Beyond Tranquebar is a collection of twenty-four essays by scholars who bring to relief the many dimensions of this town. The book takes us to seventeenth-century Denmark, as the kingdom strives to find a place in the thriving colonial enterprise. It then moves to Maratha-ruled Tanjore where gifts can shift the balance of power. It takes us to a place where ideas, textiles and furniture arrive and depart, from as far away as Serampore in Bengal and Copenhagen in Denmark-going beyond geography to contribute to literacy and education in India and alter tastes in distant Europe.
This volume examines the place from the perspectives of a diverse range of academic disciplines-social anthropology, art history, sociology of religion, ethnography and history. It enquires into the lives of natives and foreigners, i.e. Danish, German and British, as they grapple (d) across borders both physical and cultural, in the past and the present.
This collection is unique in that it centres on activities which radiated from this important town, instead of seeing this place as an appendix to the national history of Denmark or to the Christian mission activities from Germany. Thereby, the authors and editors of this volume peg Tranquebar in its rightful place in the scholarly map.
This book will be useful for students and scholars of colonial history, South Asian studies and anthropology. They will benefit from the diverse strands of research a seemingly small place offers.
Esther Fihl is Professor, Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and research leader of the Transquebar Initiative of the National Museum of Denmark.
A. R. Venkatachalapathy is Professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai, India.
The small village of Tranquebar or Tharangampadi, on the southern Coromandel Coast, is a place not only in India but also in the world. It has carved out its own significant space in history through the many different kinds of human activities at that particular spot, from ancient times up until today. As a place, currently or historically, it does not so much exist as constantly ‘occur’ in new forms. These are shaped by the activities and movements of human beings living there or passing through-as well as by those who, from a distance, via historical archives, study the effects of the movements that once took place in, for example, the period of more than 200 years from 1620 to 1845 when the place served as a Danish trading colony.
Most people dwell there for longer or shorter periods of their lives, as husbands or wives brought in from other villages; or, as merchants, school teachers or pupils from nearby towns, currently living in the boarding schools or the teacher training centre. Others come as national or international tourists to visit Tranquebar for a day or two; or arrive as national or international NGO (non-governmental organization) staff members, stationed there for a limited time in order to do social work or to renovate old buildings-vernacular as well as colonial-as a part of Tranquebar’s current cultural heritage revival. Or, perhaps, they come on national holidays and hot days, when they travel from the hinterland to the Tranquebar coast in order to enjoy the coolness of the sea. Again, others may come to visit the old Shiva temple, Masilamani Nathar, as worshippers or simply to have their wedding photos taken in front of this picturesque, albeit partly collapsed, temple, lashed by the waves; or they may arrive as Christian pilgrims to the Jerusalem Church, the mother church of all Lutheran Protestants of Asia; or in the past, when they disembarked from the large sailing ships anchored at the roadstead off Tranquebar and were taken through the heavy surf in smaller boats rowed by locals, stepping ashore to serve as soldiers, colonial civil servants or Christian missionaries, sent from distant places such as Denmark, Island, Norway, Germany or England. Or, when-as distinguished envoys and representatives of the Nayak or Rajah in Thanjavur-they turned up on elephants in pomp and circumstance to collect the yearly tribute from the Danish colonial governor. Or, when they entered the village as religious heads of Shiva temples and were received by processions of musicians and local temple dancers.
People have, over the years, however, not only come to this place. Some have also left the place to be married and to live in other villages; or, they have temporarily departed on business trips, or migrated to work in Ceylon (later Sri Lanka) or to other parts of India and abroad-recently often to Saudi Arabia, Malaysia or Singapore. In colonial times, people were deported to Indonesia or other places via Tranquebar, as slaves in the intra-Asian slave trade. Some locals would even sneak on board a ship bound for Denmark and make it to Copenhagen; one of them, Chinnapa Naik, hid between the ship’s pumps and left, in 1795, as a stowaway. He delegated the errand of delivering an official complaint to the Danish king about the governor, Peter Anker, on behalf of some of the local inhabitants of Tranquebar (Waaben 1995). In the eithteenth century, Tranquebar also functioned as a station for Danes striving to colonise the Nicobar Islands, a project doomed to failure, however. At that time, ambitions in Tranquebar of gaining profit from trade in textile also tempted inhabitants to go to Serampore, by the Hooghly River in Bengal, where they succeeded in establishing a Danish trading post that also led to the foundation of India’s first Western-style university. Moreover, beyond Tranquebar, Danes established Christian missionary boarding schools in the South Arcot District and in other parts of India.
