Tranquebar: An early Indo-Danish Hub of Science



Today Bangalore is known as ‘The Science City of India’ because of its role as the nation’s leading centre of IT technology and its many scientific industries. This is also why Innovation Centre Denmark has an office for collaboration and investment in Bangalore. However, Indo-Danish collaboration in science is nothing new. It started almost 300 years ago in the Danish colony of Tranquebar on the Coromandel Coast.

Tranquebar (Tharangambadi) emerged as something like a scientific research station in the 1730’s. This was because of international research that took place in the Lutheran mission, the so-called Danish-Halle mission, which had its headquarters in Tranquebar. The missionaries investigated a variety of sciences, for instance what we would refer to as medicine, zoology, chemistry, geology, meteorology and astronomy. Yet, it was botanical research that established Tranquebar as a research station. Between 1732 and 1744, a group of missionaries, employees of the mission and Indian experts of plants and medicine worked together to collect, name and organise nine plant collections (herbaria) each containing hundreds of dried plant specimens from the Coromandel Coast. The herbaria were shipped from Tranquebar to scientists, collectors and institutions in Europe as part of a circulation of scientific information and objects between India and Europe.

The new botanical knowledge produced in Tranquebar by this international research group was neither European nor Indian, but an innovative fusion. This is clear from a manuscript produced in the mission around the time of the nine herbaria. It is a catalogue of all the botanical knowledge generated in the mission and it contains more than a thousand names and descriptions of plants from the Coromandel Coast and beyond. The organising principle of the catalogue is not a European botanical system but the Tamil alphabet, as the plants are organised alphabetically according to the Tamil name of the family of plants to which they belong. To this structure is added a transliteration of the Tamil name in Latin letters, the Sanskrit name written in Grantha script, a short botanical description in Latin and names of the same plant in other languages and scripts such as Arab, Persian, Portuguese, French, German, Dutch, Hebrew or Greek.

Danish Tranquebar continued to be a local hub of science in South India until the turn of the nineteenth century. For instance, modern botanical taxonomy was introduced in India via Tranquebar in the late 1760s. Accordingly, todays Indo-Danish scientific collaboration in Bangalore and elsewhere in India builds on a long history of fruitful exchanges and mutual inspiration.

Periode17 sep. 2020 → 19 sep. 2020