Melanie P. Kumar takes a less travelled road to explore the scenic backgrounds of Tamil Nadu.
There is nothing quite like a road trip to bring alive the meaning of travelling ‘off the beaten track’. Besides chancing upon unlikely sights and less-frequented spots, quite often the road itself is in such a state of disrepair that it begins to feel like a buffalo track and not a national or state highway.
Our Tamil Nadu journey, comprising family and a friend, begins from Madras or Chennai, as it has been renamed in recent times. Armed with GPS and human navigators, the journey seems doable.
The plan is to drive along the scenic East Coast Road with a breakfast stop at the temple town of Mahabalipuram. The sea-breeze buoys one’s spirits while cruising along the famous road. We stop at a less-frequented beach to enjoy the view and click pictures but give up on the breakfast plan. Just when the hunger pangs become unbearable, we chance upon a roadside eatery that provides suitable succour.
From then on, it is a continuous drive till the next break at Pondicherry. After a pit-stop and a little bit of shopping,we are ready to move on to our first destination, Tranquebar, identified by the locals as Tarangambadi or ‘Place of the Singing Waves’. Now a small fishing village in the district of Nagapattinam, it has an interesting history. Located in the Kaveri River delta, the Danish made this port town its main trading post, with cotton being the chief export from this colony. They also changed its name to Tranquebar, or ‘Trankebar’ in Danish.
This journey of 275 kms from Chennai to Tarangambadi has been embarked upon, with scant knowledge of how arduous some stretches of road might be. En route, we skirt the attractions of the temple-town of Chidambaram and head for our destination. Even at the entrance, we almost miss the famous Dansborg Fort of Tranquebar, because of a huge poster, plastered with the faces of local politicians pasted over the board that provides information on the Fort and its historical significance.
Though it’s an official holiday for the Fort, the caretaker lets in visitors, thus ensuring his ‘jugaad’. The Museum cannot be inspected but we enter the fort’s ramparts. Fort Dansborg was constructed in sandstone in 1620 and has since undergone several reconstructions. Located just off the Bay of Bengal, it makes for an imposing view from the outside. The outer walls of the fort have been washed away leaving only an eroded brick pier, which at one time would have acted as the bridge to transport goods from ships to the fort and back.
History has it that the fort was built on the land ceded by the then King of Thanjavur, Raghunath Nayak, in an agreement arrived upon with the Danish Admiral Ove Gjedde, and acted as the base for the Danish settlement in 17th century India. Once the second largest Danish Fort, after Kronborg in Denmark, it lost its importance after being sold to the British in 1845, as did Tharangambadi which no longer served as an active base for the new rulers.
After independence and till 1987, the fort continued to be used as an Inspection Bungalow by the government of Tamilnadu. Since then, the Department of Archaeology, Government of Tamilnadu, has taken control of the management of the fort, or should one call it mismanagement?
Despite the two renovation attempts, one by the Tranquebar Association, with help from the Danish Royal family and the Archaeology Department in 2001, and the second under a project named Destination Development of Tranquebar by the Department of Tourism of the Government of Tamilnadu in 2011, the inside of the fort is in a state of total neglect.
From the posters on display, one has to only imagine the different uses that the fort was once put to. The walls, lashed by the salty sea air, are chipped of a protective covering and there are bats running riot in all the inner chambers. It is pathetic that such an imposing slice of history is being ignored by the tourism authorities. But Fort Dansborg has weathered many strong tides and waves including the massive Tsunami of 2004, and perhaps it will weather this situation too.
In contrast, the ‘Bungalow on the Beach’, a heritage hotel located opposite the fort, where we stop awhile for refreshments, is beautifully maintained.
After a little rest, we start the long drive on narrow and poorly-lit roads to reach our destination, Pichapuram, renowned for its mangrove forests. We are booked in Hotel Saradharam, unfortunately the only hotel in the vicinity, and suffer its many shortcomings till our departure the next afternoon.
Breakfast the next morning is followed by a quick decision to take a motor-boat, as there is a British couple planning to hire one, and we agree to share the costs.
The experience of using a rowboat in a mangrove, which we have enjoyed in Sri Lanka, is quite something else but the motor-boat suffices for the pleasure of the company of photographer, Louise Hodgkinson and her husband, Paul, with his irrepressible British sense of humour and chivalry.
Considering that 80% of the world’s mangroves have been lost in the last three decades, it is a pleasure to be driven past the mangroves and under them by our intrepid boatman. Two major rivers, Vellar and Coleroon drain into the Bay of Bengal in this area and the brackish water region in between, houses the mangrove vegetation.
The scenic beauty of the Pichavaram mangroves has attracted filmmakers to shoot films here in the 1970’s. Before the Tsunami of 2004, there had been considerable degradation of these mangroves, but now the locals and the government have become aware of their importance. When the Tsunami struck on 26th December 2004, the areas with dense mangroves, like Pichapuram and Muthupet suffered less damage, both with regard to human lives and property.
The drive back to Madras is a jolt into reality as I ruminate on all that we have seen and all that that has been lost.