It’s a story of an inquisitive civil engineer who travels simply because it is his passion. He is 81 years old today, but he found his true calling in early childhood, as is apparent from a picture gracing a wall of his living room where he is happily posing in a sailor’s outfit.
Do not mistake the bearded man for Leo Tolstoy or Charles Darwin. Chennai man D. Hemachandra Rao has crafted his own identity. His versatile collection of anything to do with a ship or boat defines him as he is fondly called the “Lighthouse Man” and rightly so.
Although the liking developed at a tender age, it is the last 18 years that have witnessed him grow wiser as he was at it with unfailing devotion - the fruit of labour has ripened and is liked by all.
Enthusiasm slowly graduated into purpose of life and the passion remains till today. Maybe I was destined to be like this, he says. Today, the house at Elango Nagar feels warm and fascinating as its ever-welcoming proud owner- all and sundry can drop by and get lost on ships and boats.
Rao has converted his happy place into a maritime heritage museum that houses collectibles with traces of watercraft that he has gathered over the years.
Having spent over a decade in the Tamil Nadu Archives, immersed in research on maritime history of the country and travelled extensively across India in a pursuit of tracing ships and boats on temple walls, rocks, caves, urns and all things old, Rao is a man of letters.
As DC wishes to take a trip around the ship paradise, the connoisseur takes us to the room from where it all started - the garage was the first to undergo the look change and then slowly the passion engulfed the whole of the ground floor and, as Rao envisions, may be ascending to the first floor in near future.
The rooms are intelligently painted deep blue, perfectly complementing and contextualising Rao’s genius. As you step in, your eyes will first settle on a 16-foot model of a boat which is a replica of real 80 foot boats that used to ply along the man-made Buckingham canal.
Rao cannot help but go back in time- those golden days when Buckingham canal was alluring and navigable. He shares some little known “facts” which he gathered after years of extensive research, in an attempt to set people right who, he believes, have fallen victim to misinformation about the origin of the canal.
“The canal was first envisioned in 1782. The Erambore River or North River, which would flow only during the monsoon and remain dry the other times could have been used for ferrying materials. But several proposals for digging the canal went unheeded by the government. Stephen Popham was the first to realise the potential of the river and ideated digging it, but the govt, again, did not bother much. At last when the government floated tenders in 1801 on the advice of the then Governor Lord Clive II, there was only one bidder- John Ludwick Heefke. John got Basil Cochrane as his guarantor. He started digging the canal from Basil Bridge in early 1802 and finished the same year - a total distance of 11 miles covered till Ennore lake. It was no easy task as the way had to be made digging through the Kattupalli Island and reached Pulicat in 1806. After a huge hiatus, it was only in 1855, on popular demand, that the canal as a government project inched towards Beddganjam in the north and towards Marakkanam in the south and the work was completed in 1882 while Beddganjam was reached in 1878. Construction of locks started in 1895 as during low tides, the boats would be stuck,” shares Rao, adding how overspeeding of steam boats damaged the banks, invoking the Ferries Act of 1870.
“The canals are very narrow - 20- 30 feet wide and there 2,500 boats were plying and in so many categories: passengers' boat, goods boat, officers’ boat, inspectors’ boat. Just to regulate them, the government brought in a lot of rules like plying would be allowed only during day, each boat had to have three boat lamps - red lamp and green lamp on either side and a white lamp in front.”
Rao’s exploration of the Buckingham canal, three times, up and down, was no smooth sailing and they had to make their way through thorns and bushes as they wanted to take a look at the locks. “The canal runs parallel to the coastline and we travelled on road. We did not have the fortune of GPS. And the locks would be in difficult places where cars would not go. So we had to keep our car and then save our way through thorny bushes, sometimes we had to even crawl. I wonder how the people actually dug their way through those places,” exclaims the explorer, adding once he ended up hurting his feet as he waded through a lake and then walked barefoot on pointy-pebbles laden path, all with a desire to see the locks. An engineer’s heart, you know! But Rao is disappointed. Most of these locks today are in a sorry state.
Rao was not content. Head over heels in love with ships, Rao started exploring the lighthouses, starting from West Bengal’s Sagar island. Friend Vicent D’Souza has been a valuable companion.
As you stroll across Rao’s garage, lighthouses from across India greet you; they are all over the walls - thanks to Rao who captured them as he met over 200 lighthouses across India.
The ship lover who has curated three heritage bridge walks during the Madras week, now looks forward to releasing his next two books that speak of Bridges in Madras and his Buckingham Canal experience and is all set for his trip to Goa, in search of temples with ship heritage.
Rao looks forward to exploring the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Lakshwadeep Islands in pursuit of his passion.
TN TEMPLES &; SHIPS
In a recently held talk Indian Antiquity- boats and ships in sculptures, organised by the Tamil Heritage Trust, Rao enlightened the audience with some lesser known facts. There are places in very own Tamil Nadu that elude our maritime heritage in their sculptures.
Alangulam’s excavated ancient potsherds record ship and boat. A Shiva temple in Tirupudaimaruthur in Tirunelveli district is much more than a place of worship.
A mural painting on the second tier of the gopuram shows you not just ships with mast rigs and sails but also Arabs with six horses. Outer wall of Sri Varadaraja Perumal temple in Thirubhuvanai near Puducherry is intriguing. You see a boat that has a raised and upturned prow and the stern is raised too and higher than the prow.
Samavedeeswarar temple in Thirumangalam features a boat depicting scenes from Ramayana- Lord Ram, Lord Lakshmana, Sita and boatman Guha crossing the Ganges.The gateway of Sri Alagiya Nambirayar temple in Thirukurankudi too traces a ship that has an open deck, with lower portion of the mast visible and strakes of planks strewn together.
Two boats gracefully feature on a beam of Aathinatha Azhwar temple near Thoothukudi district....