Published in 1896 by E. LENNEL DE LA FARELLE. Translated from the French by Liesbeth Pankaja Bennink

Pages 74 to 83

The Chevalier de la Farelle was a French officer in Pondicherry between 1724 and 1735. This is his recounting of his visit to the famous temple of Chidambaram, called by him Chalanbron. In the last years of his life Raja and I started researching the possibility to collect systematically eye-witness accounts of western travellers and other historical documents in order to write a more detailed history of the Chidambaram temple. We had already collected quite a bit of interesting material by the time of his death. The following is one example of this. I hope to be able to somehow continue this project in future.

This offers an interesting glance into a moment in the 18th century when both the Western and Indian communities were still open to meet and learn from one another some extend. Before the colonial ideology took firm hold. On the one hand we meet with the amazement and respect the visitors have for the Indian technical and historical achievements. On the other we see condescension towards the religious beliefs. The hosts in the temple from their side show great hospitality and welcome and even great tolerance. Raja was very happy and proud to learn his ancestors had practiced the same hospitality that was so precious to him and through which he had forged so many lasting friendships.


Off all pagodas in India, the most famous and most beautiful is that of Chalanbron [Chidambaram], which is located in the centre of a plain twenty leagues extended, eight [leagues] from Pondicherry and two from Porto -Novo, where we have a house and where the Dutch are established, who have been making a great trade there for over fifty years. I visited twice this pagoda, the second by the opportunity I had to go with M. de Marquessac, captain commanding the ship Appollon and officer of the king, my friend, with whom I must return to France during the coming month of January (January 1735), and whom the affairs of the Company had required to anchor in the harbour of Porto Novo. M. Marquessac, before embarking, had invited the Mrs. Febvrier, De Palmaroux and Du Laurens to be a part of the party to go to the pagodas, which they had accepted with pleasure, and when he had gone to Porto Novo he gave me notice of his arrival. I then informed these three ladies, whom the next morning and escorted by six gentlemen, left Pondicherry with me.


Our path was through Goudelour [Cuddalore], where we were received with all possible politeness by Mr. and Mrs. Pitt, who invited us to stay for dinner and supper. M.Pitt was, as I said earlier, Governor of Goudelour. After supper, the parties of quadrille did not fail and the ball lasted until four in the morning. Immediately after, that is to say, about five o’clock, we continued our journey and arrived in Porto-Novo at ten o’clock in the morning, my travel companions being well recovered in their palanquins of the sleep that they had lost during the night because they were still asleep when they were informed they had arrived. M. Marquessac, whom I had informed of our delay, came to receive us and procured for us all the pleasures and possible necessities during the two days we stayed in Porto- Novo to give us the time to make preparations for our trip to the pagodas, taking all kinds of provisions with us so nothing would be lacking upon our arrival.


Before we started I sent forward to ask the Governor of the pagodas permission to visit, giving this task to an interpreter that we had brought from Pondicherry and whom M. Marquessac had had accompanied by M. de Saint- George, the second officer of the ship of which he [M. Marquessac] was in command. When we had received the message with the permission, we prepared to start our trip. Several persons from Porto-Novo, and Ms. Mollandin who was staying in that city and whom I was so happy to see, joined us, and we were sixteen people of rank, on horseback or by palanquin, with a retinue of servants in proportion and also ‘pawns’ otherwise being armed men for decoration of which I had brought 25 from Pondicherry for me personally, the other gentlemen having the same in proportion. This formed a troupe announcing that we were people from elsewhere, all this pageantry is essential in India. For its part, the governor of the pagodas sent up to half a league to meet us, four hundred armed men of his guard and a Brahmin from among them who had the most authority in his government, with the assignment to direct us everywhere we asked him to go to satisfy our curiosity .


The pagodas of Chalanbron [Chidambaram] can be seen from at least six miles away on land and from a longer distance at sea, what I can confirm because of having seen them on my way to Pondicherry; and although we had often heard of their colossal size, we had no idea of what they are until seeing them up close. I also can not express the wonderment and astonishment we experienced when we were close to entering. The enclosure of these pagodas is surrounded by a wall forty feet high and about six thick, forming a rampart within and built of stones with a amazing length and a width. Such same huge stones are found up to the highest point of the four towers that flank the corners of the pagoda.


Four gates provide access into the enclosure. The Brahmin who accompanied us took us first to the most important gate, of which the appearance surprised us both by its height and by its architecture in the Indian taste. Two stones of about sixty feet around height wise and eight feet wide, and another, even bigger and placed on the first two, form the uprights and the top of the door, through which three carriages could pass and which we examined a very long time, attempting to understand how these enormous stones had been carved and put in place, as well as many others, equally huge, which we saw in the interior and which all were put stones upon stones without mortar or lime, as in the arenas of Nimes. We made our translator question this to the Brahmin; the idea that he himself had was that they had, from the foot of walls, constructed terraces by way of which they had constructed the building and on which they had trailed the stones, and it was only by dint of time and work they managed to render these pagodas as significant as we see today. He said he could not imagine that the ancients had the machines necessary to raise to the exceptional height we see here and also in other constructions of this kind. MM. Nyon, Deidier and Lambert (the latter two part of the expedition Mahe as engineers), all three being engineers of the King, who also visited these pagodas were of opinion that they could not be built otherwise. The stones of which they are built are found, according to them, no closer than a hundred miles inland, and they feel that it must have taken more than a century and a half to build these pagodas. One of the engineers that I just mentioned, M. de Nyon, now Governor of Mauritius, built the citadel of Pondicherry, which is considered to be the most consistent and strongest of all those Europeans have in India.


