PONDICHERRY IS RICH in wonderful attractions, many of them souvenirs of its French colonial past. One of the most delightful of these is the Cluny Embroidery Centre on Rue Romain Rolland, a street named after a French writer and Nobel Prize winner who met Gandhi and was sympathetic to India and its philosophies.The Embroidery Centre is housed in an 18th century French Colonial building (a former residence, which was built by 1774) that forms part of a religious centre under the aegis of the Order of Cluny. It is believed that one of the former owners of the house donated it to help poor women in need. This must have been before 1829, when the Embroidery Centre was established. Every day except Monday and Sunday, at least twenty women of various ages arrive at the centre and take their places at tables in a large room with tall windows that open out into a verandah supported by neoclassical pillars and decorated with elaborate stucco bas-reliefs. The verandah looks out onto a courtyard surrounded on three sides by other buildings, parts of the convent, and the outer wall with a decorative entrance gate.This ensemble of buildings forms only part of a much larger complex of buildings, some of which surround another courtyard filled with a garden.After singing what sounds like a hymn, the women begin working on their elaborate embroideries. They stitch according to patterns designed by artists who work at the centre. While they work away silently with needle and thread, a simple sound system provides background music at a low volume.Dressed in white habit, Sister Agatha, who runs the convent, watches over the ladies at work and organises the sales of their labours to visitors who step into this peaceful sanctuary a few feet away from the noisy outside world.The resulting products are exquisitely beautiful. They embroider everything from coasters to handkerchiefs to napkins to pillowcases to table cloths and bedcovers. Visitors to the centre can purchase these treasures of fine needlework. Or, customers can place orders for specific items they need. The women who embroider at the centre get paid on a piecework basis. Some of them have had a history of mistreatment before joining the centre. Visiting the Cluny Embroidery Centre is a moving experience. It provides a very good example of how a religious order can work for the benefit of the ‘common’ folk.
THE CROCODILE LYING LAZILY in the hot sunshine with its teeth lined jaws wide open lay motionless as we and many other visitors gaped at it with amazement.
We reached the Crocodile Bank at Semencheri (near Mahabalipuram) after a two hour drive northwards from Pondicherry along the East Coast Road (ECR), which as its name suggests runs close to the east coast of India. We drove through flat terrain with luxuriant vegetation. The road passes many picturesque backwaters and other water bodies, some covered with flowering waterlilies. We also passed a small collection of saltpans, alongside which there were small piles of white salt. This salt gathering area was on a much smaller scale than can be seen at the south eastern edge of Kutch. The road is dotted with numerous hatcheries for edible crustaceans such as shrimps and scampi.
The Crocodile Bank was established in 1976 by Romulus Whitaker and is now being run by his ex-wife, our friend Zai. It was started to breed cricodiles and other reptiles in captivity in order to counter the reduction of their populations in the wild. It is now an important centre for herpetology, education , wildlife conservation, and breeding reptiles. It is open to the public, who gain great enjoyment from seeing and learning about the reptiles.
We first visited the Crocodile Bank about five years ago. When we entered, my first impression was of looking at a sea of grey logs. On closer examination, these ‘logs ‘ were motionless crocodiles. We learnt that crocodiles and aligators are very somnolent unless they are hungry. Therefore, they tend to lie about motionless, basking in the sun or keeping cool in shallow water.
During our first visit, we saw a pair of beautifully coloured iguanas, which Zai and her colleagues were hoping would mate. She told us that they did produce a clutch of eggs eventually, and that some of the baby iguanas were enjoying life at the Crocodile Bank.
We were pressed for time on our visit in February 2020. So, we did not have a chance to have a good look around. On our first visit, Zai arranged for one of her team to give us what turned out to be a very informative tour.
I can strongly recommend a visit to Crocodile Bank. It is not far from the superb archaeological remains at Mahabalipuram and provides an interesting contrast to them. Instead of stones of historic interest, you can enjoy seeing creatures that have survived the passage of time even longer than the ruins.
