The Great Transformation
Legend has it that the great sage Agastya came to Vedapuri, by which name the present Pondicherry was once known, only to worship Vedapuriswara, one of the oldest deities worshipped here. The deity, Lord Shiva, the presiding spirit of Vedapuri, was also known as “Agatiswara” the Lord of Agastya. Pondicherry was traditionally a seat of learning and Vedic culture. Such a tradition must have developed from the presence of a great sage in a remote past, surrounded by seekers and disciples living in his Ashram.
Pondicherry is just a speck on the map of India. Yet, men have been fascinated by this speck from time immemorial. It attracted to its shores the Romans and the Chinese. It saw the advent, rise and fall of Buddhism, the resurgence of Hinduism and the penetration of Christianity and Islam through two millennia.
An Ancient Roman Settlement
Known as ‘Poduke’ to the classical geographers of Greece and Rome, the ancient port of Pondicherry flourished from the 2nd century BC. It has now been established that the place had a Roman settlement about 2,000 years ago. Excavations at Arikamedu, near Ariankuppam, on the outskirts of the present city prove that the Romans settled here and regular commerce was carried on between the port of Pondicherry and the Roman cities. The area later formed part of the kingdom of the Pallavas, the Cholas, the Vijayanagar rulers and the Nayaks.
The French came following the Portuguese and the Dutch, and took root here. In the 18th century, in the wake of wars between England and France, the city changed hands several times. At last, the French took it over on 26th September 1816 and continued to rule for one hundred and thirty eight years, till they left the shores on 31st October 1954, following the transfer of power. Thus, the region, which saw the confluence of different peoples, has grown into a repository of a very high standard of art and culture.
Unity In Diversity
Pondicherry is the corruption of “Puducherry”, which means a new hamlet. The fact that people speaking 55 different languages reside here and that Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, French and English are the five official languages certainly raises eyebrows. In spite of this linguistic plethora, there is no confusion but absolute harmony.
There are very few streets in the town not sanctified by the precincts of a temple, a church or a mosque. Many temples here are ten centuries old and a few churches date back to the end of the 17th century. Festivals are recurrent; people from all religions regardless of their caste and creed join the celebrations, and thereby spread a festive mood all around. In fact there is no place in India where religious harmony is so natural.
Pondicherry is oval-shaped with parallel streets cutting each other at right angles. The long canal street, that runs from north to south was constructed on purpose to separate the Black town lead to the Promenade, via the White Town. The Promenade, one of the finest in the whole country, is 1,500m long. It is an irresistible attraction for the young and the aged alike.
At the southern tip of the Promenade stands the statue of Monsieur Dupleix, the greatest French Governor of Pondicherry whose majestic presence reminds the natives that he was once the king of their land. Further to his back is the port with a new pier, a 284m long structure in concrete. At the northern tip of the Promenade is the Distillery.
Midway on the Promenade stands the 4.25m tall statue of Mahatma Gandhi flanked by eight exquisitely hewn monolithic pillars facing the sprawling Gandhi Maidan, where the status of Jawaharlal Nehru stands. Facing the waves of the Bay of Bengal is the Town Hall, once known as ‘Hotel de Ville’ and ‘Mairie’. To its left is the War Memorial erected by the French to honour the Pondicherry soldiers who died in the First World War.
The Government Square
The 200 year old ‘Raj Niwas’, the official residence of the Lieutenant Governor; the ‘Cercle de Pondichery’ where the moneyed and the people of alien cultures drink, gamble and dance; the Assembly Hall that remained shut for years together but is now in full swing; the General Hospital and the Maternity Hospital, that are heavily crowded round the clock, and the ‘Chamber of Commerce’ are so lined up on three sides as to form the Government Square or Park.
Some charmingly chiselled pillars bought from Gingee to Pondicherry after the capture of its Fort in 1751 adds beauty to the Park. As the centre of the Park, formerly the ‘Royal Garden’, stands a small surprise. Surprising indeed, for it is a monument built not in honour of a queen or of an empress but of a harlot. The fact that Napoleon III, Emperor of France, who reigned during the later half of the 19th century, was responsible for erecting this building to commemorate a 16th century harlot adds to our curiosity. The harlot belonged to Pondicherry. Her charitable nature had made direct supply of water to the town possible.
To Sri Aurobindo, one time National leader, Pondicherry was something more than a political asylum. It was here he did his Integral Yoga and wrote his literary and philosophical works. With the advent of a French lady, Madam Mirra Richard, later known as the Mother, who had followed the same spiritual path on her own, Sri Aurobindo started his Ashram to train others in his comprehensive and world-accepting system of spirituality. The Samadhi that houses the bodies of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, in the main premises of the Ashram, is always decorated with a wide variety of flowers in charming patterns hundreds of devotees visit this holy place every day.
Auroville – Pondy’s Other Half
8-km north of Pondicherry is Auroville. The foundation was laid on 28th February 1968, when a boy and a girl representing each of 124 countries of the world poured a handful of their native soil into a concrete lotus, symbolic of their support of the project. The purpose of Auroville is to realise human unity.
The harmonious urban development is divided into four zones: Union Zone, with international pavillions, congress halls, etc., Cultural Zone, with schools theatres, studios and Residential Zone with homes, supermarkets, etc. There is also an International University perhaps the first of its kind in the world. The township has done commendable experiments in living, agriculture, gardening and other useful fields.
“Auroville wants to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progessive harmony”, such was the Mother’s vision of it.
The time is ripening to make the Ashram and Auroville examples to the world of a new life in which men will realise their souls and find no use for their weapons with which they are fighting today.