Mid-nature and history

After a one-hour drive from Chennai on the Nellore-Road (NH5) and a seven-km detour, we reached Ponneri. Cruising past lush paddy fields and idyllic villages, we landed in the nondescript fishing hamlet of Pulicat in the Thiruvallur district of Tamil Nadu. Known in local parlance as Pazhaverkadu, ('forest of the rooted fruit,'), its claim to fame rests on a lagoon, a bird sanctuary, and many historical monuments.

I could hardly believe that colonial powers like the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English had moored their ships in Karimanal village on the shores of Lake Pulicat adjoining the Bay of Bengal. The Buckingham Canal, the lighthouse, fishing hamlets, fisherwomen handpicking prawns, bullock carts, and ferry boats transporting fishermen formed the backdrop of Pulicat.

One can walk through the pages of history in Pulicat and explore the 10th-century Chola temple, the temples from the Nayak period, old Dutch churches, cemeteries, and a fort. The Portuguese were the first to set foot in Pulicat in 1502 A D. They built a church, Our Lady of Joys, which is now renamed as Our Lady of Glory. It continues to attract the devout, though some additions to the original structure have been made. The Portuguese were followed by the Dutch in 1602 A D. They left behind many vestiges of their history and culture. Subsequently, the British landed in 1610 AD.

Pulicat is indeed a heritage buff's delight. There are two European cemeteries in Pulicat. The Portuguese Cemetery, located on the north-west corner of Kottaikuppam, is dilapidated. As we entered the village, we were struck by the Dutch Cemetery and its tombstones. On both sides of the cemetery gates, we could see carvings of skeletons with the figure of the skull glaring at us from the centre. The cemetery has about 22 protected tombs dating back to 1631 AD. The entrance (now maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India) is flanked by stone pillars. It has 76 beautifully carved tombs and mausoleums with inscriptions in the Dutch language. They tell us the story of the Dutch in Pulicat from 1606 to 1698 AD.

Pulicat was once a flourishing trading post of Dutch East India Company, which exported the famous Coromandel textiles - coloured handkerchiefs and lungies, apart from medicinal herbs, silks, diamonds and spices procured from the hinterland.

The setting up of a Dutch trading post witnessed a fort coming up - Fort Geldria ­ - which was destroyed and rebuilt several times.

Ambling around, we stumbled upon the remains of the fort that are scattered pieces of a mud moat covered by thorny bushes. Several battles were waged over Pulicat and eventually, the British captured it in 1825.

Pulicat remained with them till 1947.The highly guarded Sriharikota Island here houses India's space centre. The Adi Narayanaswamy Vishnu Temple, flanked by walls on either side, sans a gopuram, though in a pathetic state, is worth a peek for its architecture. There is a stone inscription in front of the goddess's shrine. However, the abandoned temple is in ruins and choked with thick and thorny bushes. One can also visit the local Palmyra Leaf Cooperative Society where the hamlet's women craft elegant utility articles out of tender palmyra leaves. The cottage industry articles are exported. Pulicat also specialises in the export of seafood like white and tiger prawns, jellyfish and green crabs.

 

Choice is yours

If you feel adventurous, take a boat ride across the lake or head south with a picnic hamper to relax amid a casuarina grove by the canal, or stroll to the sandy beach. If you have the stamina, clamber up the old and antique lighthouse.

Straddling the borders of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, Lake Pulicat is essentially a brackish water lagoon rich in floral and faunal diversity. It has an amazing topography running parallelly to the Bay of Bengal. It is claimed to be the second-largest water body in the country after Lake Chilika in Odisha, with small tracts of land scattered here and there.

The lake is reputed as a breeding ground for several species of bird and marine life. White and tiger prawns, mud crabs and oysters fuel a major fishing community.

Many inhabitants of the surrounding villages around the lake make their living by fishing in the lake, which is also a designated bird sanctuary, a host to flamingoes, pelicans, painted storks and other water birds like kingfishers, storks, ducks and curlews.

 

Play of water

When the waters receded, we sighted a white-rose line of greater flamingoes marking the horizon. The web-footed, long-legged flamingoes wade through the shallow waters for days together to feed on tiny plants and algae.

The lake that was once 460 sq km is now 350 sq km. This is largely due to the rapid silting of its northern end. The reduction of water-spread and depth, and also the silting of the mouth of the lake, has endangered the lives of its aquatic animals.

Indiscriminate fishing with fishing nets of fine mesh that capture even tiny organisms vital to the food chain in the lake does not allow for recharging of life in the waterbody.

Prawns, which once entered the relatively calm lake waters in the night, have reduced in numbers now. The large-scale dumping of plastic has added to the woes.

Unwanted, untreated

Another worrying development is the aquaculture farms that dot the periphery of the lagoon. The farms release untreated wastewater into the lagoon and the canal, altering the turbidity of the water.

Two rivers from Tamil Nadu and River Kalangi from Andhra Pradesh drain into the lake. In Andhra Pradesh, around 4,700 hectares of land has been released for a marine chemicals and salt-manufacturing plant. In Tamil Nadu, a petrochemical complex and a satellite port at Ennore Creek are seen as major threats to the lake's well-being.

"Although much of the lake is protected, several threats from the industries discharging untreated effluents into the Buckingham Canal that then empty into the lake are a cause for worry. This has an adverse impact on the livelihoods of the fishermen. There is a need to set up Pulicat Conservation and Development Authority on the lines of Odisha's Chilika Development Authority," says Xavier Benedict of Chennai-based Aarde Foundation, which works along with fishermen, women, youth and children for the continued ecological health of the lake.

Restoration and conservation of the historical monuments in Pulicat, maintaining Pulicat Museum, and also empowering Pulicat's fisherwomen through palm-leaf craft are the other highlights of this foundation.

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