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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Walking in George Town, Penang, Malaysia

Leaving the precincts of Kuala Lumpur and its haze, high-rises, malls and traffic seemed like a release of sorts from the quagmires of urban life. Now don’t get me wrong. I liked KL and its veritable array of cultural and gastronomical experiences but I prefer a small town to a big city any given day. And I wasn’t going to exclude Penang, the northwestern coast of Malaysia, from my plans. So I boarded a bus and rode on it for six hours.

The pleasures of arriving in Penang are only multiplied by the beautiful visual scenery en route – the gargantuan mountains, vistas of the ocean, greenery and the tree rich landscape that is a relief from the landscape dominated by palm trees in KL. I arrived in the charming seaside town and its unhurried people to be welcomed by my host Mr. Henry. After a tiny tour of the neighborhood, Henry left me to my devices. Help was at hand, however. An architect friend Sanjay, took over from Henry but by then I had found a hawker stall, ordered the best tom yum soup I had in my entire life and finished slurping it. I felt welcomed.

The World Heritage Site title was awarded to the George Town area in Penang Island in 2008 by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee. The architecture of buildings in George Town infuses elements from the architecture of Europe, China and India. George Town was once a British trade post and hence colonial architecture is predominant. The rich cultural influences brought in by immigrants from India and China have also contributed to the city’s landscape and food.

The Street Art of George Town

The streets of Penang depict a curious array of art – iron rod sculptures on the theme ‘voices from the people’ and mural paintings on the walls by renowned artist Ernest Zacharevic. There are a total of 52 such iron rod sculptures present in almost every street of George Town, of which there are about 18 street murals by Zacharevic. There are maps available if you want to take a walking tour of these. A few pictures:

a wall art
a wall art
street murals of George Town
street murals of George Town

a street mural, up close

Temples of George Town

George Town hosts numerous ancient temples / churches – the oldest Anglican Church in all of South East Asia, the Maha Mariamman Temple from the 1790s, Chinese temples, Kapitan Keling mosque from the 1803 to name a few.

The Khoo Kongsi temple
The Khoo Kongsi temple
a chinese mazu idol
a chinese mazu idol
Kapitan Keling mosque
Kapitan Keling mosque
a smug buddha
a smug buddha

prayer lamps at the thai buddhist temple

a burmese buddhist temple
a burmese buddhist temple

Culture of George Town

Walk the streets of George Town and you are likely to find more than a handful of art galleries, art studios, puppet theatres and workshops, gold and blacksmiths who use ancient methods, Chinese coffin makers, book binders, perfumers and other quirks.

a chinese doll collection in a store
a chinese doll collection in a store
a chinese puppet in a souvenir store
a chinese puppet in a souvenir store
a souvenir
a souvenir

Architecture of George Town

The architectural treasures including the shop houses, colonial era buildings, Chinese clan houses are bunched together as a cultural enclave in the town. These buildings define the rich history of George Town and its cultural past.

the famed blue mansion
the famed blue mansion
an ornate chinese door
an ornate chinese door
streets of penang at night
streets of penang at night
penang skyline
penang skyline

Food of George Town

The coming together of various cultures has ensured a delicious variety of street food sold in the hawker markets of George Town, Penang. Taste the super pungent Assam Laksa, Mee Robus, Mee Rojak, Char Kway Teow and Fried Oyster and get introduced to flavors that you didn’t know existed. night time food scene

assam laksa
assam laksa
a funny sign board
a funny sign board

Survivors of Time – Goa and its mansions

Portuguese colonial influence has left Goa with its magnificent churches, tenacious forts, exquisitely built expansive laterite-stone houses and other cenotaphs strewn across the state serving as historical remnants of its culturally rich past. While the landmark forts and churches have long become tourist attractions, the grand old mansions and houses built centuries ago are still being preserved in pockets in Goa’s villages. Some of these houses are painstakingly restored after having fallen into destruction owing to natural causes. There are also relatively lesser known forts along the length and breadth of the state with little or no tourist footfall throughout the year.

Entrance to Cabo De Rama

One such mansion, Palácio do Deão, sits resolutely in its reclaimed glory by the Kushavati River in the town of Quepem, unperturbed by the hubbub of Goa’s tourist mayhem. Built in 1787 by a Portuguese nobleman who is also credited with the founding of the town of Quepem, the mansion is meticulously restored by Ruben and Celia Vasco da Gama, who also accepts visitors and conducts guided tours of the house along with a lavish lunch buffet of Indo-Portuguese cuisine prepared by Celia and served in a dining hall with ornate seating, overlooking the river.

