Sunday, November 19, 2006

The giant-domed Matrimandir at Auroville

The Tribune HOME Sunday, November 19, 2006 The French connection Puducherry (aka Pondicherry) has many attractions and should be marketed more aggressively as a tourist destination, writes Maj-Gen Himmat Singh Gill (retd)
Driving past the open-air theatres screening films, it is a three-hour run along the East Coast road to Puducherry.
The orderly rows of casurina trees along the beach remind me of the well spaced out armies of yore when they must have stood silently in row upon rows facing each other in impending battle, and the odd lanky tennaimaram trees that provide the tari drink that flit by as we head for the salt flats a few miles away, seem so much out of place in this otherwise beautifully manicured landscape.
At Naravakkam, salt mounds along the roadside glisten in the sun, water from the sea is well pumped out from the subsoil and helps many make a livelihood. It is not difficult to appreciate the merits of a commodity whose presence on the dining table is taken for granted by North Indians who have never seen a salt flat in their lives.
The French Consulate General along the Rue De La Marine
The Bay of Bengal which we drive along is dark, sullen, choppy and angry. What a contrast with the placid Arabian Sea that one encounters at Kanyakumari at the tip of the Indian land mass. In India, even nature is at its diverse best. After a meal that one can term ‘local’ in every manner, kanjee which is boiled rice water taken with sambhar and buttermilk, we drive into Pondy where the French flag is about to be lowered over its Consulate General along the Rue De La Marine.
When the French arrived here in 1673, this was but a small weavers’ centre and the seafarers quickly built the factory and the fort. The new town quarters of Pondicherry were built in 1694 and the local museum brings to memory the rich past of the Pre-Christian era, the Indo-Roman trade links that came to light from the Arikamedu finds, the hey-day of the rich cultural spread of the Pallava, Chola and Vijayanagar empires. The artistic stamp of the 300-year-old French architecture and design still survives in the old buildings and churches that dot the countryside.
Alongside, in small villages and quiet roadsides, lie temples dedicated to Vinayaka who has more than 70 temples dedicated to him alone.
Today, all religions and their places of worship coexist peacefully in this quiet sanctuary and are coupled with other interesting sights that one can look up including the home of Tamil poet-patriot Subramaniam Bharathi who arrived in what was then under French possession as a fugitive in 1908 from British India. It becomes clear that the Puducherry air even today radiates a spirit of freedom not found in many other parts of the country, much to everyone’s regret.
Pondy town is a mix of old and new, where few acknowledge that they understand English or French. In spite of the bustle and noise of an Indian town, French open-air roof-top restaurants like Rendevouz with their exquisite wines and appetisers remind one of the outskirts of Paris or Saigon in the late 1960s.The policeman with the flat-topped French headgear outside the Secretariat, a somewhat forlorn Dupleix’s statue, and old buildings with high windows, double shuttering in cane-netting and the flowery lime plaster scrolls, are all reminders of an era that will last some more decades. The beaches littered with dirty wrappers and paper, one-way traffic snarls and noise levels as high as in Sabzi Mandi in New Delhi’s Azadpur market, are the tell- tale signs of a somewhat more familiar culture.
There are two institutes in Pondy that gladden the heart and make any visitor’s trip an experience worth remembering. The Institut Francais De Pondicherry, which Nehru visited in 1955, is a storehouse of historical record and research where Hindu priests sit diligently translating manuscripts written on palm leaves in Sanskrit into English, French and Tamil.
Subjects as diverse as our ancient culture and civilisation, temple and statue lists, desi medicines, and the history of Indian religions, are researched here by the French, and possibly they are doing a better job of it than some of our leaders who create unnecessary controversies about our heritage and history.
Auroville launched in 1968 by the Mother in cooperation with many nations and nestling just across the Pondy border in Tamil Nadu, provides the perfect picture of serenity and calm with its 2000-odd nationals from across the world living life peacefully in quiet communes, practicing the art of Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual exercise-cum-yoga in a world that they do not renounce but become a part of.
The giant-domed Matrimandir, the Divine Tree and the large, open, dry woodlands surrounding them are home to countless motorcycle-riding foreign couples that ride past in an eternal state of happiness living a life of hard physical activity and personal discipline. Does today’s disturbed youth need more cities like this, is a question that one must ask.
I ran into Ornella Scardina an Italian student from near Rome who was visiting Auroville but found very few of our own young students, except a few locals perhaps who one had expected to come calling to such distinctive institutions and townships.
Casting a last look at the aged tree that guards an entrance to Auroville, I cannot but help feel what the Union Territory of Puducherry urgently needs is an attractive packaging of its ancient ethos and culture if Indians from the North are not to miss Puducherry altogether on their tourist roadmap.

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