“ Marina Beach, Chennai, India: the second longest city beach in the world. „
~I don't 'do' beach holidays~
I've never really been much of a beach-lover. Admittedly my long-held ambition to one day retire by the sea with a couple of dogs to walk on the beach could suggest otherwise, but that's not about loving beaches, it's about loving the sea. I love quiet places like Frinton on Sea where you can walk for miles but I can't abide all the fuss that goes with beach holidays - all that sand in your food, hair, clothes and baggage. And parading my gravity-battered flesh for the derision of strangers is no picnic either. So if someone says "Do you want to go to the beach?" they'll do well to get more than a grudging grunt from me.
One place where I found my kind of beach was in Chennai in Tamil Nadu, southern India. Before going to the south of India I'd seen a lot of other parts of the country but I'd not really been exposed to much of coastal India and I was expecting something pretty rubbish - polluted sea, lots of junk lying around, that sort of thing. A Brazilian colleague of mine had been a few months before I visited and was horrified to discover there were no 'pretty ladies in little bikinis' on Chennai's beach. He was from Rio de Janeiro and really couldn't imagine beach life without boobs and bikinis. But in a country where 'modesty' is a virtue much prized and flesh is not for public display, what can you expect to find when you pack your bucket and spade and head for the beach?
~A very civilised approach to beach activity~
First things first, here's what you won't find; thousands of screaming children, loud radios, yobs tanked up on too much beer at 10 am in the morning, lobster red freckled people with peeling skin, sewage floating in the sea and gentlemen of a certain age clad in inadvisably tight Speedos. I think you'll agree that's not a bad list of things you don't particularly want to encounter on the beach.
Chennai's Marina Beach would be world famous if it were......to put it bluntly..... almost anywhere else; specifically somewhere less modest and somewhere that tourists actually go to. At risk of upsetting local people, Chennai isn't a great city to visit. It's short on charm and attractions but one thing it's long on is beach. IMarina Beach is a spectacular stretch of sand, ranked as the second longest urban beach in the world beaten only by Brazil's Copacabana Beach. It also benefits from being really wide - a massive 437 m at the widest point apparently - and very gently sloping. There's plenty of space for people to do what Indian people do best - setting up small businesses and selling things and standing around looking at the sea.
On the day we visited it was a weekend, a Sunday if I recall correctly. Our bus dropped us at the promenade and we headed off across the beach to find all manner of unexpected delights. Stalls were set up selling drinks and snacks, toys and trinkets, balloons and balls. A tiny fairground carousel seating just a handful of kids was being turned manually by the owner. Scores of fishermen were sitting on their dug-out canoes, folding and mending their nets whilst just a few meters away their catch was on offer, barely a few minutes out of the water. Men with old mechanical contraptions were making sugar cane juice right in front of their customers.
At the waters edge small children and their mothers paddled in the waters. Some braver souls were attempting to swim in quite rough water which is no mean feat when wrapped in six and a half meters of sari fabric or a salwar kameez. Remember life-saving classes in the school swimming pool dressed in your pyjamas (who ever got caught in an emergency drowning incident in pyjamas)? Well it's a bit like that. Officially though you aren't supposed to swim in Marina Beach because of the shockingly strong currents which cause frequent fatalities - on average five per month - but it's hard to stop hot people jumping in the water on a scorching hot sunny day.
Chennai is on the eastern side of the southern end of India and so the beach was one of those hit badly during the Tsunami of 2004. We saw video footage of the wave's arrival on the beach on television not long after our visit and couldn't help but think of how many people must have been on this massive beach the day after Christmas and wonder how many were lost. Statistics show that the Tsunami claimed the lives of 206 people on Marina Beach but it's hard to imagine it wasn't more. Down the coast at Mahabalipurum, the site of ancient shore temples, the waves unearthed deeper levels of long buried ancient buildings and the locals found a Thai Buddha statue carried all the way across the ocean by the wave and adopted it as a symbol of hope after the devastation. It's fair to say that an Indian beach experience is somewhat more spiritual than its European equivalent.
The beach is easily found - when you run out of land and reach the sea, there it is. But seriously any taxi or tuk tuk driver will whisk you there. On the other side of the road you can find some interesting historical buildings such as the cricket stadium, several of the University of Madras's buildings, the local radio station and several prestigious schools and colleges. Colonial era architecture abounds. Along the beach you can also see multiple statues and tributes to the great and the good of the city and further afield. I would not recommend hanging around on the beach after dark - but to be fair, I'd not recommend that in any big city beach - but during the day there are always lots of people around and it's a great place to spend some time.