the gusty breeze, I walk back to the bus stand by the beach take the bus and go back to the main road. And then I discover food nirvana. A tiny restaurant – not so much of a restaurant as much as it is a utilitarian shack constructed with thatched coconut palm leaves (even the walls are thatched), it is run by a family whose patriarch served me the most amazing fish meals I have ever eaten.

It was the most basic of meals – a mound of rice (unlimited service, of course) with fish curry and fried fish, both that day’s catch it would seem and taste, served in the most unassuming of places. I devoured the first serving and delightfully sought out for the second. The fried fish came unlimited too. That afternoon meal was immediately supplanted by yet another inglorious siesta.

Owing to Manapad’s geographical location – it is among many of the ragged edges, narrow curvature, of the southern coastline of the Coromandel Coast before it travels further and tapers at Kanyakumari – it is one of the few places where you can enjoy the effusive dramatic display of the sun during dawn and dusk. I did not linger and stay the night in wait for the sunrise the next day morning but I had already visualized how it would be – the brick-red roof tiles of the whitewashed houses render a character to the village and when they are awash with the orange glow of the morning sun, from a distance, they would look like a curious menagerie straight out of the imagination of a novelist.

This appeared in The New Indian Express and can be accessed here.