Beyond Tranquebar: Grappling across Cultural Borders in South India

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Book review - Economic & Political Weekly, november 1, 2014, vol xlix nos 43 & 44In the second book Esther Fihl and A R Venkatachalapathy give us a very valuable compilation of essays which promote the idea of a total social fact, as Marcel Mauss advocated a century ago.The invitees to this volume are able to work with the idea of a large span of time, which concerns itself with the overlordship of Denmark, over a sea port which came to be known as Tranquebar. How delightful, therefore, to receive this major contribution to our understanding of the Danes in India, thought to have been passive colonisers in contrast to the British and the Portuguese, and the Danish contribution to education and politics. The most obscure facts are highlighted, the most intricate histories are unravelled.I do find it odd that the writers, except a few, have not referred to Gross, Kumaradas and Liebau’s monumental work of 2006 Halle and the Beginning of Protestant Christianity in India but what may be a classic to some may seem out of the boundary for others. It is unlikely this work was not available readily to the writers most of whom are of Danish origin, or live in Denmark.Leaving that minor point aside, I would say that the mission history essays are interesting because the pattern of struggle of individual missionaries, the very early history of printing, the dilemmas of language learning, the portfolio of knowledge including native scholars and translators and native catechists, seems now a well-worn trajectory in comparative history and ethnography. Yet, biographies are interesting, and the volatile relationship of differing cultures and the variability of these histories because it is real people we are reading about, makes each essay extremely valuable. There is not a dull moment, since conventional historiography is dispatched with by juxtaposing a wide variety of cultural frames of reference. The linearity of historical readings which could give one a sense of déjà vu is made astonishing by the extravagant use of material culture as an index of one’s grasp. This could be about kingship and the use of scientific knowledge, as much as it is about proximity and friendship and the love of books. It could be about the metal stylus and the palm leaf as vectors of new meanings and new scripts, or about the way in which previous texts enter new ones, when printing makes its presence felt in the first decade of the 18th century.Dexterity and PassionEach author has an obsession, and he or she takes the reader into the smallest whorl of his/her imagination. Behind this lies a great deal of dexterity and passion, which will make this book a good read for lay people as much as academics. The technical insights into what was thought to be a passive colonialism lasting about two centuries, and overlapping with French, Portuguese and British interests are quite unusual. Who would have thought that peasant communities in Denmark imported indigo in the 18th century because they found the ink to be more dramatic than the woad dye they got from their own gardens. Museums exhibiting these textures are still rapt with the vibrancy of those hues, which were thought to be a consequence of the success of trade.The contemporary readings of caste, class and occupation in Taragambadi, (a place name known to locals, but not to be found in the book’s index!) are also useful, since they highlight the issues relating to nature and culture, by looking at how people demand to be identified and resuscitated when there is a danger of cultural or demographic extinction. Fihl’s essay is remarkable in discussing the fisher people and the 2004 tsunami in consummate detail, with regard to aid strategies on both sides of the coin. Similarly, the essays which look at the politics of gift giving in medievalism when the ambassadors try to establish a rapport with the local king Serfoji are really engaging. Nothing could be more amusing than the lack of understanding, or perhaps the subtle way in which the exchanges represent the ambiguity of relationships, the desires and the baulking of them. What seems desirable to one may very well be an insult to the other in a hierarchy which is read on different planks.Similarly the essays which establish that concepts can be transformed if we attempt to rework them in modern terms, while analysing the contexts in which they were first generated are extremely interesting. This could be with regard to material culture, or to political relations. It could define how people view one another in various roles and relations. What is gift, what is tribute, what is a tax, what is booty, what is a threat? The author of these versatile texts on how kingship defines relationships in an instant is confident that if we are to understand imperial histories, it must not be from the point of view of the coloniser only, but essentially from those who do not see themselves to be colonised and emancipate themselves into a dialogic role by default. The history of many relationships may be thus confounded, where the enemy becomes the protector, by his charm, his guile, his willingness to adapt to the new circumstances. Indians are very familiar with this tactic, where overlordship cannot be understood in a single facet; it draws in a whole array of actors and contestants. Max Weber’s multicausality is thus reorganised in terms of the historical moment which is really that of accident or of probability. Do we have control over the facts?Persuasive QualityThe authors in this volume use experientiality as their test case of what it means to be human. There is a certain pliancy, a persuasive quality to the construction of narratives, and each writer draws you into the postmodern trapeze of working with the familiar, but setting up a trope which establishes the uniqueness of the project. Since it is a collaboration between writers who know each other collegially, they feel confident about intermeshing their interests, almost colloquially and without jargon. This is probably because their familiarity with the archives in Copenhagen and in Tamil Nadu are predisposed by a homogeneous project: making what is familiar to them, familiar to us. For these reasons, the book reads like an integrated volume, a task which is usually very hard to accomplish, rather than a mere compilation of essays.Its shadow or penumbra lies in the lack of focus on how the transition between the Dutch and the British happened. Any schoolbook would say that the tumultuous years of war ranging from the Battle of Plassey onwards make the domination of the British in India paramount. What the Danish scholars seem to be inscribing is the multi vocality of the real history, and the crossing over of borders, either through conquest or famine. This history is still to be written for Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. The contours of it are suggested by the authors, but the real post-mortem of Collingwoodian type history is something desirable, when the boundaries are understood to be cultural boundaries, and not physical ones. Of course, the Dutch in Sri Lanka have appeared to us in fiction and anthropology, and that kind of intricate detail is not yet available to Indians for this long forgotten past.Since the collection has been edited very consummately, each essay flows well into the next, so that the repetitions of data are almost non-existent. I found Venkatachalapathy’s comment “Further exploration, based on the fashioning of prose in the Tamil Language, the creation of a new vocabulary to express Christian theology, the changing nature of translation, etc, is also possible” a little obscure (p 492). Was he conjuring the ghost of that amazing historian of religions, D Dennis Hudson of Smith College, Massachusetts, who wrote some of the most amazing works on this subject in the 1970s?Similarly, Rajesh Kocchar gives us the biographies of missionaries and institutionalisation of western education, but does not point to the real debate around how secularisation takes place, as an aspect of mission history and colonialism, since the relation between Macaulay and Bentinck is too complex! If the volume with its largeness of scope, and its myriad interests is to be highlighted, these blurred paragraphs, so far and few, must be ignored, and the new texts, made possible through multi-linguistic endeavours, and perhaps European unification, made immediately available to classroom teaching in the humanities and social science. Congratulations to the editors for no printers’ devils.
Susan Visvanathan (susanvisvanathan@gmail. com) teaches at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationNew Delhi
PublisherOrient BlackSwan
Number of pages644
ISBN (Print)9788125054375
Publication statusPublished - 2014