BY FEBRUARY, daytime temperatures in Pondicherry exceed 30 degrees Celsius. This combined with high humidity levels drive the wild street dogs to sleep a lot in whatever shade they can find. Likewise, sensible people avoid direct exposure to the strong tropical sun.
When you walk along the paths shaded by trees in the centrally located Bharathi Park, you can feel the temperature drop. This park, a peaceful haven, was an unforeseen result of warfare.
In 1709, the French built a fortress, Fort Louis, in the heart of Pondicherry. It was a typical fortress of the type designed by the French engineer Vauban (1633-1707). Pentagonal in plan, it had bastions at each of its five corners. The fort was destroyed by the British in 1761 and not replaced.
The space left after the destruction of the fort remained a wasteland used by the French for military training and celebration of some French national festivals. In 1854, an elegant neoclassical pavilion was erected in the middle of this wasteland. It commemorates a legendary 16th century woman, who discovered a source of water that became very important for the inhabitants of Pondicherry.
In 1946, a tree was planted on the land where Fort Louis once stood. Eventually, the present Bharathi Park was laid out. In its middle, stands the pavilion mentioned already.
One entrance to the park is opposite the entrance to the heavily guarded Raj Nivas (Governor’s Residence), housed in the former French Governor’s House built in 1766.
At the north east corner of the park, there is a statue of a man wearing a dhoti, a long jacket, and a turban. This depicts Chinnaswami Subramania Bharathi (1882-1921), also known as ‘Bharatiyar’. He was a great Tamil poet and independence fighter and opponent of the caste system. He fled to Pondicherry in 1908 to escape from being arrested (for his ‘seditious’ writing in newspapers) by the British and remained there until 1918. In 1906, he edited a newspaper with MPT Acharya, about whom I have written in my book about Indian revolutionaries in London, “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets”. In Pondicherry, Bharatiya met other Indian freedom fighters seeking sanctuary there, including Sri Aurobindo and VVS Aiyar (also in my book), an associate of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar.
In 1918, Bharatiya moved back into British India, where he was promptly arrested. He died in 1921, impoverished.
The Puducherry Government Museum, housed in an 18th century French mansion, is a few metres from the park and well worth a visit. It contains exhibits dating from prehistory until the era of the French colonization. In need of a little bit more care and attention, there is a fascinating range of objects to be seen.
One display that interested me greatly was about the excavations made by a French archaeologist and the British Sir Mortimer Wheeler at Arikamedu, just south of Pondicherry. They were following up discoveries made in that location by French scholars before WW2. It emerged that Arikamedu was the site of a port at which Ancient Romans and Greeks traded with the local Indians.
The museum contains a few artefacts dug up including some Roman and Greek coins. A few years ago, I saw many of these in a museum at Calicut.
The ports where the Mediterranean people traded in India are contained in “The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea”, a navigational manual that was originally composed in the 1st century AD. The port near Arikamedu is most likely to have been ‘Podouke’ as listed in the “Periplus”.
So, it is evident that the area around Pondicherry was visited by Europeans long before the British, French, and Danes estsblished colonies there.
We left the museum, which also has a nice collection of Hindu sculptures, and the lovely park to enjoy some excellent French inspired cooking at the Villa Shanti. At the table next to ours, there was a very serious looking group of French tourists, who were listening earnestly to their Indian guide, who spoke to them in French with an accent that probably caused them to wince internally. Incidentally, apart from people from all over India, most of the rest of the visitors to Pondicherry are French. I wonder how they feel seeing the souvenirs of their former empire, now an episode fading into the swirling mists of time.
The street’s pretty untidy:
A treat for a cow
WE MADE A BRIEF VISIT TO THE TOWNSHIP OF AUROVILLE near Pondicherry to visit a friend, one of the approximately 3000 members of this international ‘utopian’ community. Created in 1968, it was inspired by Mirra Alfassa (1878-1973), the spiritual companion and collaborator of Sri Aurobindo. She wrote:
“Auroville wants to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity.”
