Built Heritage

Murugan: Son of Shiva

The name Muru­gan is only one of over 100 names by whi­ch this God is known. In the Nor­th, he is cal­led Kar­thik, the war­rior. In the Sou­th, he is Mur­ga, the wild man of the hil­ls. With so many dis­tinct mani­fes­ta­tion, he is not well known and is often confu­sed across dif­fe­rent parts of the coun­try. But even if Hin­dus do not know the name of Muru­gan, his cha­rac­ter is an impor­tant one to the mytho­lo­gy. The­re are few tem­ples devo­ted to him exclu­si­ve­ly, but in Pon­di­cher­ry the­re is one small tem­ple of whi­ch he is the prin­ci­ple dei­ty, and about 30km out­si­de of Pon­di­cher­ry pro­per, the rol­ling hil­l­si­de of the vil­la­ge of Mayi­lam is home to a lar­ge Muru­gan tem­ple.

The small Pon­di­cher­ry tem­ple, just near the cen­tral train sta­tion, was built by a Mus­lim man. In his ado­les­cen­ce, he had attemp­ted sui­ci­de but was saved by a Hin­du devo­tee of Muru­gan. Sin­ce deci­ding to build a tem­ple to honor the God, the man has been shun­ned and threa­te­ned by other Mus­lims and Hin­dus ali­ke, but Muru­gan has kept the man in his gra­ce. At the time of our visit, the tem­ple was under construc­tion, and the tower was obs­cu­red by woo­den scaf­fol­ding and tarps. Insi­de, new cement sculp­tu­res were being craf­ted, at that time sim­ply figu­res with blank faces and wire arma­tu­res pro­tru­ding from their shoul­ders. Murugan’s vehi­cle, a pea­co­ck known as Para­va­ni, sat stoi­cal­ly in bla­ck sto­ne facing the prin­ci­ple shri­ne; a prayer to Muru­gan was ins­cri­bed in sto­ne panels on the wes­tern wall; and out­si­de the tem­ple, along the eas­tern wall, a sto­ne car­ving depic­ted the inter­t­wi­ning life for­ces of the spi­nal cord, for­ming links around lotus sha­ped cha­kras.

Beau­ti­ful in its own right, this small tem­ple would have been over­sha­do­wed had it been anyw­he­re clo­se to the Mayi­lam tem­ple. The lat­ter is actual­ly qui­te an impor­tant Tamil attrac­tion, with a long win­ding entran­ce dri­ve, a toll fare, and an admis­sion fee to enter the cen­tral shri­ne. The attrac­tion is unders­tan­da­ble: the sur­roun­ding hil­ls, rol­ling across the hori­zon like the fea­thers of Murugan’s pea­co­ck, are a beau­ti­ful sight, and the tem­ple itself shi­nes in bright­ly colo­red paint.

The prin­ci­ple tower is ador­ned, though not over­ly crow­ded, with car­ved depic­tions of Muru­gan, Shi­va, and Murugan’s two consorts Val­li and Deviya­nai. Cen­tral over the tower entran­ce is an ico­nic ima­ge of a six-faced Muru­gan riding his pea­co­ck. The tem­ple has a lar­ge por­ti­co with bright oran­ge columns and cei­lings pain­ted with man­da­las and lotu­ses. Near the main entran­ce, the­re are four fres­cos: one sho­wing Muru­gan, Val­li, and Deviya­nai; one sho­wing Murugan’s pea­co­ck; and two sho­wing dif­fe­rent sea­ted sages. At the far end of the por­ti­co, old sto­ne pillars remain, show­ca­sing bas relief car­vings of the war­rior God and his deva­da­sis, or tem­ple dan­cers. Though tem­ple dan­cing – the ancient form of fema­le devo­tion whi­ch aus­pi­cious­ly lin­ked the cos­mic, the reli­gious, and the sexual – has been out­la­wed in modern India, the­se tem­ple car­vings ser­ve as las­ting rem­nants of a once res­pec­ted art form.

