Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXXII No. 1, April 16-30, 2022

Unheard Voices of Tranquebar

-- by Anantanarayanan Raman,

Unheard Voices: A Tranquebarian Stroll. P.S. Ramanujam. University Press of Southern Denmark, Syddansk Universitetsforlag, Odense, Denmark. 2021, with Syddansk Universitetsforlag,

Vasco da Gama (1469-1524) from Lisbon arrived in Kozhikode (Calicut) in 1498 during the reign of Nédiyirûppû Swarõpam Mãnava Vikraman Sãmõtírí. Consequently, the early years of the 17th Century were busy for Europeans. Britain launched the English East-India Company (EEIC) in 1600 AD to explore India for pepper and cardamom. The Netherlands established the Verenigde Nederlandsche Geoctroyeerde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) for a similar purpose in 1602. Staggering profits made by the EEIC and VOC in the following years enticed Christian IV (1577-1648), the King of Denmark – Norway Kingdom (DNK),to constitute the Danish East-India Company (Ostindisk Kompagni, OK) in 1616 that operated, albeit with breaks, until the mid-19th Century. Admiral Ove Gjedde (also, Giedde, Portrait 1) representing DNK king arrived in Tarangambadi, a sleepy coastal village in India in 1620. None of these European trade missions knew then that their arrival was going to ignite a massive fire of geopolitical changes in the subcontinent in the following years.

Tarangampadi (Tranquebar, Trankebar) is presently in Nagapattinam. A 14th century stone inscription retrieved in Tarangampadi indicates this town by a Sanskritic-Tamil name Sadanganpadi (Sad-angan — six-armed, Sanskrit; padi — a residential locality, Tamil). A popular, but less-convincing explanation of Tarangampadi is ‘singing waves’. No notable reference to Tarangampadi exists in either ancient or medieval Tamil literary works, although many of Sangam period (200 BC-200 AD) speak of Porayar, a little south of Tarangampadi.

The author P.S. Ramanujam (PSR) is an emeritus professor of photonics at the Danmarks Tekniske Universitet, Lyngby. Further to making valuable contributions to photonics, he has variously written on Tarangampadi and the science promoted by Scandinavians there. Videnskab, oplysning og historie i Dansk Ostindien (2020, Syddansk Universitetsforlag) referring to Danes in Tarangampadi is his other volume, co-written with Lise Groesmeyer and Niklas Jensen.

Portrait 1. Ove Gjedde (copper engraving) by Albert Haelwegh (1620-1673, royal engraver, Copenhagen). Source:, accessed on 17 December 2021.

Unheard Voices: A Tranquebarian Stroll (hereafter, Unheard Voices). High-quality printing and pleasingly laid-out pages fascinated me at first glance. Superb photographs of the present day Tarangampadi made by PSR and elegantly restored illustrations extracted from old documents of Tarangampadi enhance the book’s quality. Fourteen captivatingly captioned chapters form this book – from the arrival of Roelant Crappé – a Dutch sailor and a director of OK – in Karaikal, 15 km south of Tarangampadi after his cutter Øresund was annihilated by the Portuguese commander Andre Botelho da Costa in 1619 to the end of Danish interests in India in 1845. This book describes Tarangampadi’s chequered history lucidly. PSR literally walks us – readers – through the streets of Tarangampadi and neighbourhood, maintaining the tempo till the end. PSR narrates historical details and incidents and places simply and gracefully, supplementing with stories of people associated with the OK, either directly or indirectly. While talking of Henning Munch Engelhart, who came to Tarangampadi to serve as a pastor in the Zion Church (ZC), PSR alludes to Engelhart’s thesis entitled detTanker om Oplysnings Udbredelse blandt Indianerne (1790), which features his thoughts on the sociology of Indians. Engelhart compellingly felt that the Indians were to be equipped with knowledge to achieve clarity, eschewing despotism and superstition. Engelhart’s choice of the word oplysning (Danish) meaning ‘clarity’, ‘enlightenment’ impressed me as brilliant. Engelhart argued that the saving measure was to create a new construct that will ensure equality between Indians and the Europeans in India; Indians were to become fully aware of human rights, and thus, of their own rights. The seeds for such a bold thinking in Engelhart were probably sown by the Magna Carta Libertatum (England, 1215 AD). Engelhart argued in favour of five knowledge tenets and their impartment to Indians was critically necessary. Two of them – as relevant to readers of this journal – were enabling Indians with a factual narrative of Indian history and with skills in western science, especially, astronomy, mathematics, and natural history. Although a faint thread of promotion of Protestantism runs throughout Tanker om OplysningsUdbredelse, the silver lining is that this thesis powerfully contends equipping Indians with knowledge, and thus enabling them to seek ‘truth’. Such a thinking was conspicuously absent among the British in India, even in later decades. The English-Education Act, 1835 marshalled by Thomas Babington Macaulay and William Bentinck is one example of an illusory do-good activity in British India, discretely aiming at ‘developing’ Indians to garner a body of ‘subordinates’ to serve the British and not targeted ­at total empowerment.

