I visited Visakhapatnam, the port that handles over thirty-five million tons of cargo in the country, for the first time, not too long ago. With its golden beaches, lush green fields and verdant valleys, I wondered why on earth I had never come here before. A friend who visited the city a couple of months earlier was in awe and managed to inspire me to the extent that within two weeks I had planned a trip!
Actually I had passed through the city umpteen times, and had known it earlier as Waltair, the station where trains stopped for half an hour on, while lunch was loaded onto the train. Waltair was also the station from where the train would leave, by the opposite direction. Developed during the British times it was a major catering hub and all the trains travelling from the South to the East and back, would stop here, to pick up the meal of the journey.
Somewhere along the way, Waltair became Visakhapatnum, 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 passed through many dynasties — from the Andhra Kings of Vengi, to the Pallavas, the Cholas and the Gangas.
Visakhapatnam, now a major industrial centre is the financial capital of Andhra Pradesh. It is also the base of the Eastern Command of the Indian Navy, and has the country’s biggest ship-building yard — and could just as well have been a seaside resort with its stunning scenic beauty, and beautiful unpolluted beaches.
The beach road that curves along the bay, is what the Marine Drive 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.
My first outing 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 and is 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 many coats of paint.
My next port of call was Bheemunipatnam, now commonly known as Bheemli. We set off on the Bheemli Beach Road passing 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 horizion it was a very special drive indeed. The road is a twenty-five kilometre stretch of fascinating shoreline from Ramakrishna Beach to Rishikonda and five kilometers, there seems to be a different beach! Lawson's Bay which lies between the other two beaches, has something for everyone in the family.
Also located around 15 kms from Vizag, on the same road, close to the beaches lie the Buddhist sites of Thotlakonda and Bavikonda, declared as Heritage sites by UNESCO. Interestingly, it has also been said that the name Visakha was that of a Buddhist disciple! The fact remains that Buddhism was practiced in this region and the remains of stupas continue to attract students of history.
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 twenty-five kilometres 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. 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.
There are three hillocks in Visakhapatnam, which are extremely interesting- 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, would be incomplete. Enroute 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. An unbelievable world, when lit it has the look of Aladdin's cave.
Back in the city, I decided to take a look at the Victory Memorial erected after the attack during the Pakistan War. Near the memorial is the Visakha Museum, housed within an ancient Dutch bungalow. While there is not much to see, there has been an effort to focus on famous personalities and families of the region.
As dusk draws near, the thing to do is sit on the beach and watch the sun set behind the temple on Ramakrishna Beach … and listen to the sound of the lashing waves as the tide comes in. Don’t forget to ensure that your traditional Andhra thali is waiting for you….a perfect way to end a day at Visakhapatnam.