Unravelling a Dutch past

Published : May 23, 2003 00:00 IST

The Archaeological Survey of India restores a Dutch fort in the medieval settlement of Sadras on the Tamil Nadu coast.

T.S. SUBRAMANIAN Photographs: K. Gajendran

UNTIL a few months ago, it was just another ruin of a fort on the Coromandel coast, its history buried in mounds of sand and wild grass that was pasture for goats. Its two bombed-out warehouses had deep cracks running the length of their semi-vaulted roofs. Today, its Dutch past and the settlement called Sadras are being brought back to life by the conservation and excavation efforts of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

Besides restoring the bombed-out portions of the warehouses or granaries, the ASI, Chennai, has rebuilt the four walls of the fort and unearthed artefacts that provide insights into the 400-year-old fort and its Dutch inhabitants. They apparently had a fondness for the muslin woven at Sadras, 75 km from Chennai, and a weakness for liquor and tobacco and played the local game "aadu-puli aattam" (goat-and-tiger game).

The 30 trenches that the ASI dug between February 7 and March 28 this year exposed, among other things, a beautiful well; a kitchen with chulas and ash intact; rooms with arched windows; an advanced underground drainage system; floors made of square, rectangular and hexagonal bricks; exquisite pieces of Delft blue crockery from Holland; Gouda (a town in Holland) smoking pipes with tobacco stains; glazed ware; crockery made in China, England and Germany; two arrack glass jars with residues of white arrack; and a circular structure (tank) for dyeing the muslin cloth.

"This excavation has led to a number of outstanding discoveries," said K.T. Narasimhan, Superintending Archaeologist, ASI (Chennai Circle), who headed the team of archaeologists. Of them were two rooms that had been buried under the sand adjacent to the warehouse on the northeastern side. One room was bigger than the other and they had arched windows. "The rooms have a well-paved brick floor and proper drainage," he said.

The excavation also threw up evidence of how the natives influenced the Dutch inhabitants of the fort. For one, the local Tamils taught the Dutch how to play "aadu-puli aattam"; the grid used to play the game, comprising rectangles and triangles, was found engraved on a well-burnt brick.

Another exciting find was a circular structure that was used for dyeing muslin cloth. Two broken quarters of the structures were exposed during the excavation. These had perfectly engineered channels meant to drain out the coloured water. With fine lime used to plaster them, these channels are in mint condition even today. "This is an important discovery and it has to be studied," said G. Thirumoorthy, Assistant Archaeologist.

SADRAS is situated about 17 km from Mamallapuram and 2 km from Kalpakkam, the site of the Madras Atomic Power Station and the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research. According to Thirumoorthy, during the period of the Sambuvarayars (local feudatories under the Cholas), Sadras was called Rajanarayanan Pattinam after a Sambuvarayar chieftain who ruled the region between A.D. 1337 and 1367. An inscription dated 1353 refers to the place by the name. Vijayanagara period (15th century) inscriptions refer to it as Sadiravasagan Pattinam - a reference to the deity at the local Vishnu temple. This name got twisted to Sadurangapattinam and eventually was shortened to Sadirai. The English called it Sadras.

Sadras was a flourishing weavers settlement during the medieval period from 10th century to 16th century. According to Thirumoorthy, an inscription found in the Siva temple at Sadras made a reference to "kaikolar", as weavers are called in Tamil. They made the muslin cloth that attracted traders from all over the world, including Holland, and Sadras emerged as a flourishing trading centre. P. Jayakumar, Research Assistant in Tamil University, Thanjavur, notes in his book Thamizhaga Thuraimugangal (Ports in Tamil Nadu; Anbu Publishers, Thanjavur, 2001) that Sadras was an international port well before the Dutch arrived in the early 1600s and that muslin was its main export, besides pearl and edible oil.

The Dutch East India Company chose to build a fort at Sadurangapattinam not only because it was a centre for trade in muslin, spices, and so on but also because it was free of political disturbances. The beach is less than 100 metres from the eastern wall of the rectangular fort. The massive defence wall runs on all sides with flanking bastions on the eastern side. (A bastion is a circular structure built to guard the fort, with cannons mounted on it.) The Dutch built two magazines, flanking the eastern side, to store ammunition. The entrance to the fort was on the western side, and the two cannons that were placed on either side of the gateway still stand. A watch tower was built just above this entrance.

Within the fort is a cemetery with exquisitely engraved granite tombstones, the inscriptions on them giving the details of the Dutch buried there. One tombstone has a beautiful bas relief of a vessel with sails, another is chiselled with a coat of arms, a third has a rose, and so on. The inscriptions on the tombstones tell tragic tales of the dead. They refer to "Hier rusten Mejuff Anna Cornelia Bonk... " or "Hier rust Corneila van Outvelt... " There are references to Nagapatnam and Palliacatt (Pulicat). The Dutch had built a church at Nagapattinam, and both a fort and a cemetery at Pulicat, about 40 km from Chennai. The tombstone inscriptions at Sadras date from A.D. 1620 to 1769. Near the cemetery is a "secret chamber", so called because it is built at ground-level and cannot be seen from outside. The warehouses are on the southeastern and northeastern corners of the fort. There are a number of structures, including rooms, dancing halls and dining rooms in the fort. The arrival of the English East India Company set the stage for a commercial conflict that soon escalated into a military confrontation. The English marked out the fort at Sadras, and eventually captured it in 1796. The fort was virtually razed to the ground in the massive bombardment from the sea, with the warehouses suffering extensive damages. The Dutch got back the demolished fort in 1818 under a treaty, but the English reoccupied it in 1854 and held it from then on. This brought to an end the Dutch era on the Coromandel coast, the English having pulled down the Dutch fort at Pulicat as well. The Dutch cemetery at Pulicat, however, survives to this today and is a protected monument.

