By Maya Lalchandani
It was closing in on my birthday and I wanted to go to a place away from home, someplace near the sea, someplace with history and someplace that would evoke calm even in retrospect. Tranquebar immediately came to mind.
Of course, it was not the usual suspect but one that would stand me in good stead, since it was a good getaway from everything.
So I flew from Mumbai to Chennai by air, booking into one of Neemrana’s non-hotel hotels. Tharambagadi (‘Place of the Singing Waves’), formerly known as Tranquebar, is a sleepy little town in Tamil Nadu about five to six hours drive away from Chennai and lies 15 km to the north of Karaikal. It was the first Danish port on the Coromandel Coast when they sold the colony to the British East India Company in 1845.
Its history made it more interesting as I reached Neemrana’s Bungalow on the Beach, which is a 17th century Danish colonial house, situated next to Fort Dansborg. Nightfall made it look a bit eerie. As we turned into the barely lit compound, all we could hear was the lashing of the waves. The air seemed somewhat less common; after all it was known to have the thickest ozone layer in India.
Acquired in 2000, this property was opened only after restoration in 2004. But it sure looked like it had been lived in well and the high ceilings matched the colonial décor. I walked into my Queen Sophia Suite almost feeling decadent. My home for the next few days was going to be beachfront and calming.
The canopied bed, matching the flowered demeanor of the bed linen accompanied by the writing desk along with mosaic flooring was enough to make me feel almost royal. The minimalist restroom with all the amenities matched the feel of the boudoir; well almost, as the four-poster bed was enriched with lace curtains. I was going to be Princess Sophia, at least, if not the Queen.
The day sprung my eyes open, as I looked agape at the expanse of sea before me from the largest curved verandah that I had ever stood on. My gaze fell upon the Fort Dansburg on the right, as it lay on the shores of the Bay of Bengal. Second in size to only Kronborg, it was used after Independence as an inspection bungalow.
That fort was first on my tour list. I was obviously going to have a historical birthday at the Archeological Museum that lay in the fort itself. It all seemed unreal as the street opened out to more history, the old Danish cemetery on the western side and then the Governor’s Bungalow.
The Zion Church was right there too on King’s street. The New Jerusalem Church was the first ever Protestant church in India. One just could not miss the first German (Barthalmaeus Zeigenbalg) missionary’s home and the printing press on Admiral Street either. This little town is steeped in history.
The second day, I was up pretty early. Crossing the Paper Mill street, we drove to the French heritage town of Karaikal, sighting the temples and churches on the way, even a mosque caught my fancy as we turned into an International Muslim pilgrim centre called the Nagoor Andavar Dargah. Strangely, it had a mix of all Hindu customs.
And there we were finally in the world famous Velankanni Matha Church, the Lourdes of the East (17th century). This little hamlet is famous for the shrine Basilica that was built by the Portuguese in honour of the Lady who had saved the Portuguese sailors from a huge storm.
As I looked out at the raging sea and at the thunderous skies above me, I realized I might just be in the same precarious position. A storm was approaching as we began the journey back to the airport and as we spoke, the ravage had already begun. We somehow drove like the wind in those circumstances and when I reached Mumbai I realized that the damage done in Velankanni was substantial and I had had a miraculous birthday escape.
I had been in the eye of the storm and was out before it hit catastrophically. A week later, I got the news that Cyclone Gaja had caused extensive damage to India’s top shrine, and that the state was on high alert.
I was lucky to have had a beautiful birthday experience at the Neemrana’s Bungalow by the Beach in Tranquebar, and my heartfelt prayers go out to all those affected by the cyclone. May the Lady bring them protection once again.
Maya Lalchandani is a Mumbai-based entrepreneur, writer and the author of Paiso (Penguin Random House).