Insi­de the tem­ple, the expo­sed bla­ck sto­ne crea­tes a less vibrant and more som­ber set­ting. A queue leads the way to the prin­ci­pal sanc­tua­ry, whi­ch is set far back from visi­tors, hid­den in sha­dow but illu­mi­na­ted by the light of small cand­les around the out­si­de of the shri­ne. Many visi­tors stand in line to pray in front of the shri­ne and recei­ve a bles­sing from the priest, who offers flo­wer gar­lands, coco­nut milk, and the tra­di­tio­nal red and whi­te pow­ders to mark the fore­head. Some devo­tees come with sha­ved heads, cove­red in tur­me­ric pow­der to keep their scalps cool in the sun. As is tra­di­tio­nal in most Hin­du tem­ples, the prin­ci­pal shri­ne stands in the midd­le of the struc­tu­re, and is sur­roun­ded by an open walk­way. Smal­ler shri­nes stand in the cor­ners, and sto­ne car­vings adorn the exter­nal walls. Along one of the walls is the gra­ted alco­ve whi­ch hou­ses the sta­tues made of pre­cious metals. Shi­ning in golds, sil­vers, and bron­zes, the sta­tues are often wrap­ped in small swaths of ele­gant fabric, and one in this tem­ple even wore a coat of armor.

Murugan’s pri­ma­ry sym­bo­lism is most fre­quent­ly exhi­bi­ted by his six faces, his spear, and his pea­co­ck.

Each of the six faces are said to ser­ve a dif­fe­rent pur­po­se:

One face sheds rays of light and remo­ves the den­se dark­ness shrou­ding the world; ano­ther lovin­gly sho­wers boons on his devo­tees who prai­se Him with Love and Joy; the third wat­ches over the sacri­fi­ces of the Brah­mans who per­form them without devia­ting from the strict Vedic tra­di­tions; the four­th face, like the full moon whi­ch brigh­tens all the quar­ters of the world, lights the sages’ minds to enable them to sear­ch for hid­den Tru­th; the fif­th, with raging heart, bat­tles and des­troys His ene­mies; and the six­th smi­les lovin­gly on His young consort, the pret­ty daugh­ter of the hun­ting tri­be.

His spear, the Holy Vel, is the most impor­tant wea­pon for hun­ters and war­riors. The Vel is the object of dan­ce rituals per­for­med by devo­tees see­king reme­dies for mis­for­tu­ne and afflic­tion.

The pea­co­ck sym­bo­li­zes Murugan’s des­truc­tion of Ego, whi­ch came in the form of the demon Tara­ka­sur, who was des­ti­ned to be killed by a son of Shi­va. It is belie­ved that Muru­gan was born, as a ball of fire to the great medi­ta­ti­ve ener­gy of Shi­va and Par­va­ti, for this sole pur­po­se of des­troying Tara­ka­sur. Some­ti­mes Muru­gan is depic­ted with an ima­ge of a roos­ter, whi­ch is the form Tara­ka­sur took after being defea­ted.

Addi­tio­nal­ly, Murugan’s wives, Val­li and Deviya­nai, are daugh­ters of Vish­nu. And as Muru­gan is the son of Shi­va, the mar­ria­ge the­re­fo­re ser­ves as a link bet­ween Vai­sh­na­vism (wor­ship of Vish­nu) and Shai­vism (wor­ship of Shi­va). In Tamil lite­ra­tu­re and song, Muru­gan was actual­ly prai­sed as a Supre­me for­ce behind the tri­ni­ty of Brah­ma, Vish­nu, and Siva. Thus Muru­gan is not a God to be over­loo­ked in Hin­du mytho­lo­gy. It is only a mat­ter of kno­wing him when one sees him and not being mis­led by his many other names.

O Lord who is the begin­ning of all things… who is the Lord of all things, who is beyond eve­ry­thing, who is the essen­ce of all things, who is Brah­ma, who is Vish­nu, who is Siva, who is beyond this tri­ni­ty; who is all things here, who is what eve­ry­thing anyw­he­re is, and who comes as the sweet­ness of all things.

