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Discover India: Chennai

5th Dec 2013 9:15 pm

In this edition of Discover India, we explore the historic town of Pulicat in Tamil Nadu.

Pulicat (Pazhaverkadu in Tamil) is a historic seashore town in Thiruvallur District of Tamil Nadu. It is about 70km north of Chennai on the barrier island of Sriharikota, which separates Pulicat Lake from the Bay of Bengal.

Most people, including a few from Chennai, would be blissfully unaware of this tiny non-descript town, which is a two-hour drive from the southern metropolis. But these two hours can quickly double if you don’t make an early getaway. You could be left negotiating the gauntlet of Chennai traffic at its peak, which is actually just about any time of the day past six in the morning.

There are a number of approach roads depending on which part of the city you’re in, but ultimately, you need to hit the Guntur-Chennai AH45, which is also NH5 towards Kolkata. We started from near Porur, and took the Chennai bypass road via Ambattur flyover. Once you’re beyond city limits, the drive is pretty effortless. Around 17km after you cross the toll plaza at Puzhal, you need to get off the NH to follow SH56 towards Ponneri, which ultimately leads to Pulicat. There is heavy construction in progress on the national highway, so it is likely that you will have to go up a little further before finding a safe place to make a U-turn and get on to SH56. Once you have made this turn-off, it is impossible to lose your way since Pulicat is where the highway ends. After the wide confines of the national highway, the scenery changes rapidly. Roads become narrower, while traffic density, especially of trucks and zealously driven State Corporation buses, increases. You’ll pass through several villages, and need to be extra cautious as a TVS 50 loaded to the gills with the day’s produce can just materialise out of nowhere.

 

PULICAT’S PAST

Pulicat’s significance in history stems from the fact that it was one of the few natural harbours on the Coromandel (South-East) coast. Before the Europeans arrived, Arab, Tamil and Telugu rulers fought for the benefits this port town had to offer. By the 13th century, the Vijaynagara empire held Pulicat in a firm grasp and it became the most important port on the Bay of Bengal. Textiles and yarns were exported in exchange for precious rubies from Burma and elephants from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

The Portuguese were the first of the Europeans to recognise the importance of Pulicat, and managed to establish a trading outpost with permission from Krishnadeva Raya – the ruler of the Vijaynagara empire. In the following decades, several battles eventually took a toll on the empire and allowed the Portuguese to dominate the port. In 1515, they built a church here, dedicated to Nossa Senhora Dus Prazeres (Our Lady of Joy). The church still stands to the present day, although not in its original guise. It had to be demolished in 2006 after repeated extensions and modifications to the building took a toll on its structure and it was deemed no longer safe. The new façade is currently under construction, but the church still houses the original, artistically engraved wooden altar built by the Portuguese. The local Parish priest, Father Pragasam, is a vault of information and a few minutes with him can provide some amazing insight on the history of the place.Going back to the history, the Dutch followed the Portuguese into Pulicat – even though it actually happened by accident. In 1606, a Dutch ship drifted to the Pulicat Lake and finally stopped on the shores of the Karimanal village (yes, the name’s corrupted by the Europeans to Coromandel). After mingling with the local Muslims and offering them avenues to trade, they also managed to establish a post, like the Portuguese. The Geldria Fort, erected as a defence from local kings and of course, the Portuguese, lies in almost non-existing ruins today. The Dutch took over Pulicat completely by 1611 and the Portuguese attacked the fort several times, causing damage to life and property, but never managed to capture Pulicat back.Pulicat still bears silent testimony to the Dutch, the most prominent being the Dutch cemetery with 22 tombs featuring intricately engraved tombstones which feature skeletons instead of traditional crosses, with some being protected by elaborate overhead structures. Due to lack of medical facilities at the time, along with climatic conditions, several Dutch inhabitants died at a young age.

You’ll see, through inscriptions on the tombstones, that several were in their early 20s and a few, even younger than that.Standing amongst these graves, immaculately maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India, one can easily get transported back in time – with the funeral service being held with grieving family and friends in attendance. The cemetery is barely 200 metres from the aforementioned Portuguese-built church, which the Dutch renamed as Our Lady of Glory – the name it retains to this day.By the late 18th century, British were well on their way to colonising India and Pulicat was no exception. The constant intermittent scuffle with the Portuguese had weakened the Dutch and, following the European Anglo-Dutch war in 1781, the British were adamant on seizing all Dutch settlements in India.After a long-drawn conflict followed by negotiations and settlements, the British finally occupied Pulicat in 1825. By now though, the importance of Pulicat as a trading outpost had dwindled because of the declining marine capabilities of the Dutch and the increasing role of the Madras Presidency and the British port in Madras (now Chennai).To facilitate their entry into Pulicat (it became accessible via road only in 1957), the British built the afore-mentioned lighthouse on the edge of the town. Although it is not as imposing a structure as most full-fledged lighthouses on sea-shores, it loomed impressively over the skyline. With time though, its purpose became limited to warning passing British ships against dangerous shoals (a hidden sandbank), rather than guiding ships to the shore.

