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Indian city thanking France for protection from tsunami

Published Aug. 24, 2005

Religious devotees believe a divine force saved this port city from last week's tsunami, but the vendors who sell fruit and snacks next to the sea say it really was France.

During the city's nearly three centuries as a French colonial enclave, French engineers built and maintained a stone sea wall that kept Pondicherry's historic center dry even though tsunami waves drove water 24 feet above the normal high-tide mark.

"The water rose quickly, up to the main road," said M. Keshavan, a 23-year-old who sells mangos and crispy snacks to tourists visiting the wall. He pointed to a two-foot retaining wall next to the road that runs along the top of the sea wall: "It stopped there."

The Pondicherry district recorded some 600 deaths from the huge waves that struck India's southeastern coast after a mammoth earthquake off Indonesia, but most of those killed were fishermen who lived in villages beyond the man-made barrier.

France had hoped to use Pondicherry as the base for an expanded empire in India, but it was the British who won the fight and ended up controlling more than 90 percent of it. The French were left with Pondicherry, which they ruled until 1956, seven years after Britain gave the rest of India independence.

The French influence, seen in the graceful architecture on streets with names like Rue Dumas, makes this city of 300,000 unique in India.

Police sport red kepis, the round caps worn by Parisian cops and French soldiers. French is still taught in schools, and French expatriates own homes and run businesses in the French Quarter. Paris even financed a giant, bronze statue of the father of India's independence movement, Mohandas K. Gandhi, which stands at the center of the sea wall.

The barrier was initially completed in 1735. Over the years, the French continued to fortify the wall, piling huge boulders along its 1.25-mile length to stop erosion by the waves pounding the harbor.

At its highest, the barrier running along the water's edge reaches about 27 feet above sea level. The boulders, some weighing up to a ton, are weathered black and brown.

On Dec. 26, when towering waves crashed against India's southern coast, the wall held.

Keshavan said the water then receded from the harbor to where the seabed drops off into deep water _ about 650 feet out from the wall.

"There was nothing but wet sand. People ran out to pick up the fish that were left behind, but the police ordered them to come back," he said.

The ocean surged into the harbor and retreated two more times before the sea finally returned to normal, he said.

"Pondicherry was very safe because of the rock barrier," said S. Subramanian, manager of the Tourist Information Bureau, which has its office on the road overlooking the ocean. He said only the fishing villages and beach resorts on either side of the barrier were damaged.

Every year the sea wall is inspected. Whenever gaps appear, or the stones sink into the sand, the government adds boulders, he said.

The deep-water harbor itself also helped. The steep dropoff forms an underwater wall that breaks up the power of incoming waves.

In neighboring Bangladesh, which had only two deaths from the tsunami, there is a similar natural barrier. Billions of tons of sediment carried into the sea by the country's numerous rivers slowed the sea surges before they hit the coast.

Not everyone believes the wall was responsible for keeping the city safe.

At a religious retreat established in the French Quarter in 1926 by Indian guru Sri Aurobindo, an anticolonial revolutionary turned scholar and holy man, devotees attributed the city's salvation to Aurobindo and his French-born wife, whom they call "the Mother."

"I am not sure you will believe this, but it was The Mother who protected the city," said S. Ramanathan, an elderly devotee who lives and works in the ashram.