Update: As of now, confirmed corona cases in India crossed 150 with two dead.
Chennaiites continue to go out and shop and socialize in restaurants not heeding to round-the-clock warnings by government in tv channels and in phone messages advising the public to maintain social distancing to discourage the spread of Covid 19 in India. All the medical advice seems to fall on deaf ears. God knows what is in store for India in the coming weeks. Well, by the way our temples are still functional drawing devotees by hordes who are undeterred by the corona virus. You simply cannot reason with these people. A friend is determined to visit Tirupathi saying, ‘if it has to happen, it will happen!’
However schools (except for board exam candidates) and universities and anganwadis (creches run by municipal authorities) remain closed. Also all fitness centers, swimming pools, clubs. Most IT staff work from home and banks are encouraged to deal with clients online or via phone. Man-to-man contact is tried to be kept minimum. There was a media report claiming that the vegetable and the fruit wholesale markets of the city are shut. Not sure how far this is true as there is no news in local tv channel confirming the same. Petty hawkers and small traders are already hit, no doubt, but what to do.
Crowds are milling as ever at T. Nagar, the middle-class shopping district of the metro , and Saravana Stores is doing brisk business in their nine floors saying, the ban is applicable only to malls and cinemas and not to smaller establishments like proprietary stores. Trains and buses are full as usual. I finished my fifteen day grocery shopping yesterday and stocked my fridge to full capacity. I missed getting only long life milk as I have fresh regular supply at doorstep. Other than that, I am fully equipped for even a one month complete social distancing and house arrest, should need arise. Last noon, I shopped only for most essential items and topped up my medical supplies from pharmacists. Still, I could not find a single face mask N95 for protection on leaving home. I did with a chemist, but he quoted an exorbitant price so I ordered the same online. Same for hand sanitizer so I got handwash instead.
The fate of my nation and my state and my city have me worried. I don’t want to panic but it is impossible not to think about this when there is so much of ignorance even among the educated here. Government should penalize the private showrooms selling textiles and merchandise like in T Nagar, Anna Nagar etc., who do not have a concern for the greatest catastrophe that is waiting to strike India if we don’t stay alert. Profiteering even at trying times like these. If the system collapses, none of us stands a chance but who cares.
I would like my government to enforce rules and regulations more severely and strictly, restricting movements.
I understand that with a population of 1.3 billion, India’s medical facilities are already on the verge of being stretched to full capacity. I am told, testing is done on priority basis only because the testing kits and supplies are also limited. No use in blaming the government that is increasing production of masks, sanitizers, testing kits, antibiotics, everything, all at the same time. Hats off to our medical fraternity who are working twenty four hours nonstop and to Modi government and our respective state governments for all that they are doing in their capacity to keep the nation going. God be with you!
My only visitor is my housemaid who lives in my next street. I have educated her on sanitizing. Her two college going kids are home and her labourer husband has to still find a job everyday, so that is precisely India’s problem. The lower middle-class. Daily wage earners. Most of them have to necessarily work every single day to earn the bread for their family. I tried to convince my autowallah to take a break yesterday but he refused. At last he obliged and came to a compromise saying that he would tie a cloth towel over his mouth. He has to necessarily work from morning 8 to evening 8 to keep his kitchen fires going. I can understand his situation perfectly but there is no way I could drill into him the precarious nature and condition of Covid 19. As every other Indian citizen/Chennaiite, my automan believes the corona virus will bypass him or he would survive it anyway even if it strikes. To him, it is like any other flu. He can’t understand what the fuss is all about.
Under these circumstances, all I can do is only pray. Pray, pray and pray.
Mahabalipuram aka Mamallapuram, mere 45 km from city, is city as well. Almost. The city expands upto here and further. In fact, the metrorail may be plying upto the sun-kissed dusty town in near future. Still Mahabalipuram is of Kanjivaram district I suppose for administrative reasons. Situated on the ECR (East Coast Road) enroute to Pondicherry (now Puducherry), the historic seaside maritime port is millennia old, having been a trading center for Tamils for centuries. More than six rock cut Pallava period Dravidian architecture temples here have been washed out into the sea from the shore. What remains as the Shore temple is from the 7th century CE. The Pancha Pandava Rathas, Arjuna’s Tapas all in the rock carvings (the Pandav chariot and the Arjuna tapas cave carved out of single rock formation) point to the existence and flourishing of a vibrant Hindu culture and art in the southern state from over two thousand years before. The Chinese and Romans were regulars trading with this part of India which is why there are Chinese figurines carved into cave temples in Mamallapuram.
This is the reason President Xi probably chose the scenic Mamallapuram for his informal rendezvous with Indian PM Shri Narendra Modi. Xi insisted on taking road to Mamallapuram from airport, turning down aerial transport because he apparently wanted to see this part of the country with his own eyes. I won’t say Chennai is beautiful but I would any day vouch Chennai has this ‘lakshanam’ – auspiciousness about it. Chennai does not have a soaring skyline like Noida or Bangalore or Mumbai and neither is Chennai swanky like Pune or Chandigarh or even curious and classy like Hyderabad or Delhi… Chennai is like one big overgrown village that’s all. It grows on you as and when you live here, never one for making a first and fast impression.
Chennai’s art and culture scene rocks! We could be aptly called the Cultural capital of India. Tamil Nadu is littered with ancient Hindu temples of Dravidian architectural style spreading acres, thousands of them, street to street. The state is a historian/archaeologist’s delight. A month long music season for classical Carnatic is still our annual feature that draws in fans from around the world. Birth place to classical dance form ‘Bharat Natyam.’ Many may not be aware that Kung Fu etc., the martial arts of China had a Hindu-Buddhist founder who originated from Tamil Nadu and migrated to China. While the martial art form died in India, it survived in China. The monk’s name was Bodhi Verman.
