Notes on history, Scenes from Pulicat

Madras Day is a great time to head out in the city. For those who know it not, Madras Day is celebrated as the day the British acquired a small stretch of beach, 374 years ago on August 22, that lead to the founding of the city of Madras. Food trails, heritage walks, tree walks, competitions, exhibitions are all held around this date to celebrate the city. A brilliant way to know, understand and appreciate a bit of the history that is living even today, and an excuse to think about the direction in which the city is headed.

Well what did I do this year? I signed up to go on a heritage tour of Pulicat – a fishing town just north of Madras, one that the Portuguese and then Dutch settled upon, only to be driven out by the English. A place with a zillion variations of its name – esrtwhile Anandarayan Pattinam, the more recent Pazhaverkadu (meaning forest with many roots ie. mangrove forests, a name it is still in use in Tamil), Palacatta, Pulicat, the latter two of which came about since the colonial rulers could not pronounce the name in the local language (I’ve always found that weird. Why should you change the name of place to suit your pronunciation, without respecting the origins of the place itself? Almost all places in India have a local name and a colonial version of the name….I mean c’mon! it couldn’t have been that hard to pronounce! Truly, much is lost in translation.)

Pulicat is a fishing village today. Situated next to South Asia’s second largest brackish water lake, it is also an important ecological site. The intersection of cultural heritage, architecture heritage and ecology make this a fascinating place to learn about. Unfortunately, nothing much in the way of colonial buildings stand today. Fort Geldria, that housed the Dutch from 1613, is currently an unaccessible marsh, filled with thorny bushes and snakes in the middle of a moat. The land that the Fort used to stand on was supposedly earmarked for developing a bus depot by the Public Works Department, but thanks to efforts of local NGOs, now a sign saying “Fort Geldria” has been erected that points to nothing in particular. “Our lady of Glory”,a church built by Portuguese in 1515 AD, has now been demolished to make way for a new church structure. The 360 year old Port Tax Collection office used by the Dutch East India Company is now a dump yard for medical waste. The Aadinaraya Perumal temple, built in the 13th century under the Vijayanagar Empire, is now being “restored” (read: stripped down to basics and reworked with plaster and paint). End effect is that all those carvings in laterite rocks that were done eons ago now lie hidden beneath a coat of cement from yesterday.

About the lake itself, its a mighty expanse of water. Hardly surprising, considering it is 720 square kilometers in size (Chennai itself is only 181 sq.km.! We humans are so tiny in the larger scale of things aren’t we?). The lake is home to thousands of migratory birds. It is also the center of the 400 km long Buckingham canal. Yes, the southern part of this canal runs for 200 kilometers through the city of Chennai (where it is filled up with debris, encroached upon, well, even the government has built an elevated railway line on top of it. Quite the death sentence in my opinion). And going there , seeing the intersection of the canal with a lake (a notional intersection, since its all watery and wet), and seeing the little plots that have been delineated for sale around the lake, it feels almost pathetic to see man’s attempt to control nature.

At the end of the long walk, I was lost in thought. I love history (and also to act like a ‘know-it-all’ and dazzle (annoy) people with knowledge). But I also believe in change and that sometimes, we shouldn’t hold on to something purely because it happened in the past. But with the current pace of things, all I can wonder is how far are we willing to go to embrace the future that we forget our origins, that we forget that we are merely insignificant in the face of nature and time.

Well, enough yapping. Here are some pictures from the trip! Enjoy! Thanks to AARDE Foundation (www.aarde.in) for organizing the trip and their efforts to document and preserve Pulicat!

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