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Many worlds, one cosmos

French flair gets a Tamil twist in enchanting Pondicherry, where diverse cultures exist in harmony, writes Rahul Singh.

india Updated: May 18, 2007 23:20 IST

Pondicherry blends two diverse worlds to create a matchless cosmos of its own, without any sign of conflict. Sauntering down the breeze-laden Goubert Avenue, the town’s equivalent of Mumbai’s Marine Drive along the pristine blue sea, you find children enjoying cricket, cheered by the waves stroking the jagged rocks. A stretch of the promenade sandwiched between the statues of Francois Dupleix, who governed this seaside town till 1754, and Mahatma Gandhi serves as the makeshift cricket pitch. A smartly turned-out policeman sporting the uniform of the French gendarme tries to talk the kids out of creating what he thinks is nuisance for the milling crowds exploring Pondicherry’s French streetscapes.

Not far away from the town’s White district, abounding with French heritage buildings and historic monuments, is the Tamil quarter, separated by a storm water canal and set apart by its own distinct architectural expression. Here, the enthusiasm for the French game of Petanque almost equals the love for idli, dosa and rasam.

Magical mix

My love affair with this somewhat old-fashioned city, where folks love to cycle and sun worshippers rise early, began at the Cercle de Pondicherry on a drizzly evening. The elitist club is a stone’s throw from the city’s most famous monument — the Aayi Mandapam, built to honour a courtesan who lived in the 16th century. Over several rounds of beer, pomfret and smutty jokes, my hosts, Gunasekhar and his friends — a group of decorated former French combatants — demystified Pondicherry for me.

One of them spoke in a pompous tone, but I decided to forgive as much — after all, he turned out to be a repository of information on Pondicherry for which I would have otherwise had to rummage through volumes at the Romain Rolland Library at the French Institute on Rue Dumas.

Had he not tipped me off, I would have almost missed the cross-influence of building patterns in the Tamil quarter, where a few two-storied buildings are a fusion of two unconnected styles of architecture — Tamil architectural patterns on the ground floor and the European classical style on the first floor.

The oldies asked me to join them for a game of tennis at the club the next morning. The offer came tagged with an invitation for tea at the Foyer du Soldat, a building where retired soldiers hang out to relive a shared past.

City of Dawn

Hard pressed for time, I skipped both and found myself headed for Auroville, envisioned by The Mother, Mirra Alfassa, as a symbol of human unity and a place of unending education, of constant progress and youth that never ages.

Barely 15 kms from Pondicherry off the East Coast road to Chennai, Auroville is for those who aspire to a higher and truer life, and seek to transform the world through ‘the power of the inner spirit’. As someone restively waiting for the yearly pay rise, I am not really sure if I had attained higher levels of consciousness to be in Auroville, amid its 1,700 inhabitants from 35 countries.

Auroville and its red earth lend themselves to a mixed bag of activities. Aurovillians keep themselves busy with research into a cashless economy, environmental regeneration, organic farming, village development, handicraft, healthcare and renewable energy.

In Auroville, which is French for City of Dawn, work is not a way to earn one’s living, but to express oneself and develop one’s capabilities while being of service to the community, which provides for each individual’s subsistence.

Auroville’s soul is the Matrimandir, which I initially thought was a temple. However, there are no idols here, no rituals
and no priests. They say it is the perfect setting for inner search and spiritual transformation.

The taxi driver’s words were weighing on my mind. He said: “Sir, anything more than three hours and you will have to pay a waiting charge of Rs 500.” Sounds irreverent? Well, the underlying philosophy at Auroville is to live freely as citizens of the world and obey one single authority — the supreme truth. So, it is okay, I guess.

One thing you don’t want to do is snoop around the 90-odd settlements in this international township. Aurovillians feel
affronted. I decided to preserve my exploratory urges until I was back on the inviting streets of Pondicherry. The town’s French quarter abounds with magnificent bluish-grey buildings that are an integral part of its architectural ensemble. The colour signifies that the properties belong to Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust.

I invited Gunasekhar for a meal to my hotel, to share my perceptions of the city. I smugly told him I had seen virtually
the whole of Pondicherry, its well-known temples, the Ashram, traditional houses in the Muslim area, the Immaculate
Conception Cathedral, the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme Orient…

I was cut short by his amused look. “Yanam in Andhra Pradesh and Mahe in Kerala were French settlements,” he said. “They are a part of the Union Territory of Pondicherry.” He had made his point. Pondicherry is perhaps the most spread out territory in the country and my short southern sojourn did not offer me the luxury to travel far and wide. But I am sure wanderlust will take me back to the place someday, to discover every strand, every fascinating facet.

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First Published: May 18, 2007 23:17 IST

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