31 March 2015

Pondicherry


Dedicated to Bagmita Sarangi who touched my life for a fleeting moment but turned it upside-down for ever.

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“In the midst of hate, I found there was within me, an invincible love.
In the midst of tears, I found there was within me, an invincible smile.
In the midst of chaos, I found there was within me, an invincible calm.
In the midst of winter, I found there was within me, an invincible summer.
No matter how hard the world pushes against me,
Within me, there’s something stronger, something better, pushing right back.”
– Albert Camus, Author-Journalist-Philosopher


Promenade Beach - 180° panorama


Its streets flaunting their distinguishably exquisite colonial architecture interspersed with enviable natural bounty in the form of colorful bougainvillea and coconut trees and its mesmerizing sea coast carpeted with an exquisite scattering of multicolored, multi-patterned seashells, the Union Territory of Pondicherry/Puducherry, that tiny, serene city on the south-eastern coast of the country, abundantly endowed with charming natural and exquisite architectural features, ended up proving to be more than just a weekend holiday destination for me and culminated into an eye opening, pensive discovery of priorities and lifestyle choices. The girlfriend dragged me along on an impromptu trip after my friends cancelled a pre-planned visit to Ooty-Pykara falls – with not even the slightest clue about where Pondicherry was nor any idea about its history, monuments or tourist destinations, in fact, with no itinerary or even the basic prerequisite knowledge of where to go and what to see/eat (so very unlike me!), we travelled to the picturesque, laidback city on a whim and ended up visiting almost every single tourist destination it had to offer in two days – but the journey and the subsequent discovery of the beautiful city’s unheralded secrets proved to be more than a study of its impeccable history, numerous magnificent temples, alluring colonial architecture and awe-inspiring beaches – I realized that the spirit of adventure and of travel, of discovering and forgetting, of exploring gastronomic haunts and perceiving love and affection was still teeming and kicking within me even though I had (wrongly) begun to feel that the rut of corporate life and the pressures of achieving success had blunted them. The credits of course go, in their entirety, to the girlfriend who has become an unabated stream of motivation, affection and understanding.


A thing of beauty - Vibrant stucco artwork inside Eglise de Notre Dam des Anges church


Pondicherry’s history traverses eons prior to its colonization by French (ruled AD 1674-1954), British and Dutch trading companies and their subsequent territorial wars, unobserved treaties and interrupted reigns – in fact, even centuries before it came to be successively ruled by some of the most prominent of south Indian kingdoms like the Pallavas (ruled 4th-6th centuries AD), Cholas (ruled 10th-13th centuries AD), Pandyas (ruled 13th century AD), Vijayanagar (ruled 14th century AD – 1638) and Bijapur Adil Shahi (ruled AD 1638-74), the tiny functional city-port, in the form of a now ruined, monumental settlement known as Arikamedu, facilitated ancient international trade by connecting Roman sea highways to the Indian mainland. Spirituality and religion seeped into its humble existence through the lives and charitable acts of the numerous sages who chose to meditate on its serene beaches ages ago. And the city unequivocally assimilates each facet of its interminable history and continues, even contemporaneously, to reveal unambiguously spiritual, commercial and colonial sides that are unabashedly unique and immiscible with each other. Our first foray into the former colony’s vivid culture was soon after stepping out of our guesthouse and walking on foot towards the Promenade Beach which is flanked, as far as the eye can see, by relics of the city’s not so ancient past – colonial heritage buildings, painted in shades of grays, pinks, gray-green and white, set in neat, impossibly clean rows demarcated by wide tree-lined avenues and blossoms of bougainvillea that exhibit a dexterous ability to foray into every nook and cranny.


