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Postcards From The Road:
The French Connection in Pondicherry

DYA SINGH

 

 

 

This quaint town and 'Indian union territory', is about 150 km north-eastwards from Chennai, along the east coast of India.

Pondicherry is famous for philosopher Aurobindo Ghose, and his Paris-born disciple-successor known as 'Mother' (or 'Ama' in Tamil); French-legion-style capped police; as well as a slew of French influences in attire, food, language, etc.

There is a tropical feel here with the heat and humidity that comes with proximity to the ocean and the equator, with lush vegetation, especially flame-of-forest, coconut, guava and mango trees, banana plants. And hibiscus, frangipani, bourganvilleas and hibiscus … plants that I am familiar with, having lived in Malaysia.

Pondicherry remained a French enclave throughout the British Raj and has retained its original flavour in the French quarter and its matching quaint architecture, especially the churches and government buildings. Most residents still qualify for dual citizenship (India and France) and 25% of the population is of mixed blood and are labelled Eurasians.

I was hoping to see some area looking like the famous (notorious?) French Quarter in New Orleans, but was disappointed.

It was refreshing,  though, not to see the usual British architecture which one sees in places like Delhi and Mumbai. Come to think of it, there were not many such buildings in Chennai either except for the Madras College which looks much like Khalsa College, Amritsar -- the masterpiece designed by the Victorian architect, Bhai Ram Singh.

There are only about 10-15 Sikh families known to be living here but successive Lt. Governors have shown great cordiality towards the Sikhs. The last one, S. Iqbal Singh, granted the local Sikhs just over half an acre of land for a Gadara, and the current one, His Excellency Virendra Kataria -- who hails from Kapurthala District in Punjab and studied in Guru Nanak College there - has played a sterling role in making a gurdwara a distinct possibility.

He is ensuring that a gurdwara is built during his tenure as Lt. Governor. He even helped in silencing local dissent in the state by asking the Sikhs to install a plaque almost overnight and he came in full pomp and ceremony with the media in tow to do an official ground-breaking ceremony.

I had the honour of having tea with this saintly, loving gentleman with my wife Jessiee and the gurdwara building committee members.

The Governor graciously promised further help to speed things along, even to extract some funds from the Punjab Chief Minister!

Pondicherry, recently renamed Puducherry in keeping with the recent rash of  name-changings in the country, has some relevance in our history.

Thakur Singh Sandhanwalia -- step-Mama ji of Maharajah Duleep Singh -- sought refuge here, fleeing from the British, on the latter’s annexation of the Sikh Empire, and for his relentless attempts to bring Maharaja Duleep Singh back to Punjab from exile in Britain.

He died mysteriously in Pondicherry, probably from poisoning by British henchmen - for political expediency, no doubt. After all, leaving any surviving claimant to the Sikh throne would have jeopardized their colonial schemes. (Maharaja Duleep Singh, while still a minor, was coerced into converting to Christianity and whisked away to the UK.)

We (the local Sikh sangat, friends and I) had a soulful evening of kirtan simran in the lovely abode of one Capt. Budhiraja and wife - both flying instructors. My wife and I enjoyed the hospitality of Dr. Toora who also heads the Gurdwara Building Committee. Showing us around Pondicherry was S. Harsaran Singh, who is involved in tourism here. All delightful, humorous folks, very much immersed in Sikhi.

A delightful place, Pondicherry -- or Pondicherry, if you like.

On a lighter note -- not sure what to call the residents of this region.

Pondicherrians, maybe Pondicherries? Now that it is Puducherry - Puducherrians or Puducherries?  Pudu means 'new' in Tamil - so 'new cherries'?

To add to the amusement, Pudu can sound a little vulgar in Punjabi! You work it out!

Anyway, a beautiful beach front, nice people, mainly Tamils. For ladies, I am told that the best French cotton and Aurobindo school trained artisans producing batik and marble printed cloth. My wife tells me that it is also very cheap.

As is my norm, I would also like to make mention that Pondicherry Gurdwara Sahib’s speedy construction needs funds. The committee is ensuring that there shall be good rooms for visitors to their fair city/state to stay in.

