Old Puducherry lighthouse comes ablaze with history

By Shubha Singh, IANS,

Puducherry : A 172-year-old disused lighthouse on the seafront here came ablaze with light in the New Year as it became the venue for an exhibition on oceanic culture and the Indian diaspora.

Support TwoCircles

The exhibition revealed little known facts about Puducherry (formerly Pondicherry) as one of the ancient port cities of India, and its role as an important embarkation port for the thousands of Indians who migrated to colonies around the world.

The old lighthouse, for long a landmark on the boulevard of Puducherry, which could only be viewed from a distance, is now drawing crowds of curious visitors to look at the lighthouse and its exhibition.

Though listed as a tourist attraction, the lighthouse had been in use mainly as a dump for broken office equipment and other material for many years. The lighthouse itself had been under the nominal control of the Department of Customs and Excise while the rest of the lighthouse complex was in the possession of the Puducherry Department of Art and Culture.

But a joint effort, initiated by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) in collaboration with the Puducherry government, helped sort out administrative issues to prepare the lighthouse for its new role.

The 19th-century lighthouse is closely linked to Puducherry’s recent history. The tower was considered a French technical marvel when it was first constructed and inaugurated in 1836; the beacon atop the 29- metre-high round tower could be seen from a distance of 24 km. A wooden staircase led up to the beacon and a small viewing tower.

There was a time when visitors could go up the tower after paying a small fee, but that facility was stopped many years ago and the hardwood staircase became the favourite nesting place for a variety of birds.

A first floor was built on the masonry base of the tower in the early 20th century and the old oil lamps were replaced with electric lights. The 19th-century structure had however outlived its utility and a new more powerful lighthouse was built at a site just outside the city.

Now the first floor in the old lighthouse has come in use for the exhibition, which was accompanied by a two-day seminar on ocean culture and a five-day cultural festival on the seafront.

The seminar dwelt on the strong maritime tradition of the Coromandel coast and the sea-faring customs of the coastal region. Cultural exchanges took place through its ancient port cities where people from different regions of the world met and exchanged goods and experiences. The port cities shared their knowledge and wisdom with one another and people travelled from the ports to distant lands and gave rise to diasporic settlements and cultures across the seas.

Puducherry had a well-established trade network with countries to the east and the west. In later centuries, it was the main port for Indians who migrated to the overseas French territories of Reunion, Guadeloupe and Martinique.

The exhibition showed the ancient connections – it displayed photographs and drawings of the Arikamedu excavations, the site about three kilometres from Puducherry. The excavations showed signs of a flourishing trade between India and Roman cities in the first century BC; ancient coins, beads and remnants of amphora of wine and oil were discovered at the site.

The discoveries indicated that it was the port of Podouke that is mentioned in the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, the story of an unknown traveller who crossed the Indian Ocean over 2,000 years ago.

The old lighthouse is now slated to become a cultural hotspot with IGNCA setting up a permanent gallery of artefacts, rare images and photographs relating to oceanic cultural and diasporic exchanges with a section for contemporary expressions such as paintings, drawing and film shows.

(Shubha Singh can be contacted at [email protected])