From Auroville down to the back-
waters where ships are docked,
Lighthouse beams shone out to sea —
now they’re beacon-topped.
The old churches and the temples,
the stacks of libraries,
Past written in six languages
in the obituaries
There are so many things in this life that I wish to — but cannot — understand. One is how this snail moved his entire house onto a leaf barely wider than said house and a fraction of its weight. Riddle me that.
I came across a reference to this book on someone’s blog, fortuitously, a week before our first trip to Pondicherry. And I finished reading the short book during said trip. Pondicherry, technically now known as “Puducherry” but more often than not called “Pondy” by Indians, is a fascinating place on India’s coast with the Bay of Bengal. It’s both the name of the city and the Union Territory (UT) of which it is part. [The book deals mostly with the city, but it does explain the UT briefly.] UT’s are generally smaller than States and are usually managed by the national government. The UT of Pondicherry consists of four discontiguous pieces of land.
There are a few facts that stand out in making Pondy unique within India, and the book deals with them all in some detail. First of all, Pondicherry was a French colony and this is reflected both in the cuisine and architecture on offer. Chapter 6 focuses especially on the city’s French history, but one will find discussions and references of that past throughout.
Secondly, a famous member of the Indian Independence movement turned Karma Yogi, Sri Aurobindo, set up shop here after fleeing the Brits. This resulted in “Auroville” (an experimental township intended to be a utopia that sits a short drive from Pondy) as well as a large Ashram that owns a lot of property in Pondy proper. Sri Aurobindo’s lead student turned collaborator (called “Mother” by Ashramites) apparently bought up distressed property at bargain prices. Chapter seven deals extensively with Aurobindo, Mother, and their legacies in terms of Auroville and the ashram, but – again – these individuals are touched upon throughout. If the reader is looking for the skinny on any controversies regarding Auroville, they are only touched upon obliquely. [Moving to Auroville is said to involve surrendering all of one’s wealth into a communal collection, which is a common trait of cults.] Mostly, Sriram just includes some of the views of locals, which range from weakly positive to unenthusiastically negative.
Finally, while Pondy has this distinctive colonial history and an influx of international visitors to the Ashram, it can’t be forgotten that it’s literally surrounded by Tamil Nadu, and so there is that flavor throughout as well. People may hear about the unique flavor of Pondicherry and how it tends to be tidier than most Indian cities, and they might be expecting that it’s like being in a different country. Rest assured, the Indian influence dominates the landscape, it’s just that it’s diverse in a unique way.
The book mixes history from ancient to modern with discussions with current residents about current issues. When I say “ancient history,” it should be noted that there is an old Roman outpost called Arikamedu a short drive out of town, and it is discussed in the book. Travelers should note that the artifacts from the Roman era – including Greek and Roman pieces – are kept in the Puducherry Museum, and the ruins at Arikamedu are from more recent visitors (though they are photogenic if you’re willing to take a little effort to get there, which involves meandering around some small lanes and sandy roads.) One of the most interesting history-centric chapters is three, which tells the tale of the beautiful prostitute, Aayi, who had a water well built that kept Pondicherry hydrated during both pre-colonial and colonial times.
I found this book to be interesting, and I learned a few things that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. If you’re traveling to Pondicherry, or have an interest in the city, it’s worth checking out.
Built at the behest of Napoleon III to honor a prostitute whose well provided water to Pondicherry for many years.
There are many versions of the story. The gist of the one I read is that this lady-of-the-evening was stunningly gorgeous and — as a result of all her customers and shrewd financial planning — she was rich. When the King came by he was angry that she had a nicer house than him, and so he had it burnt down. However, by volunteering to build a well of unparalleled output and hygiene for the people of the area, she put the King in a rough spot in which he could neither have her executed nor force her into his harem.