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.”
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!
ONE OF OUR SAMSUNG mobile phones needed repairing while we were in Bangalore. Using the Google search engine, we discovered that the Samsung Service Centre nearest us is at Jayanagar. We gave the address provided by Google to an autorickshaw driver and after some navigational difficulties we reached the spot. There was no Service Centre but close to where we expected it to be, we found a Samsung showroom. Clearly, there was a mistake on Google.
Jayanagar gets scant mention in a new guidebook to Bangalore, so I turned to the (not always completely reliable) Google search engine to get a bit of background to this district of Bangalore close to the Lalbagh, a historic botanical garden. According to Wikipedia, a good starting place for research, Jayanagar means ‘victory city’. The area was established in 1948, and was one of the first planned suburbs of Bangalore. What little we saw of Jayanagar during our quest for the Samsung Service Centre reveals that the area is well planned in comparison with other areas of Bangalore. It gives the impression of being a prosperous suburb, which it is.
The people working in the Samsung showroom, where we stopped, confirmed that the address given by Google was indeed incorrect. They gave us directio s for finding the Service Centre, which was ten minutes’ walk away. This walk gave us a chance to gain some impressions of Jayanagar.
After walking past several palatial, fancy looking jewellery stores, we entered a long, mainly residential, street. Most of the houses were well spaced from each other, quite unlike the hugger mugger found in, for example, the prosperous but poorly planned suburb of Koramangala. The architecture of the houses along the street (7th Main Road) in Jayanagar is not uniform but interestingly varied. Several of the houses carry rakshasas, grotesque, scary masks to ward off the ‘evil eye’.
An elegant mandir, the Ganesha Vinayaka Temple, stands next to the intersection of 7th Main Road and New Diagonal Road. Established in the late 1970s, this temple attracts many politicians. Those seeking power come to worship at this place.
Beyond the temple, we reached 27th Cross Road. After crossing its central divider, we entered our destination, the Samsung Service Centre.
As with many faults of an electronic nature, when the engineer checked out the problem we were having with the phone, it had disappeared. Our search for the Samsung Service Centre had been unnecessary… so we thought.
PS After we had returned from Jayanagar, we discovered that our phone was repeating the fault which had caused us to make the apparently pointless journey to the pleasant suburb of Jayanagar.
VINAYAK DAMODAR SAVARKAR (1883-1966) has been dead for over half a century. Yet, his ideas continue to influence political thinking in India today. A controversial freedom fighter, writer, and politician, he is either admired uncritically by his biographers or damned by them. Vikram Sampath’s recently published book “Savarkar:Echoes from a Forgotten Past 1883-1924″ provides a reasonably balanced story that is neither over critical (as is, for example, AG Noorani) or hagiographic (as are D Keer and J Joglekar).
The period covered in the book by Sampath, 1883 to 1924, is the most important part of his life as far as the present is concerned.
From an early age, Savarkar, who was much influenced by Giuseppe Mazzini, was involved with secret societies and conspiracies, all connected with his desire to rid India of its British imperialist rulers.
In 1906, Savarkar travelled to London to study to become a barrister. He was funded by a scholarship granted by Shyamji Krishnavarma and his wealthy supporters. For most of his stay in London, he resided at India House in Highgate, founded by Krishnavarma (and described in my book “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets).
Savarkar’s years in London (1906-10) were productive in several ways. He wrote a biography of Mazzini and a history of the First Indian War of Independence (1857-58). Both works reflected his aim of expelling the British from India. In addition to writing, he became deeply involved in: what the British authorities might have called ‘terrorism’; bomb making; smuggling ‘seditious’ literature and weaponry into India; assassinations; and so on. This is all described well and interestingly by Sampath.
The British police and their counterparts in India became desperate to put Savarkar behind bars. He left for France in late 1909 and his freedom fighting friends there, including Krishnavarma and Madam Cama, tried to persuade him not to return to England. However, he did and was arrested.
Savarkar was kept in custody in Brixton prison for months whilst a lengthy case for his extradition to face charges in India, was fought. In the end, he lost and began his long journey to India as a political prisoner.
At Marseilles, Savarkar escaped from the ship and was rearrested on French soil by British police, who had been accompanying him. This arrest on foreign, not British, soil gave rise to an international tribunal in the Hague. However, by the time when the legality of this irregular arrest was decided, Savarkar was in prison in Bombay, being tried without a jury. He was condemned to two terms of life imprisonment (50 years) in the Cellular Jail, a hellhole on the almost inhospitable Andaman Islands. Interestingly, it was the terrible years he spent there that were to lead to his development of important ideas about Hindu Nationalism.
Savarkar underwent unbelievably horrendous experiences in the Cellular Jail. Regarded as highly dangerous by the British, he was singled out for particularly harsh treatment. Despite often being so unwell that he was close to dying, Savarkar survived his prison ordeals. As the years passed, he was able to educate his fellow prisoners and to develop his ideas on the shape of a future India free of British domination. It was while in the Andamans that his views on who could be counted as a ‘true Indian’ began to form in earnest.
Many of Savarkar’s detractors brand him as a coward for having written many petitions for clemency to the British authorities. Sampath shows, as does another recent biographer (V Purandare) that Savarkar was far from being alone amongst the political prisoners in trying to cut short his prison sentence. He made promises to abstain from political activity if his sentence was shortened. In addition to wanting to save himself from future torments, Savarkar believed that a politician behind bars was far less use to his country than outside prison. Sampath shows that both he and the British officials believed that his promises of good behaviour were of questionable value.
Sampath’s description of Savarkar’s time in the Andamans is heavily dependent on Savarkar’s own detailed account of it, which was published a few years after his release. I have read parts of this fascinating story (available in English on savarkar.org). However, one should be a little cautious about its accuracy because I felt that although much of what Savarkar described was probably accurate, he wrote it not only as a piece of personal history but also with political intentions, as was the case with his earlier history of the so-called ‘Indian Mutiny’. That said, any biographer of Savarkar needs to depend heavily on Savarkar’s own story of his imprisonment.
Eventually, Savarkar was moved from the Andamans to prisons on the Indian mainland, and then later was released but confined to living within one district without being allowed to engage in politics. It was in the period following his release from the Andamans and before 1924, when Sampath ends his biography, that Savarkar wrote and published (using a pseudonym) his highly influential book on Hindutva, the ‘highway code’ or ‘road map’ for Hindu nationalism and Hindu nationalists. The ideas contained within the book, which Sampath discusses with clarity, have had great importance in recent Indian politics.
Even though a lengthy volume, I have enjoyed reading Sampath’s detailed, informative, and exciting account of the first part of the life of Savarkar. It is a well written and engaging book, almost a ‘page turner’.
Most importantly, in this age of uncritical damning of people whose political views do not chime with one’s own, Sampath has written a balanced account of a man who until recently has either been described as being purely a hero or a total villain.
I Read Sampath’s book and discovered a man, Savarkar, who, with all fairness, cannot be easily characterised as either good or evil. Instead, Sampath reveals him as being intriguing and multi-faceted: a man who played a not insignificant role in India’s struggle for independence.
I recommend this book by Sampath to all who take an interest in the current Indian political scene and/or the fascinating story of the India’s difficult road to independence.