- Thi­rup­pu­gal poem No. 433: “Aga­ra­mu­maa­gi”

Intangible Heritage

Walking in Pondicherry — The Art of Le Flâneur (Part 1)

Time stops in Pon­di­cher­ry, today cal­led Pudu­cher­ry, or rather time expands to invi­te the tra­vel­ler to lay down her/his dus­ty bags, to clo­se the com­pu­ter and to kick back and enjoy doing nothing, abso­lu­te­ly nothing. The begin­ning of all real crea­ti­vi­ty. Peo­ple come to rest, to explo­re the town, to wri­te, to dream, to wan­der, to sit, to savour the moment. The poe­try of the pla­ce lies wai­ting to be dis­co­ve­red.

Nor­th of the Canal in the Tamil Town, all is hust­le & bust­le, traf­fic, noi­se, crowds, com­mer­ce, spraw­ling urban deve­lop­ment. In the heart of the old Fren­ch colo­nial “Whi­te Town” howe­ver, only the ear­ly mor­ning birds playing with the sin­ging squir­rels & the mid­day quar­rel­so­me crows can dis­turb the pea­ce and tran­qui­li­ty. Step out on to the bou­gain­vil­lea cove­red streets and you will find a delight­ful selec­tion of cafés, hid­den cour­tyards and roof­top hidea­ways. Afi­cio­na­dos tra­de per­so­nal favou­ri­te loca­tions for the best espres­so, the per­fect cap­puc­ci­no, the sin­ful pain au cho­co­lat. It is a most light-hear­ted deba­te in the spi­rit of Baudelaire’s “gent­le­man flâ­neur” and the jury will always be out on this sub­ject as new venues open as fast as old ones chan­ge or clo­se.

The archi­tec­tu­ral heri­ta­ge of Pon­di­cher­ry is divi­ded by the canal, Fren­ch colo­nial by the sea­front to the sou­th, and Tamil bran­ching out in all direc­tions to the nor­th of the canal. Both sides offer a mix­tu­re of cultu­ral sur­pri­ses and curio­si­ties for Susan Sonntag’s “voyeu­ris­tic strol­ler” who enjoys savou­ring the city as a “land­sca­pe of volup­tuous extre­mes”. Lady “flâ­neurs” have obvious­ly construc­ted their own tra­di­tions and also “wan­der aim­less­ly” with great pana­che the­se days.

For the ear­ly risers, step­ping out to see the dawn is always an adven­tu­re. Locals in Pon­dy enjoy exer­ci­sing by the sea­front on Gou­bert Ave­nue befo­re going to work and the poli­ce clo­se the who­le sea­front stret­ch of road to traf­fic bet­ween 6 PM and 7AM the next mor­ning, so the atmos­phe­re is char­min­gly ambu­la­to­ry.

If you start ear­ly enough, stroll up from Gou­bert Ave­nue into Tamil Town and cat­ch a piping hot cup of tea or cof­fee at one of the road­si­de stalls. The big cen­tral food mar­ket, Gou­bert Mar­ket or sim­ply “The Big Mar­ket”, will be busy with local far­mers deli­ve­ring their fre­sh pro­du­ce. Sou­th India is without a doubt the bread bas­ket of the sub-conti­nent. The array of fre­sh vege­ta­bles, herbs, fruit & spi­ces is a fine sen­so­ry expe­rien­ce. Of cour­se, the­re is a lot of noi­se so it is not just the eyes and nose that are being assai­led. If you want to expe­rien­ce total audi­to­ry may­hem, step into the fish mar­ket hall. Here the fish­wi­ves sip tea, gut fish and shout in no par­ti­cu­lar­ly dis­cer­na­ble order. By 8.30 a.m. the exci­te­ment seems to die down in direct pro­por­tion to the smell.

