Chennai : Saris in the Surf

Chennai Travel Blog

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Rangoli Girl

You find me now in the state of Tamil Nadu.  The coastal city of Chennai (formerly Madras).  It's the weekend, one day after I arrive and it's time for the Thai Pongal, or just simply 'PONGAL!' festival to kick off.  I had no idea about this of course and feel most fortunate.  But accidentally happening upon festivals in India is not an unusual occurrence.  In a land populated by such a staggering cast of gods, beliefs and cultures there's a festival happening here somewhere probably every day of the calendar year.  Their advents falling upon the leafs of your tear-off calendar as heavy, numerous and colourful as the leafs from Autumn trees.

Pongal is at heart a harvest festival to honour and give thanks to the various gods, principally the sun, who bring forth prosperity and good fortune where crops are concerned.  It marks the start of the sun's northward passage, rendering the days longer and more conducive to harvesting.  Colour powder rangoli patterns are hand-crafted in front of house doors and onto the streets.  'Pongal' loosely translates as 'to boil' or 'spill over' and a pot of rice boiled in milk is heated until so doing before dawn, the overflowing of the receptacle representing material abundance for the family.  The boiled rice is eaten at days end in recognition of the importance of this staple food to daily life.  Predominantly a festival celebrated by the Tamil population (here and in Sri Lanka) it is celebrated in other areas of the country too, though under different names.

'Heaven's Angel' : Vrooooooom! :)
  All of this, I must admit, was gleaned in retrospect as you could often write all I know about Indian cultural subtleties on a grain of rice at the point I actually come into first contact with it.  But then this is one educative purpose and privilege of travel.

For me and the rest of the world (well, Chennai's corner of it anyway) all it basically means is 'HOLIDAY TIME!' and a fantastic excuse for a day or two besides the sea side.

Making a leisurely stroll from the Triplicane district of town I eventually find myself on the northern end of the approximately 6 kilometre stretch of beach that runs south from the mouth of the Coovum to that of the Adyar river.  Crowds of people pass the seductively salmon coloured, domed mughal-styled University building near Chepauk Train Station to flood across the grey tarmac river of South Beach Road and onwards toward the sea.

  I like this shared human impulse to migrate towards coastlines and spill out into the sea like a joyful confluence reaching our own estuary dissipation in the ocean's waters.    One of our many near universal drives as a species I think.  The sun worshiping that motivates such journeys too.  Our one universal religion perhaps? 

Soon I will be reunited with the sight, sound and touch of sea.  That soul-calming blue-green expanse which disappears into horizons unbounded and that let the imagination wander and ponder, unfettered as the waves, upon ideas of what may lie beyond.  Eyes to the far blue horizon, a lesson in potential infinities.  A feeling I often miss whilst travelling inland so often, and always so far from my native shores, having grown up on the south coast of England.

'S is for Stevie' :)
  When was the last time I had sight of sea?  Does the Bosphorus count?  No.  Not quite.  Well then it would be the sparkling blues of the Adriatic viewed from the fort walls of Dubrovnic in Croatia around six months ago. 

But as with all self-respecting day-tripper dashes to the coast, before all that, first time for a bit of seaside kitsch.  At this end of the beach a long unbroken double line, a sandy avenue almost, of market stalls run most of the not insignificant distance across the hot sands toward the shoreline.  Tarpaulin overhauling providing pockets of shade.  The clucking, screaming, laughing human confluence of Pongal holiday makers (sorry pilgrims) and their ice-cream craving kids rushes ever onward toward the sea, picking up trinkets and admiring every manner of tacky plastic nick knack ever designed to put a smile on a kid's face for a few Rupees.

Jasmine, Liquid onyx and waves = beauty
  Bangles, packets of bindi stickers, earrings, hair bands, combs, paint sets, pens, brightly coloured plastic toy guns and fake mobiles (train 'em in the use of both whilst they're young), fluffy animals, robots, numerous items crafted from or fringed by seas shells and large quantities of cheap makeup for the girls, some of which I purchase for reasons ( not tranvesticism!) that will one day soon become clear to you if you remain a patient little blog-watcher and stick with me until... ooooh? about the 16th March ;)    

Getting closer now to another Land's eastern edge.  The long wide swathe of beach here a not unpleasant muddy-honeyed colour.  The sand grains quite coarse but oh-so pleasant to be felt running between my toes once more.

