Last week I had the honour and pleasure of taking the Global Board of Directors, Compagnie de Saint Gobain, on a tour of Mamallapuram, organised by Saint Gobain India. All through my commentary an inner voice kept saying that there was a French connection to the place that I was not speaking about but try as I might I could not recollect what it was. A day later, back in my study, it all came back – I had forgotten to mention G Jouveau-Dubreuil, and his contribution in documenting Pallava antiquities. He is the forgotten French archaeologist
Kudos to Mamallapuram maintenance
Though the weather was at its Madras best – not a leaf stirring, humidity beyond description and the sea breeze playing truant – the maintenance of the monuments more than made up for these minor inconveniences. Everything was as it should be and kudos to the Archaeological Survey for what they do. The tour took in the so-called Five Ratha-s, the Arjuna Penance/Descent of the Ganges, the Govardhana panel, the Shore Temple and the free-standing boulder known as Krishna’s butter ball.
G Jouveau-Dubreuil’s Life in Brief
Born in Saigon on January 1, 1885, and christened Gabriel, he came to Pondicherry in 1909 to teach Physics and Chemistry at the Colonial College there. But what he is remembered for today is archaeology and his writings on the subject, all of which he took on during a three decade stay in India, interrupted by army service during the First World War. He went back to Paris at the end of the 1930s and passed away there on July 15, 1945.
Inspired by Mamallapuram
It was Mamallapuram that caught his fancy first and as he himself wrote, it was impossible to overlook the rock cut wonders on the Madras Pondicherry Road. Realising that what was at the place had already been well-documented, he went on to research the chronology of Pallava rock cut temples, not just in Mamallapuram but all over Tamil Nadu. His first documentation was in French and published as Archaeologie du Sud de l’Inde, at Paris in 1914. Two years later, the English version, came out as Pallava Antiquities, Vol 1, published by Probsthain & Co, London. Interestingly, in the preface, Jouveau Dubreuil also mentions a French version, published in July 1916.
A Series of Works on Pallavas
The second volume, originally intended to be expansive, was cut short owing to the author being called for army service and came out in 1918, published in Pondicherry. The English text of both volumes was by VS Swaminadha Dikshitar, Officier d’Academie, Professor of English at the Colonial College, Pondicherry. In his preface to the second volume, Jouveau Dubreuil draws attention to two more books/monographs of his – Dravidian Architecture (SPCK Press, Vepery, Madras 1917), and The Pallavas (Pondicherry, 1917). The latter he says is an attempt to “coordinate all that we know concerning the Pallavas with a view to establishing a complete genealogy of those kings and giving the outlines of their history.” Digital versions of these works exist and can be downloaded at archive.org
Arriving First at Nagarjunakonda
He left his imprint on Nagarjunakonda as well. Shortly after the discovery of the place was reported to the Madras Government by locals in 1926, it was Jouveau Dubreuil who first reached the spot. Organised digs were later taken up by the Government with AH Longhurst leading the team.
The writings of Jouveau Dubreuil, of which there is a sizeable corpus, are marked by a systematic approach making his explanations easy to understand for lay readers. Of value are the line drawings of architectural features not easily depicted in the photographic techniques of his time. In the history of research into the Pallava past, he remains an important milestone.
This article appeared in The Hindu dated October 11, 2023 and can be read here
My book on Chennai can be ordered here