Henry Luce Foundation Project

The Coromandel Coast

On 2nd January 2020, a group of three professors and seven researchers from NYU Shanghai and NYU arrived in South India as part of a study trip organized by the Center for Global Asia. Over the course of one week (2nd–9th January) the group visited several port cities and port towns in the Coromandel coastal region such as Chennai, Mahabalipuram, Pondicherry, Tharamgambadi (Tranquebar), Nagapattinam, and Cuddalore, which are known to have developed trading links historically with parts of Southeast and East Asia, which included the networks of the Dutch, French, and English East India Companies. While the Coromandel coastal region presents an archive of global and colonial transformations spanning a period of five hundred years, it continues to witness several transformations in the present through coastal redevelopment and infrastructural projects such as the construction of new harbors, pipelines and oil refineries. Given the shared research interests of the group and the vast potential of the region for Indian Ocean studies, the field visit was a continuation of several events that CGA has organized as part of its Luce project to uncover the multiple circuits of labor, commodity and travelling networks, religious and diasporic connections and routes of exchange in Indian Ocean port cities and their coastal and hinterland localities.

Our first stop was Chennai (formerly Madras). We began our visit to the oldest fishing villages in the city, which date back to the seventeenth century, when, as part of its endeavor to develop the port, the colonial state settled coastal labor to service the needs of the expanding maritime empire. Adjacent to these old neighborhoods are the newly built fishing harbor and other port infrastructure. We then proceeded to the city’s prominent temples, churches, and markets, rounding off our visit by going to the Adyar Theosophical Society’s library archives, the state archives, and finally the famous Besant Nagar beach. On our second day, we left for Mamallapuram, an eighth-century port city and temple town which historically served as an important entrepot for the Chinese and Southeast Asian trade.

Our next destination was Pondicherry, where we had scheduled two important meetings. The first meeting was with a group of historians and anthropologists from the French Institute who are currently engaged in researching the historical and contemporary life worlds of the coastal communities in the context of infrastructure-driven ecological imbalances, coastal erosion, and the displacement of livelihoods. After the presentations, we discussed the potential for developing a collaborative research model with research scholars at the French Institute in order to facilitate further dialog on coastal environments in the Indian Ocean region. Our second meeting took place at the Aurobindo Ashram Trust Office, where Professor Tansen Sen and Dr Yan Yu had the chance to examine Xu Fancheng’s paintings for research on the artistic connections between India and China in the 1930s. The Trust is also planning to publish and hold a virtual exhibition of some of these paintings. The group also spent time at the Pondicherry state archives and explored some of the city’s French-style architecture. We then set off to Cuddalore and visited the fishing harbor which also houses the ruins of many British-era godowns dating back to the eighteenth century. Our final stop was the seventeenth-century Danish trading port of Tranquebar, where we visited the Danish fort, museums, and the churches built by two German missionaries belonging to the Halle Mission. Professor Duane Corpis shared his knowledge of the Halle mission archives, while Professor David Ludden, who has extensively worked on South India, provided invaluable inputs to the participants of the field visit.

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