Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Bungalow on the Beach

The long trip to Tranquebar or Tharangambadi on a 'misinformed' (self-induced) whim was tiring. Travelling by road for nearly 6 hours with only a short break for lunch just wasn't enough. So, when I finally reached the Bungalow on the Beach, it was with a sense of relief. It quickly turned into sheer happiness when I saw the inside of my room and the view from the windows. 

View of the sea opposite my room

Right beside the beach, I could hear the waves crashing all through the day & night. Initially, it was a little disorienting, a new type of sound to get used to. But, after a while, the sounds of the sea were soothing and lulled me to deep, refreshing sleep. 

Neemrana's non-hotel (as they like to call it) is as described on their website - a heritage property, restored painstakingly and lovingly to its original state. Almost. There are modern conveniences like air-conditioners and ensuite bathrooms which are later additions to the property. The renovations have been done in a way where it blends in with the rest of the architecture and decor. 

The Bungalow on the Beach in the
evening just as the lights came on

The foyer with its warm vibe

The Bungalow on the Beach was built in 1845 during British rule as the collector's residence (according to a book in the hotel). The Neemrana Hotels bought the building in 2002 from the previous owners and it has been with them since. Interested guests can browse through the hotel's album which details the various stages of restoration of the Bungalow on the Beach.

My room was adequately spacious. Surprisingly, it wasn't huge like one gets to see in other heritage buildings or in most other Neemrana properties. High ceilings, large windows and a canopied bed, it was cozy and comfortable. The bathroom was a bit small but it didn't bother me too much as the rest of the environs were beautiful - inside and outside. 

Antique fixtures & artwork as seen in the hotel

The size of the bolts & hinges will give you an idea
of the huge sizes of the doors & windows in the place :)

The top floor verandah runs around the bungalow, with rooms opening on to it. It was a great place to sit and watch the waves or just day dream. An easy chair, a book to read, a cup of tea (or a tall, cold drink depending on the weather) and I could have spent hours there. One side of the building faces the beach and the one side the Dansborg Fort. A third adjoins the 14th century Massilamani Nathar temple. You can pick your choice of the views. :)

14th century temple and sea on the
far side of the swimming pool

View of the fort from the hotel at sunset.
The skies were unbelievable!

A nesting bird in the trees opposite the verandah

The staff were warm and friendly. The food was local cuisine and yummy, unless you wanted continental dishes, which were also available. There are no other places in town to try the local fare. 

Verandah on the ground floor

Made from fruits from their own orchards
in some other part of the country

I spent two days in Tranquebar and loved every moment of it. It's a small town and there aren't many places to stay there besides Neemrana's properties - the Gate House (photos at the end of this post) is the second. The Nayak House on Goldsmith Street is another place to stay. A former Neemrana property, it is reportedly now owned and operated by another entity. 

I have stayed at other Neemrana properties too (I admit I am a fan of the Hotels & the concept) but this particular one had me completely charmed. Maybe it was a bit of the place too that had me enthralled.

Photos of the Gate House:

The hotel is so named due its proximity to the old town gate. 

Traditional swing near the courtyard

Carved pillars that are jaw droppingly amazing

The bathrooms - old yet new

Yet another antique - a coconut scraper

The town gate as seen from the hotel

Note: This is NOT a sponsored trip or review. As I said, I am a fan. ;)

Friday, November 7, 2014

A temple, a church & a graveyard - Tranquebar

More gems from my trip to Tharangambadi

Masillamani Nathar (Shiva) Temple

The temple to Lord Shiva is the oldest existing structure in Thrangambadi. King Maravarman Kulasekara Pandian granted land for the erection of a temple in 1306 according to an ancient inscription found on the walls of the temple. The structure stands at the edge of the sea and is constantly battered by the waves which is evident in the erosion visible around it. 

The stone temple was supposed to have three gopurams (dome like structures) but the sea took two of them a long time ago. It looks like some restoration work has been done on the temple but unfortunately it has been painted over in bright colours (not very 14th century!). 

The evening when I went around to the temple, it was closed. I could not see into the shrine. There were a few people there who had come to pay their respects to the deity behind the closed doors and a few either gazing at the sea or catching up with friends. 

New Jerusalem Church

The church is a pristine white building on King's Street with the initials of King Frederick IV and 1718 on it. 