Impossibly uniform! - The French enclave


This is the French part of the city, where the streets have both Indian and French names, displaying besides the impeccable architectural and horticultural preferences, a taste in unembellished simplicity and urban landscaping – after all, the entire beach front and even the open spaces between many of the more prominent buildings are littered with statues from the city’s eventful past – there is one of Gandhi, housed within a white canopy and surrounded by eight towering tapering pillars (brought purposefully from the fortress at Gingee, Tamil Nadu (70 km from Pondicherry) after its capture in AD 1751) carved in the likeness of the sacred monoliths in Hindu temples, that gives the beach its alternate nomenclature “Gandhi Beach”; facing the former and looked over by an ancient, towering, nonoperational lighthouse composed externally in a tapering fluted pattern is a sculpture of Jawahar Lal Nehru and nearby stands an imposing, sword-wielding Joseph Francois Dupleix, the renowned French Governor-General of Pondicherry (in office 1742-54 AD). The wide, unending stretch of sea water continues to intimidate me the same way as it did years ago when I visited Mumbai as a toddler with my parents, but surprisingly, the beach is never too crowded nor unclean though at times slightly foul-smelling owing to the accumulation of washed up organic wastes along the barrier face. The girlfriend, being from Mumbai and deeply in love with the sea, rushes to it swiftly, leaving me in a dilemma to follow her or stay at a comfortable, safe distance – soon love takes over and we jump across the boulders scattered across the sea wall, pausing only momentarily to get photos clicked or collect gorgeously colorful seashells. We would return to the sea again and again over the next two days, at the same time intimidated and fascinated by its majestic expanse, inconsiderate existence and perennial presence. Far in the background, one can even see remains of a port's pier that was washed away by a cyclone in 1952, stretching into the sea its destroyed, decimated fingers, composed of iron poles and wooden walkways and yet dangling lifeless and forsaken. Opposite the beach face, near the statue of J.L. Nehru exists a small, beautifully and solemnly landscaped, walled-in compound featuring a modest white commemorative edifice dedicated to the memory of the brave French-Indian soldiers who laid down their lives in the First World War – raised in 1937-38, four tall pillars nest in their midst a monumental tablet inscribed with names of the fallen soldiers and the inscription –

Aux Combattants des Indes Francaises morts pour la patrie
1914–1918

The fighters from French India who died for their country
1914-1918

Standing attention in front of the wide tablet is a distressed, blue-painted soldier with his gun pointing downwards, while the back of the tablet is embossed with more inscriptions and embedded with a bronze bas relief depicting the arrival of Dupleix in Pondicherry. Sadly, entry to the memorial grounds is restricted and it is particularly heart wrenching since one would have liked to walk through the small silent garden, read the sober inscriptions carved into the tablet’s undulating surface and understand the courageous trials and sufferings undergone by the unknown martyred soldiers. It is at the same time interesting and melancholy to note that while the India Gate war memorial in Delhi corners the national attention and adulation (refer Pixelated Memories - India Gate), the evocative French memorial here lies thoroughly ignored in its pristine, aesthetically excellent garden compound.