Chennai has given to the world not just the Google CEO Sundar Pichai and outgoing World Pepsico CEO Indra Nooyi, but also 3 times world chess champion Vishwanathan Anand to Tennis aces Ramanathan Krishnan (world junior Wimbledon champ of his times) and Ramesh Krishnan and Vijay Amritraj and Anand Amritraj. Chennai has produced Noble laureates and eminent scientists and mathematicians and scholars who have made good at global level. Chennai still keeps a low profile ! The best part that the Tamils have played in history is, being a quiet but stable and reliable and constant rock steady part to the idea of India. And this has nothing to do with our voting preferences. Tamils may not vote for the Congress or BJP over the regional Tamil parties, yet Tamils are most nationalistic by nature, and highly underestimated.
Ancient Hindu and especially Tamil Hindu contribution to the world is amazing. Our forefathers were creators, not destroyers and terrorists. They built huge architectural marvels of temples and universities, not mausoleums. India exported the best to the world, not terror and violence. Tamil society had structured grammar by 3rd century BCE and proper built dams (over Kaveri river that stand goods today, world’s first dam) with literary courts functioning in full flow.
Mamallapuram today stands a witness to this great glorious age of our ancient Hindu Tamil Kings who ran a reign of over 1000=2000 continuous years before their lineage came to an end. Pallava kings raised the Mamallapuram structures that are classified UNESCO World Heritage today. In Tamil Nadu, every street has an ancient temple that could be a world heritage site!
I would say, Tamil Nadu has this calming effect on anyone. Not impressive at the outset. People here are less agitated. I have heard north Indians give this opinion. We don’t have a pleasant climate. We are known for our humidity levels and sweaty weather. Yet Tamil Nadu is rated a good or perhaps the best place to live in or raise your children. One reason is, my state people respect law and order and try to follow it!!! Disciplined. Hardworking. Intelligent. These are the three words I would use to describe Thamizhs.
Mamallapuram to Chennaiites is weekend escape.
The last time I was in Mahabalipuram was just a year back. We girls chose a beach resort to unwind and swim (!) in their private beach closed to public.
The ECR is dotted with entertainment places. Pubs, discotheques, beach resorts, multi-cuisine restaurants that can cater to every taste bud… A pucca party place for the party animals. Pondicherry which is less than 100 km is Union Territory where they don’t levy excise duty on liquor. Hence the weekly drive to Pondy!!!
The ECR is also a very dangerous road to drive – known for drunk driving and accidents. Hundreds of casualty every year. I am never comfortable traveling down this road. Years back, this road had the first drive-in seaside cinemas. I watched the memorable picture ‘Bombay’ here curling up in the ground under the car in a cold month. Now the cinemas is in ruins but lots more different places have become fashionable and trendy spots.
Once upon a time, an uncle of mine owned acres of seaside property here that he later sold away for a pittance. Today this stretch leading upto Pondicherry is gold. I won’t say this is a scenic road – because sea view is hidden in most places by structures that have come up in between the sea and the road. Upto 1 km range of land distance from sea level is not approved by government after the Tsunami struck, but that has not dampened the real estate development. (Real estate growth is lukewarm nevertheless happening).
My first visit to Mahabalipuram was in standard 10 in 1984. ECR was a narrow spiraling road then with just a single lane. Every school girl’s first memorable excursion! I think we did not even own a camera then. We enjoyed the day the way one ought to enjoy outings!
Many Tamil pictures were filmed in this road and in the quaint beach resorts of those days that served as lovers’ secret meeting places.
We still take friends visiting us in Chennai to Mahabalipuram. There is a sculpture school there. Good food. Ideal place to spend a weekend. Luxurious beach villas and resorts. Some theme parks are closed, otherwise even for kids the ECR used to be a great stop. Free flow of liquor. A favourite with foreign tourists. The mix with culture makes it all heady!!! Two more attractions on the road before you reach Mahabalipuram: The Crocodile Bank and Dakshina Chitra (heritage architecture showcase).
Well, never expected our PM Modi to meet the Chinese prez Xi here. Hopefully the two drank in heartily from history. Every time I step into an ancient Hindu temple that is at least 1500 or 2000 years old, I think of the Hindu king who built the magnificent structure. For instance, the Brahadeshwara temple is even earthquake proof! You have to walk through these temples to be transported by the mind’s ‘Time machine’ into virtually another world and age.The Shore temple of Mamallapuram is an abandoned structure, no more a functioning temple. It is a miracle it was not affected by the Tsunami! Whenever I visit Mamallapuram, I picture artisans working on these great sculptures in the vibrant town of the Pallavas. In Brahadeshwara temple of Tanjore, nonstop Puja to Lord Shiva is going on for over 1000 years. Most Hindu temples in India are functional for two thousand years easily minimum. North could have had more but they were razed to dust by the Moghuls who raised their bloody mausoleums over our sacred places of worship.
The Shore temple of Mamallapuram is a rare one in that, Lord Shiva is seen here with family. Nowhere else in India can you see Shiva like a family man – mostly He is represented as Shiva Linga.
In Mamallapuram time does come to a standstill – at least for me. I have been here a dozen times, no more. But every time I step in here, I am drawn to this unbelievable proud native history of ours. Pristine. I almost feel a tear drop roll down my eyes. Moving.
As for China-India tie, India is NOT in contest with anyone. India has a soul, China lacks one. India is a time-tested people’s democracy. China is yet to take the acid test that it will fail miserably. The entire future of China may be incumbent finally on this one crucial step that someday China has to dare to take. Inevitable. People in India ACTUALLY LIVE. LIVE LIFE. We are happy the way we are in India. We shall progress at our own pace. We don’t want to saturate ourselves too soon the way China is going at it. Average Indian life holds good in the present. We Indians still throng temples and cinemas and attend concerts and go on holidays. Music is not only for stage performance. Music is for caressing our soul. Sports is not just for winning the Olympic medals. Sports is for our entertainment. That way, even India’s fixation with Cricket is good. Millions soak and enjoy these games. Which is more important to most Indians than winning medals like a machine without a pleasure. India can do better, no doubt, buts India is doing fine anyway.
