Make park, not war

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.

A WALK IN THE PARK

BANGALORE IS RAPIDLY BECOMING AN URBAN DESERT, but luckily there are some green oases. One of these is Cubbon Park, named in honour of Sir Mark Cubbon (1775-1861). When it was first laid out in 1870 it was called ‘Meades Park’. Now, its official name is ‘Sri Chamarajendra Park’, although few Bangaloreans would recognize that name as being Cubbon Park.

Although a few roads traverse the park, they do not detract from ots pleasant sylvan nature. And, on Sundays many of these roads are closed to make them free of traffic.

Most of the park is not laid out in an obviously planned way and much of it is pleasantly in the shade of the leafy branches of huge old trees. Wherever you go, you will encounter dogs with their owners, wild dogs, people sitting or sleeping on benches or logs, people exercising, and picnickers. During a recent visit, I saw groups of young art students sitting in circles on the ground. They were cutting up old newspapers and magazines to gather materials for collages they were preparing.

Cubbon Park has its own metro station. One of its entrances is close to both a statue of King Edward VII of Great Britain and also a disused fighter jet, advertising the products of HAL, whose offices face the park.

After passing through the security check, which is present at all metro stations, I descended to the subterranean concourse. This and other parts of the station has been decorated by artworks created, with varying degrees of skill, by students of the Shristi school of design, which is located at Yelahanka, in between Bangalore and its Kempe Gowda Airport.

I was escorted by one of the Shristi students through the metro ticket barrier to another concourse that can be entered via a station entrance near the Chinnaswamy Cricket Stadium. This particular concourse had a temporary exhibition of photos of Indians who served in British armed forces during WW2. Sadly, this exhibition looked hastily conceived and did not make much of an impact either visually or historically. The involvement of Indian troops and officers during WW2 is undoubtedly of great interest, but this exhibition did not really explore this even superficially. While I was looking at the show, a Sikh gentleman spoke with me and pointed to one of the photos on display. It showed his father, who had fought during the War.

The exhibition ends on the 22nd December, but the delights of Cubbon Park remain … at least for the foreseeable future, but for how long it is impossible to say in a city that gives more importance to real estate investments than to preservation of heritage.

Sailing small-scale

boats

 

At first glance, you might be confused. The water of the Round Pond in London’s Kensington Gardens is crowded with sailing boats that are little bigger than the swans sailing amongst them. No, it is not your eyesight failing, but you are watching miniature sailing boats that are guided from the shore by ageing men holding remote control radio transmitters. And, it is likely to be a Sunday that you are seeing this.

The boats belong to the London Model Yacht Club (‘LMYC’), which was established in 1876 and renamed in 1884. It is the oldest model yacht club in the UK. Its ‘ancestry’ and full history may be read HERE.  It seems that the Round Pond began to be used for its activities from by the late 1880s. 

Sunday meetings begin at 10.30 am, and there are frequent racing events, which the members take very seriously. For those who know about boats, currently the Club favours: “Radio Controlled 10-Raters, International OneMetres, DragonFlite95s, and Vintage Model Yachts“.  

Whether or not you are a fan of boating (model or full-size), it is well worth seeing this example of English originality in Kensington Gardens one Sunday morning. I often wonder what, if anything, the swans make of this peculiar activity.