THE ASI took up the reconstruction of the outer wall of the fort sometime after 1991. In the last two years it turned its attention to the conservation of the warehouses. After 1991, the ASI reconstructed the fort wall on all four sides. In the last two years, it turned its attention towards conservation of the warehouses.

Narasimhan called restoring the crumbled warehouses "a major conservation effort." About 50 per cent of the warehouseardment/granary on the south-eastern side had been bombed and fallen to the ground. Even the remaining portions hung in a precarious condition because the bomb shells had fallen over its semi-vaulted roof.ardment was

This had punched hole in the roof although it was 67 cm thick.

According to S.K. Jilani Basha, Conservation Assistant, ASI, Mamallapuram, the roof had got separated in three pieces. Besides, it had broken in several places. There were vertical and horizontal cracks in the roof. The vertical wall of the warehouse was out of plumb due to the bombardment. The disjointed pieces of roof were joined by using `I` or `T' shaped steel plates in five places. Pue lime was brought from Pollachi (Tamil Nadu) and it was ground into a fine paste. Ninety-five per cent lime was mixed with 5 per cent cement (allowed in conservation efforts) in plastering. The warehouse was thus conserved. Basha said, "We were scared to touch this warehouse. We took six months to restore it. It was a challenging job. This was a major conservation work."

Narasimhan was proud that the ASI was able to "conserve the warehouse without removing a single brick, by introducing the stainless steel teeth in the dome and by unifying its different broken portions as one unit,. People seeing it now will not believe that it had disintegrated in several pieces more than two centuries ago."

The warehouse on the northeastern side, which was also in a dilapidated condition, was likewise conserved.

After the conservation, the ASI turned its attention to excavation. Sandv had accumulated in many places in the fort. The locals had carted away the bricks of various demolished structures.

So the fort virtually looked like a maidan. ,No one could understand its original plan, its actual floor level etc.. To find an answer to these questions, a proper horizontal excavation began on February 7 this year. While Narasimhan directed the excavation, Thirumoorthy and Sathyabhama Badrinath played important roles.

To their delight, they found a well, a kitchen with three chulas and ash intact, and rooms whose floors were made of rectangular bricks, square bricks, hexagonal bricks and even dressed granite slabs. The floors of a couple of rooms were paved with a mosaic of rectangular, hexagonal and square bricks, which created patterns. Basha praised the quality of the bricks used in the construction of the fort or the floors. "This fort was built essentially of bricks. These are very good bricks, of first class quality."

Hundreds of porcelain pieces too were found. They include the stunningly beautiful Delft Blue porcelainware, used by the Dutch aristocrats who lived in the fort. A piece of Delft blue porcelain shows Dutchmen wearing hats sitting on a bench, another shows tents pitched in Holland, and yet another a coat of arms. Delft is a town in Holland and it has been in existence prior to A.D. 1246. It is renowned all over the world as the city of Delft Blue pottery. In the 17th century, many small pottery factories came up there in buildings that originally housed breweries. Delft was one of the home ports of the Dutch East India Company. The Company also started returning from China with loads of porcelain. That explains the discovery of exquisite Chinese porcelain at this Dutch fort. A piece of such porcelain is truly interesting. It shows a Chinese Christian, holding a Cross and addressing the audience from the pulpitpiece . Yet another broken piece has Chinese characters on it. A porcelain has the manufacturer's stamp on it: "... ohrson Brothers, England." Another is made in Germany.

A valuable find was two glass arrack jars or bottles, with deposits of imported white attack. Porcelain with matted design - beautiful to look at - was found as well. This looks like a local terracotta but it is not.

Another discovery was several broken pieces of Gouda smoking pipes. They are in various sizes. These pipes were made in Holland, using pure white clay. Some of them have manufacturers' stamp, and burnt tobacco stains on them, to boot. The picturesque town of Gouda is in the southern province of Holland. There were many factories in Gouda, which started manufacturing clay pipes. Later, they diversified into making "Gouda style" of pottery. The Dutch at Sadras led a good life, dancing, drinking white arrack and smoking quality tobacco !

Thirumoorthy said, "The Dutch who lived in the fort used very little local ware. They brought almost everything with them (from Holland and other parts of the world."

What is astounding is the use of advanced underground drainage system in the fort. There are drains leading from different directions and they meet in the northeastern corner in a massive collection chamber, located beneath the floor of the bigger warehouse. From the collection chamber, water is drained out of the fort into the sea.

While conserving the warehouse on the northeastern side, the ASI stumbled on the rainwater harvesting method used by the Dutch. The rainwater collected in the roof of the warehouse came down two pipes, on either side of an arched window. But the pipes were camouflaged like pillars and so it looks a piece of ornamentation !

Narasimhan said, "The excavation will continue in future. Hopefully, the world will know more about the Dutch."

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