A French Connection
© Copyright 2015 by Akber Ayub
Honorable Mention--2016 Travel Nonfiction
From the sunlit patio of a beachfront café Pierre Stuyvesant squinted with ice blue eyes at the shimmering Bay of Bengal in between leisurely sips of coffee. The boundless blue-green of the sea and the brilliant October sunshine combined to cast a sanguine spell on the long arrow of Gourbet Avenue that skirted the sea. Stuyvesant, on his annual visit from Paris, relaxed, soaking in the ambience—just as his predecessors did more than three centuries ago.
French settlers first arrived in Pondicherry, Southern India in 1674. Soon they established a trading port and, dictated by the volatile conditions of the day, built a fort here and later as their settlement expanded, fortified the entire town—a bulwark against Dutch and English invaders with whom they fought pitched battles on number of occasions. Amazingly, those street plans created and reconstructed by the French after the ravages of the three intervening British rules remain almost the same even today. French dreams of an Indian empire might have begun and ended at Pondicherry, but the remnants of their rule, spanning four centuries till 1954, remain to this day—more vividly than the vestiges of British rule scattered over the rest of India.
The French quarter developed along the beach, consisting of stately government buildings and residential villas. The street facades characterised by continuous wall-to-wall construction with high garden walls and elaborate gateways, neat seamless sidewalks and spotless roads with names like Rue Saint Martin and Rue de la Campagnie transport you to a quaint French town. Vertical pilasters and horizontal cornices, high arched windows and wooden balconies are common. A major change from the original French architecture seems to be the use of flat roofs with decorative balustrades in place of pitched roofs. Walled-in interior courtyards sport well-kept gardens surrounded by arched colonnades. Awash in mellow colours of pink, yellow, grey and white, walls and buildings lining the parallel and bisecting grid of streets are a treat to the eyes. Indeed this part of town is awash in history.
The native Tamil town developed around a couple of temples farther away from the beach. The exterior facades of these houses are distinctly different and mainly feature a street veranda with a sloping, tiled roof supported on wooden posts—a social extension of the house. Cornices, pilasters and ornamental parapets are a common feature too giving the streetscape a continuous, homogenous appearance. A Christian settlement came up around a Cathedral not far away, while the French rulers facilitated the local Muslims to settle down around a mosque at the southern end of the settlement. Today, this area has quaint street names: Rue Kazi and Rue Mulla—even a Rue Tippu Sulthan.
In many buildings you can find a synthesis of the two varying styles—French and Tamil. This cross-cultural history is what gives Pondicherry its unique identity. That character is further enhanced by the array of monuments strewn across the French precincts that tell a compelling story of their own. Prominent among these are the Aayi Mandapam, a Greco-Roman style structure built under orders from Emperor Napoleon to appease a 16th Century courtesan. The Place Du Gouvernment—now housing the Legislative Assembly— is a handsome building built in the 18th century. The Ranga Pillai mansion, another showcase of the curious mix of French and Tamil architecture is one of the oldest surviving buildings within the ‘native quarters’. Then there are the statues. Be it that of Governor Francois Dupliex gracing the southern end of the promenade or the image of Joan of Arc frozen in marble within a garden, they are all fairly evocative of a bygone era. If the snow white, soaring towers of the French war memorial pay a compelling tribute to the French war veterans, the grandiose Gandhi statue surrounded by eight exquisitely carved pink granite columns proclaim his greatness in no uncertain terms. They might represent opposing ideologies, but nonetheless lend a stately character to the promenade with their lofty bearing and grand scale. Just a stones throw away the old lighthouse rises into the blue sky holding aloft a lantern that was first lit on 1st July 1836. As dawn breaks over the Bay of Bengal and you behold these landmarks glowing in the first rays of the sun you realise how mere stone can sometimes tell a thousand tales.
Monuments and landmarks apart, traces of French history are visible in prosaic details of everyday life too—like the red French kepis perched firmly on the head of a burly Tamil constable sporting a handlebar moustache; French signboards proclaiming the original French street names and the occasional French speaking locals. In heritage hotels menu cards offering French cuisine are printed in—you guessed it, French.
Pondicherry is equally synonymous with Auroville, the international commune fourteen kms away (actually within Tamil Nadu) that symbolises an experiment in international living. In this ‘City of Dawn’ spread across 20 sq. kms, a multinational community—speaking an astonishing 55 different languages—lives and works in peace and harmony following the principles, or charter, laid down by Aurobindo, the revolutionary turned saint from Bengal. It promises, through a unique synthesis of spirituality and science, a higher and truer life to its inhabitants—currently around 1000.
The Aurobindo ashram on Rue de la Marine houses the marble Samadhi where Aurobindo and the Mother, a Paris-born painter-musician and Aurobindo’s close companion for 30 odd years have been laid to rest. The meditation centre here draws devotees in droves.
Pondy also has its share of ‘doable’ spots. The museum for one; with its well-preserved collection of artefacts and antiques housed in a heritage building, it must surely rekindle nostalgia for old timers bringing to life as it does slices of French life in Pondy of the bygone days. So does the botanical garden—planned and set up by C.S.Perrotet in 1826. Even the beach here is not without its share of history. The sedate 1.5 kms long seashore gives no hint of the many fierce Anglo-French battles fought on its sands.
If you’ve had an overdose of history and sorely need a break, head for the Chunnambar back waters. Eight kms away on the Cuddalore Main Road, a cruise in a motor boat here with a stop over on a sandy island would help you unwind, though the backwaters here lack the lushness seen along the Malabar Coast. Back from the cruise, you can pick up good linen and cottons perhaps as a memento, from the 100-year-old Anglo-French textile mills near the railway station. Sturdy hand-woven cotton hammocks are a steal at just a thousand odd rupees each. Buy them from Auroville, rather than from the up-town shopping centres—where you can shop for leather goods and apparels. Pottery and hand made paper carry the ethnic tag.
When it comes to accommodation, Pondy surely offers variety. From ashrams to heritage hotels and modest guest houses to beach resorts, there’s one to suit every pocket. You could also stay at the different guest houses within Auroville at very modest rates—if you don’t mind the rather long commute through down-town traffic snarls. As for food there is again a mélange of flavours on offer—French, Chinese, Tamil, Chettinad and north Indian. You surely can’t complain of monotony.
Pondy today might please the overnight and whistle-stop tourists, but for conservationists there is cause for concern. Over the years, unchecked development has been threatening to overrun Pondys’ leitmotiv—its unique Franco-Tamil character. Fortunately, not everything is lost, yet. Local and international efforts have been addressing this problem. The Pondicherry chapter of INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) with help from the French government has been in the forefront of conservation efforts. “The Legislative Assembly will be shifted shortly to a new building down-town from the existing Place Du Gouvernment.” Says SriKumar from the INTACH office. “Other government offices and departments occupying many of the heritage buildings will also be shifted in due course. These buildings, after restoration, will be put to more appropriate use.” That should be good news for the tourism department too which has been trying to hard sell Pondy’s architectural heritage.
has a peaceful, easy feeling. No one is in too much of a hurry.
Perhaps it’s the result of the melding cultures of the
past, or maybe it’s the spiritual legacy of Aurobindo.
the reason, you’ll find a sense of peace and harmony
Pondy… like soft moonlight settling over a landscape. That
intangible quality perhaps explains the liberal sprinkling of
foreigners found here almost the year round or the tourists that
flock here despite the humid, sultry climate.
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