China is this ruthless moneylender. China has swallowed African territories and even a Sri Lankan port city when they failed to cough up principal with compounded interest. China is modern day East India Company. India will hardly be ever that. INDIA REFUSES TO PROSPER ON OTHERS’ BLOOD, AT OTHERS’ COST. Us vs. Them. When we shed every moral and ethic in the code book, we can become China in no time too. Chinese eat rat and dog for main course. Can majority vegetarian India ever do that. Eat snakes? Do Europeans, Americans do that. Trivial it may sound, trivial it is not. This is the major existential social difference between India and China. Unbridgeable gap. India: Underdeveloped for a reason. Slow with a purpose. When you can eat man’s best friend the dog, then you will stop at nothing.
We were once taken for a ride by Mao Tse Tung. Xi or no Xi, INDIA DOES NOT AND WILL NOT TRUST CHINA. INDIA WILL NOT GIVE MORE MARKET ACCESS TO CHINA. INDIA WILL NOT BE DIRECTED OR CONTROLLED BY CHINA. INDIA REFUSES TO TOE THE CHINA LINE. INDIA DOES NOT CARE WHAT CHINESE MEDIA THINK OR HOW CHINESE MEDIA PORTRAY INDIA. INDIA WILL NOT JOIN THE SILK ROUTE. INDIA WILL NOT GIVE UP TIBET. INDIA WILL NOT GIVE UP AN INCH OF INDIAN SOIL TO CHINA. Full stop.
Prez Xi, we hosted you with respect because you were our guest. ‘Adhithi Devo Bhava’ – this is our culture. India can afford to antagonize China, India can live without China. India will.
The bubbly young techie who was riding a two wheeler lost her balance and came under a passing tanker, crushed to death (was she wearing a helmet – what a dumb question to ask). Reason: An illegal (political party) hoarding (flex banner) fell on her throwing her off her Scooty. All my weekend enthusiasm seems to have deflated in a single stroke. The irresponsibility and callousness of those in authority is shocking. No word for the angel’s grieving parents. She happened to be my husband’s friend’s kid’s college mate and best friend. A very bright, cheerful kid full of life, reportedly: donning many hats: Software engineer working in the city’s IT corridor, Zumba trainer, linguist and a few more. It is at times like these I completely lose faith in God. Whoever’s kid is that… how can life go on after this… Her parents’ only child…
Lost my appetite totally. 23. Like my daughter. Her parents must be like us…
As Kerala reels under unprecedented monsoon flooding that has displaced millions wiping out their homes, with over 88 dams opened up and threatening to burst at seams, I am re-blogging here something I penned over three years back when my hometown Chennai was trounced exactly in a similar manner when we feared, the seas would actually wash out our city. Of course, with due additions and editions.
Kerala reportedly is now hundreds times as worse as Chennai/Tamil Nadu was then. That Kerala is mountainous mostly adds to its woes, triggering landslides everywhere. Whether this disaster is natural or man-made is a billion dollar question. Onto my original post now:
NAVIGATING THE NON EXISTENT WATER BODIES OF CHENNAI
December 17, 2015
“ARJUNA PALGUNA PAARTHA KIRITI SETHUVAHANA….’
would plead my grandmother to the skies, everytime it thundered during monsoons when I was a little girl. It was a fervent appeal to the lords to spare us poor souls from worst fates. The thunder accompanied by lightening so would not strike us down.. Going to beach every other day especially in summers was routine for us back then. And my mother would whisper a silent sloka to the sea god Varuna taking a fistful of salty water to spray on our heads as we girls played with waves washing our feet. Small prayers. But they reveal to me how our parents and grandparents never took nature for granted, how they dreaded the wrath of the five elements that held the power to determine our life and death. It was a time before the landscape of Chennai was to be significantly altered by our realtors. One or two mistakes were since committed here and there perhaps but things were still under control, perfectly manageable.
Folks back home tell me I do not know what I missed. They say I can never even imagine. Over 150 cm rainfall in 48 hours, with reservoirs filling up at lightening speed threatening to breach their bunds and canals and minor river channels criss-crossing the city overflowing into downtown and suburban neighbourhoods all alike, Chennai proved to be sheer hell and nightmarish for residents this Nov 26-27th of 2015 which marked the second and wettest spell of the current North East Monsoon season… The meteorological department did their part, no blame game here. They say, El Nino for the first time has approached the east coast of peninsular India and from hence forth, we shall remain in the eye of the storm for a long time to come….
THE LOST WORLD
Cyclonic storms are not unusual or unheard of in the city where I grew up. The one raging season in my memory was that of the year 1977. They said Madras would be swept under the sea just the way Dhanuskodi, near Rameshwaram, was in the year 1964 in south Tamil Nadu. The storm changed course in the last minute and hit Ongole, 300 km away from Madras, in the Andhra Pradesh sea coast.
The peninsula coastline resounds with tales of tragedy from Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of the Indian continent, to as for as Odisha. Each year, a different part of the coast may bear the brunt but the story is the same.
Mahabalipuram aka Mamallapuram is a seaside resort town a mere 40 km from Chennai. The Pallava temple architecture and stone sculpture make it a tourist heaven drawing visitors from around the world. The shore temple in Mamallapuram is the 7th one erected by the Pallava king, with 6 already swallowed by the sea.
The shore temple dating back to 9th-10th AD is now a world heritage site preserved with utmost care. Corroded by salty air and threatened by erosion, it will not be a surprise if the waters wash away the final surviving one against all odds. The temple escaped Tsunami in Dec 2004.
Even the famous Kapaleeshwar temple of Mylapore is said to have been taken away by the sea from its previous site and the temple with main Murthis was moved to the present complex only hundred years back.
Kaviripoompattinam aka Poompuharwas the Chola capital during 2nd century BC. It is one more Tamil township taken by the sea.
We come to know of Poompuhar through ancient Sangam Tamil literature dating back by two millennia wherefrom the great literary work called ‘Silapathigaram’ unfolds. Poompuhar was a very busy maritime port of those times. Having read ‘Silapathigaram’ composed before the birth of Christ, as a school girl it always amazed me how very well advanced and civilized ancient Tamils were. The epic is based on a true life incident concerning the king and his ordinary subjects who are delivered a hasty and wrong justice. How the accused man’s wife proves the truth to the king in the court and absolves him off his crime is the crux of the tale. It is this kind of rich and prosperous and knowledgeable society that the ocean waters swept away even 2000 years ago.
