Coromandel Trail - Going Dutch from Madras to Sadras

Lakshmi Sharath
Lakshmi Sharath, Contributing Writer

It's 5:30 am and the sky is still wrapped in darkness. The waves roar, the breeze whistles, and the branches stir, awakening the leaves. I stretch lazily, fighting sleep, waiting for dawn but the lethargic sun seems to be in no mood to keep its date with the sea and sky. A thin streak of pink appears on the horizon, but it remains just a streak, even as day breaks. I stand on the edge of the shore and watch a pair of juvenile Brahminy Kites dive into the sea. They miss their catch, but they continue to swoop down into the waters until they succeed.

It has always been my dream to traverse the eastern coastline and lose myself in dusty fishing hamlets. The smell of the sea lures me. The waves tell a story of their own. It has been a long journey to Tranquebar from Chennai as I drive along the coast. Along the way, several hamlets interrupt my journey as I pause by to take in the local culture.

I have been on the road for the last couple of days picking up conversations with locals from various villages. And I learn that these nonchalant villages once wore a cloak of a different identity. They were erstwhile thriving ports of powerful Indian kingdoms or bustling settlements of European traders,  but are today lost in a maze of huts and fields overlooking the shores. While some have become popular tourist spots, a lot remains hidden behind the garb of a simple fishing village. My tryst with the Coromandel Coast begins with the quest for these lost pieces of history.

My journey starts from Fort St George, where the settlement called Madras was born more than 370 years ago. History says that a sandy stretch was leased over to the British by the local Nayaks centuries ago. The fort grew into a town and later into the bustling metropolis as we see it today. Driving along Marina Beach, I discover pockets of ancient settlements, as I hear stories of how the Portuguese arrived at Santhome, which was later destroyed in the war amongst the European powers.

It is not just Chennai, but the entire coast of Tamil Nadu that seemed to have beckoned traders from various parts of Europe. The Portuguese, the Dutch, the French, the Danes, and the British have all left their footprints behind in forts, lighthouses, churches, cemeteries and mansions that are hidden along the coastline.
It is always a delight to cruise down the East Coast Road connecting Chennai to Pondicherry. The blue-green waters of the Bay of Bengal peep out amidst casuarina trees.

I then drive towards Kalpakkam, a centre of atomic research, near Chennai. My next destination is an erstwhile battlefield. They say the power of imagination can recreate anything. However, it takes me a while to imagine that a quiet fishing village with a handful of shops can be anything close to a battlefield. I go back several centuries when the entire landscape was dotted with fortresses which were seats of power. The seas were choppy and filled with fleets which fought each other. The maps altered and the boundaries changed. The Tamil speaking locals had morphed into European nationalities. the Dutch, the Danes, the Portuguese, the French and the British were all here fighting for control over  present day Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry.

I am in Sadras or Sadurangapattinam, looking at a restored 17th century Dutch fortress and a cemetery that tell the story of the Battle of Sadras fought between the fleets of the British with the French and the Dutch. An inconclusive battle, the wars were an aftermath of the 18th century European politics set against the American War of Independence. Cannons, a watchtower, warehouses and tombs at the cemetery are the possible reminders that this was once a centre of power. Although the British fleet suffered a setback in the first war, eventually the British East India Company took over the settlement in the early 19th century.

Sadras has a history that dates earlier than the Chola feudatories and later on was ruled by the Vijayanagara Empire. A weaving centre, it is known for muslin, which was exported to Europe. The watchman shows me around the Dutch cemetery, taking pains to point out every grave. The tunnels, which used to open into the sea, are now closed. But one of the enclosures seems to have a gaping hole where the central structure has collapsed. I climb up the roof of another room and listen to the roar of the sea. As I leave Sadras behind, images of skeletons from the graves play on my mind. The journey, however, does not end here.


Part 2 - Along the salt pans to French-speaking Pondicherry

Part 3 - Following the Danish trail to Tranquebar