Bibliographical note

Book Description by BahriSons Booksellers:
A rare Indian colony of the Danish empire. A place that fostered the modern printing press and Protestant Christianity in the subcontinent. A tourist haunt that was ravaged by the tsunami in 2004. This is Tranquebar, known as Tharangampadi, a charming coastal town in present-day Tamil Nadu.

Note re. dissertation

Book Description by Excotic India Booksellers:<br/>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.<br/>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.<br/>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.<br/>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.<br/><br/>From the Introduction in the book:<br/>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.<br/><br/>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.<br/><br/>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.<br/><br/>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.<br/><br/>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.<br/><br/>For several of the consumers of colonial products, the exotic ring to the name Tranquebar aroused fantasies of a foreign and 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.<br/><br/>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 Tranquebar, 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.<br/><br/>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.<br/><br/>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).<br/><br/>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.<br/><br/>In the above sense, the place called Tranquebar 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.<br/><br/>Contents<br/>List of Figures and Maps ix<br/>Acknowledgements xi<br/>Publisher's Acknowledgements xiii<br/>List of Abbreviations xv<br/><br/>Introduction: What Makes Tranquebar a Place? 1<br/><br/>PART I: Competing Histories <br/>Chapter 1 Putting Tranquebar on the Map: Cultural and Material Encounters in Transnational Heritage Development 29<br/>Chapter 2 The Four Histories of the Village: Landmarks and Historical Identities 50<br/>Chapter 3 Processions and Chariot Festivals: Cultural Markings in Tharangampadi and Vailankanni 74<br/>Chapter 4 Between Patriotism and Regret: Public Discourses on Colonial History in Denmark Today 95<br/><br/>PART II: Negotiating Morals And Historical Identities <br/>Chapter 5 The 'Second Tsunami': Disputed Moralities of Economic Transactions among Fishers 123<br/>Chapter 6 Risk and Opportunity in Post-tsunami Tharangampadi 148<br/>Chapter 7 From 'Untouchable' Scavengers to Dignified 'Tribals': On the Making of a New Kattunayakkan Identity 178<br/>Chapter 8 Dancing for Money, Men and Gods: Temple Women in Historical Perspectives 202<br/><br/>PART III: Cultural Otherness And Colonial Interactions <br/>Chapter 9 Shipwrecked on the Coromandel: The First Indian-Danish Contact, 1620 229<br/>Chapter 10 The Tranquebar Tribute: Contested Perceptions during the Reign of Rajah Serfoji II 257<br/>Chapter 11 Personal Encounters in a Colonial Space: European Seeing and Knowing 282<br/>Chapter 12 Retracing Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg's Path Will Sweetman 304<br/><br/>PART IV: Circulations of Faith and Knowledge <br/>Chapter 13 Making it in Tranquebar: The Circulation of Scientific Knowledge in the Early Danish-Halle Mission 325<br/>Chapter 14 The Life of a Tamil Convert: William Roberts Proselytising in the Wake of the Enlightenment 352<br/>Chapter 15 Producing Difference: Childhood, Parenting and Mission in Colonial South India 379<br/>Chapter 16 The Bishop of Tranquebar and Shiva's Elephant: Danish Missionaries and Indian Independence 402<br/><br/>PART V: Education And Networks of Print <br/>Chapter 17 Serfoji II of Tanjore and Missionary C. S. John: Education and Innovation in the Early Nineteenth Century 427<br/>Chapter 18 From Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg to Alexander Duff: Western Education in India, 1715-1835 451<br/>Chapter 19 This Great Benefit': Print nad the Cultural Encounter in Eighteenth-century Tranquebar 475<br/>Chapter 20 Translocal Networks: Tranquebar Mission Press in Eighteenth-century South Asia 496<br/><br/>PART VI: Translocal And Intercontinental Tracks <br/>Chapter 21 Danish Homes in Colonial Tranquebar: Intercontinental Transfers of Material Culture 521<br/>Chapter 22 Peasant Featherbeds in 'Royal Attire': The Consumption of Indigo in Early Modern Denmark 535<br/>Chapter 23 Radiating from Tranquebar: Education in Seampore, 1800-1845 556<br/>Chapter 24 Encountering the Nicobar Islands: Danish Strategies of Colonisation, 1755-1848 579<br/><br/>Notes on Contributors 607<br/>Index 609<br/>

    Research areas

  • Faculty of Humanities - Tamil Nadu, Tharangampadi, 2004 tsunami, cultural heritage tourism, Protestant Christianity, missionary history, printing press, India, Danish empire, colonial history, ethnography, history, Cultural studies, Cultural contacts, cultural encounters

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