Tranquebar- Whose History? (Transnational Cultural Heritage in a Former Danish Trading Colony in South India)

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Item Code: NAF825
Author: Helle Jorgensen
Publisher: Orient Blackswan Pvt. Ltd.
Language: English
Edition: 2014
ISBN: 9788125053453
Pages: 367 (4 B/W Illustrations with two Maps)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.0 inch X 6.0 inch
Weight 520 gm
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Book Description
About The Book

Tranquebar, a small fishing town on the coast of Tamil Nadu, was a Danish trading colony from 1620 to 1845. In recent years, the drive to develop it into a heritage destination has generated large-scale conservation and restoration efforts aimed at preserving the monuments of the town’s colonial past.

Alongside the proliferation of surveys and development plans, manifold agents including local and state-level authorities, private entrepreneurs, researchers, NGOs, and tourist-Danish and Indian-congregate in the town.

Yet the townscape also sets the scene for the everyday lives and concerns of the local inhabitants. Tranquebar-Whose History? Explores the significances of cultural heritage in this small town, revealing the multiple attachments to, uses of, and negotiations around the townscape and its histories in daily life, tourism, research and heritage development.

The discussion moves from the differing motivations attending local and transnational constructions of Tranquebar as a “remote” location, and the sometimes contradictory expectations from development; the conflicting attitudes to “modernity” and notions of aesthetics among various stakeholders; to shifting constructions of history in which Tranquebar emeges as a postcolony, caught between colonial nostalgia, collective memory and contemporary narrations of anti-conquest.

This volume will be useful to those engaged in anthropology, history, postcolonial studies and cultural studies. It will also be of interest to students of heritage and tourism, heritage practitioners and to the general reader.

About The Author

Helle Jorgensenlectures at the Department of Culture and Society, Aarhus University, Denmark.


In 1980, the small South Indian coastal town and former Danish trading colony of Tranquebar, known locally by the Tamil name Tharangambadi, was declared a heritage town by the Government of Tamil Nadu. This formal bestowal of recognition is but one small element in a multifaceted process that has spanned decades. A steadily growing number of surveys, reports and development plans address the historic townscape and architecture of Tranquebar, increasingly followed up by conservation and development practices that are tangibly shaping the material and social environment of the town. A wide array of agents, including both local and state-level authorities, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and private entrepreneurs intend Tranquebar to be preserved as an expression of cultural heritage, and to be developed as a destination for heritage tourism. Consequently, there is currently a growing movement for the restoration and conservation of what developers deem to be heritage buildings, and for their development for purposes such as museums and so-called heritage hotels. All of this is occurring on a scale that is quite extraordinary for what the place also is: a small and, to the external eye, a somewhat sleepy fishing town on the Coromandel Coast in Tamil Nadu, where many local people go about their daily lives without pondering the potential historic significance of their surroundings.

Tranquebar has attracted this special attention as a heritage town mainly due to the fact that, in contrast with a number of other former European trading stations on the Coromandel Coast, it has preserved its distinct architectural traits from the colonial period to a large extent.' Not only researchers and representatives of public authorities but also NGOs and private agents engage in the heritage development of Tranquebar; others visit as tourists attracted by the history and physical layout of the town. Tranquebar is strongly characterised by the streetscapes and built structures that were constructed during Danish rule in the period 1620-1845. A European pattern of straight, grid-like streets lined by former colonial institutions and residences merges with Hindu temples, the local mosque and dargah (a shrine dedicated to two revered Sufi saints)," as well as distinctly Tamil houses and huts. As a development plan for Tranquebar submitted to the central government of India puts it, "the town is perceived as unique because of this architectural setting which is an outcome of a synthesis between Danish and local Tamil vernacular [culture]" Tranquebar is thus in focus as an expression of cross-cultural heritage, a place of historical memory that attracts the interests of both Indian and Danish agents. But what-and whose-heritage is being secured by the preservation of the historic townscape and buildings of Tranquebar, and how is this Indo-Danish cultural heritage negotiated locally and transnationally? Tranquebar served as a Danish trading colony in the years from 1620 to 1845. It was subsequently sold off to the British East India Company, eventually becoming part of independent India in 1947. Though it is now accorded special interest as a heritage town, historically Tranquebar was one of many European settlements on the Coromandel Coast, and only a small part of the wider trading history of the region, which has a long history of cross-cultural interaction. The Coromandel Coast is punctuated by the deltas of several large rivers. Its fertile land has supported irrigated agriculture and sustained a succession of kingdoms and empires with trading ports that maintained contacts with Arabian traders and settlers from before the birth of Islam, and in ancient times the region also traded with the Roman Empire.' After the arrival of the Portuguese in 1498, when the sea route to India was opened to Europeans, South India became a convenient early ground for the settlement of a range of European trading companies that wished to purchase highly profitable goods such as spices and textiles. The Europeans settled both on the Malabar Coast on the western side of the peninsula, and on the Coromandel Coast in the east. During the first three decades of the sixteenth century, the Coromandel Coast became the seat of three Portuguese settlements at Nagapattinam, Pulicat and Sao Tome, respectively.