Kannagi, the real life heroine of one of greatest Thamizh epics of all times has a statue standing in Marina beach, Chennai, 2000 years after she lived, and thus has become immortal in our minds. None can face up to a woman scorned!
(Dwarka, Krishna’s birthplace, has recently been unearthed from under the sea in Kutch coast.
If verified and proved scientifically by research, Dwarka could pre-date Indus Valley Civilization by thousands of years. It is possible that after the lost world of Dwarka, ancient Indians picked up the pieces yet again from fragments and built the Mohenjadaro and Harappa, starting all over. There are indications that river Saraswathi mentioned in ancient sanskrit texts also vanished with whatever catastrophe sunk Dwarka. Discovery of Dwarka also disproves many myths carefully constructed by western minds about the origins of Hindu religion. Dwarka is ultimate proof that Ram and Krishna are not mythological figures but most ancient Indians who lived in and graced the subcontinent whose children we all are today.)
The last heaviest damage from the sea was inflicted by the Tsunami that struck the southern coast in Dec 2004. Thousands perished – cricket teams of boys and coaches in the Marina beach of Madras having been whisked away in blink of an eye that fateful morning. Devastation was upto Andhra coast. But after what we saw in Indonesia’s Aceh and Thailand and Sri Lanka, the local statistics never mattered to even our Indian media. Entire fishing hamlets were swept off in Kanyakumari district.
Cuddalore is the most cursed town in Tamil Nad. There is not an year when it is not lashed by ferocious monsoons. Kadal = Sea in tamil, very apt name.
It is now once again the turn of Chennai to face the wrath of the sea gods, looks like.
In over 78 years of her life, my mother-in-law says she’s seen nothing like this. My 70 year old aunt confirms the same.
DEBATE IS ON WHETHER MUCH OF CHENNAI’S RECENT MONSOON DISASTERS COULD HAVE BEEN MAN-MADE
Heaviest downpour recorded in any single day in a century no doubt, but the city still has had a good network of waterways like canals and rivers that traditionally and historically emptied vast volumes of rain water from spilling lakes and reservoirs through time-tested routes ino the sea. In recent past, these functional water channels have been hampered and littered with rapid urbanization resulting from hectic pace of industrialization that has not only got our water and land polluted but also choked some crucial bottlenecks whose existence had worked as barrier preventing many a natural calamity from shaking the city.
We can say, a combination of all the three did us in: the heaviest rains recorded in 100 years plus overflowing rivers and canals coupled with opened up lake-reservoirs that were about to breach their banks.
RAIN WATER HARVESTING: A TAMIL TRADITION
Ancient Tamils were good and knowledgeable about irrigation canals. Karikal Chola built the Kallanai, the world’s oldest dam across river Kaveri that stands good until today (with some minor improvisations in the British period).
There was a scientific way our ancestors harvested the rainwaters in.
Now the lowest channels of spillage like ‘Kuttai’ no more exist. Kuttai means a small pond. Where are ponds in the city or in surrounding 100 km radius today. When was the last time we heard of the frog in the pond. In bygone era, rivers swelled during monsoons spilling into lakes. From lakes, the waters were fed into ‘Kanmai’ and other various lower degree holding capacity channels and finally reaching the village ‘kuttai.’ Homes had wells built in to draw waters for domestic use. It was a healthy distribution of water and it helped in preventing drought. Today we have the rainwater harvest system working in converse pattern. The quickest to overflow (if at all they exist) are the ponds or kuttais. From receiving from superior waterbodies, the lower end of irrigation/drain/water storage systems have transformed into primary flooding sources. Wells wherefrom water were drawn has been replaced by tubewells and motors to pump out the ground water.
This is a chief reason for Chennai getting flooded; we could have still withstood the 150 cm rain in 2 days had we had an efficient channel of networking of rain water harvesting and storm water drain system working.
WATERS THAT FEED CHENNAI
In order to understand how the lake-reservoir-river-canal system works in the city and adjoining Thiruvallur and Kanichipuram districts, we have to first understand the complexities involved in rain water spillage and distribution in these parts.
Major feeders to Chennai Metropolitan City:
CHEMBARAMBAKKAM LAKE & RESERVOIR
POONDI LAKE AND RESERVOIR
PUZHAL LAKE AND RESERVOIR
The main lakes/reservoirs supplying water to Madras/Chennai are Chembarambakkam lake and Poondi reservoir. Adyar river has its source near the Chembarambakkam lake while Poondi reservoir spills into the Coovum river. Kosasthalaiyar or Kosasthalai river with other minor tributaries flows into Poondi lake/reservoir Buckingham Canal has its origin in Andhra Pradesh, constructed in the British era. All the 3 waterways viz., Adyar river, Coovum river and Buckingham Canal criss-cross the city to empty finally into the Bay of Bengal.
(Veeranam lake is one more vital source of water supply for Chennai which I am leaving out as it does not fall under the flooding zone of the terrain. Similarly Palar is another major but non-perennial river of Tamil Nadu which also I am skipping. I have seen it only dry but recently even Palar was seen flooding that made the locals rejoice inspite of the damage the monsoons wrecked. Kosasthalai flows through Thiruvallur district that adjoins Chennai. Puzhal in Red Hills is the fourth major water supply for the metro.)
http://www.jollyvideo.com/1154 – this link details the various waterbodies such as lakes, rivers, reservoirs and canal systems of Madras/Chennai city. Excellent educative video.
ANCIENT HUMAN SETTLEMENTS MAINTAINED SAFE DISTANCE FROM WATERBODIES
Man has always lived away from waterbodies, making home in dry patches of land, even if it was to be by river bank or seashore. Low-lying areas were scrupulously avoided. Which is why, the oldest settlements of the city fared well and stood up to the monsoon fury while the latest developments faltered.
Noticeably in the recent drowning of certain residential neighbourhoods in the city, we can observe the following pattern: those along the Coovum were least affected while those close to Adyar river were taken by surprise. Both parts of the city regularly get an average and manageable level of waterlogging in some low-lying pockets but 10-15 feet high levels of water rise is so far unheard of.
