K&K’s Visit to The Danish town of Tranquebar/Tharangambadi & The Ziegenbalg House

Our first major road trip after months of staying locked in our Hyderabad apartment was to Tranquebar. Situated 100Kms away from Thanjavur on the Coromandel Coast of Tamil Nadu, it was a three hour drive my from parents house.

While not so touristy as popular Pondicherry, this idyllic Danish town of Tranquebar on the same coast has all the old town charm and a unique tranquility! There are no fancy cafes, pubs or eateries as one would find in most tourist destinations. Once a trading post of the Danish East India Company, Tharangambadi is one of Tamil Nadu’s less explored treasure. If you are looking for a quiet little town, steeped in history, unaffected by commercialisation, Tranquebar will be a weekend delight!

The Town Gate, Tranquebar

Built in 1792 by Governor Peter Anker, the Town Gate opened itself to the quaint colonial town. There was hardly anyone on the King street the afternoon we arrived, leaving us undistracted with the traditional colonial homes and churches.

King Street, Tranquebar

A laid back walk from the Town Gate to the Dansborg is guaranteed to take you back in time!

The tiled roof, white columns, large wooden doors and windows with lush green trees popping out between them was a picturesque sight!

Van Theylingen’s House (Pillar House), Tranquebar
K&K in front of Van Theylingen’s House (Pillar House), Tranquebar

Our first stop was at the New Jerusalem Church where missionary Bartholomeus Ziegenbalg was buried in the year 1719.

Commissioned by King Frederick IV of Denmark and Norway, Bartholomeus Ziegenbalg, the first Lutheran missionary to South India arrived in Tranquebar on the 6th of July, 1706 at the age of 23. 

New Jerusalem Church, Tranquebar

Although Ziegenbalg lived in India for just 13 years, his service, accomplishments and life continues to inspire people century after century.

K&K at Tranquebar

As a young German boy, when Ziegenbalg arrived in Tranquebar, he enrolled himself in a local Tamil traditional school for children as a student. He was so passionate about learning the local language and interacting with people that within a matter of few months he was able to communicate in Tamil with the locals.

Once he mastered the Tamil language, young Ziegenbalg commenced his undertaking of translating the New Testament in 1708 and completed it in 1711. His translation was a remarkable achievement as for the first time the entire New Testament had been made available in an Indian language for the common man to read.

A page from the Tamil New Testament published by Ziegenbalg (Source Wiki)

Ziegenbalg was one of the pioneers who laid the foundations for the printing industry in India by bringing a printing-press with type, paper, ink, and a printer to Tanjore region by ship in the year 1712.

Following the translation of the New Testament in Tamil, Ziegenbalg built himself a small house in a quiet neighborhood where he commenced, what he regarded as the most important work of all, the translation of the Old Testament.

K&K in front of the Statue of Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg (10 July 1682 – 23 February 1719)

Ziegenbalg was a pioneer is so many areas. Rt. Rev. Dr. T. Aruldoss, the President and Bishop of Tranquebar, very precisely compiled it as follows:

Ziegenbalg was,

  • The first protestant missionary to India
  • The first royal missionary from Denmark
  • The first to propagate protestantism
  • The first to introduce printing press in India
  • The first to start paper mill in India
  • The first to translate the New Testament in Tamil
  • The first to print the New Testament in Tamil
  • The first to print the Tamil calendar
  • The first to translate German Hymns to Tamil
  • The first to translate Tamil books to German
  • The first to introduce the prose order
  • The first to start the school for girls in India
  • The first to open a boarding home in India
  • The first to start a tailoring unit
  • The first to introduce the free noon-meal scheme
  • The first to print tamil text books for schools
  • The first to build the tamil protestant church
  • The first to preach a sermon in Tamil
  • The first to start a seminary to create native leaders
  • The first to organise interreligious dialogues
  • The first to produce the Tamil Dictionary
  • The first to write the genealogy of South Indian Gods
  • The first to establish Ecumenical relationship
  • The first to recommend Tamil to be taught in Germany

While a lifetime would not suffice for most to accomplish a fraction of something of this significance, Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg was able to accomplish all this within a short span of 13 years. Such was this man’s love for God and the Tamil people!

Ziegenbalg passed away at the prime age of 36 due to ill health on 23 February 1719. Around the time of his passing he had translated the Old Testament into Tamil from the book of Genesis up to the book of Ruth!

As it was late in the evening, we rushed to pay a quick visit to the Ziegenbalg House which was restored to its original glory in 2017 and the Museum on Intercultural Dialogue.

A friendly staff at the Ziegenbalg House patiently shared the inspiring life and work of the missionary in way even the kids enjoyed. She they took us to the room where the 300 year old printing and paper cutting machinery are well preserved. The press is still in working condition and the staff demonstrated it for us in such detail.

K&K at the Ziegenbalg Printing Hall

The top floor of the Ziegenbalg House is an exhibition that reflects on the history of the Danish Halle Mission, which Ziegenbalg was a part of and its intercultural outlook. 

A part of the exhibition was undergoing maintenance work at the time of our visit. The couple of exhibits we got to see contained modern Indo-German artwork.

Our visit to this 300 year old Reformer’s house is something I will cherish for a lifetime!

Just before sunset, we strolled to the beach. The vast blue sky and the heritage buildings along the road was a sight you cannot miss.

Bungalow on the Beach, Tranquebar

My pet-lover KT found a baby goat that was standing all alone and she began to pet it. It always amazes me how when adults get lost in history and things of the past considered profound, kids are drawn to the simple but significant beauty of the present moment!

Due to the pandemic, the Dansborg Fort built in 1620 overlooking the Bay of Bengal, was close for visitors.

Fort Dansborg built in 1620, Tranquebar

As I sat on the shore with the Dansborg Fort standing tall right behind me, I couldn’t help but wonder how busy this port must have been 300 years ago with Danish and Indian ships and sailors.

Mom & Dad in front of Fort Dansborg, Tranquebar

We were treated by a magnificent rainbow right above the vast blue ocean and its relentless waves!

K&K played in the beach to their heart’s content!

We spent the rest of the evening at the Zion Church that is just a few minutes walk from the beach. Pastor Thangadurai and his family warmly welcomed us, took us around the church and shared about its rich history. Built in 1701, the Zion Church is the last building on the King Street. The furniture and the woodwork all date back to the 1700s. The church also has several artifacts that were personally brought by Ziegenbalg. By this time I was quite exhausted that did not click any pictures on my camera. I was also equally lost in all the inspiring historical stories!

One day is more than sufficient to ‘sight-see’ Tranquebar. But if you are someone who savors history, places of historical significance and an idyllic time in quiet old towns, I would highly recommend you spend a weekend strolling this Danish town and staying in one of the heritage properties.

I am not sure if there are any hotels in Tranquebar. We spent the night at Queen’s Inn in Velankanni. The rooms were very spacious and clean. After a good night’s rest we drove around Velankanni and Nagapattinam exploring the fishing port and the beaches!

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