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... and a placid Pulicat experience

Pulicat lake — which lies close to Chennai city — is about a million years old. Traditional punting or sailing in a flat-bottom boat is environment-friendly, and an example of `nature-tourism' at its best.

A pleasant ride along the course of history.

PULICAT lake, with an average waterspread area of 350 square kilometres, is the second largest lagoon (bay) in India. Pulicat town, at its southern end, lies 55 km north of Chennai.

A 30-kilometre drive from Chennai on the Nellore road (National Highway 5), a right turn by seven kilometres to Ponneri and then another 18 km through rice-fields and agricultural villages will see you at this 600-year-old Pazhaverkaadu or the Pulicat town. Pulicat lake itself is about a million years old! It is shallow, with an average depth of less than one metre, except the spot opposite the lake-mouth into the Bay of Bengal, where it may be about 10 metres deep. Eco-tourism on this lake by traditional punting or sailing in a flat-bottom boat (thoni) rather than by a motorised boat, is environment-friendly, and "nature-tourism" at its best.

The road from Chennai to Pulicat ends at the boat-jetty on the water front of the Buckingham Canal with a vast spread of overflown tidal waters from the lake, in the north. Across these waters is the beautiful landmark — the lighthouse. Over-loaded ferry boats transporting fisherfolk to the 15 villages on the seaside, boats landing fish-catches, tribal women hand-picking prawns, bullock-carts traversing these waters and tourists bargaining, are some to the rare and fascinating backwater scenes at Pulicat.

Punting or sailing slowly northwards around Munaijelly, "adventure tourists" can head towards the lake-mouth, about four or five kilometres northeast, across the deep and bumpy waters. Trekking amidst low sand-dunes, one can appreciate this idyllic camping site.

The Dutch mausoleum

Karimanal village, just opposite the lake-mouth, where the Dutch and the British berthed their ships, and after which the name "Coramandel" might have been coined, is a historical site. As an option, at Munaijelly, one can turn left, or west, to enter the vast ocean-like lake proper. One can sail north, even for 35 kilometres, flanked by the densely wooded and heavily guarded Sriharikota Island, all along the right, where the space-centre is located. The thousands of large water-birds that sojourn during winter in the shallower northern parts of Pulicat lake do not come to the deeper waters, down south, around Pulicat, except to Annamalaicheri village which takes about three hours by a non-motorised boat to reach.

Game-fishing on the lake is a catch-or-miss fun. Dancing male fiddler crabs, along the muddy shores at low tide, have a language of their own. Beware of the razor-edged oyster-shells or the stinging fish (theli meen) in the muddy marginal waters.

At the southern end of the lake is Jamilabad, a Muslim village, totally devoted to boat-building for all the 37 fishing villages on the lake. They were twice displaced from the Sriharikota island. To their east, is one of the five tribal hamlets, Senjiamman Nagar. These were originally called yanadies on the Sriharikota island. But after settling in Tamil Nadu they are called irulas. Just south of them is the cluster of the three most ancient fishing villages on the lake, particularly the Nadur Maadha Kuppam where the Portuguese seem to have landed in about 1510 A.D. They founded a catholic shrine in this village for the deity of Mother Mary which has a mythology behind it. The shrine today has grown into the Church of Our Lady of Glory, said to be the earliest church in the current Madras-Mylapore Diocese.

About 100 metres west of this church, close to Ambedkar Nagar, is the first Dutch cemetery with about 22 protected tombs, dating back to 1631 to 1655 A.D. Closer to the market place is the impressive landmark Dutch cemetery with 76 tombs and mausoleums, protected by the Archaeological Survey of India. The beautifully carved tombstones, with inscriptions in the Dutch language, could have been carved in Holland and sent to India. The tombstones in both cemeteries tell us the story of the Dutch at Pulicat, from 1606 to 1690 A.D. History tells us that the Dutch had a fort called "Geldria" at Pulicat from where they were trading with the East Indies. Locally woven and the famous "Pulicat textiles", which were coloured (check-pattern) handkerchiefs and lungies were the chief items of trade, apart from medicinal herbs, silk, diamonds, spices and even donkeys, procured from the hinterland.

Behind the market place, there are streets with dilapidated masonry houses once occupied by ethnic Arabian Muslims. A few families are still left over and they possess a document with them in Arabic which says that during the 13th Century, they were banished from Mecca, in four boats, for refusing to pay tributes to a new calif.

One of those four boats drifted towards Pulicat. In 1606 A.D. when a Dutch ship ran aground on the Pulicat shores these Muslims offered food and help to the Dutch and struck a trade partnership with them, to procure and supply local merchandise for the Dutch to trade with the East Indies.

Creations with the palmyra-leaf.

A cottage craft with tender palmyra leaves by women, particularly Muslim women, flourishes at Pulicat. Utility and fancy articles out of Palmyra leaves are exported by the local Palmyra Leaf Co-operative Society.

Pulicat is also an important seafood export centre for white and Tiger prawns, jellyfish, finfish and live lagoon (Green crabs).

Food and water are preferably carried from Chennai and enjoyed on the boat, and the refuse should be put into public bins at Pulicat, and not disposed of in the lake.

Rest rooms (toilets) are unfortunately not available. If time permits, boating towards the south, by the Buckingham Canal, beyond the Vairavan Kuppam village, to land in the causarina groves with a children's play-ground and toilets, and then walking across to the clean and beautiful beach is ideal.

Today, Pulicat lake faces several anthropogenic, developmental and environmental issues threatening not only the livelihoods of these impoverished fisherfolk but also the very survival of this ancient lake itself. Ecotourists should take care to save this beautiful "environmental heritage" of the Pulicat lake for posterity.

Text and pictures by P.J. SANJEEVA RAJ

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