Just the other day, after yet another singularly joyless ride through what is most injudiciously called a Highway, i fondly remembered another road : Smooth as silk . Two laned. Well paved kerbs, road markings in reflective paint, unbroken lines of cats-eyes, orderly bus bays and pretty shelters. Emergency- call phone kiosks every 3 kms, round the clock security patrolling , quick and efficient toll plazas, beautiful flowerbeds at "view point" halts. Trauma care and towing services at ever-ready mode. Sections of the highway, straight as arrows, looking like airport runways at night. A wonderful beach running alongside, throughout. No, this is not in some videshi postcard. The road, named ECR Scenic Beachway, part of SH 49, is very much in our own dravidian soil. From Chennai to Cuddalore via Puducheri ( Pondicherry), along the Bay Of Bengal coastline.
We lived in Chennai at the time this East Coast Road was still new. One trip was all it took us to get besotted with it ! The enchantment was so bad that my son and i would drive along ECR every weekend with no destination in mind, just for the pleasure of driving on such a wonderful road.In the Republic of Perpetual PotHoles , here was a road that fairly tom-tommed: "Yes, We Can ".
The ECR was created in 1998 by linking and upgrading many existing village roads and started collecting toll from 2002, after improvement work on the 114Km. stretch (now called Scenic Beachway)was completed.
During our aimless drives, we sometimes got down here and there to see this or that. And there's plenty to see on that road. Some already existing before the appearance of ECR, others having mushroomed soon after . Here's a list of some places that impressed me ; in no particular order.
The Crocodile Bank and Herpetology Reasearch Center. This facility was started to save and propagate endangered Muggers ( marsh crocs), Gharial ( Gangetic crocs.) and Salt Water Crocs. in 1976 by Romulus Whitaker. Later, the bank included turtles,snakes and monitor lizards too. It now has a CrocBank for surplus eggs and young ones produced here, that are sold to breeding centres and zoos across the world. All creatures are housed in enclosures that closely resemble their natural habitat. While educating and spreading awareness about reptiles, the center also has some activities to attract visitors ( for a fee, ofcourse): You can get photographed with the young crocs. Watch puppet shows by village kids. Take a night safari. Watch venom being extracted. Or Feed the crocs. This last is something i have seen only once ; but it was enough to put me off that "Activity" for life. I know Crocodiles cannot live on soup and salad,they need to be fed rats and such other creatures. No quarrel there. But i just could not cope with the fact that throwing a live little wriggling mouse into a mugger's mouth was billed as a photo-op, some sort of amusement ,with people actually lining up eagerly for the tickets .I wish they had changed the menu to dead fish, so that it would've seemed less like a Roman bloodsport.
( mugger awaiting food)
Cholamandalam Artists Village: It is the largest Artists Commune in India. A beautiful little hamlet on the beach , the very location is enough to get creative juices flowing, where artists can abandon themselves to their muse, unpressurised by the demands of mundane life .It was started in 1966 by the renowned artist , KCS Panikker and it nurtured what is now known in the art world as The Madras Movement .(Famous Names like Adimoolam, SG Vasudev, Nandagopal, K.Ramanujam....) The central idea was for artists to make handicrafts for a living and pursue art in leisure, so that the commune functions as a self sufficiant co-operative unit. (They were the first to popularise Batik painting in India.) It started out as a avant garde , bohemian commune, the artists living in rustic dwellings close to nature in Injambakkam, far from city life, with their works of art ( painting, sculptures, installations) scattered all over. But today , the City has crept closer( with a Spencer's Supermart bang next to it). The romantic village has progressed into a prosaic township, there's a museum of contemporary art, guest houses etc. But it has not lost its soul. Yet.
a book about the commune
Kovalam ( Covelong): not to be confused with the Kovalam of Kerala. This is a small fishing village, once a port of the Nawabs of Carnatic. In 1746, the port was claimed by the French, only to be sacked and destroyed by Clive in 1752. The Dutch, who had wandered in India briefly, had left a fort here. Now 'Taj Fisherman's Cove', a starred beach resort, stands on the premises of that fallen fort. The beach is ideal for catamaran rides and offers wind surfing.
Once, while staying in that resort, i was astonished to find that a native fisherman , trying to sell visitors some pretty cowries, was fluent in French, German and Russian in addition to English, Hindi and native Tamil . And holding up his old cut off jeans was a fraying belt sporting the YSL logo ! I din't pry, but could make out that some of the wares he was showing the firangis were definitely not cowries...........
Dakshinachitra : a living museum for south indian culture. Old, disused traditional houses of different communities from the 4 southern states, have been translocated and restored in this beautiful setting amidst palm trees and green meadows. It is run as a non- profit community service organisation by the Madras Crafts Foundation to preserve and highlight forgotten cultural idioms in crafts, performing arts,food, music etc.The reception area is designed by the legendary Laurie Baker and bears his signature building techniques.