Pongalgirl and her flowers
  Padding towards the sea but before I reach it a barrier stretches before me.  And not just the colourful wall of human bodies.  A wood and bamboo fence runs along the beach front preventing people actually getting to the sea.  A tide line of lungi, trousered and sari-wearing flotsam and jetsam washing up against it.  On the far side of this beach barricade kaki-clad police officers and NCC (National Cadet Corps) recruits parade up and down the beach with the traditional wooden lathi stick truncheons in hand.  Barred from the sea?  'But it's the beach and it's Pongal?!!'  What's this all about!  Nobody's stopping me getting my toes wet in the Bay of Bengal! 

Walking south along this depressing bamboo breaker set up to arrest the surging waves of human passion and desire to reunite with the sea of Life's birth, my eyes though are happy to drink in the scene of the throngs of colour and shape that blossom so profusely in the universe whenever a crowd forms in India.

The dam breaks! : the one photo I manage to snap off as the crowd, following my example, suddenly surges forward towards the sea!
  Flower sellers and their stalls litter the beach and its approaches and there's hardly a lady or girl for miles around who does not have a beautifully aromatic 10 or 20 Rupee string of cotton-threaded jasmine buds tied up into their so, so beautiful liquid onyx braids, plaits, pony and pig tails of lustrous shimmering hair.  This image of white jasmine (accompanied by that sensual aroma) upon black hair is one of so many recurrent visions of pure poetry that India conjures out of dust, and today the sands.  As the day progresses and the heat remains irrepressibly high these tiny buds begin to burn dry, browning petal by petal, but their spell has already long been cast by then.

Eventually the barrier ceases.  But the endless stretch of people of course does not.

First lady (and her baby) to reach the sea after the momentary stampede.
  Like the front row at a rock concert the energy of happy anticipation pulses along the line of Indian families and friends, babies raised high onto hips and shoulders to see the sea for possibly the first time.  I don't know why the barrier ends here but I am glad it does.  Entry to the ocean is still being prohibited though.  The back and forth un-festive line of scowling lathi wielding Uniforms erupts into a frenzy of arm waving and shouting if anyone breaks the line and cuts to the sea.  I guess maybe it's an OTT 'for your own good' security measure.  The sea has a fair old chop.  Healthy sized waves rolling in.  There's a lot of people here.  A LOT!  And Indian's are not renowned for their swimming ability.  'No disasters on public holidays please!'  Can you imagine trying to swim in a six metre length of sari?!

Whilst not tiring of the beautiful photographic potential of all the delightful compositions offered by liquid onyx and jasmine and sensually deep dark-skinned Tamil backs wrapped in every conceivable pattern and colour of dress, I do though want to try to see this vibrant crowd from the front.

Digging to Australia.
  A glimpse of all those hundreds of smiles.  So I chisel my way through the crowd and momentarily break through onto the sands set before them hoping a bit of foreigner 'ten second diplomatic immunity' will allow me a photographic smash and grab and not bring me the business end of a lathi stick.  However the moment I turn to 'shoot' that's it!  The little ginger pebble that ushers in the avalanche.  The entire crowd here about me surges forward as if on command, breaking fast past me and the line of lathis and onward and gleefully splashing into the sputtering surf.  A woman in a bright saffron sari embroidered with golden flowers and her little daughter in pink and wearing silver anklets is the first to make it to the waters edge.
Saris in the Surf #2

The rest soon follow.  And the Uniforms run up and down now, having to get their nicely pressed kaki trousers salty-wet and waving their lathis, occasionally smashing them down into the surf to throw disrupting walls of water into the faces of the crowd... occasionally even beating a couple of the young men.  But to little effect.  The sea sets people free you see.  A tide of happiness that can't be turned back by sticks once the dam has broken.  And did I really start this?  Instigate this seaward stampede?  Well, I certainly thought so for a while.  And probably did in my 'own' little stretch of the beach.  But with more time and observation it becomes clear that the Uniforms are herding the Pongal masses into vast block crowds and now letting them descend for 5-10 minutes, in staggered groups to the waters edge to avoid the kind of stampede I sparked.

