Notre Dame fire: ‘I cried when I said goodbye’

A view of the Notre-Dame Cathedral from the back, shot by Dr Rafael Ayoub. "The most famous view is from the front, with the towers, But I always love this view from the back," he says.

Almost a thousand years of history – both art and medieval -- was burned down when the French pride, the magnificent Notre Dame Cathedral, went up in flames on Monday.

The collapse of the spire and most of the roof is a blow to a heritage which has withstood turbulent times in the past including the 100 Years War, the French Revolution, Napoleonic Wars and World War I and II.

READ MORE: Notre Dame fire: 'I saw flames on the skyline'


Dr S Narayanan (extreme left) and
friends at the Notre Dame

The world woke up to the horror wondering what is left of the stained-glass windows of the gorgeous structure that once used to bask in the sunlight by the banks of river Seine. Notre Dame is an emotion not just for the French but many around the world.

Dr Rafael Ayoub, a photographer from New York, used to stay a few blocks away from the iconic structure.

“I used to walk late at night by it, and every time, no matter how many times I’ve seen it, it gave me a humbling feeling… something so beautiful and with so much history really makes you think about life and your place in this world... maybe it was just me being lost in my head, but I always miss those moments,” he said.

“I never forget the day I was leaving Paris after those two years, and even though I knew I would be back to visit, I ran out of my place minutes before leaving for the airport because I wanted to say goodbye and thanks to that place. Sounds silly, but few times in my life have I cried as much as when I said that goodbye,” he said.


Stained glass windows of the
cathedral. Pic: Vidya Sunder Murthy

Horror is not new to Paris but on an uneventful day in Spring, a significant part of the 850-year-old structure going up in smoke and ashes is too hard to fathom for who have been there and experienced all its magnificence.

Meghana Mungikars, Senior Associate, IDinsight, New Delhi, remembers how she came back impressed after her visit.

“It was massive, unreal and an absolute wonder in both art and history. What’s happening now might as well also be massive, unreal, and a reminder that nothing is permanent,” she said.

While art connoisseurs are worried about what the relics and art that might have been destroyed in the fire, there are those who believe that Paris would not be the same without Notre Dame.

“I went to Notre Dame on a warm sunny afternoon. There was something so beautiful about the cathedral. The stained glass paintings were glowing. We lit some candles and listened to a violinists play ‘Hallelujah’ outside the cathedral,” Kitty Iyer, a travel enthusiast from Bengaluru, remembers with nostalgia.

“It's very sad to see what happened to this amazing historic monument,” she said.

For S Narayanan, an avid traveller, his visit to the iconic stone structure was a surreal experience.


A view of the cathedral.
Pic: Vidya Sunder Murthy.

“My visit to the famed Notre Dame Cathedral in 2009 has left in me an indelible memory of Virgin Mary holding the lifeless Jesus in her arms... the look on her face is etched in my mind. It was so real. Or was it surreal?” he recollects.

While the main structure is said to be saved and preserved, the French President Emmanuel Macron has promised to rebuild it.

Will the priceless art works be salvaged? Will it rise from the ashes? There is as much hope as there is loss.

“The Notre Dame, apart from being a venerated cathedral, is an iconic symbol in the 4ème arrondissement de Paris, and has stood tall above Paris since the 12th century. The Eiffel Tower and Louvre Museum are probably two other landmarks that could offer competition to this magnanimous structure,” said Vidya Sunder Murthy, French teacher at NPS Koramangala.

“It stands testimony to the Gothic architecture and is undoubtedly, the most famous Gothic cathedral of the Middle Ages, distinguished for its sheer size, antiquity and architectural interest. It is but surprising that Victor Hugo drew inspiration from the cathedral to produce one of literature’s classical masterpiece ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Notre Dame de Paris)’,” she said.

“It is impossible to describe the overwhelming sense of grief that engulfs me as I witness the Notre Dame en larmes - Our Lady in Tears. Feels like a blaze of glory when God is in fury. The walk along the Seine will never be the same again. Paris will never be the same again sans son Sacré-Coeur (without its Sacred Heart),” she said.


Inside the Cathedral. Pic: Kitty Iyer

 

Nina Sud, who works at Ashoka University, Delhi recollected, "When I visited Notre Dame in 2016, it felt like a return rather than a first meeting. 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' was my favourite book growing up. My abridged copy was bought from London Book Depot, in a small market in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh. I was fascinated by Esmeralda and despised Frollo with a vengeance, but Quasimodo was nothing short of a trusted friend.

“When we moved city’s for my father’s job, Quasimodo would travel to and he taught me by heart the layout of a building I had never visited. While people and climate patterns change, you don’t easily think of buildings changing, far from disappearing. You depend on them increasingly to remind you of what once was and to mark the passage of time when you return. My clearest memory of the visit is the utter joy I felt in finding the gargoyle he (Quasimodo) gazed at most often - very familiar from Luc-Olivier Merson's illustrations. As the tour group took pictures and moved on, I and one other lady lingered behind in the bell tower - leading to a lovely conversation on how the book had affected our childhoods in two different countries, 14 years apart. She returned to Paris every five years and came to the bell tower. I left promising to do the same.

“Yesterday night was horrifying. My sister in Paris watched the fire grow from close quarters, while I sat in Delhi grieving over the gargoyles. Perhaps in times like these, the only way forward is to remind myself that the bell tower remains, that the cathedral has seen worse and survived; and whether for faith, literature or history – it’s okay to grieve the loss of a monument - it was anything but inanimate. In this, we all grieve together. Or in Victor Hugo’s words from the book - “Spira, spera. (breathe, hope)"

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