History & Culture

Pulicat’s overlooked monuments are a testament to its archaeological beauty

As Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha culminated in the port town last weekend, organisers led a heritage trail along its centuries-old structures

The Dutch cemetery has a startling macabre beauty.

Its tombs rise unexpectedly, as we drive down a dusty street in Pulicat, bustling with bicycles and goats. Skeletons painstakingly carved into stone, stand guard at the gates, welcoming visitors. A short distance away, lies the Portuguese cemetery, its graves gradually being colonised by the local, tenacious thorny scrub.

Pulicat, better known locally as Pazhaverkadu, has hosted waves of invaders, traders and visitors for centuries, absorbing their religions and traditions to create a rich and remarkable social fabric, built on acceptance rather than resistance.

Appropriately enough, the Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha, a month-long celebration of the cultural threads that make Chennai unique, culminated at Pulicat last weekend. The day-long event included a Nature trail, of course. The region is well-known for its rich bio-diversity and flamboyant flamingoes. However, in a bid to highlight other facets of this ancient port town, the event also included a heritage trail, which began at the cemetery.

The Arabs, who arrived more than a thousand years ago, were followed by the Portuguese, drawn to India’s spices and cotton in 1502.

In 2007, the Art and Architecture Research, Development and Education (AARDE ) Foundation, a not-for-profit architecture and design service organisation found an old Portuguese cemetery when scanning the area on Google Maps.

Reliable information on the area and its rich history is elusive. Fortunately Xavier Benedict, the founder of AARDE and his team, have been pro-actively tracking down old documents, maps and other records to reconstruct as much of the past as possible: an important task, given how Pulicat and its monuments can easily be overlooked since it is largely off the tourist trail.

For instance, Our Lady Of Glory, a wooden church dating back to 1555 (making it one of India’s oldest churches) was demolished in 2008. It has been replaced by a large, modern church, and the only remnant from the past is a graceful wooden statue of Mary, which as local legend goes, fell off a Portuguese ship and was found by a fisherman centuries ago.

Pulicat’s overlooked monuments are a testament to its archaeological beauty

Time has stood still at Saint Anthony’s shrine, however, set in the heart of the village. This little brick chapel, built in the 18th Century, has a tiled roof and simple altar adorned with little other than candles and dappled sunshine streaming though the windows. It is empty and hushed, except for snatches of murmured conversations from fishermen mending their nets outside, punctuated by birds chirruping as they dive through the space.

At the entrance of Samayeswarar temple, which dates back to the 10th Century Chola dynasty, the wall is supported by wooden pillars and a tree, its roots coiled around the bricks. The roof, exposed to sun and rain, bears delicate, intricate carvings in wood. This temple also has a stepwell, made of bricks and lime mortar.

The heritage trail winds through Chinna Pallivasal mosque, formally known as Al Masjid ul Muzarraf constructed in 1708 AD. Locals chat about how the Arabs settled in Pulicat, and how a section of the locals still have Arab features. The mosque is known for its century-old sun dial installed in 1915.

After the tour ends, I track down Xavier, curious about the history of a ramshackle building we explored, set in the local hospital complex.

It turns out to be a Dutch tax collection office dating back to 1640. Discussing how Pulicat is full of archaeological gems like this, Xavier explains why the area is so fascinating: “this is the oldest maritime heritage on the Coromandel coast,” he says, adding that they excavated Fort Geldria, the site of India’s first European fort, with the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India ) in 2013. “The foundation is still there. Though it’s covered with thorny bushes.”

He adds that the port was best known for exporting cotton, and says the Arabs came first, followed by the Portugese and Dutch. Pulicat also drew French, Armenians and Spanish traders thanks to its unique geography.

“You can’t separate culture and Nature. Because of the natural values, people were able to converge here for trade. You need shallow water for ships to anchor,” he says.

There is one more factor: wind. “Nature is Pulicat’s advantage,” says Xavier, adding “Vasco Da Gama started using wind for movement, and the Portuguese realised in Pulicat, the North-East monsoon moves ships away from the coast, perfect for export. Then, during the South-West monsoon, winds bring ships to us.”

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Printable version | Mar 30, 2020 3:57:45 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/discovering-the-archaeological-gems-of-pulicat/article30852071.ece

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