Whether or not this has been achieved, I am not qualified to judge. However, Auroville, fifty years after its conception, is a lovely place to visit. It is home to many people with a creative turn of mind and attracts many people who take an interest in the arts.
Members of the Auroville community have built themselves homes and workshops with aesthetically pleasing ‘modern’ and contemporary architecture. These buildings, including structures for communal use, such as galleries, performance spaces, and restaurants, are well spaced and separated by tamed luxuriant wilderness.
During our short visit, I noticed a building, the offices of an architect, that reminded me of the Sangath Studio in Ahmedabad (Gujarat). Sangath was built between 1978 and ‘80 by the architect BV Doshi, who still uses them as his offices. Both the offices in Auroville and in Ahmedabad make use of long hemi-cylindrical concrete roofs covered with mosaics of fragments of white, sun reflecting broken ceramic tiling. Our friend thought that the studio in Auroville was built in the 1990s, but did not know whether the architect who works there was ever Doshi’s student or collaborator.
Near to the studio, we saw a tile covered brick dome above a small building. Our friend explained that this was the first free standing brick dome to be built in Auroville. In order to build it, he and his associates had to rediscover the lost art of constructing free standing brick domes.
We ended our short visit to Auroville with a superb lunch at the attractive Garden Café, which was designed by the architect whose office in Auroville I have described above.
Anybody visiting Pondicherry with an interest in the future of humanity should take a look at Auroville because, in the words of Mirra Alfassa: “For those who are satisfied with the world as it is, Auroville obviously has no reason to exist.”
I HAVE WANTED TO VISIT TRANQUEBAR (now called Tharambangadi) since I first heard of the place when I was a teenager in the 1960s. Danish settlers established a fort and their first trading post in India there in 1620. I had already visited the former Danish colony at Serampore (established by 1770) on the River Hooghly, and was keen to see what remains of Tranquebar.
We drove south from Pondicherry for three hours through flat terrain, passing huge rice paddies, negotiating sprawling towns and villages, and crossing numerous rivers and streams.
Tranquebar, a sleepy little place on the wave washed shore of the Bay of Bengal, contains a sizeable collection of buildings constructed by the Danes during their tenure of the town, which finally ended in 1845, when the Danes sold it to the British.
During the Danish era, there were three main churches. One of them built by the seashore was been destroyed by the sea long ago. The Zion Church, the oldest Protestant church in India, was consecrated in 1701. It is now used by the Church of South India. It was founded by a German Bartholomew Ziegenbald (1682-1719). He was educated at the University of Halle, where my great great grandfather received his doctoral degree in the early 19th century, and was sent (with his fellow student Heinrich Plütschau) by the King of Denmark to become the first Lutheran missionary in India.
Ziegenbald was a remarkable man. During the last few years of his life, which were spent in India, he was involved in Lutheran missionary work (countering the activities of Catholic missionaries), literary work, translating the Holy Bible into Tamil, running a printing press, and conducting church services.
The New Jerusalem Church, larger than the nearby Zion and designed with its nave equal in length as its transept, was consecrated in 1717, two years before Ziegenbald died. He was buried in it. The church remains a Lutheran place of worship. Its parish priest, Mr Samson, guided us around its plain interior and told us that about sixty local families worship there regularly. The church is partly surrounded by a small cemetery, some of its gravestones bearing Danish names.
Ziegenbald’s home, now located within the grounds of a school, contains a small museum. The groundfloor contains a portable reed organ, some manuscripts related to Ziegenbald, and two printing presses that were acquired long after Ziegenbald died. One of these presses, made in London in the 19th century, was being demonstrated to a group of Tamil Lutheran visitors.