Sober - The French War Memorial


But prior to reaching the unsullied French quarters and the expansive sea front, one passes through an extensive bazaar very thoughtfully christened as "Grand Bazaar" and situated along the length of J.L. Nehru Avenue, one of the longest arterial streets of the city – boasting of rows of restaurants, cafes, makeshift grocery shops, street-side flea shops stocking cheap jewellery, bracelets and cloth accessories punctuated by showrooms trading in antiques, brass-bronze-wood-clay sculptures and collectibles, the highlight of the bazaar were the unending rows of street-side textile outlets merchandising in women wear, especially one-pieces, dresses and jumpsuits – the girlfriend ensured that she shopped to her heart's delight, taking her own sweet time and making her own independent decisions, and I had to trail along whining to be allowed to go to the renowned museum near the French enclave. But she had other plans – after traversing through the bazaar and running around in the scorching sun on the smouldering sand and jagged rocks lining the beach front, it was eventually decided that we should first visit one of the numerous cafes that the city possesses for some chilled coffee and delightful lunch. And that is when we spotted La Cafe, a delightful little waterfront cafe offering sumptuous chicken sandwiches, cheesy delicious lasagnas and various varieties of lip-smacking coffees; it's small rectangular interiors surrounded by wide verandahs facilitating an open-air atmosphere breezed by the cold, salt-tinged sea air; the verandahs themselves surrounded by a hemmed in compound interspersed with lily pads brimming with crystal clear water and teeming with miniature white and black fishes; a tree fossil, 20 million years old, occupied a forgotten corner like an old, deaf grandparent, ignored like an ordinary log, its only solace the small, similarly-hued information board propped against its meager, ancient existence! Given the affably delectable gastronomic choices, reasonable prices and the equally well ambiance it offers, Le Cafe, run by Pondicherry Tourism and open from 5 am to 12 pm everyday, manages to attract a clientele that is largely composed of foreign tourists, but the service left a bit to be desired given that the orders take very long to materialize and the servers have to be reminded of even the simplest of requirements 2-3 times. But then, given the mystic background of shimmering blue waters of the Bay of Bengal and the overall relief that the tables are against the scorching sun, one doesn't mind the delays much. Suggested – order the coffee-flavored ice cream. It's simply mouthwatering!


Rolling blue sea, brilliant sunshine and the perfect cure for hunger!


Done with the lunch, we finally were now ready to head to the Pondicherry museum – located close to the beach in the French part of the city (Rue Romain Rolland to be exact. Most people do not know where the museum is (speaking of the apathy of tourists and visitors, Indians and foreigners alike, towards culture and history – yes, it does extend to this French-inspired city as well) so better ask for the Lieutenant-Governor's residence which is just a stone's throw away) and surrounded by several other prominent landmarks that too are remains of the city's lengthy colonial past like the Romain Rolland Library, Raj Bhavan ("Le Palais du Gouverneur"/Lieutenant-Governor's residence) and an alluringly landscaped garden referred to as Bharathi Park, the tiny double-storied museum proves to be a study in over-hype and appears like a poor, dwarf cousin of the mighty museums at Delhi and Calcutta! Refer Pixelated Memories - National Museum, Delhi and Pixelated Memories - Indian Museum, Calcutta for comparison. The museum is housed in a restored and extensively repaired late 18th-century villa that was once owned by a Portuguese tradesman who went by the surname Carvalho – nothing else is known about his identity and life. The ground floor is divided into three interconnected chambers – the first dedicated to sculptures and weaponry crafted or used by the numerous medieval dynasties that reigned over Pondicherry, the second displaying a mixed collection of paintings, weaponry, numismatic collection and furniture originating from the everyday lives of French Governor-Generals and Indian monarchs, and the third exclusively features archaeological finds from Arikamedu, the aforementioned ancient port city-township that lay on the highway for Roman trade.


Treasure from Arikamedu


The first floor again possesses two large chambers – the first dedicated to French sculptures, porcelain showpieces and large replicas of French monuments in the city with extensive descriptions inscribed alongside, the second again exhibits the finds from Arikamedu, especially beads and ornamental fashionware, with very interesting captions and information charts about the manufacturing and features. Photography is prohibited within the museum by permission but I was able to quickly sneak a couple of clicks. A wide verandah, shielded from the sun's fiery rays by shutters, exists along the side of the first floor and here are displayed few modes of transport like palanquins, hand-pulled rickshaws and early motorcars that were favored by the late-medieval and early-modern monarchs and colonial officers. Hence concludes the tour of the museum in slightly over an hour – the shortest I have ever stayed in one (contrast this with the three entire days I spent within the Delhi museum!). Also we were disappointed by the lack of information panels and brochures that could guide us around the place; neither are the antiques and exhibit pieces displayed, curated or maintained very well leading regrettably to the deterioration of their condition, accumulation of dust on the glass frames and an overall air of neglect and ignorance seeping through the ancient relics and medieval art pieces. The place is open from 10 am – 5 pm everyday except Monday and national holidays.


