Dutch tales: The forgotten multi-cultural history of Pazhaverkad

By  Staff Writer

The ancient world is, was and always will be a surprising basket of discoveries. From documented cultural resources that serve as evidence of the past, we’d like to bring to light an almost forgotten, and vastly under-appreciated historical town in South India. A series of seminal, influential events that occurred in a small seaside town north of Madras ultimately led to the conception of the idea of the stock exchange, trading policy and Special Economic Zones (SEZs), shaping the future of much of India as we know it today.

On a seemingly normal day in 1605, a Dutch ship stopped to ask for water at a small port town called Pazhaverkadu, north of a lake on the Eastern Coromandel Coast of India. Three years later they were establishing a fort and harbour that would hold power for the next 200 years as the largest trading company, dealing with spices and silk, after which it was ceded to the arrival of a more dominant European power, the British. The significance of the archaeological discovery in Pulicat was realized only a decade ago, when a few Architects identified a moat and a structure that resembled a fort covered with overgrown vegetation on Google maps, which was later discovered to be the ruins of Fort Geldria. The supreme historical importance of the place was realized after a visit to the oldest church in the locality where surfaced a map made in early 1574. The 200-year-old map illustrated “PALACATA” a Dutch pronunciation for Pazhaverkad – in long-form Pazhamaiyanaverugalkondakadu (in Tamil) translating to ‘Old rooted forests’, signifying this area was earlier covered by mangroves. The topography has evolved drastically over the past decades, with the last evidence of mangrove cover dating back to 1920s.

The research team led by Architect Xavier Benedict, founder of the AARDE (Art & Architecture Research Development and Education) foundation identified associations of the Vijayanagara Kingdom with colonial rule. The trading links with Japanese, the settlement of Dutch and Portuguese and immigration of Muslim community led to the settlement of several indigenous groups in the locality. Pulicat was an unusual multi-religious community with a history of three prosperous religious traditions. In the past it has been a bustling town with trade, commerce, cultural and architectural significance. A few places in the town are maintained by the Archaeology Survey of India and further restoration of the Old Dutch buildings and wetland eco-system in collaboration with Dutch Architects and scholars are in the planning stage.

We recently spent one afternoon in Pulicat, attending the Pulicat Heritage walk as part of the 6th Annual Pulicat lake festival, organized to showcase its rich cultural history, the Architectural influences of the Dutch and Portuguese regime and also the unfortunate prevailing ecological imbalance in this water lagoon. The first European port to establish base here was Fort Geldria, which was unfortunately destroyed in a war against British after the annexation of Holland to French Empire in 1806AD. If the fort did still exist, the town would be dwarfed in front of its magnificence. The foundation and the embankment of the moat can still be discerned beneath the overgrown thorny bushes. The layout of the fort was recreated by AARDE foundation using the maps made by the Dutch, eight of which were found in the Netherlands Archive which included the plan of the Fort Geldria (the Dutch are known to make exceptional maps and drawings). These maps sequentially showed changes in the fort plan, whether planned-to-be-executed or executed remains a mystery. With these assumptions and a little practical improvisation, AARDE recreated the model of the fort.

The Dutch fortified with bulwarks to resist the control of neighbouring moor. As the moat surrounds the fort, entry to the fort was through a bridge over the moat on the southern side – the entrance remained in the same place in all the maps. The maps revealed that the fort was a preliminary version of the star fort concept, with four triangular bastions in a square plan either at right angles or skewed on the north eastern side. Each bastion had battlements and provisions for mounting canons. The fort had different levels, the lowest level being the moat and the highest inner ground level between the moat and the fort wall, with a ramp provided to facilitate easy movement of the canons. Two maps portray a circular structure at the edge of the bastion, revealing that it could have been a watch tower, a common element found in Dutch Forts.


Recreated model of Fort Geldria by AARDE Foundation (Source: “Pulicat and Sadras – Confluence of History, Culture and Environment”)


The maps also revealed the existence of a row of trees that create a buffer zone between the governor’s residence and the buildings opposite which housed other officials. These trees dominate and craft an invisible screen marking the boundaries of the residences. The governor’s residence has a grand bifurcated staircase which marks its entrance, while the residence of the Pastor, Administrator and the Military officer had a colonnaded veranda with sloping roof marking their entrance. The internal spaces of these residences had courtyards with gardens within. All the structures have either one-way or two-way sloping roof.  Some maps show trees on the elevated level near the outer wall of the fort. Within the fort, wells were also dug to ensure water supply for the inhabitants. All these particulars and features were inferred from the illustration recreated by AARDE foundation which was stated in the map made by the Dutch.


The Bastions are located at the edges of the square plan and they project out in a triangular form. (Source: “Pulicat and Sadras – Confluence of History, Culture and Environment”)


Though changes in respect to the usage have taken place, the city as such has retained its pattern to a large extent.

