In the land of the singing waves

Beginning a new column on heritage from this week. Explore Tarangambadi or Tranquebar in the first episode.

January 21, 2023 09:08 am | Updated January 22, 2023 09:07 pm IST

What is that? Is it a Transformer?” I asked peering at the machine from all angles. We were in a museum in Tharangambadi, Tamil Nadu.

“Ha ha!” said Appa. “But you are right in a way, Taran! This machine was a bit like a Transformer. It did shake things up.” 

“What do you mean?”

“Well, this is an early printing press, which printed the first Tamil Bible in India in 1714.”

“That’s a nugget of history right there,” said Amma, walking up to the machine.

“But who did it?” I asked.

“It was a missionary called Bartholomomaeus Ziegenbalg. He died here in Tharangambadi.”

Many firsts

As we stepped out of the tiny museum, I tried to imagine a person from another nation learning Tamil and finally printing a book. I wondered how many years it had taken. I was having a bit of trouble sometimes with Hindi in school, and the thought of a completely foreign language was just too much! “It took him five years to learn the Tamil language,” Amma read out from a board.

I looked at the bust of Bartholomomaeus Ziegenbalg with new admiration. “What were foreigners doing here anyway?”

“Tharangambadi (land of the singing waves), or Tranquebar, was always a thriving port.” We were walking towards an old temple and Appa continued. “See, this Shiva temple is said to be from the 14th century and a sort of welcome board for Chinese traders. Later the Portuguese came, then the Danes in 1620. They struck a deal with the Nayak of nearby Thanjavur and made this their base. Finally, the Danes were driven away by the British.

I stood by the little temple by the sea and pictured ships and traders arriving in this sleepy town. “Must have been exciting times,” I exclaimed.

Spice town

Appa was moving on. Soon we were at an imposing structure on the beach. “This is the Dansburg Fort built by an admiral named Ove Djedde.” I poked around. It was a solid structure that looked more like a storage godown. “What did they store? Chocolates perhaps?”

“Maybe not,” laughed Amma. “Spices most likely.” I thought of my history lessons about spice routes.

The beach was peaceful except for a few revellers. I tried to recreate the image of the Danes in this coastal village, building churches, forts, archways and houses. There was a cemetery too. Many had died here. So far from home.

Appa read my thoughts. “People have always travelled for better prospects. First by land, then by ship and now by flight. The amalgamation of two cultures usually leaves behind something unique and beautiful. Of course, there will be many stories of yearning and loss.”

The sun was setting and Tharamgambadi — forgotten by most — was certainly beautiful. She stood proud and quiet. I watched the waves. They did seem to be singing to me.

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