I live in a relatively safer zone where surprisingly through all this, there was not a single drop of water stagnating. Same goes to the street I grew up in Mylapore, the oldest part of Chennai. Our 20 feet lane is normally cursed by motorists who get vexed maneuvering their latest sedans, but humble as it is the settlement could be existing for over 300 years who knows. The property has been in my mother’s side family for generations. The foundation stone for the tiled house with trees in the front yard was laid in 1947. Through all the bleak news pouring in, the one about the oldest streets in Mylapore not being water-logged came as a morale-booster.
The main streets of Royapuram near harbour similarly saw very least water related issues.
True when most of the city was inundated in unprecedented floods this Nov-Dec, there were certain parts of even Mylapore and Royapuram that went under. This is because of some new highrises in these areas in these recent years.
So it gets clear how the oldest inhabited areas of Chennai that were planned proper were least affected by the floods. Even if India (including Chennai) may have very poor capacity for sewage treatment with no capacity expansion executed in last many years, life goes on. For a 8-10 million strong city with densest population in congested localities like Mylapore and Royapuram, the grand old parts really pulled it owing to proper streamlining of drainage systems that could be as old as nearly a century.
A SUCCOUR BY WAY OF TEMPLE TANKS
In Mylapore I remember a silk sari showroom (P Maniammal Textiles) being opened in North Mada street in a vacant corner plot, when I was in school. Even at that time the public opinion went that, the concerned square plot had been deliberately left open for generations as it was catchment area for rains in Mylapore that were routed underground to Kapaleeshwar temple tank (reasons being geological). Given that Mylapore is an area of middle-class street/row houses, we can understand the significance behind leaving the source of the temple tank open to skies. How the property changed hands and construction was managed there remained a puzzle. There were fears that water would stagnate in the ‘Mada Veedhis.’ The sari shop closed on making loss and then a bank branch came up there.
I never saw the Mylapore Kapali temple tank go dry in my younger years. But it did for the first time after the opening up of the showroom and even then locals blamed corruption behind the illegal (or otherwise) construction for what they thought until then was ‘impossible.’
Tamil Nadu is a state of ancient temples and Madras is a city of temples. There is no Hindu temple in India that does not stand beside a lake or river or man-made square tanks. In urban areas, it is mostly a constructed tank that harvests rain water as is the case with Kapali temple in Mylapore, Parthasarathy temple in Triplicane, Marudeeshwar temple in Thiruvanmyu, Kandaswamy temple in Parrys’ just to name a few of the dozens within city limits. The storage in temple tanks was actually meant for ablutions to be carried out by devotees before entering the holy places but it has now been learnt that it helps in recharging groundwater in surrounding areas.Whenever the Mylapore tank holds full capacity water, water-table in Mylapore rises nearly upto the surface. Whenever the tank runs dry, the water-table also considerably falls – sometimes to below 70-80 feet as it did in 2-3 continuous dry seasons when monsoons failed. So there seems to be a direct correlation between tank water storage and ground water content as it has been observed over years.
Although it always pleases devotees to look at lotuses and lilies in the tanks when they are brimming after a productive monsoon, we are also concerned of the imminence of weeding out the undergrowth should the tanks go dry. In Mylapore, there are actually more than 2-3 temple tanks, Kapali temple’s being the largest. The second one is Chitrakulam also close to our house, attached to Kesava Perumal temple. There is a third one within the premises of Madhava Perumal temple, a beautiful one, inaccessible to anyone from the street. This highlights the importance of water storage in our culture in past history.
Likewise every single area/neighbourhood in Chennai has atleast 2-3-4 temple tanks with good holding capacity that have been silently benefiting communities for generations. Even now if the tanks run dry, it is only because the sources to these tanks seem to have been taken over for construction-habitation. Now the tanks have solely become rain-dependent. The empty patches of land that served as catchment areas no more exist.
Penathur Subramanyam Iyer (after whom the 100 year old PS High school was named – which my father attended) seems to be the brain behind the storm water drains of the era in this part of the city.A lawyer by profession, he served as the Commissioner for Mylapore division in the Madras Corporation from 1890 to 1901.
DRY LAKE-BED TO SUBURBAN NEIGHBOURHOOD…
Nungambakkam, the heart of Madras does have a ‘Lake Area‘ by name so it is not a feat guessing how and where Nungambakkam came into existence. Looks like entire Madras was once a city of lakes and small rivers. Unbelievable.
Thygaraya Nagar(shortly referred to as T Nagar) is also one of oldest parts of Madras but then it went under water as well in recent storms, why? All these years I had no idea T Nagar was also originally a lake area.
Similarly Gandhi Nagar, Adyar and Raja Annamalai Puram which are prime residential neighbourhoods are situated perilously close to Adyar river that is on its last leg of journey in meeting with the Bay of Bengal. Near Chennai coast, Coovum river, Buckingham Canal constructed during the British period and the Adyar river form a delta.Adyar creek with its estuary sustains a very sensitive and fragile ecological system which is under dire threat with mounting scale of pollution.
In late 1970s, one of my precious memories is visiting with family, the Anna Nagar Trade Fair. In those days when transport facilities were limited, going upto Anna Nagar by bus was like visiting the next town for those of us Mylaporeans. It was a month long affair that we toured in groups – adults and children together. What is unforgettable until today about Anna Nagar is, how we went boating there unbelievably in Coovum river which was deep and expansive so far as I can recollect. It was the highlight of our picnic.
Soon Anna Nagar, one of the best planned parts of urban development of the city became another core business as well as residence center. The Anna Nagar West Extension area is as such referred to as ‘Rettai Eri’– the twin lake. The SBOA schools sit exactly on lake-bed besides a booming middle-class colony. So one more wetland taken over for human settlement when dry spells of monsoons persisted for 2-3 years together in the past when the waterbodies ran dry.
Even in very recent years there has been the ‘Eri scheme’ in Mogappair, less than 4-6 km from Anna Nagar, touted as the next Anna Nagar. ‘Eri’ means lake which is a dead give away. To begin with, the scheme was mooted by none less than the state government as MIG and LIG housing plots.
