Chennai: Anyone who heads to Pazhaverkadu, on the north-eastern tip of Tamil Nadu, has probably gone there to see wintering flamingoes or to jump on a boat for a ride around Pulicat, a large, brackish water lake in the middle of which is Sriharikota island, which houses India’s satellite launch centre.
Few arrive at this fishing hamlet to admire two towering obelisks, a ruined fort blanketed by large thorny bushes and Dutch-style buildings with amber-coloured walls on an old market road—vestiges of a former Dutch colony.
But the Netherlands embassy in India is hoping to make its voice heard amid the much more familiar din of English colonial history by polishing its stamp on old trading ports such as Pulicat and Sadras in Tamil Nadu.
“History students and writers rely on English records, but because of the language barrier related to Dutch reports, people don’t know much about the Dutch period in India,” says Mohammed Afzal of the Dutch embassy in New Delhi. “The built heritage has to be restored to revive the story.”
Nearly 400 years after the Dutch East India Company arrived on India’s eastern Coromandel coast, the embassy of the Netherlands in India is unearthing its buried past by backing the documentation of former trade ports in Tamil Nadu and eyeing the restoration of structures such as the graveyard in Pulicat. But the jury is still out on whether this five-year Rs20 lakh to Rs2 crore project, which includes digitizing historical Dutch documents in the possession of the Tamil Nadu archives, will resurrect this ailing port as a place of historical importance.
“Obviously, the English records are significant for the post-1800 period,” says Sanjay Subrahmanyam, a California-based academic noted for his grasp of South Asian history. “Very few people are interested in pre-1800 history, which is when the Dutch had their hold. It waits to be seen if the current efforts are a serious exercise in nostalgia.”
For more than 2,000 years, Pulicat reigned as a prosperous port under various empires such as the Pallavas, the Cholas and the Vijayanagara kingdoms, before it became a Portuguese trading post in the 16th century. The Dutch followed 100 years later and went on to take over the profitable textile businesses that inspired the “Madras” pattern and also spurred the less-publicized slave trade in the region after crowning Pulicat (then Pallaicatta) as their capital.
“Today, we say the world has become smaller, but trade existed and ideas spread for more than 2,000 years,” says S. Anwar, a Chennai-based documentary film-maker who has also been studying the Pulicat and Sadras architectural heritage. “The question is whether Pulicat’s pauperized economy will get a boost from current efforts.” After the defeat of the Dutch by the English in the late 18th century, the former textile capital shrunk to being a health resort for the British population. The once-booming port city, which also housed a gunpowder factory, has over three centuries withered into a fishing village struggling with a dwindling catch and comprises pockets of the descendants of Arab families whose ancestors travelled to India after being exiled by their rulers, besides Hindu and Muslim fisherfolk and poverty-stricken boat builders.
But tourism revenue is being stoked by the Dutch embassy that last year released a book on Pulicat through a Chennai-based architecture firm. This is part of efforts by the Netherlands that started in 2009 in former Dutch colonies such as India, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Indonesia, Surinam, Brazil and Russia.
“We understand the interest of the Dutch in these monuments as few of them remain, because most of their buildings were destroyed by the British,” says Sathyabhama Badreenath, who oversees the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) Chennai circle. “The problem in our country is surfeit of heritage.”
ASI, which battles to maintain nearly 3,650 national monuments, oversees the Pulicat cemetery with 77 tombs—a majority being those of Dutch colonisers along with some British ones—and the Dutch fort at Sadras, a town in Kanchipuram district that is close to the Kalpakkam nuclear plant near Chennai.
While private support to restore monuments is welcome, a foreign government’s overtures to clean up a shared heritage requires support from the ministry of external affairs, which could depend on bureaucratic whim.
At sundown, the cemetery turns into a “local pub”, as one visitor put it, and during the day, it is common to see young boys huddling under some of the dome-shaped tombs listening to loud film music on their cellphones. Animal waste and litter are liberally distributed around the gravesites.
“We are hoping to indirectly influence the locals to stop abusing historical monuments in Pulicat,” says Xavier Benedict of Anameka Architects and Designers, which received funding from the Netherlands embassy for the 85-page pictorial account of Pulicat and Sadras history released last year.
Tourism may just be that catalyst. In March, a group of 40 employees from the Chennai office of Netherlands-based logistics group TNT Express descended on Pulicat for a weekend tour of the Dutch heritage sites as well as a boat ride in the lagoon.
And for over a year, ecoLogin, a Chennai-based travel service with a rural tourism focus, has ferried families from the Tamil Nadu capital to Pulicat, marketing it as a place of historical and natural beauty.
One of the stops on ecoLogin’s Pulicat tour is the embassy-supported interpretation centre that highlights maps, structures and Dutch influence in Pulicat and Sadras.
Fisherman Sevith Kumar has been one of the beneficiaries of the tourism trickle. Even two years ago, Kumar struggled with a loss in income from a dip in the prawn and fish catch in the lagoon because of intensive fishing.
“There’s no guarantee of a good catch,” Kumar, a gaunt 28-year-old, says in Tamil. “I could haul in a catch worth Rs100, Rs200 or even nothing.”
But last year, Kumar set out with his boat across the lagoon, ferrying tourists keen on sighting sea eagles, plovers, gulls and egrets before breakfasting on a neighbouring island.
With each ride fetching Rs500 and some more for the food his family cooks for the guests, life is getting a little less precarious. The TNT employee group was one of those he took out on tour in March.
“Quite frankly, the Dutch buildings are not spectacular, especially when you see that we are in the land of Taj Mahal,” says the Dutch embassy’s Afzal. “But we hope to revive the Netherlands’ economic history with India by putting small places like Pulicat on India’s tourist map.”