Just the other day, after seeing off a guest at the Bus Station, i wondered for the nth. time why there's no train connectivity between Bangalore and Pondicherry . There are only bus services. One train line was tried out but has ceased operating. Considering the huge volume of traffic regularly heading to Pondi, thanks to JIPMER (Jawaharlal Institute of Post-Graduate Medical Education and Research) and The Aurobindo Ashram, one would think that an intercity train would work out well.
Pondicherry or Puducheri is a lovely destination for a weekend getaway. Perfect mix of the exotic and the familiar.
Right from my childhood days, i've had great fascination for this town, primarily because its frenchiness both amused and fascinated. The endearing hybrid ethos was quite strong in those days:
The flower seller, in "kandangi" saree, betel mashing mouth, forehead adorned with a traffic signal's worth of red, white and amber markings, would look up from her stringing and say "Baan-joru !" ( "Bonjour"). Addresses contained only "Rue"s, never any " Street" or "salai". The banian and lungi clad gentleman across the street would sport the fancy name of " Kitchnersuamey " or "Moreauganne", not your dowdy Krishnasami or Murugan. No dull policemen in khakhi shorts. Only sprightly Gendarmes in brilliant white uniforms and red pillbox hats. Localities called Ville Noir and Blanche long after the French had packed up and left ...............Only in recent times has Chennai Culture been seeping into the town, trying to wash out lingering Gallic influences .
Pondicherry reveals a new facet of itself on each visit. One never tires of the place. There are so many - too many - things scrapbooked about the place . Some that impressed me more :
Roads are narrow, drainage is still the colonial style"open-system" but the predominant mode of transport the citizens use is the Bicycle. There must be a million bicycles on the road at any given time ! Saree clad matrons riding with the whole month's provisions and grocery on a frail cycle , along trecherous lanes , is a sight that can be seen only here.
Invasion of foreign and domestic tourists, has encouraged sprouting of a wide variety of high- end shops and boutiques. Even so, the Sunday Night Market ,which is just an enlarged village market , is a lot more interesting place to browse around. Lively, colourful, noisy,variegated . You never know what odds and ends you can find here, even some "necessities" which you never knew existed !
These days, the old european style bunglows and compounds of the french quarter,( frequently seen in movies and ads.) , are being converted into hotels and homestays. It was in one such quaint eatery that i discovered Black Pepper Ice Cream !
Surprisingly, Bastille Day ( July 14) is still celebrated here, complete with hoisting of the French Flag. Many senoir citizens, still holding French Passports, draw fat pensions from the French Govt. Consequently, some of them are still under the hangover of the " We and you-people" kind of alienation ; though Kitchnersuameys and Krishnasamis share the same racial DNA !
AAYI MANDAPAM: the Emblem of the Govt. of Pondicherry. A handsome Greco-Roman pavilion standing in a lush park, at the administrative center of the city.
Commissioned by Napoleon III, this pavilion is dedicated to a 16th century native Courtesan named Aayi .
This is its story : The Pandyan king who ruled here was once lost on a dark night, after an outing. Seeing some oil lamps burning in a compound he assumed it to be a temple and entered the place to take refuge. Only to discover that it was the house of a dancing girl . He could have stayed and enjoyed the show. Or he could have said 'Sorry Ma'am' and got lost again. But the short fused chap did the only thing most men in authority do - he shifted blame ! Indicting the woman of the heinous crime of lighting lamps on a dark night (!!!!) and thereby causing him to sully his hallowed feet with the despicable dust of a house of sin, he kicked up such a ruckus that the poor lady got her splendid house demolished in repentance and had a pond dug up in its place to provide potable water to the townsfolk. With that, Aayi faded into folklore. Three centuries later, when the french colony that had come up on the coast , faced severe shortage of drinking water, it was Aayi's pond that came to the troop's rescue. Investigations brought to light Aayi's story and the French Monarch was so impressed with her nobility that he ordered a pavilion erected in her memory. It was originally called La Place du Pantheon.
