On the trail of the Olive Ridley, marine researcher S. Balasubramani talks to Geeta Padmanabhan about historical, literary and scientific evidences that point to Besant Nagar, once called Aamaiyur, as home to these endangered turtles

“Besant Nagar was once called Aamaiyur (place of turtles)! A 895 AD relic of Nrupatunga Varman found in Ambur stands testimony to this,” said Ramjee Nagarajan of the Centre for Environment Education. This was exciting news. The close connection between Olive Ridley turtles and the Besant Nagar beach area is well-known. But written in stone? We needed to know more.

S. Balasubramani aka Odisha Balu, physicist-cum-marine-researcher was our man. Balu lived in Odisha for 20 years and has been chasing sea turtles since 1995. “Olive Ridleys have been called panchal aamai or chittaamai (small turtle),” he began, taking us through the evidence he has collected. “They are scavengers of the ocean and excellent navigators. When hungry, they forage for jelly-fish and seagrass near an estuary or sunken island. Seagrass is found around island-based river mouths.” Adyar’s estuary and Quibble island together fit this bill perfectly, he said.

The turtle route

Tamil Nadu had 53 turtle-nesting areas (many destroyed now), since several places on its coast had favourable temperature patterns, Balu said. The turtle travelled from Kanyakumari and Sri Lanka to Odisha searching for nesting grounds. In Besant Nagar it moved 150m inland from high tide to lay its eggs.

Every river mouth has an island. Many had a temple, and the deity was either Alayaathi amman or Kadalaithiya Perumal (Nandanam has such a temple). Years ago, sailing ships reaching the Mylapore-Santhome area breezed in at the Adyar side of Quibble island, unloaded goods, and moved — with the current — out of the Mylapore port side. The island reduced wave strength and helped sailors get a smooth passage. Part of the passage is now blocked, he said, tracing it on a Google map. “The Adyar estuary island was a major turtle nesting site. The turtles understood ocean currents and came in with them. It’s possible the ships followed.”

He talked about the inscription. “Ambur is near Vellore,” he said. “The nadukkal (memorial stone) says, (translated) “On the twenty-sixth year of king Swastisri Nrupatunga Vikrama Varma’s reign, while Nolamba’s army had marched over Aamaiyur belonging to west Adaiyaru country of Paduvur Kottam division and was plundering away its livestocks, he was encountered by Prithigangaraiyar’s commander-in-chief Akarakonda Kavithi Akalankattuvaraya’s subordinate warrior (son) Channan who attained martyrdom after a courageous fight in the battle.”

“The words to note are ‘Aamiyur situated in mel-adayaru of Paduvurkottam’,” said Balu. “Ambur has no turtle visitors. The reference is to Adayaru region and Besant Nagar.”

Balu gathers his material from literary/linguistic references and traditional knowledge of fishermen, and reinforces it by scientific oceanic studies. “Satellite signals from RFID devices fitted on turtles told us they travelled thousands of kilometres to reach Myanmar, Malaysia, Australia, the Pacific islands, Mexico and Japan,” he said. A chance observation revealed to him how they managed it. “I watched a turtle float in the ocean along with us. We were moving at a speed of 7 km. The turtle managed that speed by staying on ocean currents!”

Source of inspiration

Inspired by turtles, our ancestors made ‘mugavai midappu theppam’ (floats). Turtles followed ocean currents and discovered islands while searching for food, Tamils followed turtles and visited those islands. Some 302 places where turtles lay eggs have Tamil names, he said, rattling off a few: Thamila - Myanmar, Ooru - Australia, Catalan - Spain, Nanmadal, Kumari - Pacific ocean, Kural - Indonesia, Thamizhipasu - Mexico. Turtle symbols, figures in temples and turtle-shaped boats found on foreign coasts were probably symbols of gratitude to the navigating turtles. Balu has pictures of sculptures and cave paintings to prove that turtles were recognised and revered.

“Tamil fishermen have always carried sweet potatoes to sea because it doesn’t rot easily,” he said. “In places in Indonesia and Australia the root is called kumara. In one Pacific island a tribe of fishermen calls its fishing boat thirimaram, its central part amma, the sides akka/vakka and the bottom kazh. The clinching evidence is the iron bell (inscribed with Tamil words) unearthed in a Parua Maori tribal house at Vangarai, New Zealand in 1836.”

A book on his findings is coming out soon. “Chennaivasis, specially Adyarites should know more about the place they live in,” he said.