Aparna Karthikeyan navigates her way through Chennai Port watching cranes, ships, containers, lorries and a changing skyline
Chennai Port has always been an enigma to me, a collection of distant images — ships with smoky plumes; tall, slim cranes; enormous container-lorries. Early one Sunday morning, I finally walk into Chennai Port Trust; a foundation stone, laid on December 15, 1875, tells me that Prince of Wales Edward VII was here for the occasion that would change the way goods reached Chennai. For, before the harbour was completed, they were unloaded in Calcutta or Bombay and bought down by bullock-carts.
Two right turns through the drizzle brings us to the actual port; we enter through black-and-gold cast-iron gates. Spring Haven Road — named after Francis Spring, the Chairman of Port Trust in 1904, and the visionary behind much of the port’s development — takes us closer to the water. Furnishing passes, we enter the ‘prohibited area’; ahead, the sea is a stern grey mirroring the broody sky. Container lorries drive past; a railway line visually divides two worlds — Chennai city (its skyline a mix of ancient cupolas and modern, linear outlines) from the watery one, quivering with reflections of cranes and containers.
It is 7.40a.m. We stand on reclaimed land, and watch an aircraft descend over the city. If not for the harbour, the sea would’ve kissed the feet of the business houses of George Town. Also, back then, ships berthed two miles out into the sea. People and goods were loaded onto catamarans or the backs of Indian coolies, until Warren Hastings, in 1750, recognised the need for a harbour. His plans — shelved after his transfer — were implemented by Spring and the Madras Chamber of Commerce in the 19th Century.
Announcements from Beach Station come floating in the air, advising passengers about train numbers and platforms. A truck with 16 tyres transports Italian marble, the massive stones resting on logs of wood. Containers are stacked in columns; rail-engines sit on the back of lorries. To the right is one of the original harbour buildings, black and boxy, with stones quarried from Pallavaram. And beyond, is Dr. Ambedkar Dock (which along with Jawahar and Bharathi docks forms the Chennai harbour). The docks present an orderly sight — cranes, ships and containers stand in neat rows, like schoolchildren waiting for the assembly to start. The only fidgeters are the jeeps and motorbikes darting along the pier.
The first pier
Unlike today’s extended piers, Chennai’s first pier was basic in design — a straight one, around whose length and width ships could halt. Bits of the original middle-pier remain; pigeons live among the stones placed one-on-top of another. There is the distant hum and throb of machinery, but immediately around, it’s quiet enough to hear bird song.
To our left is the passenger terminal; a big, black ship — Porto Maina — stands next to tall cranes. We’re standing over railway lines, a few feet from the nearly 20foot drop into still waters. But it wasn’t always this calm. A cyclone wrecked the first harbour, and a still-water enclosure was planned, with a 400ft. entrance between a Northern and Southern groyne. Today, ships berth inside the upgraded enclosures.
We walk back to the main thoroughfare. A crane with two metallic ‘arms’ lifts a grey container like a small toy, carries it for about 50 ft. and places it on the ground. It quickly comes back for a brown container; the whole operation takes only a minute. In a lorry nearby, the driver, in a sleeveless vest smokes; inside the cramped cabin, another man, in a lungi, sleeps.
We head to the Royal Marine Yacht Club (RMYC); it’s been ‘Royal’ since the charter was signed on February 20, 1961. The interiors bristle with shiny cups and trophies. Outside, by the Timber Pond, we wear orange lifejackets and climb into waiting boats. In the distance, I see cranes plucking containers and moving them; a train goes past, its horn wailing for a full minute.
The motorboat takes us past oil berths and container terminals. On either side, seawater pleats into foam-crested waves; behind, the wake is broad and milky-white. The old pier comes into view, studded with mast-lights. The extended outer arm ends with the Dufferin light; all around, kulfi-shaped concrete wave-breakers are piled. We leave the two over-hanging lips — which prevent silting — and enter open sea.
Like a painting
The sky is a stunning oil-painting, the grey peeling back to reveal bands of opal and orange. Six ships, their anchors dropped, wait to enter the harbour. Sea-gulls flap over-head, and gather by the mast of a sunken ship. The boat rides the gentle swells; I’m seated at the back, making notes; salt-water sprays hit the paper with a hiss. We hook a fish; it’s drawn in, 5kg of thrashing, silvery flesh. We head back with the catch; the city pushes out fingers — chimneys, anorexic cranes, domes and terraces — and they draw the eyes skyward. When the British first landed two miles out, the skyline would’ve been flat and brown; thanks to the harbour, the city has grown tall, wide, deep…
The heritage tour of the Chennai Port was organised as part of Madras Day Celebrations, in collaboration with RMYC, and was led by Sriram.V, historian and Chennai chronicler.