AS we drive deeper south, following the coastline, with the Bay of Bengal on our left, the signs of the havoc wreaked by the recent cyclone are unmistakable. More than 2,000 years ago, some such similar tempest of relentless fury is thought to have whipped up tidal waves of such magnitude that they swallowed up what was then the flourishing port-city of Poompuhar.
Legend, though, attributes the city's destruction to the fury of the goddess Manimekhalai at the ruling Chola king, who forgot to celebrate the annual festival of Indra, god of rain and thunder. Spectacular revenge of the gods, this. What's left now is pathetic little. Almost a negation that there ever was anything glorious upon this land.
Soon after Sirkali, I expect to see signposts pointing to Poompuhar but there are none; we have to stop and ask at every village. Surely we can't miss it. After all, the Tamil Nadu government has adopted it as some sort of official symbol. The state handicrafts development corporation is named Poompuhar in official recognition of the grandeur and splendour of Tamil history. But that's just our love for symbols. Nothing needs to be real, tangible. Street names, statues, holidays—they suffice to show we are serious about our history, culture, our past.
Then, 17 km short of the place, the first battered arm appears and I am relieved to know we are on the right road. I needn't have worried. Within minutes, the sleepy, verdant countryside is punctuated with those ghastly arches Dravidian political parties are famous for. Painted in shades of pink and green, they are evidence that we are heading into government-adopted territory.
Down these same roads, prosperous traders would have walked in the early Christian era, laden with silk and spices to unload for the waiting ships from China and Thailand. Known also as Kaveripoompattinam, the city was the port capital of the Cholas, reaching its pinnacle of glory under Karikal Chola (50-95 AD).
Historical writings are, in fact, replete with mention of Poompuhar: Ilango's epic poem Silappathikaram, Pali literature, temple inscriptions, the travelogues of Pliny and Ptolemy—all refer to it by various names. A pillar inscription uncovered in north India says that Somaya Pikkuni, a Buddhist from Poompuhar, donated it in 2 BC. This is not the only evidence of the presence of Buddhism. Wandering around the single room that is Poompuhar's museum, I come across a Buddha statue that was retrieved underwater by the marine archaeological expeditions that have been working on and off here since about a decade ago. Every inch of it is encrusted with bits of seashell and barnacle and pockmarked with age. I run a finger over its crevices and edges; it is as if I were caressing a piece of history.
It is among these odds and scraps that I get my only feel of the past. The rest of the place is pure kitsch...
In a grossly misguided attempt to recreate the past, M. Karunanidhi, during his 1973 stint in power, had the waterfront dotted with structures as unsightly as they are useless. As you walk towards the sea, the Ilanji Mandram—mentioned in literature as a bathing place with miraculous waters that cured all ailments—juts up like a raw pink and green boil, marring your view of the grey, restless sea. Its pools are filled with rainwater from the recent storm, and little naked boys bathe in it. There is a circular room filled with crude temple sculpture and walls defaced with the inevitable 'Kannan loves Sheela' graffiti. A scattering of day-trippers scrabble around the buildings, getting photographed against the lurid statues.
I walk down to the water. A few kilometres to my right, the Cauvery is winding its way into the sea. The books tell of how heavily-laden ships would sail down her waters without slacking sail. An ancient trader would have stood here, eyes shielded against the sun, trying to catch a glimpse of the sails that will bring him riches. It's hard to sustain the imagery. Between the Cauvery and me looms another carved tower straight out of a Tamil historical film, a chafing intrusion of the present in its crudest form. Behind me, a ragtag collection of stalls sell shell ornaments, plastic toys, beads, tender coconut, and squatting women hawk dry fish.
I ask an old man wandering by if he knows why his fishing village is famous: he desultorily mentions Kannagi, heroine of Silappathikaram, but is more interested in why I am here. He tells me of how the Kalaignar built fishing huts in 1973, now in ruins. "Do the tourist buildings get extra money for the villagers?" I ask. He grunts: "The stalls do brisk business but little else has changed."
At the tourist office, you can buy tickets to the splendidly-titled "Art Gallery": yet another grandiose edifice with a collection of more temple carvings, this time depicting the Kannagi story. Down the road—carefully-manicured gardens with carved gazebos and more statues. The place is breathtaking in its sheer vulgarity.
What had I expected? That I would glimpse remnants of the sunken city? That there would be bits of a 2,000-year-old culture lying around for me to pick up and peer into the past?
The next morning we are at the beach before 7 am, just in time to see the fishermen pull in their catamarans from the blue-grey sea streaked with silver from the rising sun. The fishermen yell out to us to take their pictures. Now, the village is alive; a palpable sense of excitement and happiness in the pungent, salty air. It is the first day the boats have gone to sea since the cyclone.
The crew around Rasikannan's catamaran does not look too cheerful. Their net got tangled and the catch is small. I accompany the fiftysomething to the auction under way a few metres away. The buyers are all women; they will sell the catch in the villages around the area. Even before the fish tumble out of Rasi's basket, they surround him shrilly and he yells 55! The bidding has begun. In between the shouts, he picks out a smallish fish and puts it into the outstretched paw of an old crony. Bids are quickly upped but he has to close at a measly Rs 65. This he'll share among all five crew members: a day's wages of Rs 13. But some days, we get up to Rs 1,000, he says proudly.
Pattamma wants me to take her 17-year-old daughter to the city. She may do something better there, she says, casually tossing back a crab trying to get away. My husband's dead, she says. Kannari, standing nearby, laughs: "Mine isn't, but little difference. He's always drunk. I'll sell this fish and buy rice. Only then will we have food in the house." Someone else begins a murmur, but is sharply asked to shut up: "Don't complain to strangers, we are happy here, as happy as we can be."
As I walk away, they ask me to stay and share their meen kolambu (fish curry). But I must decline; I'm headed for the museum and its display of well fragments and pottery the excavations have unearthed. Evidence of the city that was once alive and throbbing here. Before and after my trip, almost everyone says, "Oh, Poompuhar? Isn't it famous for antiques and handicrafts?" They have confused the government showroom with the real city.
No, there are no antiques or grand ruins or embroidered tapestries here. The pieces displayed in the museum are the only fragments of the past. The rest of this fishing village is just that, a small fishing village on the east coast of Tamil Nadu. n