41. French Colonialism

@Puducherry, Pondicherry, India.

This former French colony, also known as The French Riviera of the East a.k.a La Côte d’Azur de l’Est, consists of four small unconnected districts in different parts of South India; Puducherry or Pondicherry, Karaikal and Yanam on the Bay of Bengal coast and Mahé on the coast of Arabian Sea. Puducherry and Karaikal are the larger and the more visited ones and are both enclaves of the state of Tamil Nadu. Yanam and Mahé are enclaves of Andhra Pradesh and Kerala respectively, with the latter getting more importance these days. Even as I did visit Karaikal during my journey to Velankanni, it is not comparable to my journey to Pondicherry, which was so much superior, and considering the fact that it is the capital and gives it’s name to the whole Union Territory, it doesn’t really come as a surprise. It is not to be compared with the former Portuguese colony, Goa though; not just because it is a state compared to Pondicherry being a Union Territory; differences are so many, as Pondicherry is an entirely different identity with a mixture of English, French and Tamil at an extent to making it a place of mixed life and also of more peace compared to any other city. Thanks to Mahe and Yanam, Malayalam and Telugu will also have it’s influence on this Union Territory, no matter how much the distance is, between them.

Puducherry means “New village” in Tamil, even as it doesn’t sound too good in Malayalam and it would mean “New slum”, which is why I would prefer the old name any day, as long as we talk about it in Kerala; I wouldn’t like the place to have a bad name which would repel the visitors from the neighbouring state. Being at a French colony was always good for a change, as there was more chance of being at a British colony in India than any other; but Britain was a place I had visited already, along with a good number of its buildings, churches and monuments all around India; the Spanish never really came and made an impact anywhere near India and the Dutch lost their chance so early, thanks to the great king of Travancore, Marthanda Varma and his Diwan who saved not only Kerala, but also the whole of India from a Dutch rule which would have caused a further battle of supremacy in India between the colonial powers and many more unholy alliances would have come alive out of nowhere and the subcontinent would have been separated and devastated forever. With the Portuguese influence also restricted to Goa, Daman and Diu as well as Fort Cochin, the French influence had been more significant even as it is restricted to even a lesser area, thanks to Pondicherry and it’s way of living.

One would have to travel very far to see something of a Spanish influence, but the trip was more than about being with that influence; it was surely spiritual, religious and intellectual as one would see it; it was also blessed by the presence of a man from Kuravilangad, the town he would call “The Rome of both Kerala and India”, not too far away from Kottayam in Central Kerala. He is now the man of two districts by making his presence felt both in Kottayam and Ernakulam in such a way that he cannot be avoided. The man shortnamed AJK which he seems to use more as TJA these days, who used to be known by many names, most of them used by him during a season of long term scrapping in a social networking site called Orkut; starting from Mallu, Kiddo and Mancunian and stretching to names which could be termed as being far beyond comprehension of people who are unaware of his likes and dislikes which are in part of a sporting and gaming character with an overreaching influence from Politics which he did study before tourism. He was the special feature of the trip; not the French churches or buildings; not even those beaches and temples; they all paled in comparison to him as he travelled in that air-conditioned cabin of that extremely slow train which took that much time to reach there, which made me wonder if we were going to Vishakapatanam.

Immaculate Conception Cathedral is the cathedral mother church for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Pondicherry and Cuddalore; a church building which is so simple and complicated at the same time; and is also called as Samba Kovil by the locals. The church which was destroyed twice before, both by the Dutch and the British during their battles with the French for supremacy, the current one has to be considered a smaller version as it was built in the later stages when France was not in a great state in the Indian subcontinent compared to how powerful the British used to be. The interior of the church is so beautiful that it is the perfect model of how the European architecture has combined with the South Indian style to produce a beautiful worship place which would remove any doubt about the presence of God without thinking about the size of the church building. It even has a dome which is not that big or easily visible, but still adds to the beauty of the church in such a way as to make it a perfect blend of most of the good things from various cultures, the French and South Indian being the more prominent ones among them. The fest related tothis Church, that of Immaculate Conception of Blessed Virgin Mary falls on the eigth of December every year. Mass services in Tamil and English are conducted in this centuries old church.

We know the indirect effects of the Seven Years War as well as the Hundred Years War in this part of the world even as the wars were fought mainly at the European mainlands. Just like the World Wars crossing the Atlantic ocean and reaching the United States of America in no time, these wars had such a huge effect on the British and the French Empires of India and it is a miracle that most of their colonial buildings of a long historical past still stays with the heads held high. As the Carnatic Wars used to run wild on the Indian subcontinent and the conflicts involving numerous independent rulers and their vassals on a fiersome struggle for succession and territory reached its peak with the military struggle between the French East India Company and the British East India Company which looked almost eternal with an end which was never to be. With the British East India Company establishing its dominance among all the European trading companies within India and the French trading company being pushed to a corner which was mainly Pondicherry, these wars did end and it at least saved those monuments; the contributions of the French architecture to India along with that of Britain. The British trading company’s dominance eventually led to control of India by the United Kingdom and the establishment of the British Raj though.

As we go through the fall of Dupleix and the rise of Robert Clive, the geographical and cultural divergence in the small French India making the French administration weak in keeping their hold these colonies, we slowly change our view to the tourist attractions of the area. Eglise de notre Dame des Anges is the perfect example of the colonial past of Pondicherry. With lots of similarities with the Basilica at Lourdes located in southern France, this is what shows the French Colonial heritage more than anything else; it looks very old and as something which came directly from outside the subcontinent. It is the ultimate beauty of simple European architecture in India which is made to look amazing with its dome and towers. Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus would also add to this colonial past, with more of a Gothic style. It is a church with about one hundred years of past and was elevated to a Basilica only in 2011. It can be called oriental Gothic if permitted by the experts. Sri Aurobindo Ashram is another wonderful thing in the Union Territory and the harmony of Auroville is something which will live in the minds forever. Founded by Sri Aurobindo Society by Mirra Alfassa, it is an aspiration towards a better world, which reminds me of Leonardo DiCaprio and Virginie Ledoyen starrer ‘The Beach’, in a good way, with the parallel universe concept, which would in turn remind me of the beaches of Pondicherry.

Diving out —>