Coromandel Trail - Along the salt pans to Pondicherry

Lakshmi Sharath
Lakshmi Sharath

The milestone says about 50 km to Pondicherry when I pass a fish market in Kadapakkam. I take a detour and drive through a lost hamlet surrounded by backwaters. Another detour and enter  the portals of a port lost amidst the ruins, located right next to the seashore. There is no one in sight. Coconut and palm grooves shelter the broken bricks as the rubble resonates with the glory of the past.

This is the 17th century Alamparai Fort, also called Alampara. Built during the Mughal era it was administered by the Carnatic Nawab and later gifted to the French in return for their support. The British eventually destroyed the fort and the dockyard, which was more than 100 metres long.

A rusted ASI board gives us more information. Alamparai, it says, was the ancient land of Idaikazhunadu, mentioned in the literary work Siruppanatruppadai. The sea port was used for trade by the Arcot Nawabs and zari, salt and ghee were exported from here. Coins were minted as well and the mint was later shifted to neighbouring Pondicherry. Built on a highway near Alamparai, the mint even housed a Shiva temple, a choultry and a pond built for the benefit of travelers and pilgrims taking this route towards Rameshwaram.

“Do you want to go boating?” a local man asks me. The sea looks inviting, but the sun sends me a warning though it gets kinder as we drive towards what is left of French India in Pondicherry. The smell of salt makes us pause at Marrakkanam. The stretch is filled with heaps  of salt. Workers extract it and transport it in lorries.

Tourists often wax eloquent of the French connection with Pondicherry but not many speak of the Portuguese, Danish and Dutch who all laid claim to this port, which was another centre of trade. Eventually the French, though defeated by the Dutch, bought it from them for apparently 16,000 pagodas. Pondicherry, or Poudoucheri as it was then called, became the capital of French India. There was a time when Madras, overpowered by the French, was ruled from here. On the streets they still speak French, the clock in the tourist centre shows the time in France, the policeman in his tall hat looks out of the French era, and the streets and the guest houses have French names.

Walking along the beach in the old French town, the statue of Dupleix looks down at me. At the other end is a Gandhi statue surrounded by ancient pillars. “There was once a jetty here, even a railway line with a wagon car,” says Ashok Panda, co-convenor of INTACH, as we walk along the colourful streets painted in pink and yellow. He points to old warehouses, though some of them seem to have found new life as shops and restaurants.

As Ashok explains some of the salient features of the colonial architecture, we see some of the institutions and schools still run by the French. Many private houses are restored and are available as guest houses for tourists. The streetscape is charming. A beautiful park in the midst of them was once the nerve centre of the French regime. I lose my way, but all roads soon lead to the Aurobindo Ashram.

At a quick stopover at the old Manakulla Vinayaka temple, I hear an interesting legend. It is the only temple in the French town, and it is believed that a Frenchman became a believer when his attempts to do away with the deity turned futile. Walking along the French quarter, I stop by to stare at a sketch of a skeleton looking at me from one of the windows. A statue of Joan of Arc stands in front of a church. I walk down to a restaurant and treat myself to some crepes before moving on.

Part 1 - Journeying down the Coromandel Coast