Behind the modern visage, Old Mahabalipuram Road's pastoral past remains intact. We present you the striking contrast

With its imposing and contemporary structures, swanky eateries and a growing number of entertainment zones, Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR) offers a vignette of modernity. However, a little beyond this glitz, lies a world that moves to a different rhythm, a world of freely ranging livestock and gaudily painted houses. The interior areas of OMR still bear the vestiges of village life.

Here's a slice of this contrast: About 500 mt behind the posh Aloft Hotel and the chic Express Hyundai showroom in Sholinganallur, there are houses with cow sheds. Sixty-three-year-old G. Radhakrishnan, a fifth-generation resident of Sholinganallur, says, “At least 25 families rear cows to supply their need for milk. People in these families may be employed in big companies, but they don't want to break away from tradition. Ten years ago, all the families in this locality kept cows. Those days, I had 20 cows. I have held on to three of them.” Radhakrishnan also points out the presence of ‘arasamarangal' (bodhi satva trees) and ‘veppamarangal' (neem trees) that still serve as congregating points for villagers. Another distinctive mark of the past is the temple car of a deity that is drawn through the streets during festive seasons.

Modernity and tradition

This striking interplay between modernity and tradition is probably what gives OMR its uniqueness among the major stretches of roads around Chennai. Take Arcot Road, which was once a single-lane, macadam road that snaked unremarkably through what was an aggregation of small villages. This road was freed of its rural character long ago: it no longer bears any signs of its pastoral past. The rural-urban contrast is displayed by certain sections of the GST Road, but it is not as pronounced as on OMR.

The unstoppable push of modernity will ultimately overpower OMR and recast it in a completely contemporary image, but there is reason to believe that this change is a long way off. Encouraged by the high rates of appreciation in land value, 32-year-old Manivel, a son of the soil who ekes out a living as window maker, is holding on to his one-ground house on Madha Koil Street in Okkiyam Pettai.

“During the real estate boom on OMR, local residents who owned large parcels of land sold only portions of their properties. They improved their lifestyles with the gains and stayed on,” says Manivel. “Some people have extended their houses and let out portions to IT professionals and students. Hard pressed for money, some sold their houses and cashed in on the boom and bought land at relatively lower prices in areas further down OMR — such as Thiruporur — and settled down there.”

Sabyasachi Debnath, an engineer working on OMR, believes local villagers thrive on an ever-increasing demand for living spaces. “Rather than selling their properties and making a one-time killing, they turn their properties into a steady source of income. I have seen people with single-storey houses adding an upper floor to them and letting out one-room portions to bachelors from other States employed in the offices on this road. While the demand for office space hit a plateau long time ago — thanks to software companies looking to other growing corridors to set up their offices, GST Road with its Mahindra City being one example — the demand for living spaces on OMR has been constantly rising.”

In stark contrast to most of the other major roads in Chennai, OMR experienced a big bang of development. Before the advent of the IT industry, interest in this stretch was low and, as a result, land had stayed in the hands of the locals. Most outsiders began to buy land on OMR only after real estate prices had gone through the roof.

“Local residents know that nothing sells like real estate on OMR. They are holding on to their properties because prices can only go higher and higher,” explains T. Chitty Babu, chairman of Akshaya Homes. “Many of these longtime residents — whose ancestors practised agriculture on this stretch — will continue to stay on. And the colour they bring to OMR will contrast sharply and beautifully with the ultra-modern features that are giving this stretch its distinctive character. OMR is actually taking on the character of the people that work there: young IT professionals who are global in their thinking.”

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