The first Dutch cemetery is on the Northwest corner of the island beyond the church grounds. Despite the inaccessibility of the cemetery, the records of AARDE Foundation have evidence of a tombstone with Tamil inscriptions dating back to 1758. The three-century-old cemetery is behind what was once the fortified walls of Geldria. A semi-circular arched gateway opens to the new cemetery. The keystone is inscribed with a time fly and on the other side a verse from the apocalypse in Dutch. The inscriptions date back to 1656, with two skeletons inscribed on the supports on either side. Above the graves of the famous Dutch, the carvings and engravings symbolize the court of armour belonging to different families. To emphasize superiority, five graves have structures accentuating them, three of these graves have arched pavilions with a detailed cornice and band-work supporting the vaulted dome on the top and another two are covered with an Obelisk on the top with detailed rectangular offsets at the bottom.

A classical cornice above the arch supports two ball finials (a small roof ornament which terminates in a point) on two sides with a moulded tympanum, open in the center to give way to a vase with detailing of floral patterns.

A story of an Obelisk in Pulicat cemetery can be found in the old Dutch book ‘The rambles of Herr Helter Skelter’ through the ancient possession of Holland in the East, also found in the book ‘Squibs and the other papers, in prose and poetry’ by Madras opium club. An obelisk is a tall, narrow, four-sided, tapering monument which ends with a pyramid at the top. Historically, obelisks were monolithic structures, and have evolved to be made of several stones. Modern obelisks house interior spaces. In the midst of the Enlightenment era obelisks became associated with timelessness, memorization and mortuary arts from Egypt. Smaller Obelisks or similar forms can be found in Europe, Asia and American cemeteries or Australian World War I memorials.


Documented Obelisk and structures in the cemetery (Source: “Pulicat and Sadras – Confluence of History, Culture and Environment”)


Dutch cemetery, under protection of the ASI.


One of the surviving Dutch buildings, located 20 years ago on the then waterfront (now the waterline has receded significantly and another building stands in between) was the governor’s office. Currently housed within a hospital complex at the foot of a recently constructed bridge, this typical Dutch building is complete with a wooden lintel with a sloped trim.The front porch is adorned with Tuscan column supports and the four-sided sloping roof is laid with traditional Dutch diagonal tiles. The need for heritage conservation forgotten, it is now used as a storage and waste disposal structure by the hospital authorities.


Front elevation of Governor’s home

Door shutters with horizontal adjustable slats

The village exhibits a vibrant mix of residential blocks, the bright colours and hues that adorn the streets of Pulicat seem to draw inspiration from Portuguese influence. If not created from the romantic style of the time, what would the vivid shades of yellow and blue signify? Imitating elements of Lisbon’s eclectic architecture scene within the interiors, while covered in tiles and ceramics on the outside – half baroque, half art-nouveau– the residences are symbolic of the late Romantic period.


Bright shades dot the village landscape.


Over the years the character of the town evolved and changed with new constructions changing the facets and functions of the streets. The construction of the bridge connecting Pulicat with the lighthouse shifted the old bustling shopping streets to new shops on the street leading to the bridge. This shifted the fish market and the shops to the eastern side of Kottai Street, thus leaving the old shops abandoned and desolate. Earlier, the only mode of transport to the other side was through small boats. The construction of the bridge commenced after the Tsunami in 2004, when people on the other side were left stranded without any road connectivity to safety. Ideally, it would have been a better idea if the people were permanently relocated to a safer place, considering their proximity to the sea. This suggestion would entail avoiding construction of the bridge entirely, thus declaring the area an eco-sensitive zone while protecting its delicate ecosystem with the migratory birds that prevail there.


The old commercial street (Source: “Pulicat and Sadras – Confluence of History, Culture and Environment”)


Although there has been a shift in the functions and activities of the town, traces of Dutch and Portuguese architecture can still be observed. A few Dutch buildings still hold ground, even though they are in dilapidated conditions. Streets that run perpendicular to Kottai Street retain their significance. The residences of traditional Muslims on the street leading to the PeriyaJamiaPallivasal (Mosque) still possess their character but are in the process of being modified, and are thus highly in need of heritage conservation. The perpendicular street on the western side leads to ChinnaPalivasal (Small Mosque).

Owing to the Vijayanagara Empire that ruled Pazhaverkad for over 300 years before the arrival of the Europeans, several temples were built. Almost all streets have their own temples and most of the structures are indubitably ancient. Regrettably, these temples have lost some of their original characteristics and have undergone major changes to survive. Even though they hold original forms, insensitive and intensive additions have altered their architectural heritage significance completely. The largest and the oldest temples that still retain their original character are the Adi Narayana Perumal Temple and the Samaraeswarar Temple.


Once the busiest trading harbour port of India, now a fishing community on the brink of deterioration.


One of the five natural harbours on the east coast, Pazhaverkadu has been home to some of the most influential and important ruling powers, both Indian and European, much before the era of the British Raj. Once a bustling port town and a rich, serene ecosystem supporting stable ecological balance, today it is a less-known and insignificant fishing village. Government reforms notwithstanding, the place is losing both its rich cultural and historical heritage as well as ecological importance.



This is Part 1 in a series of articles on Pazhaverkad. Click here to check out Part 2.

Our earnest gratitude to Ar. Xavier Benedict and AARDE Foundation for their insight and invaluable information. Illustrations and maps courtesy of their book, “Pulicat and Sadras – Confluence of History, Culture and Environment”


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