Madras Week 2019: Know your Chennai

Madras Week: Tracking Chennai's greenery and ecological heritage

The thing about centuries-old metropolises, is that as they grow and expand, they welcome many different things into their fold — marshes; farmlands; once-villages that now blink in disorientation, finding themselves surrounded by a teeming city.

How else would you explain driving past office spaces and pizza places, and then parking your car — just for a while — to watch egrets flutter down to biodiversity-rich lakes, before moving on to the next bustling traffic signal?

The beauty of this particular metropolis lies not only in the oases that survive amid it, but also in the people who interact with these oases, create memories around them, and struggle against the odds to help them thrive. Or just give them the luxury of letting be.

As I settle down, water bottle and notepad at the ready, for a long drive in search of the city’s lesser known oases, the first stop in my destination is still a long way ahead. I am in Kilpauk; it is 11 am; and my time starts now.

Return of the lotus pads

11.55 am, Sholinganallur lake, (Minute 55)

Sholinganallur lake, also known as Thamarai keni or “lotus pond”, lies smack-dab on one of Chennai’s busiest roadways: the Rajiv Gandhi IT Expressway. And yet, it is rich in fauna; I see a couple of pelicans floating peacefully. “Pelicans, painted storks, egrets, heron and kingfishers are found in plenty at the lake now,” says Arun Krishnamurthy, founder of Enviromentalist Foundation of India (EFI).

It was EFI that took it upon itself to restore the lake to its current status, from the vast patch of rubbish and refuse that it used to be. And for good measure, the lake and its banks have been cordoned off the highway by a tall wire fence that allows passers-by to gaze through. “There are also two gates on the fence, in case people want to go in,” adds Arun.

A not-so-secret lane

1.20 pm, Sholinganallur main road, (Minute 140)

We took a right from the next signal, up Sholinganallur main road, and crossed the toll booth to drive by the vast stretches of marshland that flank the sweeping road. This stretch of the thoroughfare usually has both domestic and heavy vehicles whooshing past, either towards Old Mahabalipuram Road on one end of it or East Coast Road (ECR) on the other.

Our job is to find a spot to rest at, to gaze out at the variety of birds that flock the space. So we slow down, and stick to the edge of the road. Civilisation looms ahead within 15 minutes of our drive from the toll booth, so we take a U-turn away from it, and go back towards OMR. Five minutes later, just before crossing the bridge on the main road, we finally find something that has potential.

It’s a little red path, flanked by neem and Giant Milkweed bushes cutting through the marsh. It is wide enough for a small car, and clearly leads to further urban settlements up ahead. Once you walk long enough, the birdcalls match up to the hum of traffic. And though the houses never leave my sight, there is plenty of greenery — as well as blue waters and white, black and orange-beaked birds — beween the houses, the highway and me.

Joy runs deep here

2.50 pm, Sholinganallur main road, (Minute 230)

As we head out from our hidden oasis towards the next stop in Madipakkam, the Sunday evening traffic picks up, slowing us down. But as we turn into Lake View Road and catch our first glimpse of the lake, suprised laughter rises up my throat.

The lake is almost bone dry. But that’s okay, because the same neighbours and families who used to leap into the waters in its better days, now climb down to its dry depths to play cricket. Or step tentatively into the little puddles that remain, clinging to their friends, slippers flung to a side. Or just drive their two-wheelers down to a rare watery patch, and chat. As they would by the lake’s surface in better days.

“The lake has been this dry for about four months now. It will probably fill up again if we have good, steady monsoons,” says Mohan Raj, a visual effects student. As he takes a break from the game to chat with us, his friend, the batsman, carefully strikes the ball away from a young calf frolicking about. Yes, the cows have made their way down too, and feel just at home on the lake bed as the rest of the neighbourhood.

By the bay

4 pm, Thiruvanmiyur, (Minute 300)

From the open, sunny playground that is Madipakkam lake, it is a short drive to the shaded, tree-lined 4th Seaward Road in Thiruvanmiyur, so we squish in a quick lunch. We are here for what lies at the end of the lane, where the cool shade suddenly gives way to the blazing sun and golden-white sands.

This is a narrow, end stretch close to Thiruvanmmiyur beach: so slim that there isn’t much to do except stroll, chat and watch the waves break in gushes of white foam. Despite it being late afternoon, barely a dozen people dot the beach: most of them either residents nearby or a lucky few who have chanced upon this relatively undisturbed strip. To the right, a few carnival rides are visible; to the left, a couple gently walks away from the squealing, water-tackling crowd. Far up ahead, one can see a fishing boat go by, the low whir of its engine travelling clear through the air.

“We live near Besant Nagar beach, but come here because its much cleaner,” a mother of two manages to tell me before being rushed away by her curious little ones playing with the sand. At one end of the horizon, large white vessels dot the edge of the sky, as Chennai stretches vast behind us.

This is the second of a five-part series through a 380-minute tour of heritage sites that celebrates Madras Week

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Printable version | Apr 12, 2021 6:25:15 PM |

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