Chennai : Saris in the Surf
Chennai Travel Blog› entry 243 of 268 › view all entries
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Eventually the barrier ceases. But the endless stretch of people of course does not.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.