ENCROACHMENTS IN COOVUM RIVER & ADYAR RIVER AND BUCKINGHAM CANAL
Back from my workplace in early 1990s, from the 4th floor windows of my office building, I used to look upon on buffaloes immersed in Coovum river in the Ethiraj Salai (not a strange sight in India 😀 ) In fact I wrote a blogpost once on the blissfully ignorant peaceful animal that always used to capture my imagination. All mothers in Chennai also have this habit of calling their thick-skinned sons as ‘Erumai madu’ (buffalo)! There is Coovum flowing through Mylapore as well but over years, encroachments have shrunk the breadth of the river canal. One of the sights I retain from those times upto the ’90s is that of the black beasts enjoying rain or shine neck deep in the waters – which reminds me how much navigable these waterways were once upon a time.
My mother-in-law talks of a time in her childhood when people used to take boats from Chetpet (which lake and river canal are surprisingly preserved to these days) to as far as Mylapore through Egmore. It is only in last 30-40 years that the development has been haphazard with no consideration to the damages inflicted upon ecology and surrounding environments.
This July-August as we were taking the newly laid bridge over the Coovum from Shoban Babu’s house in Nelson Manickam Road, we were exactly discussing about the unauthorized constructions flanking both sides of the waterways. My husband grew up in this area so as an outdoor lad in his younger years and now as an experienced civil and structural engineer, he has a precise idea of how much encroachment has been effected in river/canal embankments in his immediate locality as well as entire city in some 25-30 years. The Ampa Mall and PVR Cinemas had their retaining wall sinking when construction was going on – in the Nelson Manickam Road – P H Road junction. It was set right overnight. It is one more grand violation that has been since regularized by CMDA perhaps which sits right on Coovum.
Even if Coovum is a narrow river, it has never been this much restricted as in recent years that there is a fear that in very near future, it’s flow into the sea could see total curtailment at some traversing point. This could spell nothing short of disaster for the city. Coovum could run dry in summers but it is an important channel to empty storm waters in monsoon times, the lifeline of the city. With Buckingham canal, it forms a critical network carrying sewer (untreated or partially treated) water on release from our treatment plants.
Areas adjoining Coovum saw least damages this year because, Poondi reservoir that is channelized into Coovum river was opened well in time before the second spell of heavy rains started in November end this year. Poondi handled it better than Chemberambakkam. If Poondi had deferred opening up even by a single day, then entire Chennai city could have been swept away by now (including our area) under water.
Underscores, how vital critical thinking and effective administration must be. Lax in either resulted in Chembarambakkam fiasco.
Chembarambakkam lake is perennial source of water supply for Madras (and Veeranam steps in as the second source). Ever since the lake bed went dry, it looked like a jungle had sprung to life in the midst of the lake, with trees growing furiously amid bushes in the vast expanse of the waterbody. Heavy unauthorized encroachments from all sides was hard to miss and the lake itself seemed to have shrunk in size. Clearly the lake was not weeded in time for monsoons just as no other waterbody in the city/state was either. The unpreparedness resulted in lakes and tanks filling up too soon with water overflowing into adjoining neighbourhoods.
CHANGING FACE OF CHENNAI : FROM FERTILE WET LAND TO DRY CONCRETE JUNGLE
Next we come to the other far end of the city, an extension of South Madras – the IT corridor OMR (Old Mahabalipuram Road) and its parallel one ECR (East Coast Road) that abuts the sea.
The satellite picture of the same area clearly indicates how the water-retaining areas and water bodies of the region were taken over by multinational IT companies over years whenever monsoons failed and the area went dry. Unauthorized dealings were also systematically regularized by government as the city became a place to reckon with in software industry. Even during normal monsoon spells, the roads here choke completely as the highway storm water drains here are a mess. The 200 ft IT highway OMR has a lower road level, a serious lapse in construction and design of the highway executed at exorbitant costs from tax payer money. Rainwater harvest/storm water draining system has not been fit into most parts of this major arterial road that leads to a super economic zone where billions of dollars are earned for the nation by the techies. The neighbourhood also has been prospering with high-end apartment complexes offering latest lifestyle comforts. But with the failure of the most basic infrastructure such as storm water drains in the connecting nerve highway, the multinational corporations have since come face to face with the dire risk of sinking. Was risk analysis ever done before the estates were acquired for development? Did the civic authorities factor in the once existent water bodies that were plotted out and handed over in silver platter to corporate lobbies.
Siruseri where TCS has its upmarket corporate office is prime agricultural land as well. Right upto Tiruporur, this area has been rural and wet during monsoons. Even as far back as in 1997, the area was heavily inundated in moderate downpours. It was well known that the right hand side of OMR which is the rear of Velacheri/Pallikaranai constituted a low lying area. Pallikaranai Marsh lies right behind, which is a listed avian sanctuary (protected forest reserve) with a variety of winged visitors making it their nestling grounds during breeding season. The Marsh has also shrunk in size most significantly.
More shocking is how part of Pallikarania has also now been turned into dumping yard for the entire city. In pic: the vanishing Pallikaranai Marsh with the highrises in the background with the spoils of the day dumped in mountains.
Untold damage has since been done to the city’s precious waterbodies that have been precious and natural storage points for potable water. Similarly the dry beds of seasonal lakes/tanks/ponds etc., that have been acting as absorbing sponges during flooding monsoons have been turned into concrete jungles. Where is room for flowing water to meander its way through this mess to the Bay of Bengal? The waterways have also been turned into clogged channels for untreated/semi-treated sewage which has wrecked havoc with the aquatic/marine life like fresh water fish in the canals/rivers, sludgy all the way to the sea. H2S-high toxic sewage and filth, froth as the water channels of the city rush to greet the ocean like one long line of slush and ash. How can any healthy eco system survive in such a polluted environ.
Sewage treatment plants in India including Chennai have very limited functional capacity, if at all we have any. Further more they are outdated.
