July 05, 2005

Tharangambadi on my mind

Tharangambadi is a mellifluous Tamil name, and while approaching the town today, I found myself playing with it over and over in my mind, trying to understand how it mutated into Tranquebar. Tharangambadi ... Tranquebar. Definitely a transition out of mellifluousness (mellifluousity?).

The town is just north of the once-French enclave of Karaikal, and we went there to see boats being built for fishermen who lost them after the tsunami. (Of that, some other time). But I've long wanted to come to Tharangambadi because it was once, of all things, a Danish outpost. In 1620, with permission from the ruler of Tanjore, Raghunatha Nayak, the Danes built a quite magnificent fort here, right on the beach. It was used to warehouse and protect their trade, and for over two centuries was an important centre for South Indian trade with the outside world.

The fort also has a jail, which little fact prompts Nity, my travelling chum, to observe: this is a small outpost, and the first thing they build is a jail! Says something about governance, or Danish governance.

There were a succession of Danish governors at the fort, starting with one Roland Crape (1624-36), with Povel Hansen and Poulkrisk Pank in the list, and ending with Peter Hansen (1841-45). All names that sound very properly Danish. Peter Herman Abbestee -- also a nice (even mellifluous?) Danish name -- served two terms (1761-73 and 1777-86), interrupted by the regime of one David Brown. Not so Danish. What happened there?

Wandering through the sleepy little museum ("No photographs!" someone told me sternly), I make a delightful find. A copy of an article from some Danish publication, and it features the picture that graces Nancy Gandhi's always charming blog about life in Madras. And on the facing page is some more Danish, under this Danish headline: "Guld od blod."

No idea what that means, but I may be forgiven, as they say, for reading it at first glance as "Good old blog."

The fort survived the tsunami with no apparent damage. Further out on the beach from it is a pier and brick wall built in modern times, both of which have been smashed as if with a huge hammer. (Which the wave was, of course). To the left of the fort (north), about 100 yards away and also on the beach, is a small temple. From the fort, it looks like the temple sits on a pile of rubble. So before I stroll over there, I'm a little puzzled when a man standing on the pier tells me reverently, look at the temple! It didn't get damaged in the tsunami!

I don't know what he is talking about, because when I get close to the temple, the destruction is stunning. An entire gopuram, a huge round ball carved intricately, lies forlorn in the shallow sea, surrounded by piles of slabs and bricks and more carvings and general debris from the temple. What remains standing of the temple is visibly, almost obscenely, damaged. What did the man on the pier mean? Was there another temple here, the one on which that gopuram once sat, and that one was destroyed and this one left at least partly intact?

Whatever it is, we pick our way over the rubble to get closer to the gopuram. Two or three things strike me. One, that I wouldn't have wanted to be around when this thing fell off its perch. Two, I catch the faint aroma of bats, familiar from any old monument like this one.

And three, I catch a much stronger aroma. Shit. I look down in time to save myself stepping into a pile of it. Then I see piles of it everywhere, all over the rubble. A giant wave destroyed this temple, and people use the rubble -- carvings, slabs, whatever -- to shit on.

1 comment:

Dilip D'Souza said...

Amazing. I write about a tsunami-toppled gopuram, and at being startled that people use its rubble as a toilet. To Sriram, that's reason to make sarcastic remarks about secularism and control over religious institutions.

I don't see the connection. I give up. No doubt there's a connection, too, from this toppled gopuram to mass killings in wars and handing over our money and rights to politicians and bureaucrats; and you will explain to me what it is.