Lakshmi Sharath takes in the festivities at this small town near Kerala that technically belongs to Puducherry
It is noon and the sun seems to be pausing in his journey across the sky. Driving around small towns and villages in North Kerala, one almost feels as if one’s entering a different time zone. There is Che Guevara staring at me from posters while locals still remember Diego Maradona’s visit to Kannur for the inauguration of a jewellery store. As I enter the town of Thalassery, the roads are empty and silence fills the air. But hardly a few km away, the cultural landscape changes rather dramatically as I cross a bridge to enter a town that’s a potpourri of European and Indian cultures.
To begin with, wine stores greet me. Not just one or two! And a board loudly screams, ‘Welcome to Mahe’. A little piece of land, barely nine sq km, landlocked by a few districts of Kerala, Mahe is part of present day Puducherry and ancient French India. The policeman stands out in the crowd, with his bright red cap, a souvenir from the French India days. And a smattering of Tamil and Malayalam can be heard on the streets.
Mahe, poetically called Mayyazhi or the Eyebrow of the Sea, became the domain of the French East India Company when it built a fort here in the 18th Century, after an arrangement with the local king. The French Revolution, the wars in Europe and constant battles between the British and the French in the Indian subcontinent seem to have had their echoes in Mahe. But today, I catch the town amidst a lot of festivities.
The annual feast at the St. Theresa Catholic Church is on and the roads are blocked. We walk along as Angry Birds balloons fly in our faces. Locals beckon us with knick knacks. There is a carnival-like atmosphere. I stop at the entrance of the church, which takes me on a nostalgic journey to Spain, to a little fortified town called Avila, which was the birth place of the saint.
Records from Rome indicate that this 18th Century church was built by a missionary from Italy, representing the Carmelite Order. The shrine that had borne the brunt of the wars had been renovated. Referred to as The Shrine of St Theresa of Avila in Mahe, legends surround the idol as well. It was believed that a ship carrying the statue along the coast stopped at Mahe and was unable to proceed further. Locals then believed that it was the saint’s will to be housed in this town. I enter the brightly lit church as pilgrims queue up to pay their respects to the saint.
A little further away is the famous walkway, bereft of people as the afternoon heat is rather killing. And a park named after Tagore greets you close by. We continue driving around, taking in the sights and sounds. Churches and lighthouses, statues and remnants of forts are all that we get to see in this town that was once the domain of the French East India Company. As we keep driving, borders blur and timelines merge as we soak in the cultural mosaic of the European presence in a present day union territory where locals speak Tamil and which is surrounded by the State of Kerala.