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Pondicherry...A Glimpse in India's Colonial Past

Pondicherry, aurobindo, hotels, auroville, tourism, travel

The skyline has changed so much : The high-rise buildings alongside the shanty slums, the software companies and the vendors of fast foods just outside makes us long for the days of the glorious past. Days when we did not have to stand in a queue even to get into a bus. Today there are crowds just above everywhere.Yet despite the contrasting change, India still holds hope for the visitor. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Pondicherry, once a French colony (about a 130kms from Chennai) in Tamilnadu.( 1 ) We discovered this for ourselves when we were there recently with our family.

We saw the difference even as we got there–it was so quiet that we wondered if people talked or did anything at all. The main hub of life is focused on the 'market'. One could get lost here as it consists of a series of roads crossing each other like in a grid.You will not know when and where to turn next to reach anywhere. Men and women of every nationality buy anything they fancy from shops adjoining these roads . Hundreds of shops sell handcrafts, sculptures, textiles, electronic items and of course you will find the money changers. Anyone can exchange any currency here.There are hotels lodging some of the richest people in the world. There are lodges even for the average visitor.Every nook in the grid has one. We stayed in one of them – The Hotel Sooriya International.( 2 )

Just at the end of the grid is one of world's most known spiritual retreats – the Aurobindo Ashram, founded by the great Indian revolutionary and mystic Sri Aurobindo.( 3 ) It was developed and natured after his death by his disciple, a French woman named Mirra Alfasa, also known as the mother.( 4 ) We saw something unusual as soon as we entered the gates of the Ashram . There were people squatting everywhere : on the sidewalks , the rooms, the libraries and alongside the graves of the sage and the mother . They are buried there side by side and covered by a single stone of marble. On it were petals of flowers of every kind hand picked the gardens there. We even saw the 'sofa set' on which the saint and the mother sat. may be it was from 1920. A 1938 shiny black Rolls- Royce with lush brown upholstery still looking new was parked in an open garage, a reminder of the past. Also there is a steady stream of people walking to and from the grave.And they kept their mouths shut. People quietly browsed hundreds of tittles on spiritual thought by the saint. Today the ashram is managed and run entirely by its volunteers.

Also in Pondicherry about 10 kms away is the famous 'Auroville international Township.( 5 ) Auroville was founded in 1968 as a result of an idea suggested by Saint Aurobindo and brought into being by the mother . The city of the future was foreseen to be a place where unity of all human minds could be realized , where people from all corners of the world could together to make this ideal a reality . Once a barren and eroded plateau , its volunteers have turned Auroville into a lush, sub-tropical environment and it is rich in a wide range of trees and flowers. We noticed that even the topsoil on the roads was made of red mud. You will find a French woman or an Austrian widower, their faces shining with sweat, cycling merrily along without knowing where they were going. Today Auroville is more than 34 years old, with people from over 30 nations making up its current resident profile of 1700 inhabitants. This confluence of people from diverse world cultures, settling and becoming a part of the larger socio-cultural fabric of the region is a new experiment. There are tens of structures built in colonial style and red bricks housing all the offices of the township. In the center is the mosaic dome, a giant sphere around which everyone sat in silence for hours together. There is also a café where we had doughnuts and ice-cream soda. Only white-skinned foreigners sat on the adjoining tables. And they did not even talk to each other. We took pictures without their knowing. A large proportion of the residents of the township is local Tamils who have integrated into Auroville over time. Adding to this are more than 4000 local people who work every day in Autryville, in various activities activities ranging from agriculture, domestic help, commercial and handicraft units.We also bought a few items for my sister in san Francisco). Many of them worked in the health and municipal services there.

There is evidence of the colonial French there everywhere. Rich white marbled statues and sculptures of 'Duplex' ( 6 ) and others stare stonily down at you, offices of the Lt. Governor, the Central and Customs Excise, line the long beahes in Pondicherry.Also hundreds of pictures of various Hindu Gods with their dancing feet high in the air, the long black towers of the mosques depict a multireligious mixture all through this colonial territory.Tens of roadside restaurants called as 'dabhas' provide the latest chinese food until the wee hours of the morning.

We could go on and on. A visitor coming into Pondicherry for the first time is in for a surprise. The rich colonial story is still alive here. Anyone wanting a quick holiday can escape to this place so easily–Pondicherry is acessible to everyone,the nearest airport being Chennai, India. ( 7 )

References 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7.
Published: 2008-01-15
Author: Sunder Venkataram

About the author or the publisher
I am a freelance writer and have worked as an Editor for a book publishing company as well

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