Once a Bustling Seaport, then a Dutch Capital, and Now an Outlying Town on the Seashore – Pulicat

There stands a lake, more precisely, India’s second largest saltwater lake. And there is a town, marginalized, outlying, remote. Reaching its gateway, one will never be overwhelmed. To our naked eye, it will just be another small town on the seashore, or ‘mofussil’, as we call in our own Indian dialect. But, what lies beyond its utmost simplicity, is bound to fascinate the inquisitive traveler.

Pulicat is the name of both, the lake as well as the town that lies on its shore. Being India’s second largest saltwater lake and also because of the fact that, Sriharikota Island is situated in the middle, which houses Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Pulicat lake itself is quite known to people, but not its namesake town. Its real identity, however, exists in its rich history, from ancient to colonial, large part of which is now forgotten. Geographically located in Thiruvallur district of Tamil Nadu, Pulicat had carefully nurtured that chapter for generations, where few millennia just go hand in hand.

The only visible representation from that era that is now can be seen in Pulicat is a Dutch cemetery which stands next to the bus stop. As per records, it is an ASI-protected monumental area on papers but in reality, one should not expect anything clean and well-maintained. Even the keys of the gate locks are kept in an adjacent shop and the shop owner himself becomes the guide whenever a tourist comes to see the place, that too on a rare occasion. There are twenty two graves of Dutch in total in the cemetery. Most of the people who had been lying there for hundreds of years, are mostly sailors, merchants and people serving in the erstwhile Dutch administration. This cemetery is numbered 197 in ASI’s ‘Alphabetical List of Monuments – Tamil Nadu’, which was published in 2008.

Pulicat had served as capital of Dutch Coromandel on two terms, first from 1608 (around when Dutch set their foot here for the first time) to 1690, and then during the fading years of Dutch rule, from 1781 to 1825, after which it was transferred to British, marking the end of Dutch rule in India. According to ASI reports and other sources, Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compaigne or VOC, as in original Dutch language) established a fortress here in Pulicat, which was dubbed Fort Geldria. In the ASI list of 2008 mentioned earlier, monument category at 197 is also mentioned as ‘Fort and Cemetery’. According to the first volume of ‘The Cambridge History of India’, published by University Press and edited by British numismatist, philologist and professor of Sanskrit Dr. Edward James Rapson in 1922, there were only trading posts at other places where Dutch trade took place, like Nagapattinam, Bheemunipatnam (present-day Bheemilipatnam), Masulipatnam (present-day Machilipatnam, where the first factory was set up by VOC), Nizampatnam, Sadras, but Fort Geldria was an well-equipped and well-protected fortress itself. So, according to Rapson, Geldria was the only fortification in Dutch Coromandel. However, forts were also constructed in Nagapattinam, Bheemunipatnam and Sadras, of which Sadras Fort still stands unscathed. Fort Geldria was obviously the first ever fortification, if not only, by Dutch East India Company, who established it in 1613. The fort cannot be seen anywhere now, except as a map, inscribed on the tombstone of a certain Abraham Mendsis. One can still notice the location of the fort in the middle of the trees, along with lotus flowers in the moat and army barracks at one side. Geldria was named after the native province of Wemmer van Berchem, the then General Director of Dutch East India Company.

Reading so far, one can assume that Pulicat is only a witness to Dutch colonial history. But as per historical data available so far, evidences has been found up to about 300 BC. It is known that from 300 BC to 300 AD, i.e. for six hundred years, this area, this region was a part of ancient ‘Tamilakam’, that covers present-day Tamil Nadu, the whole of Kerala, parts of Karnataka and southern parts of Andhra Pradesh and during this period, it was ruled by three ancient Tamil kingdoms – Adi Chola, Adi pandya and Sangam Cher. The three-parted Sangam literature written during this period, serves as one of the most important sources of history of Tamilakam. There is no literary work available from First Sangam, which was believed to be arranged in what we call Madurai today and attended by Gods and sages. The Second Sangam is believed to get originated in a certain place called Kapatpuram (believed to be a part of now submerged landmass ‘Kumari Kandam’), which may be ‘Kabatpuram’, as pronounced by Ramayana-character Sugriva and also in ‘Arthashastra’ of Kautilya. The Third Sangam, according to P. T. Srinivas Ayengar, lasted for about eighteen hundred and fifty years. Pulicat had been referred to as ‘Vadugar Munai’ in Sangam literature, which literally means ‘Northerners’ end’. From this information, it can be understood that, border of Tamilakam extended as far north as Pulicat.

