Built Heritage

A Chocolate Palace for the Chocolate People

Sketch by Susmita Bhattacharya

Allow me to tell you a sto­ry about a quaint idyl­lic town per­ched on the Coro­man­del Coast, whi­ch has cap­tu­red the ima­gi­na­tion of all and sun­dry, from India to Euro­pe. Eve­ry­day, we conti­nue to dis­co­ver fan­tas­ti­cal ele­ments of the charm of Pon­di­cher­ry and now­he­re else is this sen­se of exo­tic fas­ci­na­tion more beau­ti­ful­ly cap­tu­red than an excerpt from a book by one of the grea­test sto­ry­tel­lers of our time, Roald Dahl’s Char­lie and the Cho­co­la­te Fac­to­ry.

Prin­ce Pon­di­cher­ry wro­te a let­ter to Mr Willy Won­ka,’ said Grand­pa Joe, ‘and asked him to come all the way to India and build him a colos­sal pala­ce enti­re­ly out of cho­co­la­te.’
When it was all fini­shed, Mr Won­ka said to Prin­ce Pon­di­cher­ry, “I warn you, though, it won’t last very long, so you’d bet­ter start eating it right away.”
”Non­sen­se!” shou­ted the Prin­ce. “I’m not going to eat my pala­ce! I’m not even going to nib­ble the stair­ca­se or lick the walls! I’m going to live in it!”

It may be a slight stret­ch of my ima­gi­na­tion, but I find subt­le meta­phors in this small sto­ry. The archi­tec­tu­ral ensem­ble in Pon­di­cher­ry whi­ch has been care­ful­ly hand­craf­ted by ancient Tamil king­doms and a patch­work of Euro­pean nations is fal­ling prey modernisation’s wre­cking ball and his­to­ri­cal amne­sia. The Tamil Town bears the brunt of it all to a lar­ge extent, with the num­ber of lis­ted heri­ta­ge buil­dings fol­lo­wing a down­ward spi­ral eve­ry year.

How do we turn the tide?

When do we stop sta­ring at the dete­rio­ra­tion of our cultu­ral and mate­rial fabric, whi­le it is being sacri­fi­ced at the altar of capi­ta­lis­tic trends and ethos?

The Govern­ment of Pon­di­cher­ry relea­sed a Gene­ral Order in 2015 to pla­ce 21 public buil­dings under the conser­va­tion and res­to­ra­tion pro­gram­me. The Cal­ve Col­le­ge on Mis­sion Street and the Sou­ci­la­bai School on Vysial Street have faced years of neglect and non-exis­tent main­te­nan­ce sche­mes. Only time will tell how much of the poli­ti­cal jar­gon will be trans­la­ted into on-ground action.

A gla­ring exam­ple of neglect and inde­ci­si­ve­ness is the Pen­sion­nat de Jeu­nes Filles, on Dumas Street, whi­ch is the only Govern­ment Fren­ch High School for Girls, in India. Years of deli­be­ra­tion bet­ween inter­es­ted par­ties, seve­ral draft pro­po­sals by public and pri­va­te ins­ti­tu­tions and a pin­ch of non­cha­lan­ce later, the school was final­ly shut down last year due to “struc­tu­ral inade­qua­cies”.

Will we see the VOC school on Mis­sion Street go down the same path?

The opti­mist in me never dies, though. Through the cour­se of the seve­ral Heri­ta­ge walks in Pon­di­cher­ry over the last few months, I have tried to make others see the deli­ca­te strings of his­to­ry whi­ch lend a veri­ta­ble charm to this city like no other pla­ce in our coun­try. It is most encou­ra­ging to see the glim­mer in people’s eyes as we stroll along the slee­py streets, and even more so when they have been living here for seve­ral years. So, whe­ther I am on a tour with tou­rists or local resi­dents, as long as I can igni­te their curio­si­ty about their sur­roun­dings even if for a bit, I think I am doing my part.

Are you?

Don’t let the pala­ces of Pon­di­cher­ry melt away in the scor­ching sun of the coming days. The cultu­re and heri­ta­ge of Pon­di­cher­ry is here to stay. Join our efforts by sen­ding us your thoughts about what Pon­di­cher­ry repre­sents for each of you. Help us spread the good news.

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”