Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Beaches of Chennai

In beaches across the world, you will find rows of people sunning themselves or children swimming in the shallow waters. The beach scene in India and Chennai in specific is quite different. Other than fisherfolk who live along the coast and make a living from the sea, the beaches are predominantly the haunt of the leisure seeker.

Fitness conscious citizens arrive early in the morning to watch the sun rise while burning off calories walking, jogging or even running on the beach. Yoga is also practiced here and sometimes, you find members of a Laughing Club guffawing away stress. Stalls with makeshift tables hawking freshly made juices and wellness products open at the crack of dawn. On Sunday mornings, much cricket is played on the vast sandy expanse. On January 1 every year, people arrive at the beach nearest to them, to watch the first sunrise of the year.

Evenings on the beach are a respite from the fierce heat of the day in this part of India, more so in the summer months when daytime temperatures exceed a scorching 40 degrees Celsius. Tourists, families, courting couples, newly weds and groups of friends descend on the beach to revel in the evening breeze on their skin and the waves caressing their toes. Children are given free rein to run about as a respite from being cooped up at home. Small businessmen use the beach as a convenient meeting point with their contacts.

The beaches in Chennai are incomplete without the hawkers - as is any beach visit without a snack. Some beaches have stalls of vendors selling anything from vegetable fritters to tender coconut water. There are also mobile vendors of ice cream, and sellers of murukku (a spiral-shaped crisp) and the ubiquitous sundal (a tossed salad of boiled yellow peas, coconut shavings, pieces of raw green mango and finely chopped green chillies and coriander leaves).

Here’s a whistle-stop introduction to the popular beaches of Chennai.

Marina Beach

The Marina Beach is the most popular beach in Chennai and allegedly the second longest urban beach in the world. It is a 12-km long stretch between Fort St. George and Besant Nagar. A series of buildings line Kamaraj Road that runs along the Marina Beach – the Police Commissioner’s office, the University Buildings, Presidency College, the Public Works Department office, the Vivekananda House (Ice House) - all harkening back to a bygone era. The credit for creating and naming the Marina stretch goes to Governor Mounstuart Elphinstone Grant-Duff in the 1880s.

When you cross Kamaraj Road, you are greeted by a stretch of garden and then an inner access road. There is a wide buffer of sand between the inner access road and the sea. Statues of those who’ve contributed to Tamil culture and literature dot the promenade, the most famous being ‘Triumph of Labour’ by Debi Prasad Roy Chowdhury at the T-intersection of Kamaraj Road and Dr. Radhakrishnan Road. There are also memorials built for former Chief Ministers of Tamil Nadu, C.N. Annadurai and M.G.Ramachandran. Seerani Arangam is a section of the Marina Beach allocated purely for public functions and political rallies.

Elliot’s Beach

Elliot’s Beach in Besant Nagar used to be the hangout of those living in the locality and the means of livelihood for the fisherfolk. However, as the city inevitably expanded, Elliot’s Beach became an overnight alternative to the Marina Beach. The Schmidt Memorial stands on this beach and there are two shrines along this stretch – the Ashtalakshmi Temple and the Velankanni Church (not to be confused with the shrine of the same name near Nagapattinam). The streets leading to the beach have a plethora of eateries to feed consumers of all strata.

Thiruvanmiyur & Valmiki Nagar

Thiruvanmiyur lies beyond Adyar and Besant Nagar in South Chennai. From Thiruvanmiyur begins the East Coast Road - a highway to reach other coastal towns like Mahabalipuram and Pondicherry. The locality, along with Valmiki Nagar and Kottivakkam nearby, have a stretch of beach that is more peaceful than Marina or the Besant Nagar Beach. There are fewer vendors here, and the beach is frequented mainly by those living nearby. This stretch does tend to get lonely later in the night although lighting has been provided in some parts for the safety of the beach-goers.

Beyond Kottivakkam, beaches like Covelong, are relatively unspoilt. Farmhouses, weekend homes and beach resorts line this stretch. While the concept of a private beach doesn’t exist, the houses and resorts along the coast have easier access to the beach than those traveling along the highway.

If you go further down the East Coast Road, you will reach the towns of Mahabalipuram and Pondicherry with their own beaches, promenades and sights. The entire coast is perhaps best remembered for the tsunami that hit South East Asia in December 2004. Chennai and its neighbouring coastal region, being at the tip of an outcrop of land along the Bay of Bengal, suffered the loss of many lives and livelihoods. However, life along the coast limped back to normal - villages were rebuilt, fisherfolk ventured out on new boats and the general population overcame its fear and returned to the beach.

A word of caution: There are strong undercurrents in the Bay of Bengal. While life guards are available in some beaches, it may be better to exercise caution while trying to swim in the sea.

(An edited version was published in the February 2008 issue of 'At A Glance')

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