It was a little difficult to locate as there are other churches in the vicinity and not all of them have sign boards. Also, it was mid-afternoon and the sleepy town seemed sleepier than ever. There was no one in sight and after mistakenly dropping in at a relatively new church, I found my way to the New Jerusalem Church. A caretaker was kind enough to take me around and proudly share the history of the church as well as information on the current activities in it.

The church was dedicated in 1718 and is an amalgamation of local Indian architecture and the European styles existing then. The church was built after the arrival of Zeigenbalg and his colleagues who were the first Protestant missionaries in India. He also was responsible for bringing a printing press to India around 1713 which was the first after a long gap in India (the first press arrived in Goa, brought by the Portuguese around 1556). Zeigenbalg died in 1719 and was buried in the church. 

The New Jerusalem Church has some old artefacts still in use and pretty stained glass windows.  

Old Danish Cemetery

Separated from the back entrance of the New Jerusalem Church by a small street, the Danish cemetery was probably laid out as soon as the first European settlers landed here. The gates were locked and no one seemed to know who to contact in connection with it. I have great fascination for visiting old cemeteries and looking at the gravestones of the people buried there. In my fancy I start wondering what stories lie beneath. Morbid? Possibly.

In this case I had to be content with my view through the bars of the gate. I was quite envious of the goats who had managed to get into the cemetery and were prancing about the interesting looking memorials in it. 

The lane which leads to the cemetery is lined with huts on either side, closely packed, along with animals, thatch, grains and people strewn on the road. If you don't keep a look out, it's quite possible to miss the gate altogether. 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

A bungalow & a gate - Tranquebar

Continuing my series on the landmarks in Tharangambadi

The Danish Governor's Bungalow

The colonnaded facade of the Governor's Bungalow

The Danish Governor's Bungalow was built around 1784. It was a private residence but later bought over by the Danish government to be made into the official residence of the Governor. It supposedly housed 33 successive Danish governors and subsequently the Sessions' Court, the Salt Office and a part of the post office under Bristish rule. 

When I visited, there was work going on as part of the restoration process started in 2008. The building seems to have been in a very dilapidated condition before work began, therefore it's no wonder the work continues. The transformation as you can see for yourself is wonderful and I imagine, painstaking.

The dilapidated bungalow before restoration

A view of the courtyard inside the bungalow

A view of the massive doors (>8ft at least) &
all the way through various other doors

There are plans to convert the bungalow into a cultural centre for the public with a library, an exhibition area as well house a shop and restaurant. 

A view of the fort & the sea beyond it from
the terrace of the bungalow

The Governor's Bungalow is situated on King's Street opposite the Dansborg Fort and just a few metres away from Neemrana's Bungalow on the Beach. 

The Gate

The town gate through which you enter Tharangambadi of old is a narrow arched structure. 

The gate was originally built in the 1600s but was torn down and rebuilt in 1792 which still stands today. Of course, the town has grown around it and there are other ways to get into Tharangambadi but it's as quaint as the town and worth a look. 

The Gate House hotel, another Neemrana property, got its name from this landmark and is another restored heritage property.

Dansborg Fort - Tranquebar

The Dansborg Fort was built in 1620 AD in Tranquebar or Tharangambadi, the Land of the Singing Waves. It is supposed to be the second largest Danish fort after Kronberg (in Denmark and the inspiration for Shakespeare's castle in Hamlet). The fort has an impressive facade and overlooks the Bay of Bengal. It is remarkably well preserved, probably due to restoration work done to it in 2002 and 2011. 

Overlooking the Bay of Bengal

The fort was constructed mainly as a military base keeping in mind accomodation, kitchens, granaries, stables, freshwater wells, armoury and even a jail. It also has a set of rooms on the first floor which were used as the Governor's residence and also included administrative offices, a rectory, a church and guard rooms. The Governor later moved home to a larger, smarter bungalow located opposite the fort. Today, one portion of the fort's upper storey houses a museum with some interesting artefacts from those times. 

Artefacts in the museum

Various sections on the ground floor

There is also a tunnel which has partially collapsed and is not usable anymore. According to the official version it supposedly leads from the inside of the fort to the Uppannar river about 300m away. It was possibly meant to be a quick getaway incase the fort was taken over by hostile forces. But local tales say the tunnel leads all the way to Tanjavur, about a 100Kms away. :) The authorities have blocked the way due to the fear of further cave-ins and resident snakes and other creatures. 

