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.