19th-century representations of Kali, the Hindu Goddess of sex, death and destruction


Given that we were very tired by now and the girlfriend wanted to have a look at the new stock of merchandise and garments for sale brought about by an increase in the number of peddlers as the evening bazaar had come alive, we decided to head to the bazaar and then to the guesthouse for a short siesta before embarking again on a long night walk for dinner and beer (along with an assortment of meats – roast chicken, fried fish and sauteed indistinguishable meat that looked like eels but was textured rubber-like – that we bought from a roadside stall that served these and over half a dozen other kinds of meats like chicken livers, shrimps, candied oyster-like shelled sea creatures etc). And lest I forget, the guesthouse we stayed at – Blue Star Guesthouse – is best avoided – the bedbugs are very real and there are huge rats that know how to drag entire chicken legs up vertical surfaces and finish them in a very clever manner leaving the bones entirely untouched (making us wonder if there was someone else, a human or a ghost, in the room, who finished the chicken so well but scattered it around, including in bathrooms! Terrifying!). Though the staff, including the elderly caretaker, stay out of the guests' way most of the time, the late night, alcohol-induced parties and irritable noises and shouting are not what one would expect from a decent guesthouse, nor the lending of rooms on monthly basis and the allowance to the people to treat the place like a PG accommodation with the added facility of drying washed clothes on lines stretched in the balconies! We checked out the very next morning! Anyway, the next day was our last day here in the mesmerizing city and the first thing we did after waking up was book bus tickets back to Bangalore.


Parrot astrology! - Remnants of ancient Indian traditions and beliefs in an erstwhile French colony!


The plan for the second day included firstly a visit to the city's churches and given that it was a Sunday we had hoped we would be able to see the morning prayers in their full glory. It is another matter that we did not take into account the extremely long time it would take us at the ticket counters. By the time we returned, via an auto, to the Promenade Beach, close to where one of the most splendid and oldest churches of the city – Eglise de Notre Dam des Anges ("Chapel of Our Lady of Angels"/locally referred to as "Kaps Koil") – is located, the prayers were long over and the area wore a deserted look disturbed only by the sight of occasional policemen and tourists like us. The church's prominent dome and towers can be spotted from the beach and their flamboyant colors present an interesting clash against the otherwise drab and uniform color scheme of the city. Seated within a compound of its own and painted in shades of orange-pink with yellow highlights, the church is a magnificent structure designed to resemble a massive cross laid horizontally with conspicuous Greco-Roman architectural influences including two lofty three-storied towers and a simplistic triangular pediment over the facade existential along the base of the cross and a similarly high gateway surmounted by a pyramidal roof on the other side. A dwarfish semi-circular dome seated upon a very high octagonal drum (base) marks the intersection of the two arms of the cross while ornamental bearded human figurines dressed in blue robes and sashes compete for space with bells in the arched alcoves, two to each side, lining the two towers. To our dismay, the church was closed for visitor entry when we visited and the priest had left for his residence.


Eglise de Notre Dam des Anges - A whiff of color in the otherwise bland cityscape


Further inquiry led to the knowledge that the priest lived nearby in another, much smaller church – the original church, first raised in AD 1707, was reconstructed after it fell into disrepair and was afterwards destroyed by the British in AD 1761 and reconstructed for the third time shortly afterwards by the French – the priest's residence and an orphanage are housed in the third of these which has along its exterior wall a large board pinned with a chart depicting the different portrayals of Mother Mary. The fourth and last Eglise de Notre Dam des Anges, the aforementioned colossal edifice for the entrance to which we were seeking permission from the priest, was designed by architect Louis Guerre and commissioned in AD 1855 by Napoleon III, French President from 1852-70 who took a keen interest in reconstruction and urban landscaping of French cities and colonies, as the royal church for his family to offer prayers at when they visited Pondicherry. The priest was kind enough to allow us entry to the serene church and sent two young boys with keys to open the premises, but soon after our entry, seeing the church to be open, there came hordes of locals and tourists and within minutes the interiors were packed wall to wall!

