It had been 25 years since I was last Tamil Nadu, South East India, as a fresh faced, green behind the ears 22 year old yogini completing my diploma in yoga therapy. My days back then were spent on an ashram so I actually saw very little of this once powerful Dravidian nation and since then Tamil Nadu has become more and more accessible with some wonderful properties opening and the infrastructure of this fascinating state improving beyond measure.
A direct flight to Chennai (Madras) is a joy though the 3 am arrival & 2 hours standing at immigration – an unfortunate coincidence that I arrived at the e-visa desks at the same time as a group of 40 Japanese tourists – is less so. After a quick rest and wash at the Taj Fisherman’s Cove about an hour south from the city it was off to Pondicherry on the South East coast for a couple of days.
Pondicherry has a fascinating French history from colonialism to the “soldars” ((dalits – the untouchable caste) who left Pondicherry to settle in France after partition, the majority joining the French Foreign Legion), temples, catholic churches with bling beyond anything Latin America has to offer, the Sri Auribindo Ashram and Auroville. I spent my time with the wonderful Bishuwajit Banik (Bishu) – a knowledgeable, interesting, quirky and, above all, funny guide who took me around on the back of his Royal Enfield motorbike.
While Pondicherry was first settled in 1674 by the French East India Company it was regularly annexed by both the Dutch and the British but was returned to France in 1814. When the British gained control of the whole of India in the late 1850s they allowed the French to retain their settlements in the country and even after partition in 1947 the French remained in power in Pondicherry until 1954 and full ratification didn’t happen until 1962.
There is a very obvious European touch to the city’s architecture with some beautiful and elegant examples of Franco-Tamil buildings in the French Quarter but in the Northern Tamil part of town the usual hubbub of stalls, workshops and markets still reigns. Sadly many of the old buildings are in a shocking state of disrepair but still retain much beauty.
The Catholic influence is strong throughout the town and the fabulous Basilica of the Sacred Heart (which was built for low caste Christian worshippers as caste apartheid even in churches existed) is decorated with some wonderfully gaudy murals and icons and even has its own Our Lady of Lourdes miracle corner outside complete with plastic goats and flashing lights. Utterly fantastic.
Not to be outdone on the technicolour interiors the Arulmigu Manakula Vinayagar Devasthanam Temple, dedicated to Ganesh, is a riot of colours and deities and also has Lakshmi – the blessing elephant. I’m always very dubious about animals being used like this but Lakshmi has been at the Temple for 18 years since she was 3 and seemed quite calm and at ease despite the enormous crowds wanting to give her money and guavas in return for a blessing (Laksmi is the goddess of wealth so I need say no more).