Tharangambadi: A history lesson by the sea.

The beach by the Bungalow by the Beach - a Neemrana 'non-hotel' hotel.
The beach by the Bungalow by the Beach – a Neemrana ‘non-hotel’ hotel.

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.

A view of the Dansborg Fort from our hotel.
A view of the Dansborg Fort from our hotel.

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.

The 14th century Masilamani Temple sprayed with 20th century rainbow colours, depriving it of its old-world charm.
The 14th century Masilamani Temple sprayed with 20th century rainbow colours, depriving it of its old-world charm.

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.

An inside view of the Governor's bungalow, still under renovation.
An inside view of the Governor’s bungalow, still under renovation.

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.)

Dansborg Fort, Tharangambadi.
Dansborg Fort, Tharangambadi. Circa 1624.

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.

One of the five Tamil houses restored on Goldsmith Street.
One of the five Tamil houses restored on Goldsmith Street.

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.

Photographing lightning is one of the toughest things to do. Every time I turned to one side to shoot a picture of the lightning, it quietly slipped away and struck on the opposite end of where I was shooting. Finally, I just chose a focus point and randomly clicked in all directions, occasionally getting lucky. This was one of those times.
Photographing lightning is one of the toughest things to do. Every time I turned to one side to shoot a picture of the lightning, it quietly slipped away and struck on the opposite end of where I was shooting. Finally, I just chose a focus point and randomly clicked in all directions, occasionally getting lucky. This was one of those times.

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.

The parents.
The parents.

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.

Gauging the water.
Is it safe to go out there, he wonders.

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.

Ten things to do in Kodaikanal.

A view of the Kodaikanal Valley from our cottage.

Holidaying in Kodaikanal is like stepping into a camera and seeing the world for what it should be – vibrant, colourful and bursting with life. A hill station tucked away in Tamil Nadu, it’s the first place that comes to mind when I think of the word ‘peace’. That said, here’s my list of things you must do. Apart from doing nothing, that is.

1.       Stay at the Villa Retreat. It’s right next to Coaker’s Walk which offers a breathtaking view of the Kodaikanal valley. Clouds throwing shadows over looming mountains, with homes, alternating patches of forests and crops dotting the mountainous terrain. Villa Retreat is a quite, cosy place constructed with stone and a whole lot of love. Husband, wife and son run it. The food is good, the scenery absolutely picture-perfect and the routine of doing next-to-nothing is just what your therapist will recommend.

Villa Retreat, Kodaikanal.

2.       Trip on the blooms everywhere. The Kodai weather drugs insects into spreading pollen from plants and nudges little buds into full-blossoming adulthood. There are flowers everywhere – massive blooms of vivid purples, oranges, pinks, whites, reds, blues…it’s like a painter’s paradise. We went in the last week of June and the weather was perfect – rain and sunshine, with plenty of rainbows thrown in for good measure.

Rain-kissed and hugging concrete.

3.       Visit the Pine Forest. The fragrance of the pine forest is one you won’t regret when it fills up your lungs and pervades your senses. Pine cones are scattered everywhere. The ground is a bed of soft, sharp pine needles that drown your footsteps. The sun plays hide and seek but you’ll catch it by the shadows it casts on the ground. The place is usually crowded but it’s worse over weekends, so pick a weekday to visit. And walk around. And soak in the atmosphere.

Pine needles under your feet and a canopy over your head.

4.       Eat magic mushrooms. I asked people, but they either didn’t know about it or pretended not to.

5.       Catch at least one sunrise/sunset. It’s worth two hours of lost sleep, I promise.

Good morning!

6.       Visit Berijam Lake. It’s a slightly long drive from Kodai town, but the journey will be nothing compared to the picturesque setting. I was asked by a friend to visit Berijam Lake, in memory of her great grandfather who owned the property and gave it away to the Government before he passed away. The good thing is, not too many tourists know about Berijam Lake and so the place is almost people-free except for the forest officials manning the entry post.

Quiet, tourist-free Berijam Lake.

7.       Buy lots of chocolates and Eucalyptus oil. Kodai is pretty well-known for its home-made chocolates. You’ll find all sorts there, and in abundance. The Eucalyptus oil is so pure that one whiff will cure you of your worst flu. The test for authenticity is pretty interesting – the shop keeper will dip a handkerchief in a bottle of Eucalyptus oil until the kerchief has soaked up generous amounts, and then he’ll light it on fire. You’ll see the flames alright, but the hanky won’t burn. That’s when you know that the oil is unadulterated.

8.       Walk around. The people are friendly, the roads are near-empty and inviting, and the weather perfect for it. You’ll see lots of old English houses, churches, squares and cyclists.

Resting.

9.       Visit the boathouse. Not for anything else but for the fact that it’s a really old, really quaint location with lots of little duckies going quack quack and paddling away rapidly from cruising boats. Nice place for pictures.

10.   Enjoy the quiet. It’s the kind of silence that you want to be surrounded by. The only thing you’re likely to hear are your own thoughts, the crackling fire, chirping birds and cicadas, rustling leaves and maybe a few pots and pans clanging in the process of getting food ready.

The perfect spot for reflections.


Getting there:
Drive down if you’re in Bangalore or TN, or opt for the train.

Go if: You need a quiet vacation to spend quality time with yourself, your better half or with parents. I chose the last option and it was so worth it. They still gush about it like two kids after visiting a fair bursting with joy rides and cotton candy.

Pictures: All pictures shot using my friend’s Nikon D40. I didn’t own a Digi-SLR of my own then.