Sunday, August 09, 2009

Whose Folly - Overbury's or Ours?

August 1984

As we drove down north along the coastal road from Calicut to Cannanore one evening, we passed Mahe and were approaching Tellicherry. (I ignore the fact that jingoists and fanatics masquerading as lingua-patriots have replaced these beautiful and popular names with Kozhikode, Kannur, Mayyazhi and Thalassery respectively.)

On the right was a hillock sloping down to the road, and on the left was a splendid spectacle: a precipice and beyond, the Arabian Sea, now a cauldron of molten gold, with the evening setting fire to the clouds and the skies.

Drinking in the visual treat, one nearly missed the small dilapidated structure nearly smothered by the wild growth of bushes in the foreground. ‘What could that be? A tomb or a mausoleum like the ones you see in Delhi?’ I wondered. There was nobody to clear my doubt.

Later, I asked someone and I was told it was called Overbury’s Folly. That certainly sounded an unusual name! I was intrigued. Further enquiries revealed that it is named after its builder, E N Overbury, a Briton who served as a local judge at Thalassery in the 1870s.

Overbury wanted to construct a picnic spot at the cliff. Some people considered it a stupid idea and dissuaded him from the venture. Though he started the project in 1879, he had to abandon it for some reason, though some time, labor and money were wasted in the endeavour, proving the detractors right. They derisively labelled the incomplete structure ‘Overbury's Folly’, I was told. Incidentally, this story, shorn of some details, appears in the wikipedia (See:

Overbury's Folly is an unfinished construction, or architectural folly, that now serves as a recreational park located in Thalassery, south India.
The folly is located on a hill near Thalassery District Court and is adjacent to a park. It slopes down from the sub-collector's
bungalow to the rocks below and is named after its builder, E. N. Overbury, a Briton who served as a local judge at Thalassery in the 1870s.
In 1879, Overbury wanted to construct a picnic spot at the cliff. He couldn't complete it, but the spot later earned the name "Overbury's Folly". The folly commands sweeping views of the
Arabian Sea.

Convincing enough an explanation, I reasoned to myself. The learned judge had erred in estimating the scope for and viability of a picnic spot there, but he had the sense to drop it when wisdom dawned.

June 2009

Early morning. We were driving down in the reverse direction. I looked to the right. The sea was very much there, but the foreground had had an image make-over.

The domed structure had been rescued from vice-like grip of the bushes. Overbury's Folly had been renovated. It is a tourist attraction now, frequented by local people as a place to relax in the evenings. A seaside open-air coffee shop has also been opened on the folly.

In the evening, I was looking up the dictionary for the word ‘foley’ and I chanced upon the word ‘folly’. Imagine what I saw! Incredulous, I referred to the encyclopaedia. This is what is said:

In architecture, a folly is a building constructed strictly as a decoration, having none of the usual purposes of housing or sheltering associated with a conventional structure. In the landscape gardens in England and France in the 18th century, they often represented Roman temples, and symbolized classical virtues or ideals. Other 18th century garden follies represented Chinese temples, Egyptian pyramids, ruined abbeys, or Tatar tents, to represent different continents or historical eras. Sometimes they represented rustic villages, mills and cottages, to symbolize rural virtues.

Later, somewhere else I read that a ‘folly’ is a structure erected at a spot from where you can have commanding views of picturesque surroundings.

What we understand by Overbury’s Folly does not seem to be the folly that we think it is, after all!

1 comment:

Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri said...

You mentioned this during one of our many conversations, but I forgot the details. It was good to read this post.

Study of language can be, at times, as interesting as reading good detective stories. This post proves the point.