Aayi Mandapam looked like any other memorial. It had an elegant structure, immaculate vicinity, and a beautiful garden. But it had no bronze statue between the pillars, as is normally the case with memorials. It had no picture or wreath or an eternal flame either. It resembled the grand Lincoln memorial, only with no Lincoln sitting inside. Empty.
Curious, I stood staring at the site for a while. But the sun was setting in White Town and soon, Pondicherry would be bathed in moonlight. My hotel was quite far, and so, I hailed a cab before it got too dark. On the way, I struck up a conversation with the driver. We chatted briefly about my trip—the beaches I had explored, the streets I had roamed, and the cuisines I had tried. I then steered the conversation towards Aayi Mandapam .
When I asked him about the mandapam (memorial), he looked surprised. He told me tourists like me usually asked about secluded or isolated beaches, and French restaurants. Hardly anyone ever enquired about memorials, he remarked. He told me that Aayi Mandapam was erected by the French before Indian Independence, in honour of a courtesan named Aayi. And later, the Indian government selected it as the official emblem of Pondicherry.
Such respect for a courtesan! I sure had some prejudiced thoughts. For some reason, Aayi’s name had stood the test of time, and I wanted to know why. Luckily for me, the driver knew the whole story. It all started when Krishnadevaraya, a mighty king with an empire stretching across the southern part of Deccan, from Karnataka to Kanyakumari, was travelling through Pondicherry one afternoon. When he came across a beautiful building with incredible architecture and intricate carvings, he mistook it for a temple. He knelt before it in respect, his hands folded.
Faced with no other choice, Aayi requested that she be allowed to demolish the building herself. The king agreed.
Little did the king know that he was bowing before a brothel. When the crowd laughed at the king, the guards had to tell Krishnadevaraya the truth. Embarassed and enraged, he ordered his soldiers, “Bring the owner of the brothel to me and knock down the building down to its roots!” All the laughter stopped that very instant.
When Aayi, the owner of the building, was brought down in chains, she pleaded with Krishnadevaraya to have mercy on her home. But the king was bent on turning the building into dust. Faced with no other choice, Aayi requested that she be allowed to demolish the building herself. The king agreed. The courtesan destroyed her beautiful house, and in its place, dug a pond for the thirsty villagers.
With time, the pond came to be called ‘Aayi Kulam’ in her memory. Some three hundred years later, the French came to Pondicherry and made the city their capital. Once, a French town on the outskirts of Pondicherry was struggling with severe water shortage. As a solution to the problem, an architect from the counsel of the French King Napolean III suggested constructing canals from Aayi Kulam to channel her waters to the town. When the solution was implemented, the town started receiving fresh water from Aayi Kulam. Filled with gratitude, King Napolean III built a memorial for Aayi in Greco-Roman style at the centre of a park, with a fleur-de-lis at its top.
There was a hint of pride in the driver’s voice, as he narrated this story to me. And I could clearly see why. Aayi’s memorial didn’t need a statue, an assortment of flowers or an eternal flame to help people remember her. Her selfless deed etched her name in people’s hearts. It made her eternal.
The next day, I visited Aayi Mandapam at twilight. The memorial was illuminated with colourful searchlights, and the garden was lit as if by thousand fireflies. It was a beautiful sight, perhaps just as beautiful as Aayi’s home might have been.