Each traditional house is a minor lesson in social history. We understand so much about the way of life of the past inhabitants by looking at the room arrangements , household things and implements . The all-wood house from Kerala has so much 'character' while the all-stone hutment from North Karnataka speaks volumes about the hardships the inhabitants endure.
Village craftsmen frequently hold demonstrations of their craft here- basketry, pottery, banglemaking,weaving etc. Traditionally attired old ladies are at hand to show their talents : Rangoli, kasuti embroidery, flower weaving, creating palm leaf decorations and other household arts that are dying out in larger cities.
My daughter once tried her hand at grinding flour in the traditional flat stone mill , with much help from an "aachi". Only to give up after just two (- huff-puff-) rounds ! Women needed to be strong as an ox to contend with kitchens and barns of yore !
( kanchipuram house courtyard)
Boat Houses : one at Muttukadu and one at Mudaliarkuppam : run by State Govt. they offer rowing, wind surfing, water skiing, and speedboat riding on the brilliant blue backwaters. But its more lovely to watch the boats than to actually ride in any.
Mayajaal : a nifty , sprawling , fully airconditioned indoor amusement park which draws youngsters from hot and humid Chennai, in droves. There's a bowling alley, arcade games, movie theatres, food court et al. Good for time pass.
Mahabalipuram : Deserves a 4 part Serial Post. Maybe sometime later.
VGP Universal Kingdom : the very first amusement Park in Tamil Nadu. Still growing and still going strong, inspite of half a dozen other such parks springing up along the same ECR. Comes with its own private beach. Brain child of the VGP Group (which popularised the concept of Instalment Patyments for consumer goods in India.) The vision was to bring a 'disneyland' to Indian kids. The famous, immobile Statue Man who stands at the entrance is a much loved ( and much pestered) icon. I have always wondered how much they pay him.
Attractions include any number of rides, a recreated Chozha Fort, sculptural fountains, an aquarium, a Jurassic Park, an animated dolls museum, food courts and toytrains. I like the 3 ft. long Family Dosa the beachside restaurant serves. Its fun to watch the posse of bearers carrying it to the table carefully.
Adventure Shows ( realistic recreation of movie stunts) from abroad are also invited to play here periodically. And ofcourse, there's always some movie shooting or the other going on.
No wonder the Kingdom is jam packed and bursting at its seams every weekend. Definitely a place to avoid on holidays if you wish to retain sanity !
Karneshwara Temple : Close to the Toll Plaza on the Puducheri side, within Pudukuppam village limits stands a beautiful pyramid, close to the sea, surrounded by open land spotted with saplings, oriented towards the magnetic north. It is a temple dedicated to Siva Nataraja. And the Karna who built it is Dr. Karan Singh, prince of Kashmir ,the most cultured and gracious MP we have ever had. Though there is an idol of Nataraja inside, no ritualistic worship is done as this temple was built solely for the purpose of Dhyana, bringing together the mysticism of the pyramid shape and the occult aspects of the divine dance.
The first time we saw this temple was barely a year before the deadly Tsunami. It was a translucent fibre glass structure then and at dusk, illuminated from within, it glowed like an ethereal gem. The only sound was the swoosh of the waves pounding the sand close by. It was an unforgettable experience.
Then came the Tsunami and washed that pyramid away totally. It has now been rebuilt with Compressed Stabilised Earth Blocks and Stabilised Earth Concrete that are said to be disaster proof. There's a mechanised sliding door that seals in the idol for safety. There's a more solid RC podium. The present structure was designed and executed by Auroville Earth Institute and the measurements comply with certain mystic numbers as given by The Mother of Pondicherry. The place is used for satsangs and prayer meetings of Aurovillians and likeminded societies. People like me can just go for gawking.
( Pyramid Nataraja temple : Before Tsunami )
( Karneshwara now )- pic. courtsey : Auroville Earth Institute.
Salt Pans of Marakkanam: Towards the end of the scenic beachway, near Marakkanam, the lanscape on the opposite side of the beach is dominated by hundreds of glistening white hillocks, for miles. Like a toyland recreation of the himalayan peaks ! These are the salt pans where the backwater is flooded into sandy troughs, left to dry up in the baking sun, and then turned and washed repeatedly till pure white crystalline salt is formed. This is swept together as hillocks, sometimes covered with colourful tarpauline sheets , to await the lorries that will cart them away to the market. On sunny days, the landscape is truly dazzling, with bright blue sky and blinding white mounds . And labouring on them, ebony skinned men and women in the brightest coloured lungis and sarees...................watch for five minutes to realise how much work goes into that pinch of salt we toss into the pot so thoughtlessly. They are truly the salt of the earth.
Village Temples : While on one side of the road the scene is pretty constant with casurina groves, sand and blue-grey sea, the other side has more colour. Fields, with their avian accessories, the egrets. And village temples, with the brightly painted giant Ayyanars or Veerans ( guardian deities) and clay horses. And shiny, rainbow hued fiberglass fishing boats, stacked for sale or parked for the day. On a lucky day, one can see a merry, boistrous festival too.
All pictures ( except "Karneswara now") : By Son.