Friday, July 11, 2008

Gunpowder lies cold

This was an article I wrote in Sunday Pioneer, in 2004

Gunpowder lies cold
- Sunday Pioneer, December 19, 2004.
Pulicat's excellent shipping facilities enabled the Dutch to keep their holdover east Asia, finds S Anvar

Appearances can be deceptive. Not just with people, even with places. When the long, winding road that branches off from National Highway 5 comes to an abrupt end, just before a waterfront, in what looks like a main bazaar that also doubles up as a noisy, crowded fish market, one needs to be reassured that this is the historic Pulicat.

Also known as Pazhaverkadu (the old jungle of mimosa trees), it was once a thriving port, over which centuries ago, many European colonial powers fought bitter battles. If you expect to breathe history upon arrival, the stench of the fish and complete chaos, typical of an Indian fish market, is what you get. Pulicat is located about 55 km from Chennai. However, having "been there and done that" before, we knew history sleeps in the side roads. Facing the waterfront and a few paces into the road on the left is the Dutch Cemetery, the most visible remains of the colonial past, that also hold some clue to the gory and glorious times.

It was on March 20, 1602, that representatives of the provinces of the Dutch Republic granted the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC) a monopoly on the trade in the East Indies. Its purpose was not only trade, the company also had to fight the enemies of the Republic and prevent other European nations from entering the lucrative East India trade.

Vegetable-dyed cottons from Pulicat and its hinterland, a business still remembered in a name that lingers on, Palayakat lungis, was what brought the Dutch to the Coromandel coast, to Pulicat in particular. The Dutch built a fort here in 1609 and named it Fort Gelderia, after Gelderland, one of the states of Holland. Apart from trading in textiles, the easy availability of good quality saltpetre enabled them to start manufacturing gunpowder. This was a vital commodity in the highly turbulent 17th century, when large ships roamed the seas armed to the teeth and the Dutch had to use brute force to establish their hegemony throughout east Asia. Pulicat was strategically located for the distribution of gunpowder as its excellent shipping facilities enabled the Dutch to keep most of the VOC's major establishments in the East well-stocked.

Pulicat remained the chief Dutch settlement in India till 1781 when the British took over. Restored to the Dutch in 1785, it was seized by the British again in 1795, then handed back once more in 1818 before it was finally ceded to the British in 1825. Though nothing is left of the fort, barring some traces of the foundation, thankfully the tomb of Abraham Mendis inside the Dutch cemetery has an engraving of Fort Gelderia on its tombstone. In the centre of the engraving, Fort Gelderia is surrounded by a moat filled with lotuses and fish, with slanted roofed houses in the west.

As we tiptoed across the cemetery, the ASI caretaker showed us another tombstone with a church and a tree engraved on it. Hoping to discover more such, we gentle-footed from one tomb to another, tombs built underneath domed canopies and obelisks over 40 feet high. After a futile search and no further help from the caretaker, we decided to continue our search to the other side of the road, across the market.

On the other side of the market place, there are streets with dilapidated masonry houses, occupied by ethnic Arabian Muslims. A few families are still left over and they possess a document with them in Arwi or Arabic Tamil (Tamil written in Arabic character), which says that they were banished from Mecca for refusing to pay tributes to a new calif, Hajjaj Ibn Yusuf. And so they were escorted out of the land in four ships, one of which landed in Cholamandal (meaning the land ruled by the Tamil kings, Cholas). Over a period of time they spread out and settled in Pulicat. Early in the 17th century, when a Dutch ship ran aground on the Pulicat shores, these Muslims offered food and help to the Dutch. Locals struck a trade partnership with the foreigners, to procure and supply local merchandise for the Dutch to trade with the East Indies. Mustafa Maricair, one of the Muslims, made a fortune out of dealing with the Dutch, notes the document.

It definitely seems to have been a mutually beneficial relationship. Two mosques in this area built in stone, in Dravidian architecture, are around 300 years old, corresponding to the Dutch era. The houses in which these Muslims reside are two-storeyed, some have a distinct European style with pillared fronts and high roofs. We went into one such house, almost in ruins with an old man and his sister being the sole occupants. Inside the house were neatly stacked, huge, glazed Chinese jars. Though the locals claimed they were meant for storing rain water, we wondered whether these were the Burmese martaban jars the Dutch used to store gunpowder. As we paused, our local guide from the mosque, who read out the Arwi document, whispered to us that sometime back a Dutch tourist armed with maps, pointed to this house, recognising it to be the one in which his forefathers had lived. He was willing to give a crore, but it was refused, said the man. Looking at the completely ruined state, we could hardly believe it. But who knows, what is a crore to a man who doesn't require it. The old man, who could easily be mistaken for an Arab, refused to be photographed, saying his wife had just passed away and he was in mourning. To him the ruins probably still held memories of his wife and forefathers.

A few other houses had the same glazed jars and wooden pillars with intricate designs carved on them, a reminder of the good old times. Today Pulicat is a sleepy village drawing the local tourist crowd, which is more attracted by the lake that runs miles to the north and south. Thankfully the ASI takes care of the cemetery, which seems to attract an occasional foreign tourist who has chosen to travel off the beaten track. As we headed back to Chennai, we suddenly realised that the stench in the market had hardly bothered us. Was it because of the hot sun or our engrossing time travel? Pulicat would never be a sleepy village to me again, appearances can be very deceptive.

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