By Shefali Ganesh
We were a motley bunch of eager people, young and old, all set for our date with history. We were off on a one-day trip to Pulicat Lake or Pazhaverkadu (pa-ya-ver-kaa-du) that translates to ‘mangrove forests’ as the region was once covered with these. Pulicat is at a surprisingly close distance of around 60 km from Chennai; a sunny day and a vehicle are all one needs to escape the urban landscape to this charming suburb.
The lake is known most famously as the home to a teeming population of migratory birds like the greater flamingoes that descend here every year and colour the lake a glorious pink. What many do not know is the significance of Pulicat’s historical links in the creation of Chennai city and in being one of India’s foremost trading hubs. The Pulicat Lake Heritage Walk organised by the AARDE Foundation, a not-for-profit trust dedicated to preserve Pulicat Lake and its heritage, was a brilliant way of engaging with one of India’s best kept secrets. More so now, as the Pulicat Lagoon and its village have been tentatively proposed as a World Heritage Site among India’s nomination list. The Foundation, however, was quick to point out that that detail was beside the point, because there is so much hidden under these still waters that the entire experience was like going on an expedition to unearth exciting treasures lost to the mires of time. There was a definite air of excitement in the group as all of us got ready for this adventure.
The Pulicat Interpretation Centre, run by the Foundation, was where we had our first brush with history. Literally so, as the Centre lies right on the border of an old Dutch Cemetery, and the road we had travelled on were the very boundaries of an ancient Dutch fort! We were standing on the area that had been the first Portuguese settlement in India. Our hosts treated us to a fascinating narration, and took us back in time when Pulicat was a flourishing trade point for India and the world. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to land here in the 16th century, followed by the Dutch in the 17th century and later on by the British. Starting trade from this port town, the British rule slowly moved further down and established itself in Fort St.George, then in Madrasapattinam, thus creating the history of Madras city.
The history of Pulicat has been meticulously pieced together through the various landmarks that still exist in and around. This small backwater village was a major port city in the 10th century AD during the Chola regime, and we were shown the ancient Samayeshwarar (Lord Shiva) temple from these times. The Portuguese left their mark in Pulicat’s St. Anthony Shrine that still stands and the ‘Our Lady of Glory’ Church, of which the original structure was sadly demolished. The town served as the headquarters of the Dutch in this part of the coastline, at what was called Fort Geldria. The Dutch had obviously a successful run in the coast, as can be seen by the old port tax collection office with a structure typical of Dutch buildings.
Pulicat had the first mint and gun making factory in India and its trade links crossed seas to Japan, Europe and all over South East Asia. As we walked through the lanes of the old town, we stepped into homes that have been around from the 17th century. The residents graciously showed us the huge, almost five feet tall urns that originated from China, some still used to store grains. The urns are relics of Pulicat’s extensive trade links with the world. So also are the town’s many religious landmarks, with a dominant Muslim link. Pulicat even has a very rare language of its own, called ‘Arwi’, which is Tamil written in Arabic script. It was developed by the Arabic speaking Muslims, for reasons that Tamil doesn’t accommodate all Arabic sounds and terms.
We stroll into the relatively new Dutch cemetery (17th century) and take in the intricately carved tomb stones, some very elaborate, suggesting persons of high rank. The entrance to the cemetery has an arch that has on either side skeletal carvings, so detailed that each bone of the human body can be identified! And of course a trip to Pulicat without a glimpse of the lake and its winged inhabitants is not complete. The lake is the livelihood of the fisher–folk who are ready to take tourists on a boating trip.
We were back to the starting point of our walking tour, tired but happy that we came, treasuring the yellow tour badge, new–found friends and our memories as a souvenir. For most of us, what started out as a picnic, turned out to be the most exciting, live history lesson ever!
This article was published in Culturama magazine dated November 2013
For more information on the foundation, check out www.aarde.in