[Column] The Dutch Connection

Columnist Vishal Onkhar traces an elusive link between Dutch colonialism and his South Indian hometown of Chennai (aka Madras).

Vishal Onkhar: “Rembrandt’s forays into Indian drawing techniques might have guided his hand in The Jewish Bride, a copy of which hangs in the hallways of 3mE.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

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1606. The Dutch tricolor can just be espied atop the horizon of the resplendent Bay of Bengal. As the lone merchant vessel draws nearer to the fabled Coromandel Coast, the fateful letters “VOC” can be discerned, nestled within its fluttering banner. The ship shimmies along the shoreline and puts into port at the thriving town of Pulicat, just north of a sleepy fishing village called Madras. The Dutch seafarers realise they are not the first to disembark, eyeing the Portuguese boats moored along the docks with mistrust. By all other accounts, it is a clear winter day, the ocean is tranquil and shimmers like a string of pearls.

It is easy to overlook that the Netherlands maintained a colonial presence in India for over 200 years. The Dutch, like many others, were lured by prospects of gold, spices, textiles and, alas, slaves. Records are patchy, but for scale – at least 37,885 people from the Bay of Bengal alone and in just a 44-year window. But my purpose is not to fish out and dissect a dark chapter from the annals of history (those more qualified have already grappled with it). Instead, I shall illuminate some indelible cultural marks that endure to this day, from a historic union all those centuries ago.

Poffertjes bear striking similarities to the paniyaram

Beginning with architecture, the Indian coastline is dotted with dilapidated Dutch structures. A fine example lies to the south of Chennai – Fort Sadras, erected around local cottage industries of muslin and brick, both of which were utilised across the Netherlands! Some exquisitely carved Dutch tombs and imposing cannons serve as a grim reminder of troubled waters in bygone times. Fort Geldria to Chennai’s north was the seat of Dutch power in India, and boasts the remnants of a cotton factory that helped popularise the checkered Madras pattern in Europe. Today, the latter still crops up in the guise of some traditional Dutch attire! On the subject of fabrics – Coromandel Chintz, a fashionable women’s dress adorned with floral motifs and considered typically Dutch, actually has its roots in South India, where the craft is now lost and only survives in Hindeloopen, Friesland.

Veering on to culinary matters – poffertjes bear striking similarities to the paniyaram, its spicy cousin from the Deccan (a sweet variant also exists). Who inspired whom to cook up these delectable dishes is unclear, but it is quite suspicious that these petite pancakes turn up wherever the Dutch go (Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, Japan)! Besides this, the humble ontbijtkoek is reserved as a tasty treat for special occasions in South India.

Finally, Dutch art abounds with Indian influences, for tales and trinkets from the Far East captivated the imagination of the Old Masters. In the 1650s, Rembrandt produced a series of etchings of Mughal emperors, inspired by the lovely miniatures in his collection. His forays into Indian drawing techniques might even have guided his hand in The Jewish Bride, a copy of which hangs in the hallways of 3mE! Additionally, masterful depictions of Dutch settlements in India by Hendrik van Schuylenburgh and the portrayal of a young Indian boy, Filander van Bengalen (note his surname!), by Gerard Wigmana are sights to behold! In the Rijksmuseum, one can feast their eyeson all the above.

To wind up, I’ll say this – the Dutch occupation of India ended in 1825, and although it persisted for 220 years too long, I’m glad there remain little links to mull over.

Vishal Onkhar is from Chennai, India and pursuing his PhD in Vehicle Engineering at TU Delft. He is an avid player of chess and video games, but he also harbours a special interest for reading and writing fantasy fiction. He doesn’t drink coffee but good music and film have the same effect on him.


For more information, please check out the links Vishal Onkhar used for his research:


Columnist Vishal Onkhar

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