Meet Aayi, the Courtesan Who Inspired Pondicherry's Official Emblem | Nat Geo Traveller India

Meet Aayi, the Courtesan Who Inspired Pondicherry’s Official Emblem

A park monument in the seaside town tells a story that affected an empire.  
Behind the pristine facade of Aayi Mandapam is a tale of a raging king and a generous courtesan. Photo: M Amirtham/Dinodia Photo

Pondicherry’s official emblem is an elegant white pavilion topped by a fleur-de-lis—the formal royal arms of France. Not many know that about Aayi Mandapam, the pristine monument behind the icon. And fewer still are aware of its startling story, featuring no less than a courtesan, a king, and some very thirsty French colonials.

Aayi Mandapam doesn’t attract much attention today. Situated in leafy Bharathi Park, it is frequented by early morning joggers, local drunks sprawled on the benches in the afternoon, and schoolchildren who sit cross-legged on the grass, eating their packed lunches of sambhar and curd rice. But for the curious, a plaque on Aayi Mandapam tells the story—in classical Tamil—of the monument that was raised by the French government in gratitude to an Indian courtesan.

As the legend goes, the powerful monarch Krishnadevaraya, whose Vijayanagara empire extended over most of south India in the early 16th century, came across a stunning building while visiting Pondicherry. The structure was grand, well-lit, and had beautiful carvings. Overcome by the majesty of what he imagined to be a temple, the king fell on his knees and folded his hands in respect. Some onlookers tittered; one asked the bemused king why he was bowing down before the house of a devadasi, a temple dancer. Humiliated, the king ordered for the house to be demolished. It was then that the devadasi Aayi begged for the king’s mercy, finally offering to tear it down herself and dig a pond in its place. The king relented, and Aayi kept her word—the tank she built supplied fresh water to the townspeople.

In the mid-19th century, when French-ruled Pondicherry faced a water scarcity, the engineer Pierre-Eugène Lamairesse stumbled upon Aayi’s pond in Muthurayarpalayam (the modern municipality of Oulgaret), and dug canals to bring the potable water to the location in the French quarters where Bharathi Park now stands. When French emperor Napoleon III heard of the story, he ordered a memorial to be built to the woman whose generosity had helped settle their kingdom’s fortunes in the seaside town.

The monument was built by Louis Gurre in 1854 and occupied pride of place in the town square, surrounded by the important buildings of the French colonial rule. It had a water fountain, even a pediment with a sculpture of Aayi with a pot. After India’s independence from colonial rule, the Pondicherry government continued to recognise the monument’s significance in the town’s history by adopting the Greco-Roman structure as its official emblem.

Bharathi Park is a few minutes’ walk from the beach promenade in Pondicherry. Daily, 6a.m.-9p.m. Entry free.

  • Sairam Krishnan writes about history, travel, and urban spaces. His writing has appeared in The Hindu and Scroll. He is currently working on a book about his hometown, Pondicherry.

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