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 - Pondys 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 Mothers 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.