Though the beach is an uninterrupted stretch of sand from the Harbour to Adyar and beyond, the name Marina is associated with the 3 ½ km distance between the mouth of the Cooum river and the Lighthouse. The idea of building a promenade alongside this stretch of the beach was that of Monstuart Elphinstone Grant-Duff, Governor of Madras from 1881 to 1886. Completed in 1884, he gave it its Italian name – the Marina.

The road that runs parallel to the Marina has been in existence from the mid-nineteenth century. Known earlier as South Beach Road, it was renamed Kamaraj Salai, commemorating a much-loved Chief Minister of the State. On the opposite side of the Marina came up several landmark buildings and institutions – The Madras University, Senate House, Presidency College, Chepauk Palace, the PWD Buildings, the University Examination Hall, the Ice House, Lady Willingdon Institute, Queen Mary’s College, the office of the Director-General of Police and the All India Radio. This row can be termed the cradle of the Indo-Saracenic form of architecture for it was here that beginning with Chepauk Palace (1750s), that style was conceived and perfected with Senate House (1860s).

The Marina became a place for relaxation, especially in the evenings. The affluent took the air in their carriages and later cars. In the old days a band was invariably in attendance on certain days of the week. With the setting up of the Corporation Radio in 1930, loudspeakers were installed on the beach for people to congregate and listen to the programmes.

The beach also became the venue for public meetings, especially during the Freedom Struggle. Remembering this, a statue of Mahatma Gandhi sculpted by DP Roy Chowdhury, then Principal of the Government College of Arts and Crafts, was erected here in the 1950s. Another of his works on the Marina is the Triumph of Labour, inspired by the landing of American troops at Iwo Jima. In 1968 the second World Tamil Conference was held in Madras. To commemorate this, the statues of several Tamil poets, writers, literary characters and scholars were put up along the Marina. Several statues also dot the pavement opposite and one of these is of Swami Vivekananda. He stayed for a week at the Ice House – the building in which, ice, a precious commodity in hot Madras, was imported from America, stored and sold, from the 1750s till 1860! It was while walking on the Marina that Vivekananda received an inner call urging him to travel to the Parliament of Religions at Chicago. Two Chief Ministers of the State, CN Annadurai and MG Ramachandran are remembered with grand memorials on the beach. K Kamaraj, is also commemorated here by way of a statue, as is Annie Besant the Irish woman who became an Indian patriot.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, the Marina spelt romance. This was one place where couples could steal off to and whisper sweet-nothings behind the boats that dotted the sand. Several Tamil films picturised this mood and the Marina was therefore much in demand for film-shoots as well. It has also been home to sports, physical fitness and the scouts’ movement. Several youngsters congregate here to play cricket and the Presidency Cricket Ground, maintained in all its pristine beauty is an inspiration. You can also see people briskly walking on the promenade. Bathing here however is a strict no-no for a deadly undercurrent is known to carry away all but the strongest swimmers. But standing in ankle-deep water and getting splashed by the waves is a great way to cool off

Even today, despite other entertainments, the Marina remains the one place where the common man can go with family or alone, feast on inexpensive eats such as shredded coconuts, diced green mangoes, boiled or fried grams and be one with nature. Perhaps it is by way of thanksgiving for this gift of nature that people descend here in thousands the day after the Tamil festival of Pongal. Kaanum Pongal as it is called, is uniquely celebrated in Chennai by way of a visit to the beach.

Successive Governments have spent a lot of money in beautifying the Marina. The latest effort has seen the addition of walkways, seating areas, gazebos and gardens. This unique lung has been threatened with development for over a century. Railway lines, public buildings and roadways have been planned along the beach, only to be scuttled following active public protests. But a bigger threat has been the litter that is found all along the beach and which eventually makes it to the sea. Governments have invested heavily in cleaning machinery but much depends on the people themselves. For it is only by protecting the Marina that we can retain it as a beautiful and therapeutic spot.

This write-up appeared here –