I watched as Tamil letters were covered with red ink before being covered with a sheet of white paper. The press was then operated manually. When the paper with Tamil letters was removed and shown to the visitors crowding around with cameras poised in readiness, everyone applauded. Then, the demonstration completed, the group sung a hymn in Tamil, praising God for creating such a technological miracle.
The Ziegenbal house museum is currently curated by a German, Jasmine. She encouraged us to see a small bur lovely exhibition of artworks by two German artists from Halle, where Ziegenbald studied long ago. Then, she introduced us to an Indian artist Asma Menon, who is creating a Cabinet of Curiosities similar to a very old one that is kept in Halle and contains objects collected in India long ago. Her creation that will be housed in a cabinet similar to the one in Germany will contain a series of object that captures the ‘essence’ of Germany, as she found it on a recent visit to Halle and other German cities. We spent time talking with Asma and a young volunteer from Germany.
Aaron Hall, next to the former home of Ziegenbald, is named in memory of Reverend C Aaron (1698-1745). A Tamil, he was the first ever non-European to be ordained as a Lutheran pastor. He was ordained in December 1733. He had been baptized earlier by Ziegenbald. Jasmine told us that when Aaron was ordained, there had been massive objections to this back in Germany, but the ordination took place despite these.
The Neemrana “non-hotel” hotel at Tranquebar is housed in the picturesque former British Collector’s Bungalow close to the sea shore. Unfortunately, its restaurant proved to be rather a ‘non-restaurant’: poor food and very poor service. Most of the other diners were late middle-aged Danish tourists nursing cans of Kingfisher beer. Foolishly, I ordered pasta with “aglio olio”. What turned up was penne drowning in an a virulently bright reddish orange coloured sauce that tasted as if it contained tomato ketchup as its main ingredient.
Lunch over, we strolled along the beach passing a monument recording the arrival of Ziegenbald in India. This overlooks a small harbour surrounded by partially ruined stone walls. Men were bathing in its water which was calmer than the sea around it. From where we were walking, we could see row after row of foam crested waves breaking on the shoreline that stretched away to the southern horizon.
The fort built by the Danes under the command of Admiral Ove Gjedde (1594-1660), Fort Dansborg, is still pretty much intact. It contains a small museum with an odd assortment of exhibits – a bit of a jumble. I was intrigued by several fading Maratha paintings and a 12th century Indian stone carving in good condition.
As I stood by the well in the large central open air courtyard of the Fort with the afternoon sun beating down on me at the temperature well in excess of 30 degrees Celsius, I wondered how the Danish settlers and soldiers coped with a climate so different to what they were used to in Denmark. I was able to dive back into our air conditioned taxi after a few minutes in the sun. This option was not available in the centuries when the Danes and Germans spent months and years in Tranquebar. Even the interior of the Fort, with its thick walls, was not greatly cooler than outside.
The Fort is separate from the former British Collector’s Bungalow and the former Danish Governor’s House by a spacious sandy maidan. The Danish Governor’s House neighbours a smaller and more recent edifice named “Danish Indian Cultural Centre”. This contains a library and a small museum. Amongst the exhibits, there are several drawings and paintings by the former Danish Governor Peter Anker (lived 1744-1833; governed 1788-1806). All of his attractive artworks on display are of Indian subjects.
The former Danish Colony of Tranquebar is in Tamil Nadu. About ten kilometres or less the coastal road leading south from Tranquebar leaves the state of Tamil Nadu and enters a part of the Union Territory of Pondicherry separated from the city of that name by over a hundred kilometres of Tamil Nadu. Like Mahe, a tiny part of Pondicherry on the coast of the Arabian Sea and Chandernagore in West Bengal, this southern territory, containing the town of Karaikal, was a French colony. Yanaon, surrounded by Andhra Pradesh, was yet another French colony and is now part of the Union Territory of Pondicherry.