The church interiors are a rococo of intricate plasterwork patterns painted in myriads of hues (blues, white, orange and yellow), exquisitely surmounted Corinthian pillars and pilasters (fake pillars) facing the wall surfaces, striking plasterwork floral medallions of numerous individualistic designs and patterns, moldings and borders enclosing the individual design motifs – there is simply no end to the degree of unmatched grace endowed to the elegant structure by the unparalleled artwork. The most detailed and bewitching are the four floral medallions, each circumscribed by a hexagonal depression lined with even more detailed edges and the entire scheme surrounded on three sides by smaller triangles each embedded with a single, tiny, simplistic flower, that exist around the base of the dome – captivatingly mesmerizing!


The devil is in the details


Also eye-catching is the spellbinding ornamental pattern introduced by the juxtaposition of these floral medallions against the high dome whose base is punctured by eight vibrantly colorful stained glass windows (painted in very ordinarily patterned mosaics); the dome's concave surface too flaunts another floral medallion of an altogether different, albeit much simplistic, design. The walls are lined with painted plaques depicting important events from the life of Jesus while sculptures of Jesus, Mother Mary and several angels occupy prominent positions around the semi-circular altar which houses a Holy Cross as its centerpiece; more sculptures line the small altar on each side of the central one. I used to think that the Church of St. John's at Calcutta is truly impressive (refer Pixelated Memories - St. John's Church, Calcutta), but Eglise de Notre Dam des Anges is far ahead in terms of architectural and artistic features and the overall design blueprint and placement of antiques and sculptures – one wonders what it would have looked like originally when the interiors and exteriors were painted glistening white in their entirety. Opposite the church on the sea facing side is an open grass-shrouded ground wherein sits a single sculpture of Joan of Arc (lived AD 1412-31), a legendary Roman-Catholic saint and French martyr in the Hundred Years War against the British (see links in the footnote). The sculpture was donated by Edouard Goubert, the first Chief Minister of Pondicherry (1963-64) on the condition that no construction be committed on the open ground thereby facilitating the priest to have a clear, uninhibited view of the rolling sea while delivering sermons.


Sacred symmetry


Wandering around, we had the opportunity to explore some of the streets of the French enclave – there are several smaller churches (many of them also housing orphanages and schools), haberdasher shops, book stores and cafeterias. The Cathedral of Immaculate Conception, a massive, uniquely designed, white structure fringed with golden-yellow highlights and touches of blue, features as part of its ornamental Portuguese architecture (even though the origins are French!) flowing scrolls and numerous statues. The cathedral sits within an equally enormous compound of its own that does complete justice to the former's majestic dimensions, especially if one is visiting specifically for the purpose of photography. Like the Eglise de Notre Dam des Anges, this church too has an extensive history – it was constructed, with the financial support of Louis XIV of France (reign AD 1643-1715), in 1692 but was demolished by the Dutch the very next year and recommissioned in 1699. The second church soon fell into disrepair and was demolished and reconstructed between 1728-36 but it too was leveled, this time by British at the same time as the annihilation of the Eglise de Notre Dam des Anges along with the rest of the French quarters. The present structure took an enormous time in making – the design and planning began in AD 1770 and the actual construction, with various architectural and functional additions, continued till as late as 1987! Sadly, we couldn't find anyone who might allow us entry within the compound and had to return disappointed – the photos on Wikipedia reveal that the interiors are as enchanting, if not more, as the exteriors. Do check here – Wikipedia.org - Immaculate Conception Cathedral.


