Pondicherry is not an island of French ethos in a sea of Indian values and social systems, it the spiritual convergence of the east and west
India was one of the richest of ancient civilisations. Regrettably, this historical fact is now obscured by centuries of foreign conquest, colonial rule and desi mismanagement of resources. However, if you dig into the origins of some of the lesser known coastal villages of India, there is great chance that some of those glorious seafaring lives of maritime trading cultures may be found ensconced in time capsules of folk tales, songs and artistry.
From the remnants of Hinduism found all around the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean from Angkor Wat to Bali to Africa, to the Indian names of towns, cities and even local mythological figures in many places of south East Asia – this faded history of an India which was a giant of ancient navigation and trade by sea is visible to those seeking with an inquisitive mind and a cultural magnifying lens.
At home, near the southern tip of India, south of Chennai, on the Bay of Bengal, lies such a place which finds mention in Roman trade logs dating to the 1st to 4th centuries CE. After changing hands from the Kanchipuram kingdom to Chola dynasty, it retained its position as a maritime centre but for South Asia. This slowly declined over four centuries of Vijayanagara rule till 1678, and the French built one of their five major trading outposts here. This motley collection of villages was soon outshone by the Indo-French township, both in vibrancy and political importance. So much so that the British fought for and captured the town many times over the next 100 years, until 1814 when the French regained control for the final time and continued trading via this outpost until 1954 when it was ceded to independent India.
By this time, Pondicherry, or Pondy as this Franco-Indian jewel is known, had become a cultural centre promoting freedom and equality during the independence struggle and had carved out a unique niche for itself within the Indian psyche – one which serves as a time capsule for not only Franco-Indian culture but also as a reminder for a different colonial legacy, tempered by the lack of oppression and dehumanisation practised by the British.
Pondicherry still has two prominent townships or quarters, one is French and the other Indian (predominantly Tamil). 19 out of the 42 wards of the city can be described as old city where pastry coloured block buildings with French windows dominate the architecture. The abundance of French culture intermingling with uniquely Indian systems of Yoga and Ayurveda leads to a disproportionately high foreign tourist footfalls in the city – mostly from Europe. There are many places to visit, much history to learn, many cuisines to try and too much culture to absorb in this city of multiple identities.
Romain Rolland Library
In keeping with the French tradition of building large well-endowed public spaces promoting literature and arts, the Bibliotheque Publique was opened in 1827. The library, with over 30,0000 books, has served the community well with its multilingual multimedia collection including print, microfilm, video and an open access system. The library has since been renamed after the French scholar Romain Rolland who was also a companion of Mahatma Gandhi. Pondicherry retains its link with French language with L’alliance Francaise – one of 22 in India – taking French education into Indian households and also with several well-stocked bookstores hiding old books and other literary jewels around the city.
The French Quarter
The French Quarter is located in the part of the city which is built for photowalks, with the pretty yellow houses with their unabashed yellow theme pointing to both French styling and a permanently joyous setting. The houses look too good to be actually inhabited, though of course they are. This quarter is home to colonial buildings including the current home of the French Consulate.
Promenade and Beaches
The promenade is reminiscent of the wide open public promenades in Paris, except it is on the beach and therefore has its own allure. Lined by picture perfect villas on one side and picturesque views of the bay on the other, this is a must visit spot for lazing about and clicking selfies. The famous beaches of Pondy have idyllic names like Paradise Beach and Serenity Beach.
Paradise beach is quite touristy with its share of beach hotels and resorts, positioned between dense palm groves. It is 8 km from the city centre and easily accessible by boat. The pristine blue water of the beach is a welcome change from the dark gray muddy surf that is found on every Arabian Sea beach, from Goa to Diu.
Serenity beach is aptly named for the quietude that greets visitors. The golden sands of this beach roll softly into the shallow sea and make for an amazing destination for travellers and photographers alike. The electric blue water is especially scintillating in the afternoon when the clouds on the horizon make for the only distinction between the sea and the sky.