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries witnessed rivalry among several European powers, who vied for ascendancy in the lucrative trade on the coasts of India. The Dutch East India Company was founded in 1602, and soon became a worldwide corporation that was able to oust the Portuguese from a number of their trading posts, and establish its own centres in the region. The British East India Company, which was eventually to emerge as the dominant European power in the subcontinent, was founded in 1600. After tough competition with the Portuguese and the Dutch, it acquired a strip of land by the Bay of Bengal, where it established Fort St George in 1639, in what was to become the city of Madras (today known as Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu). The French East India Company was formed in 1664. Latecomers to India, the French set up a trading post m Pondicherry in 1674 and expanded from there. Eventually, the Coromandel Coast was dotted with European trading posts, as these companies carved out positions vis-a-vis local rulers, established traders in the region, and each other.

The Danish East India Company was formed in 1616, drawing inspiration in particular from the success of the Dutch in the subcontinent. Upon arrival in South India, the company succeeded in getting the permission of the then ruler of the kingdom of Thanjavur, Ragunatha Nayak, to settle and trade in Tranquebar. The Portuguese had already obtained trading rights at Nagapattinam in Thanjavur. Ragunatha Nayak welcomed the arrival of the Danes as an opportunity to increase the local trade and expand his position of power. The Danish settlement in Tranquebar was one which Indian and European historians concur in Characterising as “far behind the other European powers" in its trading activities, due to the more limited resources of the Danes. The Danish trading colony was never large, encompassing the town of Tranquebar itself and a territory of approximately 50 sq kms at the height of its existence. Nevertheless, the role of Tranquebar as a colonial trading post has been the topic of an extensive body of both popular and scholarly literature, mainly (but not exclusively) of Danish origin, rendering the town and its history subject to a continuing research tradition that also emphasises its status as heritage.

In the field of heritage studies, history is understood to take social effect as a negotiable and sometimes disputed good, rather than being seen merely as an objective entity. Studying how history is constructed in situ offers an exceptional opportunity to examine what is meant by "history': as well as to understand the mental geographies to which the history in question pertains. Exploring what "Tranquebar" means in the process of heritage development is inevitably also to explore the conceptualisation of relations between Denmark and India, the nations engaged in this history, including the perceptions of national identity that are brought to bear here, and the transnational contexts in which they are produced. The current development in Tranquebar may be seen as a process of interpretation and negotiation, in which the traces of the Indo-Danish colonial period not just are historical, but become so as they acquire special significance by being used and talked about as heritage.

Tranquebar thus constitutes a privileged field for research on the intercultural construction of heritage and collective memory. Numerous agents have a stake in this field, the interests involved ranging from creating social and economic development to the promotion of particular forms of cultural and historical identity and consciousness. All of these interests converge on heritage, an elusive concept that encompasses both materiality and historicity, tangibles and intangibles. Historic buildings may in their materiality appear as objectively given heritage. However, far from being a singular fact, heritage is socially constituted in relations between different agents and in the practices of moving through, using and representing the very townscape for which a status as "heritage" is currently being created. In this study, I will uncover the current uses of the concept of heritage in Tranquebar by exploring the negotiations around the meanings and uses of its historic buildings, as well as the motivations and conceptual frameworks involved in preserving this part of the history of Tranquebar.