Karaikal became a French colony in 1674 and remained as such until about 1954. At first sight, it looks like a typical, unexceptional modern Tamil urban area with a few decaying old buildings stuck within a mass of architecturally unexceptional buildings. However, our driver, a Tamil named Pierre, drove us to see what little remains of French colonial Karaikal.
The most notable souvenir is the former French Governor’s mansion. Well conserved, the Governor lived on the first floor and his administration used the ground floor. This building, which is well over 200 years old, is now the Collector’s Office of Karaikal. Nearby, there is a French war memorial commemorating those who died in the two World Wars. The monuments single out campaigns in Algeria and Indo-China. Near this, there are a few architectural details that might have existed during the French era, but little else.
Unlike Pondicherry, which has retained its colonial charm and attracts many tourists, there is little to attract the average tourist to Karaikal. I am glad we went there because I find places like this, which hint at their largely forgotten history, very evocative and fascinating.
While I would not reccomend a visit to Karaikal, a few hours or more spent in Tranquebar will be very rewarding both to those interested in history and to lovers of the seaside.
DR BR AMBEDKAR (1891-1956), lawyer and fighter for the rights of dalits (‘untouchables’), was the chief ‘architect’ of the Constitution of India ( adopted for use in late 1949). Highly educated, he had degrees from the Columbia University (USA) and the London School of Economics (LSE). While at the LSE, Ambedkar lived in a house near Primrose Hill, which has been preserved as a museum dedicated to his memory.
While walking along the splendid seaside promenade in Pondicherry, we visited a monument to Ambedkar, the Ambedkar Manimandapam. Opened in March 2008, this memorial complex contains a large statue of Ambedkar, some highly enlarged photos taken during his lifetime, and a small library.
The captions to the pictures are currently in the local language, Tamil, only. One huge painting depicting Ambedkar handing over a copy of the Constitution dated 1952 to various worthies including Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Azad had no caption identifying the persons in it. We asked a young lady, a Bengali, if she could name any of the men. She pointed at Motilal Nehru, Sardar Patel, and Rajagopalachari in addition to those we could identify ourselves. Pointing at Rajagopalachari, she said: “He must be some kind of ‘southie’.” He was a Tamil.
And then, pointing at the portraits, she added: “If it had not been for that bunch of morons, India would have become independent much sooner. They should have left it to Netaji.” She was referring to her fellow Bengali, the late Subhas Chandra Bose, whose Indian National Army gave the British an important jolt towards allowing India to leave the British Empire.
HAVING PARENTS WHO WERE BROUGHT UP IN RACIALLY conscious South Africa, I feel easier calling the two parts of old Pondicherry by their French names, ‘Ville noire’ and ‘Ville blanche’, rather than their English names, ‘Black Town’ and ‘White Town’. The English names are redolent of the sad days of racial segregation in apartheid South Africa.
While Pondicherry was a French colony, most Europeans lived in White Town, and people of local Indian origin lived in Black Town. This kind of racial separation was not unique to the French in India. The British were also keen to keep races separate. Bangalore, for example, was divided into the Cantonment (European area) and the City (local Indian area).
A rather malodorous partially covered canal or drain separates White Town from Black Town (now called ‘Heritage Town’). White Town lies between Black Town and the shore of the Bay of Bengal.
Today, more than 60 years after the French ceased to Govern Pondicherry, the White Town continues to retain its appearance as a French colonial town. Many of the buildings were built by the French and are distinctly European in architectural style. The streets are neatly laid out, tree lined, and wide. There is none of the hustle and bustle associated with most Indian towns and villages. This might be because there is little commercial activity apart from tourist related facilities (accommodation and eateries). You can enjoy a good but costly meal in White Town, but buying a newspaper or fruit and vegetables is hardly, if at all, possible.
Since our last visit to Pondicherry five years ago (just before the great storm that flooded Chennai in late 2015), the city’s authorities have placed plaques along the streets of White Town. Written both in Tamil and English (not French!), they provide short informative histories of the streets’ names.
