Almost a year back I tripped to Pondicherry. Among many other things, I was curious about its gardens.
I had read that Hyder Ali while converting Kempegowda’s mAvaLLi thoTa into the beautiful Lal Bagh, was inspired by the Moghal Gardens at Sira(place of a Moghal viceroyalty) and French gardens of Pondicherry!
The old Botanical Gardens was in ruins, The only attraction was the toy train and the great trees, people had vandalised the concrete sculptures(not of a female politician with a purse-bag!) and even the fossilised tree stump.
The other big park closer to the promenade by the side of the Bay of Bengal, is Bharathi Park or the erstwhile Government Park. Compared to the botanical gardens, it was well cared for, French have embellished it with beautifully carved stone pillars from an old temple, at the heart of this park lies a monument called Aayi Mantapam.
The legend is that, Pondicherry about half a millennium ago, used to be a part of the Vijayanagara empire and the most illustrious king of that empire — Sri Krishnadevaraya came visiting Pondicherry. Supposedly weary from the journey and in the darkness of the night, he mistook a brightly lit building to be a temple and prostrated before it, only to be laughed at and told that it was a harlot’s house.
Humiliated and enraged King, ordered the building to be razed down, lady of the house — Aayi, came bowing and offered to demolish the building herself and built a water tank in its place called Aayi Kulam(the place where the park stands today). Long history short, when French started their colony they were forced to rely only on the salty water. Their quest for fresh water was quenched by burrowing a channel to Aayi Kulam. Napoléon III, the last emperor of France was fascinated by the story of Aayi and felt she was wronged by the erstwhile kingdom and got built an arch in her honour, which was locally called as Aayi Mandapam.
Next to Bharathi Park, is a museum housed in a beautiful heritage building, whose main attraction are the Roman artifacts excavated from the location of an ancient port called Arikamedu, it also has a collection of ancient sculptures of various divine beings, ancient coins and currencies and a Gutenberg printing press.
The first floor of the museum had, French Governor General Dupleix’s bed and various coaches, including a heavy cast iron, human drawn rickshaw and horse carriages donated by Pondicherry’s once aristocratic families.
Among all these artifacts displayed was a plaster of Paris model of Aayi Mandapam in a glass enclosure, with a description next to it retelling the above story, reading it word by word was a heavy mustached Tamil gentleman with a dark colourful formal shirt, jeans pants and white sneakers. Just when he could lift up his head, his kid daughter came hopping inside the room, standing on the table’s box stretcher asked her father — “Appa, what is this? Kovil-aa?” (Appa, what is this? a temple?)
The man having just read the tale behind the monument, looked around sheepishly, after clearing his throat loudly, told his daughter — “No, ma. Some government building”. :)
Aayi Mantapa’s story told better.