Blog,  Essay

The Old Lighthouse of Pondicherry

Original essay by Samantha Rajaram.

Like other colonial towns, the architecture of Pondicherry, India, bears the imprint of its co- lonial past. The old lighthouse is such an exam- ple. Located close to the beach promenade, the

lighthouse has a white, fluted tower with a lantern and gallery rising from the circular keeper’s house. A modest structure of only 27 meters (89 feet), it began operation in 1836 and was built by the engineer L. Guerre, known then as “the colonial engineer” for bringing French architecture into various colo- nies. The lighthouse was later modified—its rectangular base replaced by a circular structure in 1886 and a second story added thereafter. In 1931 its fixed light was replaced with a revolving light of 1,000 watts, visible from 15 km.

While the rest of India was a British colony for some 200 years, the area where my immigrant parents grew up was a French colony. And before the French arrived, Pondicherry changed hands between the Dutch, English, and Portuguese. The French East India Company set up outposts in Pondi- cherry in 1673, but the English attempted to reestablish its power in the area at three different times. A battle at sea in 1793 between the English and French resulted in the English regaining Pondicherry until 1814. The Treaty of 1814 finally restored French control of Pondicherry. From then on, the French used Pondicherry’s sea port for trade, and established the French Rodier mill, still in operation today. The French only relinquished Pondicherry in 1954, seven years after the British left the subcontinent.

In 1979, due to its unreliable light causing a nuisance to sea traffic, a taller, conventional lighthouse was built. The new lighthouse—with its smooth tower and modern black- and-white striping and height of 48 meters (157 feet) high— dwarfs the old lighthouse. Its lantern never fails.

But the old lighthouse retains its hold in my memory. I have passed it innumerable times on my way to the beach promenade. As a child, I walked past it with my parents and uncles, listening to stories of their childhood and of my grand- father, who spent his childhood in Saigon, Vietnam, studied law in France, and who died in his forties in an automobile accident in Pondicherry long before I was born.

I imagine my grandfather walking past the old lighthouse, how the old lighthouse links me to him and to my history.

During my childhood, there was a beach separating Pondicherry’s promenade from the water, but the beach is now gone. A retaining wall is all that keeps the ocean from swallowing up the picturesque French Quarter. Pondicherry’s average elevation is at sea level and the area is very vulnerable to flooding. Climate change will hasten the process of inun- dation and erosion—the 2004 tsunami and Thane cyclone of 2011 both caused significant loss of life in the area. Scientists project that much of this area will be submerged in the next 100 years.

The old lighthouse, back when it was new, exemplified French colonial expansion and dominance, a time when India itself functioned as a pawn in a long game of chess between European powers. French tourists and retirees still flock to Pondicherry now—French is often heard in the streets along with the native language of Tamil.

Like other old structures in Pondicherry, the lighthouse now exists as an artifact of another time. It no longer serves its intended function, remaining instead as a historical land- mark, and even, at one point, a toy museum. Rust stains col- lect under its watch tower. Palm trees grow tall around it, and at night, bats flit around the gallery. L. Guerre, “the colonial engineer,” has all but disappeared from history—I was unable to find more than passing reference to him in my research. Both the structure and its architect encompass imperma- nence—of power, of memory, of the past.

Someday, the ocean will claim the old lighthouse along with its beloved coastline, and with it, a part of my family’s story and India’s lesser known colonial story as well.