There are many ways in which people engage with Tranquebar and express their attachments to and aspirations for the inhabited history-or histories-that constitute the townscape and the life of this town. Occasionally, some of these practices and perspectives vis-a-vis the past, present and future of Tranquebar clash with each other. This is not to say that any of these agendas is ill-intentioned, or that any one perspective should be privileged over another. Indeed, I remain grateful both to the inhabitants of Tranquebar and to the wide range of professionals and visitors who have shared their views on the history and development of the town with me; all of these agents, each in their own way, continue to contribute to the unfolding historicity and the material shaping of Tranquebar. I thus follow anthropologist Michael Herzfeld in taking the perspective that, "because ... the anthropologist should not end up co-opted by the logic of rival claims to authenticity ... I would insist on investigating as many of the competing (and often submerged) authenticities as possible. Histories range from the highly personal and subversive to some that are broadly and obviously hegemonic. The contest among them is written in the inhabited spaces.”

Tranquebar may, from this perspective, be perceived as both the scene for and a manifestation of Indo- Danish cultural encounters in the past and the present. Processes such as restoration, research and the development of heritage tourism connect historical and current relations, and may be analysed in terms of the construction of historical narratives in a dialogue between local, national and transnational agents.

The theoretical perspectives applied in this book will be unfolded primarily where they create the greatest scope for analysis and discussion-namely, directly in the context of the empirical data which they are used to elucidate. Nevertheless, this introductory section presents some essential conceptual definition and remarks prior to engaging in the analysis.

One central concept, which I have already used in this introduction and which will appear throughout the book, is that of the "townscape." This term (of which "streetscape” is a variant that pertains to a single street) is the urban equivalent of “landscape”. The concept is used in urban design and town planning to designate the configuration of built forms and interstitial spaces characteristic of a particular urban setting. Central and interrelated elements of a townscape include the layout of the streets, the architectural style(s) and the land use. In the field of architecture, townscape is a central concept in the planning and construction of buildings and spaces with the purpose of achieving aesthetically pleasing relationships. Similar to the concept of landscape, the term townscape can privilege the visual character of a setting, connoting a view of a town from a particular vantage point, in some contexts even a photographic or artistic representation thereof.

In my use, however, the term is not intended to promote a particular view of the aesthetics of the town. Rather, I use the concept of townscape to refer to the town as a material setting shaped in interaction with the social life that is played out in it. Townscapes, with the buildings, streets and spaces that constitute them, are also a part of social interaction, where people who move about in them know how to behave because of their practical engagements and understandings of the environment. These understandings are inevitably multiple and situated; but they can also be sought to be influenced so that particular interpretations of the townscape come to dominate." In processes of conservation and planning of historic built environments, the concept of townscape plays a powerful role in aesthetic evaluations-of what is of value. 17 The townscape can therefore be seen as both the object of and a central social field in negotiations around the significance of heritage and the uses of history in Tranquebar. As such, the townscape of Tranquebar and the practices that shape it constitute a key analytical object of this study.

I conceive the field of negotiations in which Tranquebar is situated as not only transnational, but also transcultural. These terms qualify my use of the popular concept of "cultural encounters" -a concept which has often been critiqued, with some justification, as too easily evoking an image of static and closed national cultures engaged in clashes with each other, rather than connoting dynamic, ongoing processes of entanglement. In short, it is not my intention to engage in an analysis that presumes the existence or clash of singular "Danish" and "Indian" perspectives on heritage, history and development in Tranquebar. Rather, my approach to the ongoing encounters in Tranquebar draws inspiration from the "contact perspective" advanced by the literary scholar Mary Louise Pratt, which she explicates in her influential theorising of imperial encounters: "A 'contact' perspective emphasises how subjects get constituted in and by their relations to each other. It treats the relations among colonizers and colonized, or travellers and 'travelees’, not in terms of separateness, but in terms of co-presence, interaction, interlocking understandings and practices, and often within radically asymmetrical relations of power."

Such an approach is all the more important since, in spite of the proliferation of studies dealing with (post)colonial representations and relations, drawing especially on fields such as discourse theory and literary studies, the criticism has been voiced that "many writers stress, in principle, the localized character of colonial and postcolonial subjectivities, while resisting much engagement with either localities or subjects'." In a historical context, Nicholas Thomas argues for "localizing colonialism in encounters ... [to historicise] the socially-transformative projects of colonizers and colonized"," Similarly, in this investigation of contemporary heritage development in Tranquebar, my objective is to provide a localised study of ongoing encounters that is not only theoretically informed but also richly empirical, presenting the multiple and intersecting perspectives that make up the negotiations around what heritage means in Tranquebar.