Cross the covered drain into what used to be called ‘Black Town’, and familiar Indian urban life is flourishing. The streets are crowded; there are shops aplenty; the area is full of traffic: two, three ,four (and more) wheeled vehicles; and there are Hindu temples (as well as churches). Apart from tiny roadside Hindu shrines, the only places of worship in White Town are churches.
In contrast to White Town, the architecture in the old Black Town is not so fine. There are a few traditional Tamil style buildings, but much of the architecture is relatively new and generally lacking in visual appeal.
Apart from being a very pleasant place to visit, Pondicherry and its well preserved historical layout offer an interesting reminder of colonial life and its less savoury racist aspects. That said, the place and its beautiful seaside promenade is a joy for all visitors whether or not they have any interest in history.
THE FLIGHT FROM BANGALORE to Chennai (Madras) is short: about forty minutes flying time. Some friends collected us from the airport in Chennai, and plied us with a tasty lunch. They recommended hiring an Uber taxi to ferry us from Chennai to Pondicherry (now ‘Puducherry’), a distance of about 100 miles. After three abortive attempts, a fourth driver pitched up and we set off for Pondicherry.
Our Uber driver was excellent and drove carefully. After just over two hour’s journey southwards along the luxuriant, verdant, well cultivated coastal plain, we reached a Pondicherry check post.
From 1674 until 1954, Pondicherry and its environs was a French colony. Occasionally, it was taken over by the British, but most of the time it was part of France. In 1954, a large majority of city elders voted in favour of ceding drom France. That year it became, and remain, an Indian Union Territory, independent of its hige neighbour Tamil Nadu. Old Pondicherry still contains many fine French colonial buildings and the policemen wear képis. Many of the road names are bilingual: Tamil and French. In addition, the town has no shortage of restaurants offering what is described as ‘French cuisine’. Although well populated with both Indian and foreign tourists, Pondicherry is a delightful place to relax and enjoy warm sea breezes.
To enter the Union Territory of Pondicherry, drivers of cars with registration plates from outside Pondicherry have to buy a permit to drive there. Our Uber driver’s car had Tamil Nadu plates. He stopped at the check post, which is about ten minutes drive from the heart of Pondicherry, and told us it would take about five minutes to get the permit. He gathered up his relevant documents and headed inside the checkpost. While we were waiting for our driver, we were parked next to an unpretentious stall serving Bengali food. It bore signs in three scripts: Bangla, English, and Tamil.
Instead of taking five minutes, we sat waiting for him for forty five minutes. This was because he had set out with one document missing. I sat waiting in the car thinking that without the entry permit, we were so near yet so far from our destination.
After some time and several telephone calls, our driver re-entered the checkpost, and emerged with the desired permit. He explained that he had bern sent a photo of the missing document by WhatsApp. This image of the document, rather than the original, satisfied those who issued the entry permit. We continued our journey. Just beyond the checkpost, I saw an obelisc, which looked old enough to have been put up by the French colonial authorities.
After settling into our accommodation, which I will describe at a later date, we took a pre-prandial stroll along the lovely seaside promenade. I was very pleased to discover that a place that had opened on the promenade a few months before our last visit to Pondicherry five years ago was still flourishing.
The Gelateria Montecatini Terme is a superb ice cream shop. It was set up just over five years ago by an Italian who has a business making luxury boats, anything from canoes to millionaires’ yachts. The gelateria is fully equipped with Italian equipment and refrigerated ice cream display counters. Stepping into this popular ice cream parlour in Pondicherry is just like stepping into a gelateria in Italy, and the ice cream is top class. The queues of customers attest that I am not alone in saying that.
The so-called ‘French food’ in Pondicherry is popular, but in no way matches up to the high standards often encountered in France. In contrast, the ice cream served at the Gelateria Montecatini Terme easily rivals the best in Italy. India never fails to be surprising!
Circling around happily
In hot sunny air
A romance, short liv’d