The Tribune - Spectrum



Sunday, February 25, 2001

A port for all seasons
By Shona Adhikari

I VISITED Visakhapatnam, the port that handles over 35 million tonne of cargo in the country, for the first time very recently. With its golden beaches, lush green fields and verdant valleys, I wondered why on earth I had never come here before.

Kali Temple on Ramakrishna BeachActually I had passed through the city umpteen times, on the train route from Bangalore to Calcutta, and had known it earlier as Waltair, the station where the Madras Mail stopped for half an hour, while lunch was loaded onto the train. Waltair was also the station from where the train would leave, in the opposite direction — trains would enter the station pulled by one engine, and depart being pulled by another. Developed during British times as a major catering centre, all the trains travelling from the south to the east and back, would stop at Waltair to pick up the main meal of the journey.

Somewhere along the way, Waltair became Visakhapatnam, named after "Visakha", the God of valour. Legend has it that an Andhra king who was on his way to Varanasi, rested at a spot that came to be called Lawson’s Bay. Enchanted by the beauty of the surroundings, he built a temple to honour his family deity Visakha. But long before the British arrived and turned it into a busy and flourishing port, it was a small fishing village and part of the Kalinga Empire — dating back to around 270 B.C., to the time of Ashoka the Great. Thereafter it successfully passed from the Andhra Kings of Vengi, to the Pallavas, the Cholas and the Gangas.

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Simhachalam Temple (top) a statue of Budha at Visakha MuseumVisakhapatnam, now a major industrial centre with a number of important factories and the country’s biggest ship-building yard, could just as well have been a seaside resort with its stunning scenic beauty, and beautiful unpolluted beaches. The newly-built beach road that curves along the bay, is what the Marine Drive in Mumbai might have been, but probably far more beautiful. At one end is the city’s major landmark, a gigantic rock, the "Dolphin’s Nose" about 174 metres high on top of which stands a lighthouse — jutting out into the sea, welcoming liners plying between the Calcutta-Chennai shipping lane.

On a road leading up from the Beach Road stands Welcomgroup Grand Bay, where they say life for a business traveller in Vizag, has gone through a sea-change since it opened. In the middle of the impressive atrium lobby stands a graceful sculpture of three women with doves in their outstretched arms, aptly named "Freedom" — flanked by palms standing tall in large planters. At the Dakshin restaurant one can sample the very special Andhra cuisine created by Master Chef V. Unnikrishnan — hot and spicy!

My first outing after arrival, took me to Simhachalam, where high on a hillock is an eleventh century temple dedicated to Vishnu, in his Narasimha or lion, incarnation. The temple is said to be second only in importance to Tirupati, and draws pilgrims from all over. The exterior structure of the temple appears fairly new, but the inner temple is definitely very old. The traditional panchadwipam, stands tall outside the temple, lit on special occasions.

The sanctum sanctorum, has an image of Vishnu, always so heavily coated with sandalwood paste, that it is impossible to make out the actual shape, except during the Chandanayatra Festival usually held around March and April, when it is bathed and displayed. A carved stone horse-drawn chariot behind the main temple, is used during the festival. Exquisite carvings, with a number of Narasimha Avatar images, and the famous Tree of Life motif with its five branches may be seen carved on the pillars. Unfortunately much of the temple is lime-washed, and one suspects that some of the carving is hidden under the coats of paint.

My next port of call was Bheemunipatnam, but first we had to pass the sun-drenched beaches that stretched for miles against the backdrop of picture-postcard hillocks. The golden sand, the white surf breaking against the shore and the blue horizon — a 25 km stretch of fascinating shoreline from Ramakrishna Beach to Rishikonda. Every 5 km there was a different beach. Lawson’s Bay which lies between the other two beaches, has something for everyone — a lighthouse, a park with a swimming pool at one end, and an Appu Ghar.

Driving northwards along the coast I passed the vast Indira Gandhi Zoological Park, which deserves a visit. This is one zoo, where animals live in their natural habitat, and the enclosures are so discreet as to be almost hidden. Further down — a full 25 km from Visakhapatnam, is the ancient Dutch port, Bheemunipatnam. Overlooking a beach of incredible and unspoilt beauty, Bheemunipatnam had its brush with greatness, when the Dutch came and made it their trading base in the 17th century. The British, who took over the port from the Dutch, preferred to move to Visakhapatnam, consigning Bheemunipatnam to oblivion. However, it still remains an interesting place to visit with colonial structures that include a well-preserved lighthouse built in 1868, a cemetery with obelisk-shaped tombs, in which the oldest dates back to 1762.

The illuminated Bona CavesAmong the most unique features of Visakhapatnam, are the three hillocks, that are a fine example of communal harmony. The first is Ross Hill which has a Catholic church on top, the second is Durgakonda with the tomb of a Muslim saint, Ishaque Madina, while the third, Sri Venkateshwarakonda, has a temple dedicated to the same deity. Interestingly, the last is said to have been built by an English sailor, Captain Blackmoor.

But a visit to the region, without making a trip to Araku Valley, some 90 km away is unthinkable. En route but off the main road are the Borra Caves, said to be a million years old. These are underground caves with fantastic stalactite and stalagmite formations — without parallel in India. This is an unbelievable world, when lit, it sparkles just as you would imagine Alladdin’s cave to have been.

But back in the city, take a look at the Victory Memorial on the Beach Road, erected after the attack during the Pakistan War. Near the memorial is the Visakha Museum, housed within an old Dutch bungalow. While there is not much to see, there is an effort to focus on famous personalities and families of the region. Here the section that is important is the archaeological section. The pieces displayed are all from the region, though the more important pieces have no doubt moved to bigger museums.

Watch the sun set behind the temple on Ramakrishna Beach, and listen to the sound of the lashing waves as the tide comes in, before going back to Grand Bay for an Andhra meal at the Dakshin — a perfect way to end the day at Visakhapatnam.

Fact file

How to get there:

Visakhapatnam is connected by train to Madras and Calcutta and by air to Hyderabad.

Where to stay:

WelcomHotel Grand Bay

Beach Road

Visakhapatnam 530002

Tel: (91-0891) 560101

Fax: (91-0891) 550691

To book in Delhi:

Tel: (91-011) 6142039/6163199