These very different kinds of movements-in and out of the place, as sketched above, and many more documented throughout history-are what make Tranquebar an interesting place to study. They testify to the fact that Tranquebar is connected to the wider world in various ways. Life in a particular spot surely cannot in itself yield an experience of the place. Being ‘somewhere’ includes experiences or imaginings of other places ‘elsewhere’. Thus, life is lived not only in place but also in the comings and goings along the paths between them, where people gain knowledge of the world around them (Ingold 2002: 192; 2007: 2). It is these movements, in and out of Tranquebar, over the years, which nurture cultural encounters and make people grapple across cultural borders.
As a place, Tranquebar has, for centuries, functioned as a permanent or temporary station on the life paths of those coming, staying or going. However, the experiences it affords are not only for those who have spent longer or shorter periods of their lives there, today or over the centuries. The experiences and imaginations it affords are also for people in other parts of the world who perhaps received letters or reports from sisters, brothers, envoys, missionaries or other people stationed there; or for those who consumed the exported products such as spices and textiles, which may have altered their cooking habits and their means of furnishing their beds. These distant consumers started to demand pepper in their food and cotton linen coloured with indigo on their beds-both products imported from India.
For several of the consumers of colonial products, the exotic ring to the name Tranquebar aroused fantasies of a foreign an distant place of cultural otherness, where strange plants and animals abounded. Souvenirs-such as company paintings-which, in the later part of the eighteenth century, sprang from the tradition of art at the Thanjavur court, were brought to Europe by people stationed in Tranquebar in order to illustrate the daily life and folklore of the area. Over the years, alongside several other items, reports and letters, these souvenirs have entered the collections of distant museums and archives in Chennai, Berlin, Halle, London and Copenhagen. Occasionally, the items and documents have become the subject of academic studies, adding new experiences of the place Tranquebar, to those of researchers and their readers through the centuries.
Even though several of the above-mentioned people have never set foot in Tranquebar, the place has, for centuries, afforded experiences and imaginings to the people who have consumed the exported products or studied material or documentary traces from there. The metaphors we live by, hence, fertilise our imagination of places in the world; how it is to dwell there and our connection to those places. This is evident in the Danish language, where the imagined features of a distant place are summed up in one phrase that expresses the wish to get rid of someone. For this purpose, Danes still use the metaphor ‘to wish him where the pepper grows’ (in Danish, ‘han onskes derhen, hvor pebberet gror’). Tranquebar has, in fact, afforded several examples of actual and forcible exile and excommunication, both back in history and now. As in 1681, when the Danish priest and social castigator Jacob Worm was sentenced to death in Denmark for lese majesty but eventually reprieved by the king and exiled to Transquebar, where he served as priest until his death (Olsen 1967: 189-93). Or, alternatively today, when the fishers’ powerful caste council excommunicates a member of the fisher’s community for offending its moral code, for instance, for crossing caste lines by entering into an inter-caste marriage. The kudipillar (village servant, messenger) will then announce on every street corner in the community that nobody will, from now on, be allowed to share fire, words or food with the excommunicated person.
The coming, going and staying is, thus, indeed entangled in all sorts of power relations, some of which are embedded in the singularity of lives and the face-to-face relations of the everyday (Comaroff and Comaroff 1992; Das 2007), while others relate to more abstract patterns of colonial practice and single events (Thomas 1994). Both occurrences of the place, either as the recipient of forced exiles or as an agent of exits, create specific social dynamics and make it an interesting place to study.
Indeed, there would be no place at this location were it not for all the activities in which its inhabitants have engaged and all the movements of people, ideas and items across borders. However, the borders of the place do not constitute the same encirclement of the place in relation to other places, near or far, for every individual. Many inhabitants and visitors also tend to perceive the borders as being internal to the place and as constituting various kinds of boundaries. These may be experienced as differences based on education, wealth, age, gender, caste, morals, taste or religious affiliation; or, they may be experienced as cultural differences related to spatial, linguistic, national or historical lines (Fihl and Puri 2009: 15).
All these differentiations are, both currently and historically, constantly negotiated by people staying, coming and going, or by people who, at a distance, consume its products. In these processes, all sorts of aspects of everyday human activity are subsumed. The constant movements of people, ideas and items across perceived cultural borders have produced tracks and routes internal to Tranquebar, in addition to tracks and routes between it and other places. The cross-cultural marks stamped on these tracks and routes by the coming, going and staying bring these together into a single field of inquiry for this book and account for the book title Beyond Tranquebar.
In the above sense, the place called Transquebar constitutes a ‘topic’ rather than a natural object. From the perspectives of a diverse range of academic disciplines, social anthropology, art history, sociology of religion, ethnography and history, the chapters of this book will examine people ‘grappling across cultural borders’, along routes and tracks related to this particular place in South India.
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