The concepts of "history" and "heritage" are equally often used interchangeably and in opposition to each other, within academia as well as by a wider and growing global public. It has been suggested by one of the grand old figures of heritage studies, David Lowenthal, that these two concepts can fundamentally be characterised as connoting two different types of endeavour. In this view, history is directed towards "understand[ing] the past on its own terms”, by means of critical analysis and impartial enquiry into sources that are open to general scrutiny; while heritage is directed towards fixing and enhancing the identity of particular collectivities and places: "not an enquiry into the past but a celebration of it, not an effort to know what actually happened but a profession of faith In a past tailored to present-day purposes”.

Critics of this distinction point out that these ideal types have a marked tendency to merge in everyday experience and in actual practice, even within institutional fields such as historiography and museology. To employ either the concept of history or that of heritage as part of the theoretical framework of a study such as the present' one, and to attempt to define the objective content and meaning of these categories, would involve the fallacy of engaging as theory the very concepts that constitute the analytic objects of my study." A far more fruitful theoretical approach to understanding the negotiations around and the uses of both "history" and "heritage" is therefore to employ the concept of historicity, which encompasses more fully the fluid field of social dynamics in which understandings of history and heritage are constituted. My point of departure here is the definition given by the anthropologists Eric Hirsch and Charles Stewart, according to whom In investigating the dynamic social situation of historicity, I must also point out that I do not set out in this study to establish "how the past was" in Tranquebar. Inquiries into the longue duree of historical developments certainly have merit in their own right, but there is a limit to the scope of any book. My ambition here is of a different sort: I aim to do an ethnography of the uses of the past in the present.

Tranquebar and its history have been the topics of many accounts, both academic and popular, but as yet with a decided preponderance of Danish perspectives. In order to complement this body of historical representations, scholars especially within the field of anthropology have often called for studies on the present-day uses of colonial history and its traces. This is an underexplored topic in both anthropology and historiography, especially with reference to the context of former Danish colonies. A growing body of research relating to (post)colonial history has already advanced critiques of established approaches to the study of the cultural history of India. Such approaches have been criticised for drawing on essentialist colonial discourses, neglecting agency and dialogue in the local social context.

Taking its point of departure from this situation, the current study makes it an important methodological as well as theoretical point to analyse the significances of cultural heritage in Tranquebar, not just in a national nor in a purely local framework, but in a transnational perspective. It takes into consideration the multiple attachments to and uses of cultural heritage in daily life, tourism and research in Tranquebar. From this perspective, Tranquebar presents itself as a field of unfolding historicity shaped by the daily practices of and the interplay between the inhabitants of the town, visitors, private entrepreneurs, NGOs, authorities and scholars from both India and abroad. The present study documents and analyses the rich field of practice that constitutes the contemporary development of this heritage town, based on eight months of ethnographic field research in Tranquebar conducted between August 2007 and March 2008.

Since the majority of the population of Tranquebar speaks mainly Tamil, I adopted the dual approach of learning conversational Tamil through daily lessons during my fieldwork, and hiring a local interpreter to accompany me for interviews with those informants who did not speak English. While my Tamil was never fluent, understanding some Tamil provided me better access to the cultural concepts in terms of which the people of Tranquebar thought about the town and its development. Speaking Tamil was not just instrumental in communication, but had the added benefit of helping me develop a rapport with my informants and of easing my daily contact with the people. The inhabitants of Tranquebar are quite used to seeing foreigners visiting for shorter or longer durations as tourists, researchers, missionaries or representatives of NGOs, but only a minority of these visitors learn Tamil. Thus, for instance, I found myself the object of enthusiastic attention simply by chatting in Tamil with a group of fisherwomen on the beach. Laughing good-humouredly at my unusual attempt at Tamil conversation, they shouted out to acquaintances passing by: “Sister, she says that she likes fish!” Another time, I was introduced to a member of the staff at a local teachers’ training institute. As I commenced explaining in Tamil the purpose of my research, he confidence: “Before, the Danes ruled here-now we can speak on even terms!”


List of Figuresvi
List of Abbreviationsix
Map of Indiax
Map of Tamil Naduxi
Introduction: Studying the Transnational Construction of Heritage in Transquebar1
1Heritage Development and the Mental Geographies of Remoteness44
2The (Im) materialities of Constructing Heritage116
3History in a Postcolony218
Conclusion: Whose History? The Emergence of a Heritage Palimpsest302
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