Of colors, curves and sculptures - The Cathedral of Immaculate Conception


We also visited a book shop where browsing through literally left me with pangs of nostalgia and remembrances – there were books that I had read back in class V-VI and I simply had to purchase them! What's more, most of the books were second hand and the caretaker informed us that most of these were sourced straight from the bazaars of Daryaganj, Delhi – what's a Dilliwala who hasn't been to Daryaganj for its weekly bazaars? (refer Pixelated Memories - Daryaganj Sunday Book Market) The girlfriend, who is herself a voracious and intellectual reader, had to pull me back from the world of memories and flashbacks and together the two of us ended up purchasing over half a dozen books, including many that we had already read in libraries and as ebooks! Tortured by hunger and guided by the paradisaical smell of some gastronomic delights cooking, we traced our steps towards Cafe Xtasi nearby which specializes in mouth-watering wood-fired, thin-crust pizzas, including those topped with pork and beef, some of the best that the girlfriend and I have had.


O delicious sandwiches! Thou shalt be missed!



After the churches and the lunch, with great difficulty and after promising ourselves we'll be here again before we leave could we tear ourselves from the bazaars that had begun to line up the streets and the pavements near the Cafe. We were now headed to Auroville ("City of Dawn") – a utopian experimental township conceived to bring together humanity from all nationalities, races and socio-economic status without any differences or inhibitions whatsoever in order to lead an idealistic, harmonious life dedicated to universal progress and unity – also perhaps the most famous tourist and spiritual site in the city, especially given its credentials as being associated with and dreamt by the influential freedom struggle revolutionary and spiritual reformer Sri Aurobindo Ghosh and his foremost disciple Mirra Alfassa Richards ("The Mother"). Designed by the French architect Roger Anger in 1968, the massive complex houses an enormous exhibition-information center where details of the complex's conception, construction and enshrinement within the charters of global bodies like the United Nations are displayed along with photographs from its day-to-day existence and blueprints of the city and its outstanding gigantic centerpiece – the Matrimandir ("Mother's shrine"). The exhibition center also houses a publication department that primarily stocks books and essays on spirituality and India's cultural, ethnic and sartorial heritage; a corner of the publication division is also dedicated to collecting voluntary contributions for "Tsunamika", a project initiated at Auroville to financially support the female survivors of the terrible tsunami that devastated much of southern India on December 26th 2004 besides claiming thousands of lives and homes and leaving hundreds of thousands of people destitute, homeless, starving and without any relatives to look after them. The fisherwomen are trained to craft simplistic dolls from fabric leftover from other uses and visitors are allowed to take as many of these dolls as they want for free and leave behind (if they wish to) cash contribution towards the cause of any denomination they see fit. The project and the tremendous response it received have been largely successful in transforming the lives of hundreds of fisherwomen, many of whom have been since trained in arts and handicrafts, by providing relief, rehabilitation, healing and satisfactory livelihood. The small cardboard placard pinned to every Tsunamika doll reads, in simple, sober words –

"She has been hand-made by women, The women who live by the ocean,
The women whose lives changed forever after the tsunami,
The women who are exploring a new way of living,
The women who are empowering themselves."


A world of photos and descriptions - Auroville visitor center


The verandah around the publication division hosts a display of paintings, 3D artworks and crafts created by residents of Auroville during their stay here. The artworks are fascinatingly detailed and overwhelmingly stunning, but the prices are quite simply beyond the reach of average Indians – indeed several of the paintings cost nearly as much as my monthly take home and more!

Past cafes and small workshops displaying handicraft merchandise and traditional textiles and also past thickly vegetated forestlands crisscrossed by clearings and slithering tracks, Matrimandir, supported on twelve earth-red masonry wedges, is a colossal spaceship-like spherical edifice whose entire surface is covered with large gold-plated discs that reflect the sunlight to generate a brilliantly radiant luminescence. Possessing no prior knowledge about the restricted entry to the unique meditative center on Sunday evenings and learning about it after having reached it (it opens from 9:30 am – 5 pm on all days except Sundays when it is only open till 1:30 pm; passes can be obtained free of cost from the information center), we had no way to return to the information center and seek permission since the two are separated by slightly over a kilometer long unmotorable vegetated land and connected by snaking, oft-trodden pathways. We might have returned for the permission had we not had an autorickshaw waiting for us in the parking lot who was going to charge us even more if made to wait longer (Auroville's international population is quite secluded from the rest of the villages and cities that constitute India and there are no to and fro means of public transport between Pondicherry and Auroville. It is thus advisable to have an autorickshaw/taxi idling in the parking – they charge around Rs 500 for the journey and back and a one hour waiting time in between). We had to be content with observing and photographing the enormous sphere from afar and the photos too left a lot to be desired given that the open vantage grounds lay on the other side. The interiors house a huge meditation chamber possessing the world's largest optically-perfect glass globe – rays of sunlight are reflected and focused perpendicularly down through the Matrimandir's roof to touch an intricately conceived "lotus pond" on the ground level thereby symbolizing a point association between the realms of spirituality and matter.


