The Buckingham Canal: Those were the days when……

The Buckingham Canal is part of my earliest memories. We used to visit my uncle’s house on its banks in Raja Annamalaipuram, left of the bridge over the canal on Greenways Road going towards Adyar. We kids used to run out and across the road, onto the banks of the canal, waiting for one of the barges to go by.

One would come along shortly, a long, narrow boat, laden with ‘chunam’ (lime), salt or grain, being poled along by men on board. Sometimes a man would run along the bank, guiding the barge by tugging a heavy rope attached to it. It was always a thrill to see one go by, for even as kids the sight had a charm that was old world, a slice of history happening in front of you!

The Canal itself has a long and hoary history. It is essentially a salt water navigation channel, running parallel to the Eastern coast of South India from Krishna District in Andhra to the Villupruam District of Tamil Nadu! It is all of 420 kilometres in length, and connects the natural backwaters along the coast, running parallel about a kilometer inland.
Constructed by the British, it became an important waterway, and a major channel for trade and industry- particularly for commodities such as rice, salt, chunam and the like.

The Wikipedia has a short & concise history: The first segment of the canal was first built in 1806 from North Chennai to Ennore, before being subsequently extended 40 kilometres further to Pulicat lake. The government of the Madras Presidency then took over the canal, and extended it further to 315 kilometres North of Chennai to Peddaganjam on the Krishna River in Andhra, and South of Madras for a 103 to Marakkanam.

The cyclones of 1965/1966 and 1976 damaged the canal, and it is presently little used and no longer maintained. Within the city of Chennai the canal is badly polluted from sewage and industrial effluent, and the silting up of the canal has left the water stagnant, creating an attractive habitat for malaria-bearing mosquitos. The North Chennai Thermal Power Station (NCTP) discharges hot water and fly ash into the canal as well. The Government of India launched a project in January 2001 to prevent sewage outfalls into the Buckingham Canal and Chennai’s other waterways, and to dredge the canal to remove accumulated sediment and improve water flow.

The Buckingham Canal acted as a buffer zone and regulated the tsunami waves on the coastal region over nearly 310 km from Pedda Ganjam to Chennai when the 2004 tsunami struck the East Coast. All along the coast, the canal was filled with tsunami water, which overflowed at a few places and receded back to sea within 10-15 min. This helped save the lives of several fishermen, especially in coastal Andhra Pradesh and parts of Chennai city and also helped in clearing of the aquaculture debris choking the canal today.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were able to restore the Buckingham Canal to its former glory? What a wonderful asset it could be for leisure and tourism! There could be boats down the canal to Mahabalipuram to the South, and North to the scenic Pulicat Lake. There could also be special backwater tours to select spots. Water sports in areas like Muttukadu which the canal connects are already a reality. It would take a tremendous effort to get the government to look at it this way given the current apathy towards all our water ways and lakes.

7 Comments so far

  1. Anand (unregistered) on July 15th, 2006 @ 12:05 am

    Punting and towing in Madras! That’s mighty romantic. David, do you have any pictures?

  2. nandhu (unregistered) on July 15th, 2006 @ 4:02 am

    David, I must congratulate you on ur nostalgia series. keep it up. we are waiting to hear more of ur experiences.

  3. Peter (unregistered) on July 15th, 2006 @ 7:17 am


    I saw more garbage thrown out of busess and vehicles than I can count. And the waterways were gross, filled with plastic bags and sewage.
    It will take a lot to clean all the mess and change people’s habits.

    The Hussain Sagar is considered a tourist “attraction” in Hyderabad, and it was just disgusting.

    Sorry to sound so negative, but you have a long way to go to change “appathy” of the residents of your cities.

  4. Chandler64 (unregistered) on July 15th, 2006 @ 9:05 am

    I used to live in Edward Elliots Raod in the 50s and I used to jog and walk back in the morning to the Beach and back. I befriended an older native gentleman in his 50s and he loved taking me thru some of the neighbourhoods behind the Inspector General’s Office complex,a crematorium, fisherman abodes, coovum river banks and on to Edward Elliotts rd near the intersection to Triplicane…My brain can still smell various scents one within few furlongs…
    The smell was a change for me from the one I was used to in Korea.
    I am not sure the area is still the same; On the right side of the EE road famous movie actress and singer lived along with the then vice-president.
    On the left side huge maternity complex, followed by some sucessful lawyers, then the owner of Gemini studios..There were all huge bugalows with luxury cars the likes owned by Hollywood stars. There was even a Shell Gas station. In the morning you can catch all the cabinet members of Madras Presidency travelling in Chevys and Fords towards the Beach road and in the evening the ‘stiffs’ on their last journey.

    Thanks for kindling my old memories..

  5. Nancy (unregistered) on July 15th, 2006 @ 10:49 am

    We have elderly British friends who used to take a boat down the canal to what is now Fisherman’s Cove on weekends, in the fifties. It sounds so idyllic — and unimaginable now.

  6. vinod (unregistered) on July 15th, 2006 @ 3:29 pm

    just wish the buckingham canal is restored, like the Thames of London or the Seine of Paris we can have one for this great city too… the name ‘buckingham canal’ in itself has a certain sense of grandeur to it…

  7. Ravages (unregistered) on July 15th, 2006 @ 11:43 pm

    Fantastic post David. Seriously good nostalgia series this on the blog. And like Anand, I wish you had some photos too…

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