Also known as the Ousteri Lake, this body of water spread over 390 hectares serves as a temporary home to many species of migratory birds including several species of storks and the elusive spotted owlet. It is an important wetland area set aside for the preservation of its natural habitat and also one of the more pristine natural lakes, due to its relative obscurity among the droves of weekend travellers to Pondy.
The Gandhi Memorial is a famous tourist spot, not least because of the various cultural programmes held in the open square in front of it. The granite statue of the Father of the Nation is 4 metres tall, which makes it the third biggest statue of the Mahatma. Its position just next to the sea, along with imposing granite pillars from the Gingee fort make for an impressive visual at all times of the day and night. Big gatherings of yoga practitioners congregate here for International Yoga Day each year.
Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus
This Basilica was first consecrated as a church in the name of the sacred heart of Jesus in the year 1897. Within 10 years, the church was built in the style of a cross with several beautified columns and intricate carvings of Jesus and Mary at the entrance. It also has beautiful stained glass paintings of 28 saints associated with devotion to the sacred heart of Jesus. Owing to its prime location in the city and also in the history of the city, it is considered one of the most important landmarks in the city. If history were not enough to draw visitors, the grand gothic architecture that makes for an imposing structure reminiscent of European cathedrals surely draws them from many parts of the world.
The ashram set up by Sri Aurobindo is synonymous with Pondicherry. The journey of Sri Aurobindo from an ICS aspirant in London to state courtier in Baroda to revolutionary activist in Bengal led him through many experiences which influenced his decision to quit politics for spirituality. He moved to Pondicherry to escape a British warrant since Pondicherri was outside their jurisdiction. There he set up an ashram to teach Integral Yoga – a form of Yoga that believes that human nature can be changed by yogic practice, in the same way that a soul can be liberated by Yoga. He, along with his spiritual collaborator, Mirra Alfassa, who is widely known as Sri Maa or The Mother, developed the system further and soon, with his followers, it became a sect. After Sri Aurobindo’s death, Sri Maa conceptualised Auroville, which is an idyllic mini city within Pondicherry.
In the ashram, one can find several workshops and cottage industries, targeting self-dependence for the deprived sections of society as well as promoting traditional methods of manufacture. Visitors can buy these or they can even make for themselves many varieties of paper and cloth, choosing from many colorful and scented varieties.
The temple is a centre of spirituality devoid of any religious adherence that lies in the very centre of Auroville, surrounded by an open expanse called Peace. Within it lies the world’s largest optically perfect globe of glass. Heavy with symbolism, the huge spherical structure with petals is held up on four pillars that signify the basic aspects of the Mother as described by Sri Aurobindo:
Maheswari – “… her personality of calm wideness and comprehending wisdom and tranquil benignity and inexhaustible compassion and sovereign and surpassing majesty and all-ruling greatness.”
Mahakali – “…her power of splendid strength and irresistible passion, her warrior mood, her overwhelming will, her impetuous swiftness and world-shaking force.”
Mahalakshmi – “…vivid and sweet and wonderful with her deep secret of beauty and harmony and fine rhythm, her intricate and subtle opulence, her compelling attraction and captivating grace”.
Mahasaraswati – “…equipped with her close and profound capacity of intimate knowledge and careful flawless work and quiet and exact perfection in all things.”
Pondicherry is not just an island of French ethos in a sea of Indian values and social systems, it is also symbolic, as a raft of European culture set afloat in a sea of British dominance over India, as a time capsule that embraces its multicultural past and its stereotypically Indian Yogic overtones, as an oasis of French values like individuality, liberty and a sense of fraternity in a newfound republic threatened by overtly nationalistic and exclusive rhetoric.
In the words of Sri Aurobindo, “Spirituality is indeed the master key of the Indian mind; the sense of the infinitive is native to it.”
In that sense, Pondicherry is the spiritual convergence of the east and west – located in the east, developed in the west; located in the present, designed for the future; inhabited by humans, designated for superhumans. The theology of Sri Aurobindo might be esoteric and might even seem like a fairytale, but the existence of the utopian community of Auroville within Pondicherry puts the idiom of heaven on earth to test.
To those who visit Pondicherry, it regularly passes that test.