The fort is not as large or embellished as some of the Mughal or Rajput ones scattered across India. But it is impressive and reassuring in its solidity. Having survived the last 400 years including the 2004 tsunami, the Dansborg Fort continues to look out across the Bay of Bengal while keeping a watch over the town. 

Another relic preserved from the past

Note: From what I can remember, the fort is open to the public from 10AM to 5PM on all days except Friday.

A place where the waves sing

Centuries of colonial rule have undoubtedly left an indelible mark on India. There are pockets where the remnants of the erstwhile colonial masters are more pronounced than the rest of the country - Pondicherry, Mahe, Chandannagore, Lutyens Delhi etc. India certainly had her share of European masters - the British, the French, the Dutch, the Portuguese and even the Danes. The Spaniards are conspicuous by their absence. Maybe Columbus' voyage in the wrong direction had something to do with it. :D Anyway, I digress. 

In a corner of South India is one such town - Tharangambadi or the 'Land of the Singing Waves'. An erstwhile Danish colony it is also referred as Tranquebar, the name bestowed by its European masters. Approximately 120 kms south of Pondicherry Tharangambadi lies along the Tamil Nadu coastline, a little before the port city of Karaikal.

The Neemrana property - Bungalow on the Beach - where I had booked myself is located right by the Bay of Bengal and next to the Dansborg Fort. Checking into the hotel was sheer pleasure after the long road trip from Chennai (more about the property in a later post). 

A little background on the town

In the 17th century, Tharangampadi was part of the Tanjore province ruled by King Raghunatha Nayak. He gave the Danes permission to build a trading centre here. According to a booklet I picked up at the hotel, the original agreement document, a gold sheet with the king's signature is still around and preserved in the National Archives in Copenhagen, Denmark. The rent was fixed at Rs. 3,100 per month, approximately.

The Danes, soon, bought Tharangambadi from the King and set about establishing their presence in the country. In 1845 AD they sold Tharangambadi to the British. Soon after, the British opened up other trading routes in the area and the town became relegated to the pages of history.  

Tharangambadi lies in Nagapattinam district, one of the worst affected areas in the Indian Ocean tsunami that struck India in 2004. Since then the people of Tharangambadi have painstakingly rebuilt their lives and livelihoods with support from various associations, NGOs and governments

The Danes continue to have a presence in Tharangambadi today by supporting restoration and maintenance of some of the colonial landmarks constructed by them.

Some of the sights I visited: 

Dansborg Fort - Tranquebar

  • The Governor's Bungalow
  • The Town Gate
  • Masillamani Nathar (Shiva) Temple 
  • New Jerusalem Church
  • Old Danish Cemetery

Tharangambadi is a small town with all its major landmarks within walking distance of each other (I wish I had found this really cool map by INTACH before my trip). The streets retain their old names - King's Street, Queen's Street, Admiral Street etc. and houses their colonial architecture. 

A quaint town, it doesn't get many tourists and is relatively quiet and pleasant. Traffic is zilch (literally!) when compared to other places. You can hear no honking, barely a bike or two and the air is clean and pure. Incidentally, Tharangambadi claims to have the thickest ozone layer in India. :) 

The beach is beautiful and stretches as far as the eye can see. If you spend enough time by the beach either early in the day or in the evenings, you can see the fisher-folk with their boats, repairing the nets or sorting fish. 

It was with some reluctance that I left Tharangambadi. I could have sat there day and night by the sea listening to the waves soothing my city woes away. The waves truly sing.

Note: You can drive down from Chennai (like I did) - Approx 300 Kms away. If you plan well you can make brief stop overs at Dakshina Chitra (like I did) and Mahabalipuram (like I did not!) on the way. You can even combine it with Pondicherry, its more popular neighbour and a tourist hot-spot, approx 120 Kms from Tharangambadi. 

The nearest airport, an International one, no less, is at Thiruchirapalli (Trichy), approx 145 Kms away. Jet Airways and Air India ply domestic routes but it's best to check before planning since flights to non-metros are constantly at the mercy of the powers that be. 

All photos posted here were shot on my MotoX (Google) phone camera. Even I am amazed at how well they have turned out. :)

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Un-informed travel... not my thing, I think.