Besides regional literature, Pulicat was also mentioned in numerous foreign accounts from that period. ‘Periplus of the Erythraean Sea’, the book written by an unknown Greek sailor in the middle of the 1st century AD and Ptolemy’s list of ancient Indian seaports include ‘Podouke’ as a port on the eastern coast of India. On this note, American bead-expert Peter Francis Jr. writes, that in 1879, British classical scholar John Watson McCrindle suggested that Podouke was present-day Pondicherry or Puducherry but two orientalists of his time, one Norwegian-born, Christian Lassen and the other Scottish, Sir Henry Yule, both inferred that Podouke was actually Pulicat. Reference of a Pulicat-like port had also been found in the writings of Greek geographer-philosopher Strabo as well as Roman sailor Pliny. In Ptolemy’s list, Podouke had been listed as an ‘Emporion’. The word ‘emporion’ comes from the Greek word ‘emporos’ which means ‘merchant’. It becomes very clear that, Pulicat had emerged as an important commercial port of South India at that time. It also hints at the monopoly trade of spices between South India and Roman-governed Central Asian countries, prevalent during that period.

From 3rd century AD, Pulicat came under the rule of Pallava kingdom, which lasted for over six hundred years. During this period, Pulicat was called ‘Mamallapatnam’. ‘Mamalla’ was the title that was used to be conferred upon the Pallava emperors at the time of their coronation and ‘patnam’ or ‘pattinam’ refers to a coastal town, suitable for the construction of a seaport. Besides ‘patnam’, inclusion of ‘Mamalla’ in the name also suggests Pulicat’s importance as a port. After Pallavas, it was time for the Cholas. During the reign of two famous Chola Kings, Rajaraja Chola I and his son, Rajendra Chola I, the empire ascended its pinnacle of prosperity. According to historian Dr. Jayapaul Azariah, there was a temple built during the reign of the latter, in Thirupalaivanam, which is some kilometers from Pulicat. The temple, with seventy inscriptions engraved on its wall, is dedicated to Swayambhu Lingaswamy. Out of these seventy inscriptions, under inscriptions 315, 322 and 323, there is mention of three names, sound very close to Pulicat. The names are ‘Paliyur Kottam’, ‘Pular Kottam’ and ‘Pulal Kottam’ respectively. ‘Kottam’ was a smaller provincial division of the Chola administration. Several Kottams constituted to form one ‘Vadanadu’, and cluster of several Vadanadus formed a ‘Mandalam’, which was the highest territorial divisions of Chola state. At the height of the empire, there were nine mandalams, extended as far as present day Sri Lanka. Two core mandalams were Chola-mandalam and Jayangondachola-mandalam. One source claims that, this coastal region got its name ‘Coromandalam’ or ‘Coromandel’ from ‘Cholamandalam’. On this note, it can be assumed that, Pulicat was a harbor town of Chola Empire.

After Cholas, the most prominent kingdom that ruled Pulicat was Vijayanagara Kingdom. Chola rule ended in late 13th century AD, and Vijayanagara Empire was established in late 14th century. Administration of Pulicat was governed by Sufi and Sunni Muslims in between, who had reached here all the way from Arabia. Still there reside some families who speak Arabic. Harihara Raya I and Bukka Raya I (two brothers famously known as ‘Hukka-Bukka’) of Sangam dynasty (not connected to the ancient Sangam) established the Vijayanagara Kingdom in 1366, and during their reign, another name emerged for Pulicat and that was ‘Pralaya Kaveri’. This name may be attributed to the importance of river Kaveri in South Indian traditions, but Kaveri is nowhere near Pulicat now. Two rivers that flow in north and south of the lake are Kalangi and Arani, respectively. In that context, the possible theory of Kaveri flowing in this region of Northern Tamil Nadu six hundred and fifty years ago, may get hypothesized.