'HAPPY PONGAL!!!" some of the boyz go bonkers on the beach.
  'Oops!'  Happy Pongal everyone!

And in fact the further down this huge stretch of beach I walk, though the environment doesn't change, things get a little more lax with every step and children, parents, groups of testosterone and oestrogen fuelled phalanxes of friends, the young and old are all able to give themselves, with caution and much screaming to the waves.  And this scene is pure magic.  100% solid gold people watching for those inclined to such a hobby, as so many of we globe trotters are.    

As the waves come rolling into the land, the waves of colour of the Indian holiday makers roll into the sea.  White foam and white-toothed beaming smiles all around.  The cool rushing waters flood in, tinkle the silvery bells of the girls' anklets before receding again.

Sisters and brother and sea at Pongal.
  Onyx and jasmine and blue-green expanses.  Boisterous youths are running, jumping and cart-wheeling into the shallows.  Playing catch or just lobbing coconuts at one another.  Mothers and fathers lift and swing their younglings - one to each arm - above and then occasionally swooping them down into the water line.  Squeals of tortured glee from their victim.  Sections of the emboldened crowd shimmy forward into the sea and then collectively scream and scamper backwards as the water breaks over and rushes up their legs with unanticipated force.  Lines of girls hold hands as they inch timidly forward.  Dressed shoulder to toe in their glorious multi-coloured saris it looks as if each colour of a rainbow had reached out to hold onto the next and step as one spectrum into the foam.
Saris in the Surf #1
  As kids and adults alike tumble over laughing in the shallows, waves washing over them, white horses dancing over their straggling happy forms all of the colours and fabrics of the worlds largest (and presumably only and unintentional) wet sari contest begin to commingle with the worlds waters in a dizzying display of unintentional beauty which perfectly paints the chaotic picture of uninhibited pleasure that everyone is experiencing at Pongal.

As I walk along the now constant tide line of revelry, dipping my own toes, and taking snaps I am utterly besieged by groups of people and happy Indian families overjoyed to hear me wish them 'Happy Pongal!' and even happier to request I take their photo and show them.  I am soon the official photographer to the universe it seems!  Always happy (well, almost always) to record human happiness.

Ruling the waves with a stick.

All along the beach hundreds of little snack shacks and food stalls, entertainments and itinerant trinket sellers are trying to tease the festival-freed flow of Rupees in their direction.  Boys stroll up and down with tall bamboo pole racks of goods leant on their shoulders; little windmill sails, rattles and plastic Spiderman masks.  Also those holding up their bright pink, yellow and orange waterfalls of cellophane bagged candyfloss and the ever-hopeful bansuri flute sellers.  Long brightly coloured balloons also are for sale (their traders making annoying ear-jarring rubber 'squeaks' with them to get your attention) and at other stalls smaller ones can be shot with small lead pellet rifles for prizes besides the tiny make-shift manually powered merry-go-rounds.

  Kites too flutter up in great number, their colours bold, no matter how high, against the perfect blue sky.  Food comes in a hundred fascinating forms.  Bright orange masala batter-fried fish and bananas, calamari rings, samosas, grilled cobs, papaya chunks, carved pineapples and numerous sweets whose secrets (some sublime, some not so) only to be revealed if you 'go on and give 'em a try!'    

All of this conspicuous consumption of course has a knock on effect to the immediate environment.  Particularly given the festival flood.  I try not to let this littering problem spoil my reunion with the sea but it's hard to ignore.  The sandy stretch - as so often in India - being treated as, and so turning into one vast communal litter bin.

