The early morning sun was yet to touch the west coast. The sea surface was a rippling cerulean blue, edged by foamy waves that hugged and pulled away from pale golden sands. As we headed south, down the Kerala coast past Kannur, the Arabian Sea was a constant companion on the right, disappearing behind buildings and patches of greenery from time to time but quickly swinging back into view. As the sun rose higher, the colour of the sea changed, reflecting the lightening sky, but it continued to be a brooding navy blue at the horizon.
The gently winding road and the morning calm of the sea should have been soporific but the oncoming traffic was mildly frenzied and called for a degree of sangfroid. Soon after Thalassery, the road dipped right, crossed a bridge over a lazy river and welcomed people into Mahe, Puducherry. For the unsuspecting, it is a bit disorienting to encounter an east coast destination on the west coast—blame it on a quirk of history.
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On the map, Mahe, all of 9 sq. km and home to 41,000 people according to the 2011 census, looks like a little rectangle with rounded corners, tilted to follow the angle of the coastline. It’s located in the middle of Kerala, yet, along with Yanam in Andhra Pradesh and Karaikal in Tamil Nadu, it belongs to the Union territory of Puducherry. It is also the most far-flung, almost diametrically opposite and separated from Puducherry town by about 600km.
There are hardly any similarities with Puducherry. Located at the estuary where the Mahe river meets the Arabian Sea, it became a French trading post in the early 18th century, earning the epithet of jolie petite ville (picturesque little town). One theory suggests it got its name from Mahé de Labourdannais, a young French captain who administered it. As the British expanded their territory, Mahe was frequently used as a bargaining chip, going back and forth between the two colonial powers. But the French held sway and rulership; it continued to be a French protectorate after independence and was attached to Puducherry only in 1954.
But where Pondy is generally buzzing, traditionally the stomping ground of south Indian vacationers looking for a lively seaside holiday, Mahe is quiet, without any hijinks. It still has bits of the French connection—a smattering of old buildings, the occasional peaked cap of policemen, Bastille Day (to commemorate the French Revolution) celebrations… But everything else—language, food, culture—dovetails with Kerala.
Past the welcome board to the town, the road ran parallel to the Mayyazhi river, which is also what Mahe is called locally. A paved river-walk ran alongside till the river met the sea, with pretty lamp posts and comfortable benches facing the water. In between were a few kitschy statues, someone’s idea of beautification. By now the sun was up and blazing, reflecting harshly off the water, so it made more sense to wander around town.
Depending on whom you talked to, there were still between a few dozen and a hundred soldiers (purportedly also French citizens) who used to be in the French army living in this small town. Every year, a few of them would gather near the statue of Marianne (the personification of the French Republic) on the river-walk in mid-July to commemorate the French Revolution. The Mahe administration building is distinctly French, with a gabled roof and arched windows. A small museum next door houses French artefacts and colonial-era furniture.
Elsewhere in town, with a little help from locals, I saw some of the vestiges of French colonial architecture: a cornice here, an embellished pillar there, a relatively small lighthouse, a dilapidated fort—St George—located on a hillock. Mahe’s other big draw locally was the perk of belonging to a Union territory. Surrounded by Kerala, a state that once imposed prohibition, the little town was dotted with liquor shops—some say there were 70, others put it at five times that number. So it wasn’t uncommon to see tipsy men shuffling or stumbling by the side of the road in the evenings and on weekends.
The most bustling place by far was St Theresa’s Shrine, on the main road running through town. It wasn’t difficult to locate but asking for Mahe church, the local sobriquet, helped. Painted a brilliant white, it stood starkly against a cloudless blue sky, a beautiful bell tower adjacent to it. It’s dedicated to St Theresa of Avila, also known as the Mother of Mahe, the town’s patron deity. There was a constant stream of people, but it wasn’t crowded.
Built originally in 1736, the structure has seen destruction, renovation and additions. Inside, the air was thick with piety and candle smoke. Here and there, the devout sat on pews, their lips moving in silent prayer. Occasionally, one would approach the altar and light a candle near it. At some point in history, the church was imbued with miraculous healing powers and became a place of solace for people of all religions. Despite the burgeoning traffic on the road just outside, it was incredibly tranquil.
Less than a kilometre to its east is the Puthalam temple complex, noisier but still calmer than most temples. Set in a large compound, it comprises a set of three temples built in the Malabar style, with gabled, tiled roofs and pillars dedicated to Kuttichathan, an incarnation of Vishnu. It is believed to be more than a thousand years old. Behind is a sacred grove full of local flora. An occasional tinkle of the temple bell and hushed footsteps whispered through the air. During the annual Theyyam festival, the otherwise serene complex buzzes with activity, noise and colour.
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By now, the sun was almost overhead and ablaze, and the air was muggy and humid. The body began to wilt; an air-conditioned setting was the only recourse. Lunch was a leisurely, delicious spread of some local staples: Malabar prawn curry with matta rice (plump, coarse and delicious) and fried karimeen (pearl spot) washed down with refreshing buttermilk. Of course, it called for a siesta.
Early evening, I headed to the river-walk. The sun was at an angle and the air less humid. Trees shaded the river-walk, their thick leaves catching the breeze from the sea and providing respite, until it gradually became pleasant. The crowd was sparse, a perfect setting for alternating between people-watching and lotus-eating. Evening walkers were moving briskly up and down, college friends were deep in animated conversation, children hopped and skipped around while their mothers conversed.
Snippets of conversations reached me now and then, carried by the breeze, but I tuned these out. There was something more riveting happening in front. The sun had sunk low and had lost much of its afternoon heat. Everything was drenched in a gleaming light and the river shimmered like liquid gold. A little distance away, just before the river met the sea, fishermen’s boats in bright colours were tethered to the banks on either side, bobbing gently in the water.
Above us, birds twittered and chirped, one last hurrah before nightfall. The sun, a blazing blob of crimson, inched towards the horizon and then sank like a stone. The sky caught and reflected the rays, slowly turning deep orange and then a deep pink. It felt surreal, and I sat there transfixed by the unfolding drama.
Soon, the sky turned dark grey, night fell quickly and the picture was lost. The river-walk emptied and silence fell like a curtain, pierced only by the sound of crickets. Reluctantly, I stepped away, but not before turning for a last look, searching for signs of the pretty picture I had just witnessed. There was nothing. But I now understood why the French had called it jolie petite ville.
Anita Rao Kashi is a Bengaluru-based journalist and travel writer.