Matrimandir - The golden spaceship


Heading back, we contemplated upon the message that the Mother delivered regarding Auroville's conception, commissioning and construction, and also upon how truly great our country is to set aside land and resources, both territorial, financial and spiritual, for the existence of an international zone within its borders –

"A dream
There should be somewhere on Earth, a place which no nation could claim as its own, where all human beings of good will who have a sincere aspiration, could live freely as citizens of the world, and obey one single authority, that of the supreme truth; a place of peace, concord and harmony where all the fighting instincts of man would be used exclusively to conquer the causes of his sufferings and miseries, to surmount his weaknesses and ignorance, to triumph over his limitations and incapacities; a place where the needs of the spirit and the concern for progress would take precedence over the satisfaction of desires and passions, the search for pleasure and material enjoyment. "

After returning to the city and having on our hands enough time before the bus to Bangalore departed, we could finally visit the unending street-side bazaar that was beginning to come up while we were going towards Auroville. Now in its full glory, spreading its uninhibited and much adored multi-hued, multi-textured tentacles through the pavements and side alleys, the bazaar was a mishmash of people, metal ware and clay items – gleaming utensils, numerous animal and human-shaped piggy banks, vibrantly colorful sculptures (no dearth of them here! And the variety and kinds are simply breathtaking!), earth-hued lamp holders, mind-blowing display pieces, glittering jewellery and more articles than words could picture!


Pondicherry's hidden secrets - A bazaar like no other!


Over an hour later, out of free cash to splurge and exhausted at the moment with the shopping and overall with the whirlwind tour that it had been, we spent the next few hours catching our breaths at a majestic, richly vibrant temple referred locally as Sri Varadaraja Perumal Temple. Synonymous with typical Dravidian temple architecture, the complex boasts of several interconnected though entirely individualistic shrines, each surmounted with towering pyramidal spires covered throughout with arrays of colorful, breathtaking sculptures and symbolic mythological and mythical patterns. The most eye-opening is the temple's towering "Gopuram" (pyramidal entranceway) that has more sculptures, that too on each of its sides, than words can thread or photos can depict! Interestingly, the temple, dated to 600 AD, is considered to be the oldest in Pondicherry – dedicated to Lord Vishnu, the Hindu God of life and nourishment, it was initially meant to house only those idols of Rama, an ideal emperor-brother-son-husband-student-administrator who is regarded as an incarnation of the Lord, and his wife Sita and brother Lakshman that were originally found in the sea by fishermen, but has since been expanded into a large complex with multiple shrines, each exquisitely and colorfully adorned and highly ornamented. Were it not for the never-ending conversations and the sight of the girlfriend's beautiful face framed by her long, curling tresses, the cool breezes would have definitely lulled me into a deep slumber.


A riot of colors! - Sri Varadaraja Perumal Temple


Soon it was time to go and Pondicherry became a blur, a distant beautiful memory that continued to evade description and slip through the fingers like the words that were needed to describe its ethereal beauty and glorious past. What was it that made the journey so tranquil, so evocative and so heartrending memorable – was it the girlfriend's loving, affable company or the unmistakable whiff of uniquely French culture in Pondicherry's existence or the unabated, desperate need that brewed in my heart to escape Bangalore's cement jungles and corporate culture and travel? I find solace in Arundhati Roy's "The God of Small Things" to describe both the feelings towards the girlfriend and the unquenchable urge to travel –

"If he loved her he couldn't leave, if he spoke he couldn't listen, if he fought he couldn't win."