A Rainbow links hand to hand into the surf
  One part paper and plastic crud to every two parts sand.  I read an article in The Hindu newspaper a couple of days later (18th Jan) that confirmed 'more than 100 tonnes of garbage [picked up from] the sands'.  This despite a ban on plastics in the Marina Beach area.  An official is said to have observed that 'around 15 compactor bins and 25 collection bins were used to collect waste but people were reluctant to use the bins for disposal of waste.'  The sight of two unfortunate washed up lifeless turtles ( Olive Ridleys possibly?), my first turtles seen 'in the wild', offer another minor sad footnote to my observations.
Another happy Pongal family (taken by the days official photographer to the universe :)

And that's about all I'm gonna offer you by way of visions from Chennai (sorry to end it on that bum note above!).  I saw other things and walked many a long mile of streets.  But sometimes one lasting image, suffused with communal joy and colour, no matter how expansively over-scribbled about is all that is required right?  I was in Chennai for four days wrapped in the wonderfully relaxing precincts of the Broadlands Lodge in Triplicane trying to muddle my way through various creative log-jams of the mind (Vipassana and Varanasi - the curse of the letter 'V'!) whilst stuffing my face with my first experiences of true south Indian cuisine.  Dosas, rice-steamed idly cakes and onion and tomato utthapams all served with coconut and various other yummy spicy chutneys.

'Ginger & Blue' - yes, the hair and beard are getting scarier and larier by the day!
  I largely failed on the first of these activities ( I see here I noted 'The blog is in great danger of imploding under its own weight' at the time) whilst being prolifically successful with the second (that being the eating part).  But Chennai was a happy, beautiful time at Pongal.  A happy coincidence that makes the moment.  I was lucky.  It happens.

Stevie_Wes says:
Yes, the beard did get truly monstrous come the end of six months in India, but it was lopped off in totality before I left for Sri Lanka 2 months ago :) Quite a relief. It lingers on though having left a rather unsettling red rash on my moosh whenever I shave down to the bone now :-(((
Posted on: May 11, 2010
hummingbird50 says:
Yay! thanks for the great stories once again...
Errmmmmm yes beard is getting scarier :):) is that really you? hehehe
Posted on: May 10, 2010
esposabella says:
Thanks for taking me back to that special exotic, chaotic place!! INDIA!!!
Posted on: Mar 04, 2010
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Rangoli Girl
Rangoli Girl
Heavens Angel : Vrooooooom! :)
'Heaven's Angel' : Vrooooooom! :)
S is for Stevie :)
'S is for Stevie' :)
Jasmine, Liquid onyx and waves = b…
Jasmine, Liquid onyx and waves = …
Pongalgirl and her flowers
Pongalgirl and her flowers
The dam breaks! : the one photo I …
The dam breaks! : the one photo I…
First lady (and her baby) to reach…
First lady (and her baby) to reac…
Digging to Australia.
Digging to Australia.
Saris in the Surf #2
Saris in the Surf #2
HAPPY PONGAL!!!  some of the boy…
'HAPPY PONGAL!!!" some of the bo…
Sisters and brother and sea at Pon…
Sisters and brother and sea at Po…
Saris in the Surf #1
Saris in the Surf #1
Ruling the waves with a stick.
Ruling the waves with a stick.
A Rainbow links hand to hand into …
A Rainbow links hand to hand into…
Another happy Pongal family (taken…
Another happy Pongal family (take…
Ginger & Blue - yes, the hair an…
'Ginger & Blue' - yes, the hair a…
Pongal Cow
Pongal Cow
When I grow up I want to be a tuk…
"When I grow up I want to be a tu…
Fishermans wife at market
Fisherman's wife at market
Traditional wooden bark boat and u…
Traditional wooden bark boat and …
Marys grotto at St.Andrews Church…
Mary's grotto at St.Andrews Churc…
Lady spreads a rangoli design outs…
Lady spreads a rangoli design out…
The grand gopuram tower of the (I …
The grand gopuram tower of the (I…
Red and Green and Gold
'Red and Green and Gold'
The bansuri boys
The bansuri boys
Candyfloss cascade on Chennai beac…
Candyfloss cascade on Chennai bea…
photo by: Marusya