The­re is no more delight­ful pas­ti­me in Pon­dy than taking an ear­ly eve­ning pre-pran­dial stroll to some desi­gna­ted wate­ring hole whil­st dab­bling in a spot of his­to­ri­cal dilet­tan­tism. Road names pro­vi­de an acce­le­ra­ted cra­sh cour­se in Indian and colo­nial his­to­ry and an advan­ced test in orien­tee­ring.

In and around Pon­di­cher­ry ancient Dra­vi­dian, Mog­hul and Mus­lim dynas­ties have sur­vi­ved or suc­cum­bed to an impres­si­ve suc­ces­sion of tra­ders and inva­ders, ran­ging from the Greeks, Romans, Turks, Per­sians and Mon­gols to the Dut­ch, Dani­sh, Engli­sh and, most spec­ta­cu­lar­ly, to the Fren­ch.

Behind the inno­cuous-loo­king blue and green Pon­dy street signs lie cen­tu­ries of bloo­dy strug­gle, devious plot­ting, impe­rial greed and shrewd, dan­ge­rous or ins­pi­ring ven­tu­res whi­ch dic­ta­ted the lives of local fishing and agri­cul­tu­ral com­mu­ni­ties. Street names com­me­mo­ra­te men of the sword, men of the clo­th, tra­ders and impe­rial bri­gands, cour­tiers, com­mis­sio­ners, peti­tio­ners, func­tio­na­ries, sol­diers of for­tu­ne, poli­ti­cians, crooks, drea­mers, free­dom figh­ters, trai­tors, heroes and all the usual sus­pects bet­ween!
« To be conti­nued »

Intangible Heritage

Pondicherry and the Great Textile Story


Tra­de and com­mer­ce was quin­tes­sen­tial to the eco­no­mic and sub­se­quent social deve­lop­ment of Euro­pe from the 17th to the 19th cen­tu­ry. An objec­ti­ve ana­ly­sis of the notion of the rise of the West howe­ver, reveals an under­lying Euro­cen­tric para­digm. The role of non-Euro­pean agen­cies in glo­bal tra­de and their influen­ce on the deve­lop­ment of dif­fe­rent regions has gai­ned signi­fi­cant impor­tan­ce in recent times, part­ly owing to the rapid eco­no­mic grow­th in Asia from the late 20th cen­tu­ry and more recent­ly that of sub-Saha­ran Afri­ca. In this context, Pon­di­cher­ry, having been under the domi­nion of various Euro­pean powers for a lit­tle over 300 years, played a vital role. At the cen­tre of it all, lay a sim­ple pie­ce of indi­go dyed clo­th whi­ch would later beco­me popu­lar­ly known as the gui­née. An inter­es­ting sta­tis­tic high­lights the signi­fi­can­ce of the clo­th : under the rule of the Fren­ch East India Com­pa­ny, from 1672–1791, more than 6 mil­lion pie­ces of blue gui­née were expor­ted.

Befo­re the esta­blish­ment of the first Fren­ch tex­ti­le mil­ls in Pon­di­cher­ry, it was alrea­dy an impor­tant dyeing cen­tre for clo­th along the Coro­man­del Coast along with Madras, Nega­pat­nam and Masu­li­pat­nam. The dyeing of ordi­na­ry clo­th great­ly increa­sed its value, and Pon­di­cher­ry beca­me espe­cial­ly renow­ned for the brillian­ce of its dyed clo­th and the qua­li­ty of the dye’s adhe­ren­ce to the clo­th. Tra­ces of alu­mi­na and other mine­rals in the arte­sian wells contri­bu­ted to it’s emer­gen­ce over other dyeing cen­tres. The Fren­ch had been using gui­née clo­th for the gum tra­de in Sene­gal well befo­re it beca­me the prin­ci­pal export from Pon­di­cher­ry. In fact, the suc­cess of Euro­pean tex­ti­le prin­ting in the midd­le of the 18th cen­tu­ry and it’s abi­li­ty to com­pe­te with impor­ted Indian clo­th depen­ded on Sene­ga­le­se gum whi­ch was used as a thi­cke­ning agent. Prin­ters valued it high­ly becau­se it allo­wed the clo­th to retain its colour after washing. In due time, Sene­gal slow­ly repla­ced Ara­bia and the Nile Val­ley to beco­me Europe’s pri­ma­ry sour­ce for gum in the 18th cen­tu­ry. Gui­née clo­th ente­red Sene­gam­bia and the upper river of Sene­gal and Niger not only as a varie­ty of clo­th but as a unit of account. It was regu­lar­ly used by the Fren­ch to buy sla­ves from Afri­ca who would later be employed in the sugar plan­ta­tions of the Carib­bean islands, and in the mili­ta­ry conquest of Afri­ca in the 19th cen­tu­ry. The­se cur­rents of com­mer­ce lin­ked Fran­ce, India and Afri­ca — dis­tant parts of a vast colo­nial Empi­re.