When I was planning my trip to Chennai and places around it, the obvious choice seemed to be Pondicherry. But it was a town I had visited twice before. While I did discover newer aspects to Pondy with every visit (like the wall art at Serenity Beach), this time I wanted to see a little bit more. Tranquebar came highly recommended. Since my idea of a holiday is usually quieter, less populated destinations, it fit in well with my plans. I soon booked my tickets and my hotel and was quite pleased with myself that I had wrapped it all up effeciently. 

photo credit:

Only then did I start on my information gathering and was looking up places of interest in and around Tranquebar, if any. To my shock I realised I had sorely underestimated the time it took to reach the town (by road) from Chennai. I had reckoned for around 3 hours totally, mistakenly assuming Tranquebar was not more than an hour's drive beyond Pondy. But since all the bookings had been done, there was no going back. I realised I had to now cut short my sight seeing in and around Chennai and push off to Tranquebar immediately. Especially, as I didn't want to be on the road too late in the evening.

I left Chennai by 9 AM, made two brief halts - one at Dakshinachitra (a second visit is definitely required) and another for lunch enroute. Finally, I reached Tranquebar around 5.30PM. Approx. journey time: 5 and a half hours (as opposed to the 3 hours that I had assumed).

Due to my silly mistake in figuring out the distance from Chennai to Tranquebar, I missed out on visiting the Shore temples of Mahabalipuram as well as a day trip to Pondicherry. I was more disappointed about the temples. I have been waiting to see them for ages. Ever since I saw a picture of the elephant sculpture (carved from a single rock, no less) in my school history books.

Note to myself: Do not ape the ones who impulsively travel to a destination without doing any/ proper research. Not my cup of tea. Too much stress!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Houses from a bygone era

Dakshinachitra - the famous heritage centre in Chennai showcases the traditions of Southern India - including performing arts, crafts, architecture and visual arts. Set up by the Madras Crafts Foundation on a ten acre piece of land, Dakshinachitra opened to the public in 1996. It's a  popular place for people wanting to get a quick dekko into the traditions of the South. 

To properly tour the centre, that is if you're really interested in traditional architecture and arts, it will take at least 4-5 hours. I spent around 2 hrs there and managed to see just a fraction of the displays. 

The place is large and rambling with prominent signage which tells you the state you are visiting. Dakshinachitra has managed to relocate numerous traditional houses from their original locations and restored and reconstructed them within their premises. Among the ones I saw were houses from Thirunelveli, Chettinad, a muslim house from Chikmagalur and a Syrian Christian house from Kerala. But there are more, many more for which a repeat visit is a must (note to myself!)

Columns in the house from Chettinad

Intricate doorway of the house from Chettinad

Antique wooden chest inside the Chettinad-style house

Door latch in the Syrian Christian house. As intricate as they come.

All-wooden hinge of the main door in the Syrian Christian house

A sculpture of Kamadhenu - the cow of plenty, (circa 1900AD). 
You can get a glimpse of another life-size sculpture in the background.

Sculpture of Saint Theresa, first half of the 20th century

Chikmagalur house (slightly warped panorama shot)

The insides of these houses are preserved either in the same fashion as the traditional houses would have been or they have been turned into museums with artefacts from that particular area. Infact, the house from Chikmagalur had been restored and thrown open to the public only a few days before I visited Dakshinachitra. 

There's also a small area designated as the marketplace where artists sell their finished products. You get to see some of the artisans bringing their creations to life here. The marketplace is a dynamic one with changes regularly. If you ever make a repeat visit you might a different set of artists and art forms next time. Besides the marketplace, the centre also has a shop just inside their reception area where it retails traditional products from across India. 

Hand-painted scroll - Pattachitra from Odisha

A closer look at the intricacy of the Pattachitra scroll

Prakash, the creator of these Pattachitra scrolls at his stall

A corner of Dakshinachitra also houses a large art gallery displaying works by contemporary artists. I can't imagine why I didn't get the names of the artists of the paintings I photographed. 

Paintings on display at the art gallery

A closer look at one of the paintings that caught my eye

Yet another close-up of a painting on display

Dakshinachitra is easily accessible from the city by road and MRTS. It is approx 10 kms from the Chennai Central Railway Station and around 13 kms from the airport. Tuesday is their weekly off and they shut by 6 PM.

For more photographs and events' details, check out their Facebook page.  

Large figurines that form a part of the village temple inside Dakshinachitra