The VOC got its trading settlement in Pulicat (Paliacatta) in 1610 through a contract with the king of Karnataka. There they build fort Gelria in the battle with the Portuguese. There is nothing left of the fort, as the British destroyed all Dutch forts after they took over from the VOC.
Behind the market street the white Dutch tombs shine bright in the India sun. Just before I arrived in 1989 walls and tombs had been whitewashed!
The white tombs hurt the eye in the Indian sun.
There is a double gate at the Dutch cemetery in Pulicat (Tamil Nadu). Parts of the stone Death figure in the gate have gone. That is why the Archeological Survey of India has put up the double fence. Maintaining this site is part of the governmemts effort to bring tourists to this poor coastal area. The gate is spectacular in the details.
Indian address finding
In 2013 we have a small colourful dressed lady called Suguna Naidu as a guide. She thinks that we want a touristic tour of Chennai. Also the driver does not know our programme. When we make clear that we are going to Pulicat and need to get in touch with the Art & Architecture Research Development Education Centre Foundation (AARDE) of Xavier Benedict, she has to first make a deal with the travel agency.
The first address I have of AARDE recently changed. Finding the new one is an amazing example of Indian miscommunication through mobile telephones in a language from which we only understand the street name and the words “church”. None of the callers mention the name of the church in the about 20 phone calls they exchange. So we stopped at four different churches until after 40 minutes we are back at the main street in front of the St. Thomas church. This was the first church we passed after we left the hotel and a secretary of AARDE comes out.
The gentleman who is going to receive us in Pulicat at 14:00 is still having a meeting and it is highly unlikely that he will make it on time. We take off for a 55 km drive, starting on a four-lane highway. Already then we notice many large trucks that carry containers. There are a lot of factories in the area along the road. The traffic intensifies when we are back on the narrow road. There are container terminals all over the place. The ride takes longer than expected. The road has been widened, but is still mainly under construction.
Not white washed this time
After nearly two ours we reach. I revisited Pulicat, for Chris it is the first time. From a distance we can already see that this time there was no paint visible. But we start at the harbour of Pulicat and are appalled by the garbage there. We see the newly constructed family houses from after the 2009 tsunami. Some of them seem not to be occupied. The typical India fishermen boats are all in the harbour. After that we go to the old church of Portuguese origin. We are shocked that it is not there anymore. Instead, new construction is going on, including a big dome. It is the “Our Lady of Glory Shrine” church, says the priest’s secretary who guides us around. On the premises near the ocean is the skeleton of an old Dutch house where a few builders are at work.
We visited Pulicat to see four Indian – Dutch heritage places:
- the new Dutch cemetery;
- the old Dutch cemetery;
- the remainders of the fort Gelria; and
- the Dutch tax house.
It was good to see that the tombstones at the new cemetery had been cleaned and the inscriptions have been made better readable. The gate is spectacular in the details.
The old cemetery is now in ruins with thorny bushes growing everywhere and it is used as an open toilet.
Old cemetery Pulicat
In the wall is a sign: From Holland with love. Van der Linden bouwbedrijf from St. Michelsgestel supposedly financed the renovation of the old Dutch cemetery in Pulicat. In the bushes we could detect only three new graves and still two old Dutch ones.
From Holland with love
The sign of Fort Geldria (it is Gelria) is opposite the old cemetery. The fort’s foundation are also covered with thorny bushes.
Site of Fort Gelria
Xavier Benedict told me later in the hotel that the government’s plan was to demolish the foundation of the fort and built a new bus station there. With the help of the Archeological Survey of India AARDE Foundation has been able to get this plan off the table. They have proposed to clear the bushes and create a heritage park. The Tamil Nadu government has accepted the proposal. Mr. Benedict hoped that by the end of 2014 this would have been done.
On my question about the status of the Dutch archives in the Central Madras Archives he said that all the old papers of the VOC have now been scanned and that they are well preserved. He also mentions that the old Dutch tax office building that was threatened to be demolished earlier this year will be spared. So that is good news for the Indian-Dutch heritage. Unfortunately we missed this building in our tour.
Xavier wrote a book “Pulicat and Sadras” that is available online.