Posted in Tamil Nadu

Tranquebar – ‘The land of the singing waves’

Admiral Ove Gjedde was going through the ship’s log when the king’s summons came. He hurried to the audience hall. The King of Danes, Christian IV, was dressed in his royal finery. There was a gleam in his eye and a smile on his face. He had never seen his king this excited.

“Admiral Gjedde, meet Marchelis de Boshouwer, the royal envoy from the Emperor of Ceylon”, said the king, “He brings to us an interesting proposition.”

Gjedde turned around. The king was not alone in the audience chamber. A man came forward from the shadows. He was sun-tanned and looked travel worn. His face was wrinkled beyond his years and his eyes were weary. He wore an ivory necklace and had gold rings on his fingers. The jewels stood out in stark contrast from his Dutch navy uniform. He bowed to the King.

“I have been sent as an envoy by His Majesty, Senarat of Kandy for military assistance. The kingdom of Ceylon is plagued by the Portuguese, who are laying waste to island. The king offers monopoly on all trade with the island in return for military assistance against the Portugese.”

Gjedde understood his king’s excitement. The success of the Dutch and British spice trade in India was a source of envy for the Danes. The king also wanted a bite of the luscious apple. Now, opportunity had come knocking at his door.

The Admiral had his doubts. The Dutch had the resources and the men in India to help out the Lankan king. Why did he come all the way to Europe? Why was a Dutchman approaching the King of Denmark instead of his own king? Why did he not have any documents or the king’s seal to prove his credibility?

King Christian IV was too tempted and excited by this opportunity to pay heed to his Admiral’s doubts. He ordered the Danish navy to sail to Ceylon and offer assistance to the Lankan king.

The voyage was long and arduous. The journey was punctuated with storms, shipwrecks and sickness. Gjedde cursed to his luck and kept on sailing. In the end, only half his crew managed to reach the shores of Sri Lanka.

A lot had happened in the two years that the Danish naval expedition took to reach Lanka. The political climate had changed. The king of Kandy and the Portuguese had signed a peace treaty. The king did not need any military assistance any more. The trade deal was torn and thrown out the window.

Gjedde stormed out in rage. The Danish navy had no where to go. They occupied a village near the shore called Koneshwaram. The Lankan king had warned him to the leave the island at the earliest. He had lost a lot of good men on this fool’s errand. The rest of his crew were seething. A mutiny was close at hands. They were far from home with no place to go. He had to do something before all was lost. He told his orderly to summon his Trade Director, Robert Crappe.


It had been two months since he had sent Crappe on a scouting mission on a freighter. Gjedde knew that turning back and going to Denmark was impossible. The rough seas and an imminent mutiny meant that he would never make it home alive. If he somehow managed to reach home by a miracle, the king would likely chop his head off for failing on the mission. He could not go home without a trade deal.

That was why he had sent Crappe to make contact with the Indian kings on the Coromandel coast and secure a trade deal. Why was there no news from him?


The news finally arrived. Gjedde’s hands were trembling as he read the letter from Crappe.

The Danish freighter was attacked by the Portuguese at Karaikal and sunk. Most of the ship’s crew had either died at sea or were captured by the Portuguese. The heads of the sailors were mounted on spikes. They were placed on the beach as a warning to the Danish Navy.

Crappe and a dozen of his crew escaped drowning by hanging on to flotsam. They made it to the shore. They tried to escape capture by the Poruguese under the cover of darkness, but ran head-first into an armed Indian encampment. They were captured by the Indians and taken to their king; the Nayak of Thanjavur.

The capture by the Indians turned out well for Crappe and his surviving crew. The Thanjavur king was enthralled by the Danes and was interested in trade-treaty to Denmark. The king gave the Danes the fishing village of Tharagambadi to build a ‘stone house’.

Gjedde collapsed on his chair. His prayers were answered and he had found a way out. The Danish contingent left Koneshwaram and set sail for Tharagambadi.


Gjedde and his navy finally reached Tharagambadi in 1620. They named the place Tranquebar and built a trading center there. They built Fort Dansborg on the seashore. He sent a message back the king of Denmark. The Danish East India company had arrived.

P.S. – It did not survive long.


The fishing hamlet of Tharagambadi is off the beaten path and not an easy place to reach. It has the distinction of having the first Protestant church in India, the first printing press in India and the second largest Danish fort in the world (after fort Kronborg in Helsingør).

The fortress on the beach is a beauty to behold. It was recently renovated and has a museum inside. The rusted canons still face the sea. Old churches and Danish bunglows are scattered around the town. The Danish Collector’s bunglow is refurbished as a hotel, and staying there takes you 300 years back in time.

Tharagambadi, the land of the singing waves, captures the imagination.

Posted in Tamil Nadu

‘Gangaikonda Cholapuram’ – The City of the Chola who brought the Ganges.