BHARATIYAR'S HOUSE : I love this place. Any one who reads Subramania Bharathi's poems is changed forever. No translation can ever do justice to the seething emotions of Bharati's Tamizh. The humble house where the impoverished poet lived as a political refugee from British India is today a shrine to his memory. The old photographs, manuscripts and broadsheets he published transport one to that thrilling period when Freedom and Nationalism were the ideals that impelled each and every action of impassioned patriots.
ARIKAMEDU : 4kms. on the Cuddalore road, a small signboard announces the deviation to one of the most important archeological sites of South India. It was here that Mortimer Wheeler unearthed , in 1940,evidence of a prosperous Roman Emporium dating to 3BC - 1AD. Wine and ceramics were imported ; textiles, metals and glass beads were exported at this port. The Government Museum in the city houses all the excavated material- amphorae, coins, beads, shards etc.
Boats can be hired to sail around the Ariyankuppam creek , which feeds into the bay at Veerampattinam, presumably the ancient port, but hardly anything of the old ramparts or excavated trenches remain. Only the ruins of an 18thCent. French Jessuit church stand forlorn near the coconut groves. Still, its worth taking a ride if only to daydream about sticking a shovel into the eroded banks and pulling out some Roman treasures !!!
THE ANTIQUE SELLERS : One of the more pleasurable outings while in Pondi is to the small cottages on the outer suburbs. There are dozens of 'antique vendors' with home-cum-shops piled high with wonderful old furniture, doors and windows, chariot panels, tiles, musical instruments, lamps, statuettes, oleographs , baskets, utensils, wooden toys, mirrors, palanquins, locks, doorknobs, beads and buttons ...........Like a thieves' den from Arabian Nights ! All salvaged from traditional native and colonial houses that have crumbled away in the interiors of Tamilnadu, notably Chettinad. Rummaging through the junkyard- like disarray can be exhilarating as well as educative , for the things speak of the lifestyles of bygone generations. ..........But if you think you can snatch something away for a song, you are sadly mistaken. The ambiance may be shabby and the sellers, rural folk. But they are smart. They know the worth of what they are sitting on ! Though i visit those shops everytime, i have bought only one item so far: an 8 inch long wooden hand-fan with carved spines. Period : circa 1910, provence : Karaikudi. Price : Rs.950 + grumbles from family.
ROMAIN ROLLAND LIBRARY : ( formerly known as Bibliotheque Publique,) established in 1872, it is one of the oldest libraries in the country. Its collection of French, Tamil and English books stands at around 3 Lakhs today. Only the ground floor is accessible to the public. Just being in midst of so many books gives a high! One impressive service provided is the Mobile Library that ferries books to nearby villages periodically . Sadly, the library is situated in a dreary "govenment house" style building, on a busy road of public offices, that does not look inviting at all .
THE PETRIFIED FOREST : Not exactly in Pondicherry. About 25 Kms. away, on Tindivanam Road , is the town of Tiruvakkarai, known for its temple to Vakra-Kali Amman. The National Fossil Wood Park, maintained by the Geological Survey Of India, is situated here. Ancient Angiosperms, 40 to 50 million years old, in fossilised condition are scattered around an area of about 250 acres. Only a small part of this , fenced protectively, is open to public. Walking through a healthy jungle via beaten paths, admiring the old living trees is a refreshing experience. Along the paths, here and there lie the fossilised trees, which at first glance dont look any different from dead wood. But they have petrified into a hard stony texture, preserving even the annular rings excellently. The watchman, a kindly man, eagerly educates interested visitors about the process of fossilisation. He also sees to it that no one dare try touching those ancient logs !
Anandarangam Pillai House : A colourful and fiesty person was this Anandarangam Pillai (1709 -1761) celebrated as Pepys of South India for his voluminous diary recordings. Nothing has escaped from his keen eye and industrious quill - the politics of the day, foibles of the rich and famous, mores of day, cost of living,trade practices , everything. Though only a Dubash ( a clerical post) to The French Governor , he enjoyed power and influence improportionate to his station thanks to the (mysterious) favouritism showed by M. & Mme. Dupleix .
Whatever gray shades his character may have had, Pillai's Diaries deserve the high praise bestowed on them. Its is thanks to his journals that we know a great deal about life in French India . His house, with a traditional tamil ground floor and a European upper floor, typifies the confluence of two cultures ,which is the Cherry on the top of this delicious town .