By the mid-19th century, Pulicat was just a fishing village and a getaway resort for the British.

AROUND PULICAT

Driving along the streets of Pulicat and looking at the way of life as it is today – fishermen selling their wares in bamboo baskets, locals haggling over vegetables and other minor daily needs – it may be hard to imagine that Europeans once went hammer and tongs at each other for almost three centuries to maintain their stronghold over this small town. Oh, how time can turn things around!

There are several temples in and around Pulicat, some dating back to the Vijayanagara Empire. But most are not in good shape and are undergoing restoration while attempting to preserve as much of the original structure as possible.

Being a small town with limited points of interest, Pulicat is more of a day-trip destination rather than a weekend. But as we mentioned earlier, you need to make sure you start early so you have the whole day to go around. Boat trips are quite time-consuming and depending on how far you want to go, can take anywhere between an hour-and-a-half to three hours, to and fro. In case you want to stay overnight, there’s no accommodation available in town, so you’ll have to make do with some highway motels in Ponneri – something we won’t recommend, especially if you’re with your family.

Packing your lunch for the day is advisable, since there are no proper food joints in town and surprisingly, none on the state and national highway all the way back to Chennai either. Unless you’re ready to starve, stock your car well with food, snacks and water necessary to get through the day. Fuel stations are aplenty though – there’s one just before the Pulicat town limits and bigger ones on the highways, but given the short distance (to and fro with sightseeing is around 150km), a full tank of fuel should be able to get you there and back to Chennai with plenty ease.

PULICAT LAKE

The first thing you inadvertently notice while entering Pulicat is several men wearing lungis teamed with pastel shirts, trying to wave you down. These are the local fishermen, who also work as guides in their spare time. Unfortunately, they have a lot of the latter at their disposal ever since the government has stepped in to regulate fishing by assigning schedules and demarcating areas to avoid conflicts due to the increasing population. Conversing with our part-time guide Arul in whatever broken Tamil we could muster, we came to understand that he could only go fishing once in 21 days. And if it turns out to be a bad day, with thunder or rain for instance, he has to wait another 21 days before he can cast his net back into the Pulicat Lake. Hence, the fishermen take to doubling up as guides and showing tourists around, taking them out to the lake in their fishing motorboats. A full tour of interesting places in Pulicat along with a boat ride to the bird sanctuary and remote islands shouldn’t cost you more than Rs 500 after a bit of haggling. The lake, which is the second-largest brackish water lagoon in India (largest being the Chilka in Orissa) is itself a wonder to behold. Surrounding the town by three sides (the fourth side being the road we came through), it almost makes Pulicat an island. There are several actual islands in the lake as well, and a 30-minute boat ride will take you to the remote ones housing the Pulicat bird sanctuary, where thousands of migratory shorebirds visit every season. The ride is quite serene barring the thrum of the motorboat engine, and it can take a while.

So, carry water, something to munch on and, even though the weather is generally pleasant, a hat wouldn’t go amiss. The lake is clean, so remember to carry your garbage back to the shores and dispose of it responsibly. Disembarking on islands isn’t allowed, so don’t get off the boat until you’re back to the shore where you started from.

Once you are back on terra firma, there are a few spots along the lake where you can set a picnic on white sands with gentle waves lapping at your feet and not another soul around. You can also catch a glimpse of an odd crab scurrying across to safety in shallow waters.

The best time to head out into the lake is past four in the afternoon, which is when you can see huge flocks of flamingos, kingfishers, ducks and pelicans floating about looking for food in shallow waters or circling the skies overhead. The ride can get rough at times, depending on the currents, but it is certainly worth it. If you set out early and have time to spare, you can even head past the barrier island of Sriharikota, where Pulicat Lake meets the Bay of Bengal.  

The lake ride is likely to take a major part of your day at Pulicat, leaving you with some time to explore the streets and temples before you head back. The town may not have the grandeur, charm, vastness or picturesque surroundings of a few other historic destinations, but it undoubtedly bears a silent testimony to the golden period in our history, and its downfall.

Things calm down significantly once you leave Ponneri, which is about 10-odd kilometres from the national highway, in the rear-view mirror. You can relax and enjoy the scenery, which starts turning greener with each passing kilometre. There are still some odd villages you need to be cautious through – honk and flash to make sure that the guy trying to cross the road with four goats in tow sees you.

But once you cross Medur, you’ll have the road pretty much to yourself all the way to Pulicat. Even though it seems inviting with cambered turns that catapult you onto long straights, keep your enthusiasm in check as bovines feasting upon the greenery and lounging in the middle of the road at their leisure may not be aware of your agenda.

Four kilometres or so before the destination, the Pulicat Lake’s lighthouse looms into view. As its brick-red top stays at eye-level irrespective of which way the road is turning, you can’t help but think of the innumerable fishermen who would have been safely guided to the shore by it.A few twists and turns of the patchy, undulating tarmac later, a board announces your arrival into Pulicat. Actually, if you just continue following the road, driving right through town and on to Pulicat bridge, it will lead you right to the lighthouse, just as if you were travelling by sea – how apt!

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