The name, however, had changed repeatedly during Vijayanagara rule. It was named ‘Anandarayan Patnam’ in 1422, in the name of Ananda Raya, who was appointed the governor of Pulicat by Dev Raya II. Hundred years later, it was again named ‘Palaverkadu’ during Krishna Dev Raya’s reign. At this point of time, Pulicat developed enormously as a harbor city, thanks to a better communication system established with Vijayanagara Empire. By that time, the population reached as high as fifty thousand. According to historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Coromandel Coast was famous for silk and cotton industry, and from Anandarayan Pattinam, these materials were exported to Burma (present day Myanmar) and Malay (areas of Malay Peninsula) via merchant and cargo ships. Besides cotton, gemstone cutting and polishing became another highly profitable business in Pulicat. As per information given in ‘Encyclopedia of Historiography’ by M. M. Rahman, diamonds, sapphires and rubies were mostly imported from Deccan, Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka), Pegu of Burma (present day Bago).

Vijayanagara Kingdom was destroyed by Bahmani Sultans in 1565 at the Battle of Talikota where act-in ruler Aliya Rama Raya was defeated because of betrayal by his own Muslim Generals. Aliya Rama Raya was immediately beheaded by the attacking enemies, and that incident created confusion and havoc among the stronger Vijayanagara army. Capital Hampi was left to ruins by the attackers. Following that, capital was shifted to Penukonda by the next king Tirumala Deva Raya of Aravidu dynasty. He attempted to rebuild the lost repute, but did not rule for long as he became more inclined to religious practices, which led him to divide the kingdom among his three sons in 1572. The eldest one, Sriranga Dev Raya I got the governance of Telugu country, under which fell Palaverkadu and he again named it as ‘Pralaya Kaveri’. Sriranga died heirless, so his younger brother Venkatapathi Raya II, who was the youngest of all three, became the king in 1585. He was given the governance of Tamil country by his father, with Chandragiri its capital. So, he shifted the capital from Penukonda to Chandragiri and then to Vellore. He was able to revive some of the strong administrative measures of Vijayanagara Kingdom, with judiciary strengthened and agriculture developed. It was during his rule, Dutch traders traders started establishing residences at Pulicat. With the permission from his favorite queen Gobburi Obayama, the then ruler of Pulicat, Portuguese Jesuits built a residence and Dutch traders set up factories. Fort Geldria was also constructed with her permission.

Prior to the arrival of Dutch, Portuguese were the first set of Europeans who had already started establishing trading posts in Pulicat since early 16th century. They also constructed a church, dedicated to ‘Our Lady of Joys’ in 1515. But these Portuguese traders, who started their trade privately, carried out banditry on local people as they did not get much aid from the Portuguese headquarters at Goa. Their numbers declined towards the end of 16th century. Dutch arrived first here in 1606, when a small Dutch boat got stranded near Karimanal, a village north of the lake. They started business of local goods with local people. These goods were exported to Dutch East Indies. Another queen of Venkata II, Irabi gave them permission to do trade in this region in 1608. In those early years, they faced staunch opposition from already-trading Portuguese but with help from Venkata II himself in 1611, Portuguese Jesuits and merchants were forced to leave Pulicat. Three years later, following the death of Venkata II, Portuguese tried to capture Pulicat by force but by then, Dutch became much stronger and could easily defeat them. In 1616, Fort Geldria became the government centre of Dutch Coromandel. The fort was regularly protected by a garrison of eighty to ninety armed men. Portuguese tried two more times to get hold of Pulicat, first in 1623 and then in 1633, but never succeeded. They even destroyed two Dutch ships in 1623, but all their efforts went in vain as Dutch army was very well-equipped and strategic. Last Vijayanagara King Sriranga III made an attempt to capture Pulicat but the cunning Dutch sent him enough bribes, thus protecting their seat without any bloodshed. From then on, they ruled without any opposition until the arrival of British in late 18th century.

