A home for the general’s wife

Sathya Saran | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on June 24, 2016
Love child: General François Allard’s gift to Princess Banoo Pan Dei — his wife from Chamba — is now a luxurious boutique hotel in St Tropez

Love child: General François Allard’s gift to Princess Banoo Pan Dei — his wife from Chamba — is now a luxurious boutique hotel in St Tropez   -  Pan Deï Palais

India lives here: General Allard filled the house with paintings and artefacts from his wife’s country

India lives here: General Allard filled the house with paintings and artefacts from his wife’s country   -  Pan Deï Palais

A palace in the French Riviera keeps alive the love story of a French armyman and his Indian spouse, a princess from Chamba

It is a cold afternoon in St Tropez, and I sink into a sofa in the living room of the Pan Deï Palais. The room with tall ceilings is pleasantly warm, the warmth coming not just from the gentle heating but also the colours in the paintings and the décor, which are unmistakably Indian. The voices of the other tourists in the group — excited to see a bronze child Krishna sitting cross-legged and playing a flute — fade away as they move to the upper floors.

My mind is elsewhere. I can hear children at play. In the room I am seated in, the montage comes quietly to life. This is where Princess Banoo Pan Deï (was she Pandey, I wonder, Frenchi-fied to Pan Deï) must have been on cold afternoons, watching her children at play. The domestic helps would bring them in one by one, and they would sprawl on the rich carpet with their wooden toys and books. There would be squabbles and tears, laughter and horseplay, and a smile would rest on her lips as she watched over the five children born of her marriage to a French general (there had been two more children, but they died). How many evenings must have she spent in this mansion, with only her children and the house staff for company? Was she pining for the land she had left behind, did she long to be with the man who was her husband, who was now far away, back in India, serving the formidable Ranjit Singh of Punjab?

The French love a love story and it is not uncommon for visitors to the Pan Deï Palais to be taken in by the story of General Jean François Allard and his wife — the princess of Chamba.

It is an unusual story indeed, starting with a French soldier from Napoleon’s army who found himself without an anchor for his military skills. In 1822, when Allard reached Punjab after travelling in the Middle East, he found a place in Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s army. Entrusted with the task of raising a dragoon of lancers trained on European lines, Allard brought to his job European strategies and soon took upon himself the task of shaping Singh’s army into an invincible one. Putting to good use the contents of a pamphlet he had carried along, Allard taught his men to respond to orders given only in French. By 1825, the Fauji Khas (infantry, cavalry and artillery) was 5,000-6,000 strong. It wore uniforms inspired by those of Napolean’s Grande Armée. For his exemplary guidance, Allard was awarded the rank of a general and became an advisor to the king, who gifted him lands in Lahore.

Some say that Allard was also offered the hand of the princess of Chamba, the king’s niece, in the kind of political alliances that were common in royal families at that time. We can’t say if the 15-year-old was forced into a marriage with the 40-year-old general, but the latter was reportedly captivated by her beauty. Love followed soon. The soldier, who also wrote poems in Persian, fell in love with his teenage bride. Pan Deï reciprocated his feelings, and the couple proceeded to make seven babies.

The highlight of the love story is the palace Allard erected for his Indian spouse. When he first brought Pan Deï to St Tropez in 1834, he decided to build her a home studded with artefacts and paintings from India and other Asian countries. Allard returned to his station in India after two years, leaving Pan Deï behind in the seaside town of St Tropez. But the mini-India he created for his young wife was enchanting enough to keep her there for as long as she lived.

The youngest of Pan Deï’s children was born in 1835, a year after she moved to France. And when Allard left for India a year later — never to return — her social calendar was filled with parties for royal visitors from India as well as her French neighbours. Soon after, Allard lost his life to a heart condition and was buried in Lahore. His grave, between those of his two deceased infants, still exists. The princess apparently refused to believe he was dead and continued to walk to the pier every evening, hoping to see his ship sailing in.

I return to the present when the voices and their owners — my fellow visitors — descend from the floor above. I fix my gaze on a family portrait in the room — Pan Deï, Allard and their seven children. The princess, who later converted to the Catholic faith, died in 1884. Her grave speaks volumes of the love and loyalty she bore her husband. The epitaph, in a simple seaman’s cemetery, reads: The General’s Wife.

The Allard-Pan Deï home is now a 12-room boutique hotel. Non-resident guests are allowed only in the evenings, for high tea or dinner. The general’s descendant, Henri Prevost Allard, hasn’t spent a night in this ancestral home. The family doesn’t even own it anymore. But it is thanks to this historian that this link between Punjab and St Tropez has been revived. The French have decided to instal statues of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and Allard in the coastal town.

Come September (16-18 to be precise), and St Tropez will celebrate the lives of these two men. I cannot but prefer to believe that, perhaps, the general and his beloved princess will choose to attend.

Sathya Saran is a journalist and editor based in Mumbai

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Published on June 24, 2016
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