As the effects of the Indus­trial Revo­lu­tion per­mea­ted to the Euro­pean tex­ti­le indus­try in the ear­ly part of the 19th cen­tu­ry, the demand for gum increa­sed consi­de­ra­bly. To tap addi­tio­nal sup­plies of gum, tra­ders along the Sene­ga­le­se river nee­ded a grea­ter volu­me of gui­née clo­th. In res­pon­se to increa­sed demand for Sene­ga­le­se gum in Fran­ce and for Indian gui­née in Sene­gal, French­men armed with metro­po­li­tan Fren­ch capi­tal and Sta­te sub­si­dies star­ted the first tex­ti­le mil­ls in Pon­di­cher­ry to manu­fac­tu­re clo­th. ‘Pou­lain Duboy and Co.’ was the first mill to esta­bli­shed in 1829, whi­ch chan­ged names to beco­me the Sava­na Mil­ls and final­ly the Swa­de­shi Mil­ls.

Pro­duc­tion at the mil­ls increa­sed stea­di­ly and the ini­tial years were par­ti­cu­lar­ly suc­cess­ful. Most of the yarn manu­fac­tu­red was used for wea­ving and manu­fac­tu­ring gui­née clo­th. The pro­ducts from the mill were also dis­played at the Paris Inter­na­tio­nal Exhi­bi­ton of 1834, whe­re they recei­ved an honou­ra­ble men­tion.

For a detai­led list of natio­nal and inter­na­tio­nal exhi­bi­tons in Fran­ce, you can visit :


Although gui­née clo­th was manu­fac­tu­red in Fren­ch fac­to­ries and in Sene­gal, it was of an infe­rior qua­li­ty. During the mili­ta­ry cam­pai­gn of the conquest of West Sudan in 1881, Lieu­te­nant-Colo­nel Bor­gnis-Des­bor­des com­plai­ned of the impos­si­bi­li­ty of using gui­née manu­fac­tu­red elsew­he­re to pay for goods and ser­vi­ces nee­ded local­ly. He wro­te to his super­iors that gui­née pro­du­ced in Fren­ch fac­to­ries was as good as “coun­ter­feit money in Fran­ce”. Ins­tan­ces such as the­se seve­re­ly high­light the impor­tan­ce of the clo­th to Fren­ch mili­ta­ry cam­pai­gns in Afri­ca. Sub­se­quent­ly, to ensu­re ade­qua­te sup­ply of high qua­li­ty gui­née, the Fren­ch Govern­ment ope­ned direct nego­tia­tions with the Sava­na Mil­ls mana­ge­ment. The natio­nal ocean liner com­pa­ny, Mes­sa­ge­ries Mari­ti­mes was given exclu­si­ve control over the export of all gui­née clo­th from Pon­di­cher­ry in 1886 to ensu­re the smoo­th pro­gress of for­th­co­ming Fren­ch mili­ta­ry cam­pai­gns.



Biblio­gra­phy and Fur­ther Rea­ding :

1) Richard Roberts, Depart­ment of His­to­ry, Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty
2) Kazuo Kobaya­shi, Lon­don School of Eco­no­mics and Poli­ti­cal Scien­ce
3) Ima­ge Cour­te­sy : Musée de la Com­pa­gnie des Indes de Lorient