Ove Gjedde arrived in Tarangampadi in 1620, after a few unsuccessful bids to build a fort in Kandy. After signing a treaty with Ragunatha Nayaka (r. 1600-1634), ruler in Thanjavur on 20 November 1620, Gjedde could build Fort Dansborg (FD, Festningen Dannisborg) in Tarangampadi. With FD coming up the seeds fora Danish settlement in Tarangampadi were sown, later spreading to the Nicobar Islands and parts of Calcutta. Donald Ferguson, a British chronicler of the late 19th century says:

‘The captain, Rodant Crape (Roelant Crappé), to effect a landing, is said to have wrecked his ship off Tranquebar, at the expense, however, of his crew, who were all murdered. He then contrived to make his way to the Raja of Tanjore, and obtained Tranquebar for the Danish Company, with land around five miles long and three miles broad. A fort was built, and in 1624 Tranquebar became the property of the King of Denmark, to whom the Company owed money.’

In p.39-53, brief details from the diary of Jón Ólafsson, who came to Tarangampadi from Iceland, written in 1624-1625 are available. Ólafsson’s diary is an interesting document, because it mentions details of the life and culture in Tarangampadi, although we know that much of it is either exaggerated or distorted due to his poor understanding. What is noteworthy, nevertheless, is that an Icelander from a landscape that generally experiences sub-zero temperatures, dared to come to a humid, tropical land in the 17th century, lived for two years, and minuted what he saw and experienced there!

An elegant map of the 1800s – Tarangampadi by Peter Anker (1744-1832), DNK Governor-General (1786-1808) is available in p. 69. Anker was not only a popular administrator, but a skilful artist as well, who made beautiful drawings of various Indian objets d’art and created elegant portraits, presently on display in Oslo-University museum. An impressive portrait of one Suppremania Setti (read as Sûbramania Çétty) by Anker is available in p. 244. Suppremania was employed by Thomas Christian Walter — a Danish privy councillor — as his interpreter. Suppremania’s portrait reminded me of Ãnanda Ranga (1709-1761), who was Joseph-François Dupleix’s dubash in Pondicherry. Reproductions of Anker’s artworks of Kumbakonam and Tanjavur temples and mahabalipuram relics are available at

Western astronomy was enthusiastically pursued in southern India as early as the 17th Century. Bordeaux-born Jesuit Jean Richaud (1633-1690) observed the comet C/1698 X1 in Pondicherry in December 1689. A Venus transit occurred on 3 June 1769, attracting the attention of several stargazers throughout the world. In the chapter A forgotten astronomer – a forgotten blessed soul, PSR speaks of Engelhart’s astronomy. Engelhart had trained in astronomy with the Royal Astronomer Thomas Bugge (1740-1815) in Copenhagen. He established an observatory in ZC’s tower (ZCO), the highest point in the coastal Tarangampadi. A transit instrument (TI) mounted in east-westerly axis, enabled to rotate in north-southerly axis, and a wall-mounted astronomical clock existed in the ZCO (p. 132-134). PSR remarks that the TI used by Englehart must have been similar to the one presently displayed in Kroppedal Museum, Taastrup (Fig. 7.3, p. 136). Details of the ZCO, extracted from the Tranquebarske Dokumenter (1786-1790) and reproduced in p. 134-137, will interest anyone enthusiastic to know about the historical astronomy in India. Engelhart determined the latitude and longitude of Tarangampadi, although the credit for this determination was erroneously assigned to Michael Topping (1747-1796, Madras Astronomer) by his successor John Goldingham (1767-1849). After comparing results with predicted times of eclipses of Jupiter’s satellites in Greenwich, Engelhart determined the ‘time’ in Tarangampadi as being in advance of Greenwich by 5 h 18 min 58 sec, close to present-day determination. Engelhart was a key force in founding det Tranquebarske Selskab (the Tranquebarian Society, TS), which aimed at:

‘…improving scientific methods and information for the betterment of Denmark and the local society in India and further improving European knowledge about India’.

(To be continued next fortnight)

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