Rajendra Chola – I sat on the Chola throne for the first time as yuvaraja, the crown prince, under his father’s rule. He inherited a mighty empire from his father, Rajaraja Chola – I. Along with the empire, he also inherited his father’s wars. The Chola empire was plagued by wars and rebellions. In the North, they were at war with Kalingas, the Western Chalukas and the Eastern Chalukas. In the South, their archenemies, the Pandayas were a splinter on the throne. Even in Lanka, which his father had recently occupied, the Sinhalese king was fighting for his freedom. The yuvaraja rose to the challenge. He took command of the Chola Army. The Chola Army crushed all the rebels under his leadership. The Chola flag, a pouncing tiger, fluttered in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kalinga, and Lanka.

When the yuvaraja wore the Chola crown in 1014 AD, he was the ruler over the entire Deccan. His navy held the Islands of Andaman and Nicobar Islands. In his treasure chambers were the crowns of the Pandayas and the Sinhalese. The young Chola king was not satisfied. The minstrels sang of his father, Rajaraja Chola, and called him the greatest Chola king. The Chola Temple in Thanjavur was a testament to his greatness. But Rajendra Chola had different plans. Plans to overshadow even his late father’s glory.

The river Cauvery was the Chola lifeline. It flowed through the heart of their empire, the city of Thanjavur. The Temple that his father built towered high over the city skyline. Priests, ministers, and bureaucrats walked hurriedly through the wide streets. The city was his father’s pet project. The Chola port, Kaveripattinam, was situated at the mouth of the river Cauvery. It brought merchants from all over the world. Fair skinned Romans, bearded Arabs and diminutive Chinese strolled on the dusty the streets, selling their merchandise. Trade flourished under the Cholas. The Chola Empire was at peace. But the young Chola king grew restless. He wanted more. He wanted the holiest of all rivers. The Ganges.

He set his eyes North. The king commanded the army himself. Under king Rajendra Chola and his General Araiyan Rajarajan, the Chola army laid waste to the land. The Kalingas, the Vengi and the Odda kingdom fell before the Chola might. The only the Pala kingdom stood between the Chola and the Ganges. In one of the bloodiest wars of that time, Rajendra Chola‘s army defeated the Palas and king Mahipala lay his crown at the young king’s feet. Rajendra Chola, tired from the battle, walked into the river Ganges. The current was strong but the Chola was not bothered. He cupped his hands poured the water of the Ganges as a sacrifice to Lord Shiva, his protector. He took on the title – ‘Gangaikonda Chola’, the Chola who brought home the Ganges.

With the Bengal under him, Rajendra Chola looked east. He had heard tales from the merchants of Kaveripattinam of vast lands over the sea, filled with riches. He strengthened his Navy and sent it on an expedition to conquer the lands of the east. The Chola Navy did not disappoint their king. They proved to be the strongest naval force in the Indian Ocean. The kings of Burma, Indochina, Malay Peninsula, and the Indonesian Archipelago accepted the Cholas as their overlord. They sent tribute to the king, under the naval threat. All land around the Bay of Bengal belonged to the Cholas. During Rajendra Chola‘s rule, the Bay of Bengal was called ‘The Chola Lake‘.

At the height of Rajendra Chola’s power, The Chola Empire held its sway over the Deccan, Bengal, Burma, Indochina, Malay Peninsula, Singapore, Andaman-Nicobar Islands, Lakshadweep Islands, Maldives and Sri Lanka, making it one of the largest empires to ever rule India.

(Chola Empire under Rajendra Chola-I)

After defeating the Pala kingdom, King Rajendra Chola came back south, bringing with him water from the Ganges. He built a new city and called it ‘Gangaikonda Cholapuram’ – The city of the Chola who brought the Ganges. He built a Shiva temple in the city, rivalling the one his father built in Thanjavur. He built a 22 km wide artificial lake near the city. He shifted the Chola capital from Thanjavur.

He named his son, Rajadhiraja Chola, as ‘yuvaraja’ and placed him on the Chola throne. He renounced the throne and took up the life of a hermit. He left Gangaikonda Cholapuram and spent their last days as ascetics at Bramhadesam on the banks of Palar with his wife, Viramadeviyar. He died at Bramhadesam at the ripe age of eighty. The queen committed sati on his pyre. The queen’s brother, Madhurantakan Parakesari velan, the commander of the Chola armies, built a watershed at the place in memory of his sister and the greatest king of South India. 

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The glory of Rajendra Chola’s city, Gangaikonda Cholapuram is now all but lost. The once mighty Chola capital is now a small village situated on the highway between Neyveli and Kumbakonam. The Royal palace, the city buildings are all one with the dust. The only proof that the place was once the capital of one of the might Chola Empire are the Shiva temple and man-made lake nearby.

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The Shiva temple is built along the lines of the one in Thanjavur. One of the most beautiful sculptures adoring the wall is the one of Shiva placing a crown on the King’s head. Clean lawns surround the temple premises. The place is now a world heritage site and thankfully the city of one of the greatest kings of India is not completely lost in the tides of time.