Ruben walks us through the house explaining the displays – he shows us the oyster shell windows, the primitive mobile toilet, the restored domestic relics including iron boxes, mirrors, closets, utensils and antique furniture. The house also has a library with rare books, an eating area (where we were served lunch) and space were cultural events were held. The house features an architecture which is a combination of Hindu and Portuguese cultures, Ruben adds. The garden at Palácio do Deão is an ornate garden with beautiful display of terracotta figurines, stone ornaments, balustrades and ornamental vases.

We end our tour with a multi-course dinner preceded by a cocktail made with locally available ingredients – kokum syrup and feni. The lunch consisted of quintessential Goan specialties with delicacies like prawn curry and chicken vindaloo with a smattering of items borrowed from fusion cuisine such as batter fried prawn dumplings, squid canapés, ending with homemade bebinca – layered egg-yolk pudding popular in Goa.

It was past meal time in the afternoon when we reached our next stop, the Menezes Braganza house in the tiny village of Chandor in South Goa. Understandably, the minder of the house a middle-aged woman, named Judith, has retired for a siesta. Goan takes their siestas seriously, more so in villages where the sun-induced stupor necessitates the practice. The resident maid, however, agreed to take us around elaborating that ‘madam instructs me to show around when there are visitors during lunchtime.’ Built about 400 years ago on a land donated by the king of Portugal, the Braganza house is exquisite with its ornate furniture, long passageway that overlooks a garden, elaborate chandeliers, painting, family portraits and other artifacts.

According to family legend and the minder Judith who later came to explain us the details of the house, the house was divided into two halves with two sisters occupying each half after inheriting the property. Entry is through a huge Portuguese style outer façade with dramatically large stairs leading to the houses. Each house has a separate plaque with names Braganza Pereira (East wing) and Menezes Branganza (west wing) and entry is through respective doors. Judith tells us how the family is scattered all over now – other parts of Goa and Bangalore.

The family gathers on festive occasions, rarely with Judith maintaining the house throughout the year. Though the garden looks like it could do with some pruning, the palatial mansion is well-kept and is a living, albeit crumbling, piece of history from the Portuguese era. As we walked around, gazing at the sagging ceiling, flamboyant entryways, wooden furniture and elegant china, the amorphousness of the living and the dying becomes evident. One part of the house is also a kitchen where Judith gets her meals served, evident by the din of the fridge and the dining table with steel utensils on it.

The drive to the Cabo De Rama takes one through vast expanse of sunburned grasslands dried and golden brown alternating between undulating roads hugged by cashew trees on both sides. There is no traffic as far as eyes can see and the signboard to take diversion to the fort from the road to Agonda is inconspicuous. We fill up on oranges and bananas sold by vendors on a deserted roadside who also sell the other staple, Omlete Pav.

Cabo De Rama has the distinction of being one of the oldest forts in Goa and has witnessed bloody history for having changed hands from Hindu rulers to Mughals to the Portuguese. The Portuguese captured the fort in the 1700s and renovated it by building a chapel and barracks. The fort now lies in a state of abandon but it was used as a prison till mid 1950s. After the Indian government annexed Goa in Operation Vijay, the fort became part of republic India. For a fort of historical significance, Cabo De Rama is desolate and wears the symbol of having been left in the lurch. The church of Santo Antonio, however, is in use even now.

The entrance, the guardhouse, has been recently painted and the view of the fort from either side is spectacular. Though it requires negotiating sharp rocks, the sparse tourists that visit the fort attempt to get down to the rocky sea side on the western side to take in on the breathtaking views from close. We head out and finish our lunch at the sea facing beach shack, perched on laterite stone, served by its pleasant, chip-toothed owner Morano.

We spend the sundown at the Reis Magos fort that squats alongside the Reis Magos Church on the Mandovi River on the other side to Panjim. Though the fort is conspicuous from Panjim, it is largely overlooked by the tourists, who flock its famed counterparts Fort Aguada instead. When we visited, a Punjabi wedding was being held with celebrities like Ritu Beri in attendance. The fort is reclaimed and the walls and pathways built with laterite stones, Portuguese style turrets and the prison cells are beautifully preserved. And with its large French windows offering stunning views of the sea and the sunset itself, there was never a moment of lament for having traveled down the beaten path abandoning the beaches and their shacks to the crowd.

This appeared in The Hindu and can be accessed here.