Among the earliest memories of the convent school where I studied was the library that housed innumerable imaginary worlds tucked away inside colourful jacket covers treasured inside glass-panelled cupboards, the auditorium with its stone walls that had stood witness to debates, elocution and dramatics and tasted the pride and tears of the graduating batch of students year after year, and then there was the stone-walled structure that held the pride of place at the entrance to our school — its domes and a spire painted in a shade of maroon called the ‘chapel’.
The fact that the chapel was restricted to the youngest batch in the school kept the flame of curiosity and wonderment alive once we had overcome the distraction of settling into the schooling routine.
Our imagination was fuelled by racing stories of the old structure housing beautiful angels flitting about their delicate wings as if on a mission to protect and fulfil the wishes of little children. The only reason we doubted our theory was when we noticed that the women who emerged from that structure wore a simple garb of white with a headpiece.
On the other side of innumerable theories that often crossed paths with the tales tailored by the authors of the books we read, the untimely death of a nun, who was a teacher in the school, threw open the doors of the chapel and all students were expected to pay their respects in her memory.
As we entered the chapel, we looked about in awe as we drank in our surroundings. I distinctly remember the heavy silence that descended upon us as my senses swam in the fragrance of burning candles, incense and so much else that was pleasant but none that my curious mind could distinctly decipher.
It was with that very same curiosity and awe that I had entered the famed cathedral of Notre Dame alongside the throng of eager tourists and our guide in tow, more than a decade ago.
The warm and gentle fragrance of candles and burning incense teleported me back in time to that day at the school chapel but nothing had prepared me for the sheer size and the extent of the rich architectural magic that this sanctuary housed.
“French Gothic architecture,” I heard the guide say, but for the rest of the tour the strength of my senses was focused on the olfactory system and the sense of sight muting out all conversation and history that our French guide was elucidating with practised precision.
Steeped in history
My husband and I watched sunlight split into a burst of colours as it filtered in through the rose windows. We shared the ground and touched the walls that had stood witness to coronations, marriages and funerals of great kings and queens who had walked the earth, had seen the destruction and vandalism during the French Revolution and heard the heartfelt prayers of eager tourists from around the world. We lit a candle, whispered a gentle prayer before we trudged up the old spiralling stairs to the bell tower as our mind’s eye pictured an image of the bell ringer Quasimodo, from the Hunchback of Notre Dame, tugging at the ropes.
On that fateful day when the Notre Dame Cathedral’s majestic spire tumbled into the inferno, I looked up at a framed picture of that magical balmy morning that now stands on the wall frozen in time and hoped that just as Notre Dame had withstood the test of time, it will once again be risen from the ashes to listen to another prayer, bewitching every tourist visiting the land of love under the spell of its architectural magic.
Pranitha Menon is a freelance writer based in Dubai. Twitter: @MenonPranitha