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.