I discovered Mahe, a former French colony in the northern part of Kerala, completely by accident when I was travelling along the National Highway 17 that connects Mumbai to Kochi.
From Kozhikode, which is 60 km away, I was driving on my bike to the Kannur district when I saw the signboard ‘Welcome to Mahe (Union Territory of Puducherry)’. Puducherry is the new name of Pondicherry, the well-known ex French colony in Tamil Nadu.
I immediately looked for some clues on Google. Yes, Mahe (also known as Mayyazhi) was part of the French establishments set up by the French East India Company in India from the second half of the 17th century onwards with Pondicherry, Karikal and Yanaon on the Coromandel Coast and Chandernagor in West Bengal.
While the rest of Kerala was under the British rule till India got independence in 1947, Mahe remained as a French colony until 1954 when it was integrated into the Union of India. The small city today is inhabited by about 3,000 people.
Alcohol shops and the statue of Marianne
Unfortunately, there is almost nothing left from the past glory except the uniform of policemen with the ‘kepi’ on the head and the Statue of Marianne established by the French in 1789 in a small park along the river, marking the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution.
On the contrary, the place has a funny reputation in Kerala because it is known for an unpleasant reason: the paradise of cheap alcohol! Because of relatively low taxes, liquor is available in plenty and that too at a very low price compared to the rest of India. Along the road there are dozens of shops selling all kind of alcoholic beverages.
Surprisingly there are people who still speak French or at least a few words, even in the fishermen community. The French citizens, now only around 70, have formed an association named ‘Union Des Francaise de Mahé’. They are retired soldiers and they opted for French citizenship when the Parisian Government left Mahe on July 16, 1954. The French left following a nationalist struggle launched by the Mahajana Sabha led by freedom fighter I.K. Kumaran.
On July 14, every year, the members of the association get together at St. Teresa’s Church and take out a procession to the Statue of Marianne at Tagore Park and pay their respects to the nation of France.
The connection with the French started on December 3, 1724, when they arrived on the Malabar Coast for trade activities and selected this river port as their main business center. The town got its name from the naval captain Francois Mahe de Labourdonnais.
However, in a short period of time they lost Mahe twice in war, first at the hands of the Marathas and then to the English. Nevertheless, they gained it back in 1816.
An immersion into the French past
The best place to stay in Mahe is in the modern French Avenue Hotel, in the heart of this small city, but other budget accommodations are also available along the main road.
The tiny Tagore Park on the river Mahè, where the statue of Marianne is located, is the starting point for a walk around the narrow streets and colonial houses. Dozens of fishermen are busy with their nets on the beautiful walkway, but you can still imagine being on the Seine for a moment. Next door is the headquarters office of the Mahe Administration, an example of French architecture. Other attractions located in the vicinity of the headquarters office, are the tall flag mast, remnants of a fort, a lighthouse and the Thacholi Othenan’s fort. Unfortunately, the beach has disappeared because of the ongoing construction of new fishing market.
Another must see attraction is the Catholic Church of St. Theresa of Avila, built in 1737 by missionaries and reconstructed later. It is considered to be one of the oldest churches in Kerala. According to legend, the statue of the saint was on a ship that stopped in front of this shore. The shrine attracts a lot of believers, mainly in the festival of October.
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