There is a steady drizzle at 6.30am and when I look up, the skies are ominous. I am standing at the corner of Besant Avenue road, next to Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy Park. There is a new addition to that corner — a towering arch in green and orange. A well-lit sign declares — ‘Healthwalk Start’ and on either side are silhouettes of two runners.
One of Chennai’s most idyllic stretches that delights pedestrians and motorists alike with a canopy of trees — Besant Avenue Road — is now part of a designated stretch for an eight kilometre Health Walk, an initiative by the Tamil Nadu Health Department. Inspired by walking tracks he saw on a trip to Tokyo, Health Minister Ma. Subramanian, himself a regular marathon runner, had announced the creation of these designated spaces across all districts. A list on the Directorate of Public Health website of these walking corridors across the State simply mentions the starting point of the walk. I decide to go where the quiet and calm path takes me.
While I hesitate to walk in through the arch given the weather, two runners jog past me and that is all the motivation it takes. A few metres in, Girija Venkatesan, a resident of the area, is briskly walking with her friend carrying umbrellas. She pauses her smartwatch to talk. “I cover this stretch everyday from the corner of Besant Avenue Road till Arundale beach road and back, and have been walking here for years now.” The statues, a new addition to the stretch are exquisite, she says.
“A proper paved area all through this stretch would be very helpful, especially for senior citizens.”
Even as a long-time resident, there are pockets in the city that one gets to discover, and see in a new light. S Ravichandran, a resident of the area who has been walking here for decades says he hopes more people come here to take a walk. “This stretch is peaceful, neat and clean,” he says, before hurrying off.
On a rainy morning, many walkers navigate through puddles since the stretch does not have a uniform pavement. Down Besant Avenue, as the road curves ahead towards Theosophical Society, the pavements become broader in parts, punctuated by bright pink bougainvillea. Benches are placed at regular intervals, and given how much brighter the greens are that morning in addition to the rain-washed roads, there cannot be a more perfect place to sit and decompress.
The sculptures loom into view. While one is of a man seated on a bench with the other side vacant, there is one more of a woman walking her dog. This seems befitting, given that I encounter a friendly four-legged resident of Besant Avenue not too far away.
Further down, there is another sculpture of a boy mid-run, and a couple on a scooter stop to take a picture: an interesting addition for the Reels-makers and photographers who have for a while now haunted these roads.
Resuming their morning walks after a break, Uma, Akhila Venkat, and Maheswari Mohan, friends and long-time residents of the area tell me that this is one of the best areas in the city to walk in. “Given how beautiful this stretch is, we hope that there is some speed limit imposed on the vehicles here as well,” says Maheswari.
There are helpful signages and distance markings throughout. A sign declares ‘Walk your way to a bright day’, and another one aggressively states ‘Burn calories, not cash’. I walk into Besant Nagar Fifth Avenue Road and see the horizon in the sea. There is the usual stream of walkers and joggers along the beach, and the newly installed benches down the walkway there are already being put to good use. Many are occupied by people, and another statue makes an appearance.
On the road by the beach, the distance markings indicate that its been two-and-a-half kilometres from the arch, though it definitely feels like a lot more given my leisurely pace — taking in the sights and sounds. After taking a right at Annai Velankani Road, I hit the three-kilometre mark soon.
If the trees and wide platforms of Besant Avenue marked the start of the walk, the real morning hustle is here. Business is on in full swing at the many small tea shops dotting this stretch, Vishranthi restaurant has all its tables full with early risers enjoying coffee and breakfast, and the nurseries along the roads are being set up on the pavements. As I approach the Olcott Memorial School, a four-kilometre distance marker comes into view. It is here that if you wish to complete a full eight kilometre stretch, you are expected to take a U-turn and retrace your steps towards the beach, and come back to Third Avenue, where you can continue walking down Besant Avenue Road again towards the arch.
As I retrace my steps to the arch, I pass a man, deep in slumber on a bench, his head resting on the lap of the sculpture there. There is something for everyone here — be it a leisurely eight kilometre walk, a jog, or even a power nap that is guaranteed to be rejuvenating given the sylvian surroundings