"Beach Development and the Soul of Chennai"


by Eric Miller, 10 Nov 2013


(An edited version of this article appeared in

the Deccan Chronicle newspaper here.)




1__Outer walkway

2__Inner walkway

3__Inner walkway

4__Inner walkway

5__Inner walkway

6__Inner walkway

7__Inner walkway

8__Gandhi plaza

9__Near Gandhi plaza



Marina Beach has to date been spared from the commercialisation and privatisation that has taken over so many other public spaces in the world today.  The promenade along Marina Beach was refurbished a few years ago.  The designers did a wonderful job!  This promenade has already become a model, an exemplary achievement of Urban Design, welcoming people of all social classes and groups.  All are uplifted together when on the Marina Beach promenade! 


As is often the case with great design, the promenade does not draw attention to itself.  It simply invites people to come and walk along the beach, and gives them plenty of space to walk and sit comfortably.  It gives people a chance to effortlessly be themselves.


This promenade could be extended in some form all the way southward to the Adyar River (from the Lighthouse to the Adyar River is approximately three kms).  Also, it would be wonderful if the Adyar River bridge near the ocean could be repaired (if this could be done without disturbing the turtles), at least for pedestrians and bicyclists, giving people a direct route to Elliot's Beach in Besant Nagar.  A walk from Marina Beach to Elliot's Beach would be a very healthy and enjoyable hike.  Chennai faces the ocean.  What a beautiful face of the City a promenade such as this could be!


The Marina Beach promenade's outer walkway features a smooth and gleaming stone surface.  The second walkway (the inner one, away from the main road, closer to the sand) provides a very generous amount of walking and sitting space.  The surfaces of this walkway are not as shiny and glossy as the walkway parallel to the main road.  But the surfaces of both walkways do their jobs very well: both are comfortable to walk on. 


The very best development of Marina Beach would be no development.  This is a case of "Less is More".  This beach should be kept as it is, in its timeless natural pristine state.  It could be cleaned more often and thoroughly.  Perhaps an additional trash pick-up machine, and/or additional cleaning staff people, might be helpful.  People visit Marina Beach to commune with Nature and with each other.  Any permanent structures on the beach would be an imposition.  Incidentally, it was a very good decision to ban cricket-playing from the Marina Beach area.  This has created much more space for peaceful walking and meditation.




Chennai began as a village beside the sea.  Fishing was a primary occupation in this village.  It seems in ancient times, part of the beach area around Chennai was known as Amaiyur (Place of Turtles).  Let us maintain this natural and cultural heritage!


The area from the Lighthouse south to Adyar River is due to be refurbished.  The plan to build an elevated highway beside the beach has been cancelled.  But what might come next?  Might members of the sea-fishing community still be able to live in the area, and practice their ancient trade?  A compromise is being developed: housing for some members of the sea-fishing community is being built.  But might the area there also be designed as a promenade that welcomes various kinds of people?  For example: the women of fishing communities often sit in circles at around 5pm to sundown, playing a game that involves dice.  Such game-playing enables conversation, a discussion of the day's events.  Might a promenade be built that enables such meetings?


Marina Beach serves "dual uses": it is a recreational beach for visitors, and and also a professional sea-fishing beach for some of the people who live nearby.  At the water's edge in the midst of Marina Beach, at numerous places there are small fishing boats on the sand.  Most of these boats are used nightly. 


As I was walking along the Marina Beach promenade the other day, I passed two men who were sitting on a smooth stone area of the promenade, repairing a fishing net.  I thought, "How interesting and beautiful!  These men are practicing an ancient craft!"


The beach road from the Lighthouse to the Adyar River is very close to the ocean.  With the predicted rise in ocean levels in the years to come, it would seem that any buildings built in this area might need to be built in such a way as to withstand occasional flooding.  This might involve these buildings being built on stilts.  And underground cables and pipes would need to be designed in such a way as to not be effected by possible flooding above them.


Aside from the wonderful Sagar Vihar Café (near the Mahatma Gandhi statue), there are no other restaurants on Marina Beach.  And there are very few shops of any sort that relate to the beach.  Opposite All-India Radio, near the Nocchikkuppam bus-stop, there is a new shop called the Lighthouse.  This shop sells women's clothes.  It is named after the actual Lighthouse, which is just a few hundred metres away.


Along this coastal path -- both facing Santhome High Road, and facing the ocean -- there could be ocean- and beach-related items for sale, as well as items made by local artists and designers.  There could be some local elements in these shops, not just the slickness of national and international brands that reduce all places to no particular place.


For seven years now, some community members and outside artists and scholars have been requesting the leaders of Chennai to facilitate the creation of a Living Museum on the heritage of local sea-fishing and sea-travel.  A Living Museum is a museum in which the objects on display are in everyday use, and community members are among the museum guides. 


A Living Museum complex could include a café, a gift shop (offering books, photos, recordings, etc), a storytelling area, and an audio-video education room (with videoconference technology to enable teaching-and-learning with school and university students around the world).  Exhibits could include boats (both wooden catamarams, and fiberglass), nets, and engines -- on a section of the beach itself.


The Dept of Geography, University of Madras, has hosted workshops with community members and others to develop lessons such a Living Museum could offer regarding the local atmosphere (wind, clouds, etc), marine biology (flora and fauna of beach and ocean), waves, currents, tides, etc.  Local systems of navigating by the stars (celestial navigation), referring to constellations of stars, could also be shared.  Educational video games could be designed utilising all of this material. 


Such a centre could present scientific knowledge, as well as local experiential knowledge and folklore.  Traditions drawn from communities all along India's southeast coast could be presented.  Our entire region of the Indian Ocean could be represented.


Members of the community, together with professional actors, writers, and scholars, have prepared and performed numerous times a 30-minute drama with folksongs, called "The Sea Story".  It tells the story of a fisherman who, after putting his children to bed with his wife, goes to sea, and is lost at sea when a giant wave overturns his boat.  However, he is rescued by a sea turtle, and the man arrives at his own funeral to tell everyone he is still alive!  In the course of the drama, four folksongs are sung: a lullaby, a rowing song, a lament song, and a celebration song.


Storytelling events have also already been held in the Lighthouse area called, "Storytelling beside the Sea" (in English and Tamil).  There has also been an essay contest for children, on the topic, "Life in a Fishing Village".


The statues along the beach already make the area something of an outdoor museum.  For the past five years, during Madras Week in August, there have been early Sunday morning walks amongst six of these statues (Kannagi, NSC Bose, Thiruvalluvar, George Pope, Bharathidasan, and Auvaiyur).  These walks have featured brief dramatic enactments near each statue, with performers beginning with words such as, "I am Thiruvalluvar, and this is my story…" (in Tamil and English).  At the statues of writers, these figures' writings are read aloud, again with English translations.


Many of the young people in Chennai's sea-fishing communities may not want to be fishermen, but they might enjoy helping to operate a Living Museum that would put a spotlight on their community's traditions.  This would be a type of cultural and eco-tourism. 



Chennai is known as a gateway to the far south of India.  An ancient Tamil literary convention divides the realm into five zones of nature and culture, with a flower representing each zone.  A Living Museum beside Marina Beach could introduce visitors to the biology and culture of Neythal (Coastal lands), and direct visitors to the other four traditional zones of far south India: Marutham (Agricultural lands); Mullai (Pasture lands); Pallai (Desert lands, dry and hot); and Kurinji (Mountain Forest lands, moist and cool). 



Dr Eric Miller (PhD in Folklore), eric@storytellinginstitute.org , directs the World Storytelling Institute, which is based in Chennai.