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India: Chandigarh, Puducherry
Puducherry, India: The French Connection
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
Formerly Pondicherry, still fondly called Pondi, Puducherry was acquired by the French in 1674 and held control, with occasional interruption from the British and Dutch, until 1954 when it was incorporated into the Indian Union along with the rest of French India. The city’s many beautiful colonial buildings, churches, temples, and statues which, combined with French style avenues, still preserve much of the colonial ambiance.
I was on a holiday with my family and had two days on hand to explore Pondi. For our stay we booked ourselves at Hotel Ocean Spray. As the name suggests, the resort is quite near to the ocean, however, it is about 20 kms from the city. Since we had a car at our disposal, the resort made for a good choice. If you wish to stay in the city, then I would definitely recommend staying in one of the many hotels & guest houses along the beach on Goubert Avenue in the French Quarter.
It was late afternoon when we arrived at our hotel. Thankfully, I was upgraded to rooms on the topmost floor. It offered views of the Bay of Bengal, the gardens, the water bodies of the hotel. Not to forget that our balcony had a Jacuzzi! That evening we decided to explore the resort itself.
When in Pondi, certainly for many, the first stop would be a visit to Sri Aurobindo Ashram. We were at the ashram gates at 10 the next morning.
The Ashram is located in the eastern part of Pondicherry. Ashramites live and work in a large number of buildings spread throughout the area. The focus of community life is the Ashram's main building, usually called simply "the Ashram", which consists of an interconnected block of houses, including those in which Sri Aurobindo and the Mother lived for most of their lives. At its centre, in a tree-shaded courtyard, lies the Samadhi (tombs), a white-marble shrine where their bodies are laid to rest. The Ashram provides its members with all they need for a decent and healthy life. Various departments have been organised to look after the basic requirements of food, clothing and shelter, as well as medical care. There are also libraries for study and facilities for a variety of cultural pursuits. Visitors are welcome to visit ashram outlets that offer souvenirs, artefacts, laced garments and natural produce. The Ashram is administered by the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust.
After paying our respects at the samadhi, we spent the next couple of hours driving and walking along the promenade, the French Quarters to visit city’s few landmarks.
The Aayi Mandapam is a famous monument, crafted from white marble, which lies at the center of the Bharati Park. It was during the time of Napoleon III, Emperor of the France. The monument commemorates the provision of water to the French city during his reign. It was named after a lady courtesan called Ayi. She destroyed her own house to erect a water reservoir to supply water for the city. The Government Park in Pondicherry is aptly located in the central region of the old colonial town. The significance of this park is derived from the fact that it is surrounded by some of the most important government buildings like the Lt. Governor's Palace, the Legislative Assembly, Government Hospital, Ashram Dining Room, the Cercle de Pondichéry Private Club, and the old Hotel Qualité.
Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, situated on the south boulevard, is an oriental specimen of Gothic architecture. It contains rare stained glass panels depicting events from the life of Christ. This church was supposed to have been erected in 18th century by French Missionaries. Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is a catholic church and is white and brown structure.
Immaculate Conception Cathedral is the cathedral mother church for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Pondicherry and Cuddalore. The Jesuit Fathers came to the French colony of Pondicherry as missionaries in 1689. There they bought a very large garden to the west of the French Fort. In the 1692 they, with the financial help of Louis XIV, king of France, erected a church which was demolished by the Dutch in the following year. A second Church was quickly built in 1699 but could not last long. From 1728 to 1736 a large church was built on the site of the present Cathedral. This third church was razed to the ground by the British in 1761 during the Seven Years of War. Since the year 1770 the Fathers were earnest in building the present cathedral on the foundations of the 3rd Church. On 20 June 1791 the main work was finished and the Church was consecrated by Bishop Champenois.
Our next stop was Auroville.
Auroville (City of Dawn) is an experimental township which is situated 8 km north-west of Pondicherry on the East Coast Road. It was founded in 1968 by Mirra Richard (also known as The Mother), the spiritual collaborator of Sri Aurobindo. Auroville was designed by the French architect Roger Anger. Auroville is meant to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity. During the inauguration ceremony of Auroville on 28 February 1968, soil from 124 countries was placed in a lotus-shaped urn and mixed to symbolize universal oneness. In the middle of the town is the Matrimandir, which has been acclaimed as "an outstanding and original architectural achievement". It was conceived by Alfassa as "a symbol of Universal Mother". Visitors can visit the Matrimandir with prior permission that can be obtained 2 or 3 days in advance. Since we were short of time, we missed the opportunity.
By the time we reached our hotel it was evening. The next morning post breakfast we would leave for Vellore.
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