Today the opposition parties of Tamil Nadu are asking for CBI enquiry into why the Chembarambakkam lake was opened up belatedly, without prior notice by midnight. This single lake thus is responsible for bringing down the major part of the city. Inefficiency of the bureaucracy coupled with ignorance is the chief reason.
If we have to start investigating matters, we have to start with Veeranam water pipeline times of Karunanidhi period, beginning with 1968 when he served as PWD minister in the state government. Since then, not much has been done for capacity expansion of sewage treatment plants or holding capacity of reservoirs.
Jayalalitha carried out some water pipe and drainage pipe replacements in key areas of the city including my street. Now that has saved us from much of water logging. I guess we benefited because we live in the heart of the city.
In her second term as CM, Jayalalitha also carried out prompt RWH – Rain Water Harvest – that the successive Karunanidhi’s DMK government failed to keep up. When ADMK returned to power and Madam became the 3rd time CM, there was no time for her for administration (for a variety of personal reasons) and RWH has been since long forgotten. But most developers seem to be incorporating RWH in new projects, not because of any legal or corporation statute or rule book, but because they happen to think it is good and prudent to keep the water table replenished periodically with every monsoon. While weeding out of waterbodies was done systematically in previous JJ regimes during summers, nothing of the sort was carried out in the present term.
PRE-MONSOON CRITERIA: WEEDING THE UNDERGROWTH & MAINTENANCE/UP-KEEP OF WATERBODIES
Sometimes, citizens themselves take the initiative to weed out dense growth from lakes, tanks and ponds, sprucing them up for storage from an impending monsoon. NCC units for instance have been rendering such a selfless community service with young men involved in the good job for years. Chitrakulam, a small temple tank in Mylapore was thus cleared of weeds and made good by school students for a project. Similarly a few years back, my cousin and his friends weeded out the temple tank attached to Nitya Kalyana Perumal temple in ECR (30 km from city).
When the government is dysfunctional, it is finally upto us countrymen to fend for ourselves. This is what happened in Coimbatore (refer the above link).
IN THE EYE OF THE STORM
A wild thought: is it possible to reclaim the lost waterbodies of the city ever? Soon sanity returns. Those regularized settlements like Nungambakkam, Anna Nagar and Mogappair were after all government layouts principally when the lake beds ran dry in off-seasons or harsh summers. Not saying the private promoters had no role to play. These encroachments on natural water bodies have since long been integrated into the corporation limits and constitute the heart and lung of the metropolis today. Even the highrises/tech-parks/complexes in OMR cannot be reclaimed, even if falling under various Panchayats situated in the outskirts of Chennai. But someone somewhere will come to foot atleast a part of the bill : and that someone could be our maid or driver or cook or tailor or bus conductor or factory worker or carpenter or plumber or mason who would have spent his/her entire life savings in procuring patta for that tiny square bit of land parcel he/she may fondly and proudly refer to as home, bribing officials at all levels… I am talking about the encroachments in Coovum and Adyar and Buckingham Canal banks… It is these hapless residents who will pay dearly with their lives and livelihood in case of manmade disasters, and never the upper middle class residents of Nungambakkam or T Nagar or the corporates of OMR/ECR belt.
Very shortly expect to see bulldozers smashing to smithereens whatever is left off the pathetic wash-out of the lower middle-class subsistence that will be once again be thrown out of the city, forced to start life from scratch…. Rest of us can still pick up the pieces from where we left and move on…
CHENNAI’S WATERSHED MOMENTS…
A friend in Pammal recounts the harrowing night. The locality boasts of new constructions so did not go much under the deluge. The friend’s house stood 1 meter water (only) for a single night and she and her husband were forced to flee to the top floor. She says there was running water in the street like a rivulet but they did not fear it getting in. Without power, the couple were planning to retire to their rooms for the evening. Just then their neighbours knocked alerting them to a rise in water level and seeking refuge. Their old house next door lying at a lower level already had over 4-5 feet of water and they panicked. Water was starting to enter my friend’s place. The 2 families moved furniture, locked doors and barely had time to disconnect electronics before fleeing up the stairs. Within minutes says she, the entire ground floor inside the house had about 1 meter water in which snakes came swimming.
They spent sleepless night in the open terrace at third level, abandoning even the middle floor, worried about rising water level. In mid-morning next day my friend says, flood water finally receded completely in her place. But had had done enough damage by then. She is still scouring her grand house clean. Lots of re-fixing have to be carried out which will cost the family a fortune.
It has been raining nonstop for days in the city from even before Diwali. There was a light respite in the 3rd week of November but the rains resumed with vengeance by 24th.
Chembarambakkam, the largest reservoir supplying water to the city, had not been opened up in time by officials as CM’s signature was pending as well as the Chief Secretary’s. For 2-3 days, valuable time was wasted in exchange of correspondence. Inefficiency and indecisiveness cost the state dear. The lake had neared its full holding capacity by the first spell of monsoons itself. The delay and official apathy destroyed much of Chennai. By midnight the officials realized they could not postpone opening the floodgates – and when they did, it caught the napping citizens by surprise. Without power and with phone lines down and communication channels cut, many lost their lives as well as valuable assets.
With much of Chembarambakkam water discharged, now the retained capacity is merely 60% avers the friend who fears a water crisis in the city by next year this time, should the monsoons fail in the following season. Had the opening up been gradual and regulated, the standing capacity could have been maintained at a safe and healthy 85%. Too much of water in November and water scarcity by July, is it? What a reversal of fates.
Mismanagement of the highest levels where the government, official bureaucracy failed miserably but the good samaritans of Madras rose in a single wave giving humanitarian help.
‘No crimes reported during relief operations, but do not expect the conditions to persist’, warns the friend. ‘As reality sinks in, the state/city is left with millions on pavements without a roof over their heads and not a pair of clothes to change.’ Next few years will be very difficult for Chennaites predicts she, when crime-rates will zoom and murder for gain will become commonplace. And this is not counting the Epidemics. ‘Wait until January when the slum dweller feels the pinch, the owner of the cornershop who’s lost his stocks and customers in one go starts counting his losses and the labourer lacks his tools to go back to work. This is not about individuals, this is about a society where everyone’s livelihood has been crushed. This is not about rain or floods; this is about the morale of the city/state, this is our destiny.’
