Recently I started working on a project that helps the Pulicat Palm leaf Women’s Co-operative society to create new products. Those who follow me on Instagram would have seen glimpses of this society and the products that they create. But more on that later. This post is more about my travel to this old colonial Dutch town. Pulicat is just about 70Km from where I live, but this is the first time that I have ventured there. In this post, I would like to give an introduction to the quaint little town of Pulicat and what you see/do there in a day.
One day at Pulicat
Situated on the barricade island of Sriharikota which divides the Pulicat Lake from the Bay of Bengal, Pulicat or Pazhaverkadu is located at a distance of 60 km from Chennai. The major attractions of Pulicat are the Pulicat beach, Pulicat Lake, the Dutch cemetery, an ancient Church and, the bird sanctuary. The Lighthouse opposite the lake and the Mahimai Mikunnda Madha kovil (The Church of the Powerful Mary) are the other places of interest in the Pazhaverkadu town that you can see in one day. There is also an ancient Vishnu temple but the entrance is blocked by its own crumbling walls. Restoration work is supposedly happening, but there seems to be hardly any progress.
There are many Dutch structures like the one below all over the town (esp in the Dutch street) and as a person teaching styling, I immediately thought about the great backgrounds they would make for styled photoshoots.
Pulicat Lake & Beach
Stretching across 481 square kilometers, Pulicat is the 2nd largest brackish water ecosystem in India after Lake Chilika of Orissa. Every year between October and March, thousands of migratory birds can be observed here. Teh board here says that wetland birds like Garganey, Marsh Sandpiper, Gadwall, Shoveler, and Black-tailed Godvit can be seen here. Most notably, during the colder months, the sanctuary is said to attract up to 15,000 Flamingoes.
Unfortunately I went there on an extremely hot, bright, sunny days. During the first visit when I ventured out to sight see for an hour, it was breezy but the second day was unbearably hot. My driver (and guide) told me that the place is very different in October and November. This is when you can go boating on the Pulicat lake, upto to Annamalaicheri and back and see large groups of migratory birds. We had no such luck. All were saw were a few herons and a couple of ducks. As it was really hot, we decided to drive past the lake on the new bridge a couple of times to take in the sights. Our driver said that you can drive up to the (newly painted) old lighthouse (which my colleagues did on another day) or even hike up to the beach.
The Sea at Pulicat is very rough and the beach is mostly deserted as its not safe for hanging out. But if you pay the fishermen they would take you for a ride into the sea. But be cautious and make sure that your guide and oarsmen are sober before you take that trip. I am not joking, we found a lot of people asleep or passed out on the roadside in the middle of the day.I also heard about many accidents of people drowning in the sea because they were drunk. If you go out boating in the sea insist on a life jacket.
As we were there in the afternoon, our driver forbade us from going to the beach as it was high tide. I was a little disappointed because I really wanted to see the beach of shells as Pulicat beach is known. I was also keen on the sea boat ride after having had a similar outing at Managalore beach. But better safe than sorry, what say?
The old part of the Pazhaverakadu ruins is largely in ruins. Last year’s Vardah cyclone seems to have taken a toll on an already crumbling village. So many old houses were left to crumble admidst the old Dutch structures. Instead of restoring them, modern houses and temples are built right alongside them. The Geldria fort, the once Dutch headquarters of the Coramandal coast was no where to be found.
So what did I see? I saw the Dutch Cemetery and the Pulicat Church. The new Dutch cemetery which was built in 1656 AD houses around seventy seven graves and five dome structures. Two are conical and three have hemispherical domes. There are cherubs and angles on the last one.
The huge mausoleums and graves are emblazoned in Dutch and engraved with skeletons instead of the cross. The Skeleton detailing begins at the gate itself. There is one skull in the center and two standing skeletons on either side. It looked and felt very ominous. I have never seen anything like this in real life – only in TV programmes that showcase of Halloweens party decor.
The graves have been very well conserved by the ASI. The crests were very interesting to look at. There was even one with a knight in full Armour riding a horse. However, I could not get good pictures without stepping on the tombstones which I really didn’t want to do, as it would have been disrespectful to the Dead.
The cemetery gates are locked but the watchman is a local tailor and his shop is nearby. If you hang around the gate for a few minutes, he will magically appear with a key. Not magically, but then word spreads fast enough and he comes there in a few minutes if he is free.
Locally called “Mahimai mikundha Madha Kovil” meaning the house of the powerful mother, this church is supposed to be older than Velankanni Church, which is one of the most important churches in India. There is a story of how a log was fished out from the sea and a woodcutter went blind because he struck the log. upon praying ot the log later his eyesight was restored. The log with vague detailing of Mother Mary holding Christ later became the idol here.
This was very interesting to see as it is very similar to stories of Svayambhu perumal or Svayambhu Lingam at Hindu temples. Svayam means by itself and Svayambhu means that the idol appeared by itself (through force of nature and was not man made). The basement is the real Church and the first floor is a prayer hall. It wasalos very interesting to see a lot of practices here that you would associate with a Hindu temple. Dwajasthamb had golden plates and people had tyed Thottil (mini cribs) around it to pray for a child.
Though there are buses to Pazhaverkadu through Retteri and Red hills, it is better to travel by car. It will take between 2-4hours one way depending on the time of the day. Leave Chennai by 7 AM to enjoy a day’s outing.
Food & Water:
Pulicat is a paradise for Non-vegetarians and sea food lovers for you get fresh catch cooked in front of you. But vegetarians will find nothing to eat. Please take a picnic lunch from Chennai and carry atleast 2-3 litres of water per person if you go in the summer – especially if you plan to go boating or play in the beach
Apart from sea food items, the must buy items at Pulicat are Palm Leaf products. Do visit the cooperative society here to pick up some lovely yet very inexpensive palm leaf boxes, bags, pouches and rattles. The ladies are skilled in boh thaduku mudhical and kannu mudichal and can quickly whip up bags and boxes. I used the Palm leaf beads that they made in my June ABS Art Bead Necklace here. Mr Chelgavarayan Secretary or Mrs. Kokila the caretaker here also take special orders. If there is an order in Progress, you can see the artisans at work and interact with them too.
Address: Pulicat Women Palm Leaf, Cane and Bamboo and Allied Products Workers Industrial Co-operative Society., IND 393, Pulicat, Thiruvallur district, Tamil Nadu
The Dutch set up their headquaters here at Pazhaverkadu – intially known as Palaya Kadu (old forest) not to export spices but to export cloth. The weavers here and at Armagaon (Durgarayapatnam) about 50 km north of Pulicat used to weave a rough checked fabric that was often used for Lungis. Later when Francis Day, toured Madaraspatinam and its neighbouring areas, he was not just impressed by the hand printed Chintz and blue morees but also the colourful Checks and plaids. The British later called this fabric the RMHK – Real Madras HandKerchief and that in its later avatar became the bleeding madras or Madras Checks. Read more about it in the Madras Musings post by Sabita Radhakrishnan here.
We often travel all over the world looking for history, culture and exposure but we fail to notice what is there in our own backyard. So this year, enjoy your summer by taking short picnics around your city and knowing more about local culture.
I hope you found it interesting