How to reach: Pondicherry is well-connected with the rest of the country by an efficient rail and bus transport system.
Time required to explore the city: 2-3 days
Charges/person inclusive of food and lodging: Approx. Rs 4000 for a two-day, one-night stay.
Relevant Links - 
  1. Pixelated Memories - Daryaganj Sunday Book Market, Delhi
  2. Pixelated Memories - India Gate War Memorial, Delhi
  3. Pixelated Memories - Indian Museum, Calcutta
  4. Pixelated Memories - National Museum, Delhi
  5. Pixelated Memories - St. John's Church, Calcutta
Suggested reading - 
  1. Archive.auroville.org  (Official website of Auroville)
  2. Auroville.org (Another official website of Auroville)
  3. Art.puducherry.gov.in - Pondicherry Museum  (Official website of Deptt. of Art and Culture, Govt. of Puducherry)
  4. Auroville.org - A Dream: Envisioning an Ideal Society
  5. Boloji.com - The Auroville Experiment  
  6. Columbia.edu - Pondicherry 
  7. Come2india.org - Church of Our Lady of Angels 
  8. Infochangeindia.org - The Tsunamika doll: a symbol of solidarity and regeneration 
  9. News.bbc.co.uk - Article "Local concerns over Indian utopia " (dated May 24, 2008) by Rachel Wright 
  10. Pondytourism.in - Arikamedu (Official website of Pondicherry tourism)
  11. Scoopwhoop.com - 14 reasons why Pondicherry should be your next travel destination
  12. Thehindu.com - Article "A French colony that fought the British" (dated July 02, 2012) by V.B. Ganesan 
  13. Thehindu.com - Article "A slice of history" (dated March 03, 2012) by Kavita Kishore 
  14. Thehindu.com - Article "Pondicherry Museum sheen lost due to lack of information, showmanship" (dated Jan 31, 2014) by Olympia Shilpa Gerald
  15. Thehindu.com - Article "Puducherry comes out with list of State symbols" (dated April 21, 2007) by Deepa H. Ramakrishnan
  16. Thehindu.com - Article "The right spot to relax" (dated May 28, 2005) by Deepa H. Ramakrishnan 
  17. The-shooting-star.com - A Guide to Auroville: Things to know before you go.
  18. Tsunamika.org (Official website of the Tsunamika project)
  19. Wikipedia.org - Auroville
  20. Wikipedia.org - History of Puducherry
  21. Wikipedia.org - Immaculate Conception Cathedral
  22. Wikipedia.org - Joan of Arc
  23. Wikipedia.org - Joseph Fran├žois Dupleix
  24. Wikipedia.org - Mirra Alfassa ("The Mother")
  25. Wikipedia.org - Puducherry
  26. Wikipedia.org - Sri Aurobindo 
  27. Womensenews.org - Article "Tsunamika, a Doll of the Tsunami, Turning 10" (dated Dec 16, 2014) by Deepa Kandaswamy 

5 comments:

  1. Description of the photographs.. And of course.. photographs! :P
    That's the major reason :D i went through this!

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  2. Trip to Pondicherry has always oscillated between-To go or not to go but the write up and the clicks have swung the balance...icing on the cake being there is no need to do any home work just pack the bags and drive away!!

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  3. Madhu SinghApril 01, 2015

    This article is like an arm chair visit to Pondicherry. Vivid description!

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  4. Rakesh RanjanApril 01, 2015

    Good going, Sahil. I have been to Pondi couple of years ago.. and indeed a serene place.. check out the drinks' cost :)

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  5. Great read! A lot of feelings contained and expressed. Keep it up Sahil!

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