It is very irresponsible on the part of any political party in India/Tamil Nadu to turn the beach into tasteless and macabre mausoleum for our dead and long gone chief ministers. As a resident of Chennai where my family is rooted for generations, I have every right to object to this shameful and selfish act of our government. A bad precedent was set and it is being nurtured by the day. It is time we the public, put a complete full stop to this dangerous, maniacal trend.
Moreover mausoleums are for muslims who celebrate their dead as we see from remnants of Moghul India, brought into practice by the Afghans who seized Delhi throne by terror just like their contemporaries today who are intimidating the world.
Hindus over 95% cremate their dead. Now even the funeral wood pyre is prohibited for environmental reasons and only electric crematoriums are in use. The electric ones burn the dead to ashes in matter of minutes and don’t even leave bones that remain in manual wood pyres. The second day the ashes are collected (along with bones if any) by families to be immersed in the sea. Some may safe keep the ashes for immersion in river Ganga or the Indian ocean or to be strewn in the Himalayas. That is it. No trace of you. Only records can prove your existence. Leave without a trace not burdening Mother Earth even for an extra second. This is unwritten Hindu philosophy.
Only ‘Mahans’ and a very negligible percentage of Hindus bury their dead. Mahans mostly opt for ‘Jeev samadhi’ – preferring to be buried alive as in the case of Hindu saints and sages. Modern day Gurus suffering from selective amnesia however conveniently pass this off! How interesting it would be to watch today’s glam gurus rolling in billions embrace Jeev Samadhi (in future)! In fact I challenge Baba Ramdev, Sadhguru, Sri Sri, the leading spiritual gurus of India to attainment of this unparalleled and supreme height of spiritual elevation !!!
No Hindu king has a memorable Samadhi or burial place like the Moghuls do or the ancient Egyptians have until today in the form of Pyramids. Building a memorial may not be exactly anti-Hindu as we do not have a code of conduct or laws to adhere to – it suffices that this is just not the case. Mahatma Gandhi and independent India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru are rare exceptions to have memorials even if they were cremated. Most of their ashes were immersed in and around India and a small token may be resting in their Samadhis, nothing more.
The Dravidian leaders might have called themselves atheists in spite of their covert Hindu beliefs and with their families clinging to faith contradicting their ideologies, yet they were also against rituals and memorials for the dead. In that case, why must they want to remain immortal. Why this clamour to go into history. Is this useless vanity Dravidian like Ravana’s? None in my generation cares for Anna Durai the state’s first Dravidian party CM. Neither did we know of Kamaraj or Rajaji except from our text books. Even if the past leaders may get familiar with our school children through history classes, it is not possible for the future generations to connect with them on any plane. Our next generation cannot even identify with the thespians of Tamil film industry MGR (MGR also our ex chief minister) and Shivaji Ganesan even if the timeless heroes’ images are etched in celluloid for posterity. Public memory is shortest and the attention span is sinking to pathetic new lows. Ten to twenty years from now on, who can identify with our ex chief ministers Karunanidhi or Jayalalitha. If we have to have memorials, we have to have from ancient Tamil Kings from millennia before. History and literature is all we have to remind us of them and narrate to us their glorious past. We never needed the graves. The graves are for the insecure who desperately want to go into history like the Moghuls. This is not our Sanathana Dharma. Mahans and Sants especially the Jains are selfless truly spiritual wonders of India who are a rare exception. Their breed is dwindling and almost non existent today.
Hopefully Tamil Nadu elects a responsible government in near future that will see the idiocy and sycophancy behind the erections of these mausoleums and raze them to dust one fine morning.
Let the Marina be free of scheming politicians and their dirty politics. Let the breathtakingly beautiful Marina of yesteryears be returned to the public – to walk on and play and enjoy evening life that comes free of cost to our citizens. Chennai is the world’s uninterrupted second longest beach on records. These graves are not only an eye sore but are totally an illegal encroachment (even if Chennai corporation may ratify things later), harmful to the natural environment of the city.
It is my dream to see the beach restored to its former pristine beauty and returned to the public – tax paying, honest citizens of India, residents of Chennai. At the end of a tired working day, the beach is one place we can unwind without having to expend much from our pockets. Beach is free entertainment, especially for the lower middle class. Cruel and thoughtless on anyone’s part to deny even a part of the beach to the public, closing it to lawful denizens of the nation.
Growing up in the sea side of Mylapore, walking 2 km to beach thrice or more times every week in summer was no big deal for me. As a PG student at University of Madras, my class room overlooked the beach, lulling us girls and boys to afternoon siesta, as the sea breeze would set in by 2 pm. Memories of the beach are like a treasure even if I may not be a regular to Chennai beach these days. We have a beach here in Middle East, but this is shallow. Chennai beach is dangerous with its monstrous waves. Super exciting. The beach is a rich repository of sea shells and crabs. Waves on New moon/Full moon days may reach over 6 to 10 feet in height. No wonder the city was devastated by the Tsunami of 2004 washing away cricket playing kids and morning walkers/joggers in hundreds into the sea. Every time there is a cyclonic storm (which is many times every monsoon), the sea level rises menacingly and threatens the metro with destruction, yet a Madrasi’s love for the beach always remains a constant. Some parts of the city beach especially the far flung areas, are nesting grounds for Olive Riddley turtles. The suburban beaches are now private property leased to posh beach resorts. Which makes it all the more unfair for the government to clamp down on the public space of beach erecting unwanted mausoleums on precious sands of the Marina. Every square centimeter of the Marina lost to a Chennaiite is a huge, immense irreparable loss to humanity, in violation of the Environment and Human Rights. Politicians and bureaucrats and their families can vacation in Singapore, Australia and Switzerland. Where will the middle class Madrasi go.
Note: Chennai is also a natural harbour, a very important port in Asia. After Chennai, the next approachable port is the faraway Singapore.
Rounding off this post with a beautiful beach duet shot in the Marina in the 1960s for the runaway hit musical ‘Kadhalikka Neramillai.’