The pagodas of Chalanbron [Chidambaram] appear to be as old as the most ancient monuments of antiquity, but we can not specify the date of their construction, because the Indians did not write the history of their country or the particularities regarding their ancestors. They merely accept what comes to their knowledge, by way of their life, and what they can learn from their older contemporaries. The tradition of certain events is not preserved except among Brahmins; and it is to them, being the most scholarly, that all those who want to make some research on India direct themselves.


We entered the grounds of the pagodas through the main gate and to the sound of the music that belongs to them, { p.79 } then, after passing through several small doors, each guarded by an armed guard, we arrived in the middle of a huge space around which there were magnificent houses. We stopped in front of the one belonging to the Governor to admire the exterior magnificence. On each side of this house rise two colonnades hundred and fifty feet in extent and whose columns and chains, also of stone, connected together in the way of garlands, made of a single block of stone, surprising as it may seem. After passing easily under these chains, which do not fall { p.80 } lower than six or seven feet from the ground, we continued to follow our guide, who made us pass under a kind of gallery supported by high pilasters. The body of the building where this gallery situated was carved of wood and perfectly gilded in the style of other three pagodas, and the top was shaped in the form of a tomb because Brahma, the supreme god, would rest in this location. Everything within this building, called the Blessed Abode by the faithful, is beautifully decorated; many lamps burn day and night, and four Brahmins never leave, that is to say they are released in turn and that the same number is always dedicated there.


On the roof of the pagoda, which is covered with large plates of highly polished silver placed in a regular fashion one against another, there are eight balls slightly elongated a little bit like pine cones made of gold filigree forming a crown, a great accomplishment which, when the sun shines above is of such brilliance to prohibit the use of sight. As for the underside of the roof, in the interior, it is decorated with silver and gilded carved wood.


The Brahmins believe their god created the world, that he was born poor, lived in such a way and performed miracles. He is represented as a beautiful young man, having four hands which he uses to distribute blessings and ache, and, under the arms, four deities subalterns which he commands to do good or evil { 81 }, depending more or less the zeal of the believers. Our guide provided us all these explanations with a fervour of faith and devotion which, far from touching us, made us want to laugh.


By a special permission made to the French nation by the Governor of the pagodas, we were allowed to approach into the nearness of the divinity without leaving our shoes. It is customary to present the Governor with a gift proportionate to the nature and quality of the visitors; ours was four ells of scarlet and a mirror of twenty crowns, and this present was so well liked that we had free access throughout the pagoda .


When we went out to go to dinner in a beautiful garden which adjoins, our visit had lasted four good hours. We had brought, as I had said, all that necessary for our dinner, and the governor had sent us tables, and even although they are not in use with the peoples of the East, chairs which he had made especially for European visitors. He also sent us the dancing girls and musicians assigned to the pagoda and had brought to us all kinds of fruits, herbs and dairy, not to mention the betel which, in India, is a sign of hospitality and consideration.


After we had dined at some length, the sound of discordant music but under the enchanting charm of bayadères dancing, we returned to the pagoda, escorted by about two thousand armed men, which { 82 } came by order of the Governor in front of our palanquins and in such a way honoured us.


It was still the same Brahmin who accompanied us and directed us to the places where we had not yet been. He showed us immense storerooms built of stones with surprising width and length, in which they stored the grains harvested in the land belonging to the pagoda and others with the offerings of the faithful, who, some days of the year are brought and deposited at the foot of the idol by those who had requested his grace and favour. These offerings are made of various things, such as cotton, silk, rice, crowns, cows, milk, etc. . Although prodigiously large, these beautiful stores are filled every year. At the same time they are emptied for the support of those committed to protecting en maintaining the pagoda and to help the needy, when the country is in a shortage of rice or other grains, as often happens in this remote region of Pondicherry.


We continued to follow our guide who showed us around, still within the precincts of the pagoda, other large buildings, also built of huge stones, which housed in separate chambers and more or less daily, fifteen hundred Brahmins attached to the pagoda as well as musicians and dancing girls who are connected. In the same building are also the housing of the guards, which is composed of three thousand men, armed with rifles or arms and arrows. { 83 }


At the beginning of the night, when we left the pagoda, we had visited in the smallest details, and after admiring the last time the main gate, we returned to Porto-Novo to go from there back to Pondicherry, about which I have a few more words to say.