Just a few days after I had caught up with the documentation of ancient frescoes that I had referred to last week, I was in Tranquebar for the unofficial grahapravesam of the latest bit of heritage restoration there. To see the Governor's Bungalow given new life there were the Danish Ambassador, officials from the Danish National Museum and the Bestseller Foundation, members of the Danish NGO, Tranquebar Association, and representatives from INTACH Chennai and Pondicherry and the Tamil Nadu Tourism Department besides members of the local Panchayat.
The Bungalow, owned by the Tamil Nadu Tourism Department, had been in shambles for years. Around it, however, the Collector’s Bungalow, several Indian homes, a couple of the Ziegenbalg buildings, a few temples, and Ziegenbalg’s New Jerusalem Church (l7l8) had been under restoration from the beginning of the new Millennium, with the Neemrana Hotel Group, the Danish Tranquebar Association, the Bestseller Foundation (the charitable foundation of a major Danish conglomerate), the German Government, the HR & CE Department, and the Lutheran Church all contributing towards this life-giving effort and INTACH Pondicherry, led by Ajit Koujalgi, showing the way. The task of giving new life to Tranquebar after the tsunami had hurt it badly spurred on this effort to create a heritage town. And that’s when the Danish National Museum began exploring the possibility of establishing a Danish cultural centre in the town.
The Honorary Consul and Vice-Consul for Denmark in Madras, N.Sankar and Prabhakar Rao, teamed the Museum team with INTACH Chennai and together they began in 2005 a series of negotiations with the Tamil Nadu Tourism Department. Eventually, the Department agreed to the Governor’s Bungalow being restored by INTACH with funding from the Danish National Museum and a bi-national committee being appointed to develop a cultural centre in the restored building. When the agreement was signed, the Bestseller Foundation agreed to maintain the Centre for the first three years after the completion of restoration. The urgency to appoint such a committee was pointed out in the informal interaction after thegrahapravasamand on the sidelines it was suggested that it would be nice if the Centre became a repository of digitised Danish East India Company records as well as those of the Halle Mission from Germany which pioneered an Indo-European exchange of knowledge. I was rather sad that the Germans and the Lutheran Church were missing on the occasion, given that their contribution to Tamil Nadu was signally significant. I look forward to their presence when the building is formally inaugurated early next year after it is finally completed.
Considerable restoration work is going on in Tranquebar and there is a vibrancy about the town. But there are also concerns. There is a master plan that focuses on making this heritage town a rather obvious touristy destination – with the Parade Ground, a new walkway, its lighting and a park already showing signs of things to come in the area surrounding the Fort. Dansborg itself, under the care of the Tamil Nadu Archaeological Department, needs considerable restoration and a more professional hand to curate its museum. As things are, both the fort and its museum look shabby and quite a contrast to the handsomely restored buildings across the way from them. Looking even shabbier is the Gateway, a monument protected by the Archaeological Survey of India. Restored a few years ago, it has been allowed to deteriorate and the poster-pasters appear to have had carte blanche. Perhaps agreements between these Government Departments and those now committed to re-developing Tranquebar should be worked out to give INTACH Pondicherry an opportunity to do at these two heritage sites what it has done elsewhere in the town.
I can’t honestly say that all that has been done here is classical restoration or the way that heritage should be preserved and presented, but whatever has been done is streets ahead of anything else in Tamil Nadu. In the course of doing this, it has developed new stakeholders through NGOs reviving handicrafts and home produce. For that we should be thankful to all those giving new life to Tranquebar. Now will the Dutch look at Pulicat?
The lake creator
Pradeep Chakravarthy wants me to celebrate a birthday that falls today, November 28, by saying something about a person born on this day – in 1819 – who made a landmark contribution to Kodaikanal. The man to be remembered is Vere Henry Levinge.
Levinge, who began his career in the Tinnevelly District as Sub-Collector, Cheramandevi, is remembered there in Levingepuram, not far from Cheramandevi, where he established a poor feeding house (kanji paarai). He also established in the area, in Tirukurungudi, an orphanage. And, at his own cost, he renovated the bungalow he was to live in as Cheramandevi’s first resident Sub-Collector. After several years in the Tinnevelly District he was transferred to the Madura District.
Levinge was appointed Collector of Madura District in 1860 and, till his retirement in 1867, he did much to develop Kodaikanal, a hill station that owes greatly to the American missionaries from Madura, Jaffna and Vellore who began to develop holiday homes there in the 1840s. There, by the Lake, stands a Celtic cross and a memorial tablet that commemorates Levinge’s contribution to Kodai.
A large marshy swamp, into which several small streams drained, he converted into the beautiful lake of today by building a bund across it. He encouraged boating in the lake by ‘importing’ from Tuticorin the first boat to be rowed in the waters of the lake he had created. Besides the approach road to Kodai from Periyakulam, what was known as the Coolie Ghat Road, he developed several other roads in the township. And he did much for the flora of the area, introducing Eucalyptus, Wattle, Pine and a variety of ferns besides encouraging cultivation of ‘English’ fruits and vegetables, such as potatoes, pears and plums.
After his retirement, he lived in Kodai in Pambar House, which became the centre of all social activity in the town. It was this activity that led to discussions being held there from 1880 on the establishment of a club. He, however, did not live to see the English Club being founded in 1887. He had, in 1884, succeeded to the 8th Baronetcy and was on his way back to Knockdrin Castle, Westmeath, Ireland, when he fell ill in Madras and died in March 1885. He was buried in the city. But where? Obviously he’s another of those forgotten contributors to the India we enjoy today.