A Beach of Two Tales: Guest Post by Ross Hayes. Architect.Urban Planner.

We had been in India for two days staying south of Chennai (Madras) at Covelong. Exploring the beach, in one direction I happened upon a fishing village, which appeared to have evolved from centuries of tradition. In the other direction, I saw high-rises, India’s response to its emerging role in the world’s high tech community. The contrast could not have been more vivid.

To the right, I make out faint silhouettes of fishing boats, people moving and the blocky outline of a village smothered in palms. I set out to explore it. I expect hopeful little voices saying, “pen please, where are you from,” but the children are preoccupied with a game of leapfrog interrupted by a dash to the shore to greet incoming fishermen.

A long open boat surfs the waves as it approaches and it is skilfully turned broadside at the beach. Two fishermen jump out and with a long pole between them, sling a heavy motor off the stern and march it up the beyond the high tide line. Then they quickly return to the boat to hoist off two bales of fish as the faces of enthusiastic onlookers light up with the sight of the catch.

I walk further into the crowd. An older gentleman wearing a dhoti with a white embroidered cap sits cross-legged at the bow of a boat and gazes into the horizon. I can’t begin to guess his thoughts, but his calmness suggests a satisfaction that this time the sea has been good.

Not far away, a group of women with young children sit on an old boat. They indicate they want me to take their picture. They laugh, shout at their kids to be still and flash broad smiles at the camera. Their red forehead markings and large gold earrings glisten. Their colourful saris flow down to the sand.

And then thank me! I thought I should be thanking them.

Close by an informal market is set up. Women sit on the sand, spreading out banana leaves in front of themselves to display the catch. There are long silver fish, glistening in the afternoon sun and mounds of shrimp. Smaller fish remind me of children’s drawings, shaped by two intersecting curved lines with a dot for the eye.

Down at the beach, a group of kids chase a floating red ball. Two Moslem women join in the fun and plunge into the surf, fully clothed in their long back robes. Three sari clad Hindu friends, who are also being soaked and tossed about in the surf, cheer them on.A few metres away fishermen are repairing nets, carefully sewing stone weights into the bottom edge to prepare for another day and hopefully another celebration.

Later on I walk to the left of our cottage. I have seen activity there, but I don’t know exactly what’s happening. I move along the beach past two abandoned fishing boats. A river flowing out to sea blocks my way and then I see a young man who parks his bicycle in the shade of the trees. My eyes follow him as he strides across the sand flats and swims across the river with his net across his shoulder. The current sweeps him toward the open sea. But I see he’s done this. He finds a perch in the sand below him before he casts his net.

I watch for a moment before I see an unexpected skyline.

A series of high rises of 15 to 20 storeys are visible. These are the new-gated communities, forced out of Chennai (Madras) by the inability of the city to cope with its new 24/7 high tech industry-world. Shops have now taken over sidewalks. People are squeezed into the road with bicycles, motorcycles, three wheel motor rickshaws, cars, trucks and thick black exhaust. Add into the mix delivery vans, construction debris and an occasional cow. The result is chaos that grinds everything to a halt.

I can taste the pollution. The sound is deafening.

I am told that the city has grown four-fold in 15 years.

A new generation of workers in the IT industry has moved out of the city to new self-contained gated communities offering housing, offices, schools, clinics, recreation and shopping centres. An add in the paper claims this is a “new paradigm of urban life,” a “verdant enclave” with “sprawling sylvan grounds” and a place where “a new life begins.”

Within an hour’s walk I had found a beach of two tales – a community intricately shaped by a way of life that is centuries old and another community that has exploded from the force of a new industry.


8 comments on “A Beach of Two Tales: Guest Post by Ross Hayes. Architect.Urban Planner.

  1. Trish Loye Elliott says:

    Incredibly vivid descriptions, Ross. Makes me feel like I’ve been there. Very interesting post.


  2. Thomas Cowan says:

    I see there are two types of boats that the fishermen used, the newer (possibly fiberglass) ones and the older style log skiffs. Did you see much difference reflected in the wealth of the families that owned them?


    • nancymhayes says:


      Thomas, good question. The boats you referred to as old style consist of 4 to 5 squared logs lashed together. The logs at the bow canted upward and on the surface, appear to be quite fragile.

      The first boat that came in was one of the old style boats. Like the others, it had a motor with a very long shaft driving the propeller, similar to the ones you see in in in Thailand. These fisherman had two enormous bales of fish. I was impressed, as, at least on the surface, the boat looked barely seaworthy compared to the fibreglas boats . I cannot comment on their wealth relative to those that had the slick fibreglas boats. However, the catch from the fibreglas boats did not seem any greater than that from the timber boats. They would be far more comfortable as the wood boats had no seats at all.

      I suppose at he end of the day, that the fish returns on either boat had as much to do with the skill of the fisherman as the design of the boat itself. Whatever limitations the timber boats had, the fisherman handled them with a level of skill at least as great as those that had the fibreglas boats, and appeard to have as much, or more fish.

      Is there a lesson from this story? Perhpas it is that a good fisherman doesn’t blame his equipment.He just goes out and catches lots of fish.

      Thanks for the comment Thomas. Ross


      • jeanno says:

        Interesting comments Thomas and Ross. There are lots of lessons here. I do not see any flotation on the fiberglass boats. Are they as safe as the old style boats in the event of an upset? I also noticed there are no lifejackets in sight, lots of waders no swimmers in the photos. Am I reading too much into this? jcp


      • nancymhayes says:

        ROSS’S REPLY; The fibreglass boats have an airspace between the curved outer hull and the flat deck of the inner hull. That volume must be enough to keep them afloat in the event of a capsize. Life jackets? No there were none. In this case, it would be a good idea for the entire crew to stick with the boat in the event that it flips over.

        As you point out, I am not sure if any of those folks can swim. We were always warned not to stand up in a boat. In this case I seldom saw anyone sitting down. Just doesn”t work when you are casting and retrieving nets. I suppose it is better to stand up and catch fish than to sit down and starve.




    • nancymhayes says:

      ROSS’S REPLY: It is easy to get good photos when the design of the nets is so ingeneous. The main structural pieces are lengths of bamboo, tied together. Under the weight of the nets, they deflect, forming a beautiful curve, all counterbalanced by rocks which are suspended from the frame by ropes, braided from coconut fibre. Poor fish, they dont have a chance. CHEERS. Ross


  3. Marilynne Gillespie says:

    This is a great piece Ross.
    Not only have I learned a lot, but my imagination has been captured by the spirited Sari & Burka clad women splashing & laughing as they play in the surf.


    • nancymhayes says:

      ROSS’S REPLY: The entire beach was in high spirits; those alone who were absorbed in watching the unfolding scene, groups splashing in the water or siting on the beach laughing amongst themselves, others quietly going about their business of setting up their fish stalls on the sand, those back from the water readying their nets, and of course the fisherman unloading what to me appeared to be a substantial amount of fish.

      Spirited is a good word for it.



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