Those interested in making a contribution, please CLICK here.


Every dollar or pound or rupee counts!

Next stop Cochin via a 16-hour train journey through Tamil Nadu and Kerala countryside.


July 9, 2014

 

Conversation about this article

1: Gurpal (Royal Sutton, Coldfield, United Kingdom), July 10, 2014, 1:36 PM.

Dya ji, please do keep writing. Please, please accept my request and write an autobiography and include all your travels, stories and anecdotes. I'm certain hundreds of Sikhs will order a copy.

2: Sangat Singh  (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), July 10, 2014, 3:26 PM.

Dya ji, you write and sing with equal aplomb - a deadly combination. I know of your autobiography in the offing. Looking forward to getting an autographed (free) copy. By this time you should be in Cochin for a vigorous native oil 'maalash'. Do write about the treatment, between the groans.

3: Sangat Singh  (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), July 10, 2014, 4:44 PM.

May I add a little humour to the vigorous oil massage and accompanying groan that could be heard a street away. Dya ji suggested to the burly masseur: "Come to Kuala Lumpur, I will rent a shop for you at my own expense ... to just massage my enemies."

4: Harsaran Singh (Pondicherry, India), July 11, 2014, 4:24 AM.

Dya Singh ji, you are a living legend. We need people like you to keep the spirit of Sikhi and Punjabiyat alive. Looking forward to much more to read from your desk.

5: T. Sher Singh (Mount Forest, Ontario, Canada), July 11, 2014, 3:54 PM.

Pondicherry has another important nexus with Sikhs. It was Sardar Hardit Singh Malik who, as India's Ambassador to France, negotiated a peaceful transfer of Pondicherry by France to India, because it had remained French even though the rest of the sub-continent had become 'independent' once the British fled in 1947. Hardit Singh's diplomatic skills and personal relationship with the French (he had briefly served on the French side on the front during World War I, before the British belatedly dropped their racist rules and allowed him to fly for the RAF) had helped clinch the deal. The magnitude of his success becomes apparent when you compare it with how India (through Nehru and Patel) poorly handled two of its other territories which had remained 'problematic' long after the British had left. First, Hyderabad, which was ruled by the Nizam who refused to go with either Pakistan or India; and second, Goa, which was under Portuguese rule. India invaded both Hyderabad and Goa, brutally massacring large numbers of innocent citizens in both cases, while Hardit Singh achieved the 'impossible' through his personal charm. Even though they 'lost' Pondicherry, the French honoured Hardit Singh with a Legion of Honour!

6: Dya Singh (Australia), July 11, 2014, 5:25 PM.

Can we assume that no monument has been installed in Pondicherry to honour this great Sikh? Perhaps Pondicherry Sangat should honour him by installing his statue in the new gurdwara grounds or is that against Sikh Maryada. If others don't, we must honour our great Sikhs for posterity.

7: Sangat Singh  (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), July 12, 2014, 4:39 PM.

Sher Singh ji, thanks for highlighting this great Sikh who played a signal role in Pondicherry. S. Hardit Singh Malik remained the most distinguished Sikh in full 'saabat soorat.' He was the first Sikh pilot for the British Flying Corp as it was then known. It was his own British Oxford tutor who expressed his outrage when he heard of ethnic bigotry that a loyal British subject was flying for the French Air force. This outrage evoked some good sense and Hardit Singh went on to distinguished himself as a pilot and subsequently as Prime Minister (Patiala), High Commissioner and Ambassador, and remained the only one with the distinct honour of the Legion of Honour. He was also, on top of all the things he dis, top golfer in the country. Bhai Vir Singh ji was his role model, whose inspiration kept him devout and in full Sikhi saroop.

8: Jasbir Singh (Chandigarh, Punjab), July 14, 2014, 4:15 AM.

Sher Singh ji, thanks for the info on Hardit Singh. Dya Singh ji, it would be a good idea to put in a raised metal plaque depicting Hardit Singh's face and a very short description in raised letter on one of the Gurdwara walls ... an architect's simple and elegant solution. I will be glad to contribute the design for it.

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The French Connection in Pondicherry"









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