What’s better than textbook history? History that you can touch, taste and experience in its many forms; that unfolds as stories, remnants of a distant past. Eight days ago, I was privy to beautiful stories from a mingled history in a town that survived the Tsunami of 2004: Tharangambadi.
Most people are familiar with the Danish name for the place – Tranquebar/Trincobar; the name was changed more recently to the vernacular one. A remote town on Tamil Nadu’s coastal belt, Tharangambadi is best known for its erstwhile role as a port for trade between India and the Dutch lands. In fact, the predominant architecture in the area is still Dutch, although some of the landscape has been altered by the tsunami.
I’m unsure about the extent of the destruction caused by the tsunami in Tharangambadi, but I found it heartening to know that the people have managed to bounce back well enough – fishing is still the primary means of income for the locals and the sea is just as revered as it was before the calamity. Perhaps the locals draw inspiration from the Masilamani Temple, the 14th century place of worship that stands proud despite the devastation of the pounding waters on its walls.
The government and Neemrana hotels are investing time and money into restoring Tranquebar to its former glory. The governor’s bungalow, for instance, is being painstakingly renovated and the Dutch fort by the sea doubles as a museum of recovered artifacts. (The most impressive displays include the village police inspector’s badge, a whale skeleton and the jaws of an alligator laid out flat.)
One can stroll through all of Tharangambadi in less than five hours, that’s how tiny the town is. We stayed by the beach and had access to a magnificent view of the sea flanked by the Dutch fort on the bay. There are plenty of other things to see, like India’s oldest protestant church, an 18th century printing press that is now converted into a boys’ hostel, and a host of homes in Dutch and Tamil architectural styles.
Because Tharangambadi is a midget place, everything’s within walking distance of each other and makes for one long, interesting stroll. Watch out for the weather though – last weekend, it alternated between sweating buckets and hair flying wildly in the sea breeze, cooling down post-3 p.m. Almost as if to make up for the sultriness of the day, the sky put up some stunning displays of lightning crackling over the sea horizon during the evenings. (I was totally dyslexic when it came to capturing pictures of the lightning, so I only got some less-than-average shots.) Routine dictates people’s lives, and it’s not such a bad thing because most of the locals are fishermen. To sit by the sea and watch them head out into the horizon for their daily catch is a soothing – and engrossing – experience.
My parents were with me on the trip (which is great material for another post – how to travel with parents 101), and it was the first water holiday of their lives. After having unsuccessfully tried to lure them to the seaside over the last handful of years, I decided to go about it a different way this time – I was vague with details of the place we were going to. Consequently, it was love at first sight for my mom – she refused to go more than 500 metres away from the view of the sea, wanting to spend every waking hour seeing over the water and studying the fishermen in their boats. My dad took more pleasure in my mom’s reactions to the sea than he did in his own – I like the sea, but from a distance was his attitude.
My mom was reluctant to leave, and I could understand why. Tharangambadi is unlike any of the other seaside retreats I have been to – choppy sea in an otherwise mellow and still atmosphere, friendly, down-to-earth locals and stories residing in every lane. It’s a living, breathing, evolving tale of survival, and one that I would like to keep hearing again and again.
Getting there: Tharangambadi is a bit of a pain to find, especially if you’re not from Tamil Nadu. It’s a 6-8 hour drive from Bangalore – almost the same as Hampi – and about 150 kilometres from Pondicherry. By bus, you’ll have get to Chennai and then take another bus to Tharangambadi – I doubt if private buses operate on that route. It’s the same for air travel too – fly to Chennai and then hire a taxi or take the bus. I would recommend driving down, though, because the route is beautiful and the roads are smooth through and through.
Go if: You enjoy history, the seaside, need some quiet time with family or your better half, and like walking around places.
P.S: Special thanks to Google Maps for being my beacon of light and guiding me through dark, unknown routes. Without you, GM, I’d probably be history too.