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Published: April 23rd 2017
Sacre bleu we have arrived in Pondicherry once the location for the head quarters of the French East India company established here in 1674. Prior to this there had been a bit of a palava (see what I did there?) with Pondicherry being variously held by the Dutch, the British, the Portuguese and the French. Sense prevailed in 1954 when they all cleared out and the Indians took over again.
Ooh la la I almost forgot that on the way to Pondicherry we passed vast salt plains stretching into the distance and also stopped off at an 'untouchables' temple/shrine. These were made at the outskirts of villages to allow somewhere for those of the lowest of the low caste in the almost defunct, but not quite, caste system to go and worship as they weren't allowed in the temples with other castes! This particular shrine has evidence of sacrificial lemons slaughtered in lieu of animals that can no longer be sacrificed in temples as used to happen. I kid you not!
Once back on the bus Mouthou explains a bit more about the caste system. There are four main castes the highest Brahmin (priestly people), then Kshatriyas (rulers, administrators
and warriors), next Vaishyas (artisans, merchants, tradesman and farmers) and lastly the Shudras (labourers). Amongst these four castes are up to 3000 sub categories depending on the region you're from. It is now illegal to discriminate against a person based on their caste and anyone doing so can face up to 7 years in prison. Mouthu reckons that the caste system isn't followed at all by people in the cities, with some, particularly younger generations, not even knowing what caste they belong to. The government is trying hard to ensure that caste does not have a detrimental affect on people's chances in life providing financial assistance to ensure all children can attend school, college and university. 'Untouchables' are provided with free housing, electricity and 2000 rupees a month to buy groceries.
Anyway back to Pondicherry. As we don't have much time here we quickly dump our stuff at the hotel and head into the centre of town. It's quite small with just 600 thousand inhabitants and the streets are a little more European feeling, even the street names have their French translation so we find ourselves walking down the Rue de la Marine to get to our first stop
off at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram set up by its namesake renowned freedom fighter and philosopher Sri Aurobindo. As one of the most well-known ashrams in India people flock here from all over the world for spiritual salvation. A French woman Mirra Alfassa, known locally as 'The Mother' came to Pondicherry in 1914 and acted as spiritual collaborator for the the ashram. She was treated as a 'living God' by the people of Pondicherry as she not only cared for the spiritual needs of people attending the ashram but also provided medical assistance to anyone in Pondicherry who needed it.
On entering the ashram we are ushered around the building by very stern looking silence police who make sure not a peep is heard out of anyone - tough for some of our group who are normally complete chatterboxes. I spot quite a few nationalities other than Indians, everyone sitting on the floor quietly meditating in a little world of their own. It is actually lovely to be away from the noisy hustle and bustle that is the norm for India. Some of the women wear an odd uniform of white shirt tucked into white shorts looking like they're
off to a tennis club match. We start discussing a map of Pondicherry at the exit and get ticked off by one of the silence police so decide to leave them to their meditations and tetchiness (odd combination) and go for a wander about the streets and parks.
The buildings in the French quarter are painted yellow and white while those of the West Bengal community are a light ash grey. There are lovely trees providing some shade. We find a temple with an extremely sad looking trained elephant supposedly blessing people by patting them on their bowed heads. It's not chained up but is obviously kept placid by some sort of perform/reward system. It's horrible to think that it's there all day every day in this narrow, hot street. We move on and leave the sad elephant with heavy hearts.
We've been told by Mouthou that there's some sort of ceremonial flag lowering that takes place at the odd time of 5.40pm outside a building he's indicated on the map. Either we are outside the wrong building or Mouthou is pulling our leg as the only thing to happen at around the allotted time is the guards
with guns letting some guy out of the gate! We give up and walk through a lovely little park and on to the promenade by the long stretch of shoreline. Sadly all the sand that used to be here has washed away leaving large rocks piled all along the shore as some sort of hard engineered break water. We see the big Gandhi statue being creatively used by kids as a slide before heading up, up, up to the top of a hotel roof restaurant looking out over the promenade. I have a devine pina colada. Seems so decadent to be supping cocktails in India.
The evening is finished off at a French-Indian fushion food restaurant where I have the not very French dish spinach and paneer!
Bon soir Pondicherry.
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