Pulicat was known as ‘Paliyakatta’ or ‘Palaikatta’ during Dutch rule. Their two hundred-year rule was characterized by trade of local resources as well as subsequent oppression and exploitation of local community. Dutch East India Company mostly relied on exporting different spices like nutmeg, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, black pepper, which are still grown extensively in southern India. They also exported tea, cotton and porcelain. A government mint and a gunpowder factory were set up at Fort Geldria in 1615. But the most lucrative business was exporting of not textiles or spices or gunpowder, but of human beings made of flesh and blood. Every year, about one hundred and fifty to four hundred people were captured and transported to Dutch East Indies as slaves. According to Dr. Wil O. Dijk, between 1621 and 1635, huge number of local people were transported to agricultural plantations in Batavia, the capital of erstwhile Dutch East Indies (present day Jakarta, Indonesia) and the number was over thirty eight thousand. Sound of their wailing might have faded with time, but time never stops, and it is only time that sets the fate of a ruler.

From the beginning of 18th century, British dominance slowly took its place and by middle of the century, British became more powerful than their rivals, French and Dutch. Nagapattinam, which was the second capital of Dutch Coromandel (from 1690 to 1781) was annexed to British India after the allied army of Dutch and Mysore Sultan Hyder Ali suffered heavy defeat in the hands of British. Dutch defeat in 4th Anglo-Dutch War in Europe forced Prince William V of Orange, the last Dutch Stadtholder, to write ‘Kew Letters’ (written from Kew Palace in London, where Prince William was put in exile) to VOC, where it was directed that all Dutch-occupied territories be ceded to British. Pulicat was ultimately taken over in 1825 and subsequently it lost all its importance as Madras was already given the status of British Presidency and was on the verge of development as a modernized port. It is very obvious that it was during British period, the name ‘Pulicat’ was derived from its longer counterpart ‘Paliyakatta’ or ‘Palaikatta’, as British had this habit of shortening longer Indian names (just as ‘Ootacamund’ derived from ‘Udagamandalam’).

Present day Pulicat holds almost no prominent traces of this long history. Beside the Dutch cemetery, a new church has been built a few years back, in the place of the very one built by Portuguese, way back in 1515. So, what is still left then? A short answer will be, something that to be visualized. Well, nature is obviously an attraction here. The pristine lake and the adjacent serene beach are certain to fill the traveler’s soul. And, there are birds. In spite of not being a popular hangout destination, birdwatchers often come here in winter when flocks of Greater Flamingoes, Pelicans, Painted Storks visit the lake on a regular basis. Though major part of the famous Pulicat Lake Bird Sanctuary falls under the state of Andhra Pradesh, some species are seen here, too. No matter what dangers they have to cross every year, they never stop coming, nestling or laying eggs. Who knows, for how long they have been coming here. Like those enslaved people, they might have also fallen victims to the greed of those rulers. Yet, they bear no complaint against anyone. All they have cared about are the adventurous path, the water and the shoal.

Another significant component of Pulicat’s soul is its local life. A Large part of the population depends on fishing and providing boat rides to tourists that seldom come. They are always ready for any help the tourist requires despite the fact that, most of them do not know a second language other than Tamil. Understanding verbal language is difficult for a non-Tamil speaker, but a welcoming smile on their charming faces is good enough to blow away any communication barrier. More interestingly, even if the tourist cannot understand a single word, they keep talking about the place, the lake and the space research centre from the little knowledge they have. They try their best to guide in every possible way, either by drawing on the beach sand or by creating different communicating gestures. Spending some time with them, one is obvious to get the feel that verbal language is only an outer expression, which may not be always important to get closer to someone’s mind. Amidst such brandishing of discrimination even in 21st century India, one will surely get at least some taste of ‘unity in diversity’ here. Thus, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the real charm of Pulicat is not within its dead and forgotten history, but rooted in these birds, these simple folks.

And of course, it is within the lake itself, too. From ancient times to medieval prosperity, from colonial exploitation to declined importance, she had witnessed everything. Perhaps she goes on telling those stories, every day, only we do not have time to listen her.

-Soham Das (One of the Prize Winners of Article Writing Competition 2020 in the 25-44 Years Age Group)

Picture Credits:


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