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From Mayyazhi to Mahe.. a magic history

Olympia Shilpa Gerald
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Historian Jean Deloche hopes to revive interest in 18th Century Mahe, through old maps and plans

Hidden history:The exhibit, ‘Le Vieux Mahe’ at Puducherry, put together by historian Jean Deloche, allows locals and tourists to trace the evolution of a picturesque village called Mayyazhi to a fortified town named in honour of French general Mahe de Labourdonnais —Photo: T. Singaravelou
Hidden history:The exhibit, ‘Le Vieux Mahe’ at Puducherry, put together by historian Jean Deloche, allows locals and tourists to trace the evolution of a picturesque village called Mayyazhi to a fortified town named in honour of French general Mahe de Labourdonnais —Photo: T. Singaravelou

Mahe may always be remembered as a former French colony, but, unlike Pondicherry, the coastal town set within the State of Kerala has barely any remnants of its colonial past. Puducherry-based historian and researcher Jean Deloche hopes to revive interest in Mahe’s standing during the 18{+t}{+h}Century, through a cachet of old maps and plans of the town.

“Mahe was not just a small fishing village in the 18{+t}{+h}Century. It was a trade centre of considerable importance,” says Mr. Deloche, researcher with the Ecole Ecole Française d’Extrême Orient.

The exhibit, ‘Le Vieux Mahe’, allows locals and tourists to trace the evolution of a picturesque village called Mayyazhi into a fortified town named in honour of French general Mahe de Labourdonnais. The maps between 1721 and 1817 show forts put up by the French, and private buildings by native Malayalis. “Mahe had a Franco-Indian heritage that bears interest to both Indians and French,” says Mr. Deloche.

“Ask around town and hardly anyone remembers Mahe’s past today,” says Mr. Deloche, ruing that nothing of the original buildings is left today. Popular sites like St. Teresa’s Church were built in modern times, though at the same site where the original church stood. What Mr. Deloche has attempted is to trace the 18{+t}{+h}and early 19{+t}{+h}Century edifices depicted in the old plans, in present-day Mahe. “Identification was not an easy task, when no traces remain.” Mahe was razed to the ground thrice when the British possessed Pondicherry intermittently. But with certain landmarks like the church, a rock battery, among others, Mr. Deloche has recreated Mahe of yore.

The small hills that dotted the landscape were crowned with forts between 1728 and 1761 by the French, to keep the area under their control. Today, a burial ground and a general hospital stand in the place of Fort Conde and Fort Dauphin. The latter is designed as a star-shaped fort. Plans and maps also show the church, a choultry converted into a prison replete with dungeons, a large warehouse by the sea with separate godowns for various spices.

A map depicts the course of the river Mayyazhi. “The river was navigable by boats and was instrumental to the spice and paper trade that was carried out of Mahe,” explains Mr. Deloche. An early map also shows scattered portions of Mahe outside the town, like Pandakkal, Chalakkara, Pallur and Chembra, which were gifted by Hyder Ali. Incidentally, the British held on to these territories till 1853, even after they relinquished Mahe for the third time to the French.

Some interesting details that emerge include a bamboo hedge between the two principal forts. “Back then, a bamboo hedge was a form of defence to keep the English at bay. The bamboo grew so close together than no one could breach the forts. The strategy was also adopted by Tippu Sultan.”

Though the hedge was never penetrated, Mahe fell when Pondicherry surrendered. But, nothing of the forts remains today. For, when Mahe was rebuilt for the third time, the treaty that the French signed with the British had forbidden fortifications of any kind.

Another unusual mention in an official plan is the Allee des soupirs, says Mr. Deloche. Translated as the Lane of Sighs, it is speculated to have been a tryst for lovers.

The historian who has walked around the town several times over the years was excited to stumble upon any description that matched the old maps. “I was looking for a kurup battery — a rocky ledge mentioned in the maps. I came across the place and it was exciting to confirm it was the same battery as the river skirts it just like it is shown on the map,” he adds.

Mr. Deloche hopes to put together an exhibit on Chandrnagore next, though there are fewer maps and he admits he cannot boast of intimate local knowledge, as with Mahe or Pondicherry. Close to 80 maps of the former and over 300 of the latter are preserved in Paris and Aix en Provence in Southern France. Today, they can be accessed on CDs and Internet archives. But the exhibition would be taken up by the Alliance Francaise in Pondicherry and Mahe to revive local interest of the past.

The exhibit, supported by the EFFE, the French Institute of Pondicherry and the Department of Art and Culture, Puducherry will be on at Maison Colombani, Rue Dumas, till December 6 between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m.


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