September 7, 2016
You might think it rather incongruous to see Indians playing pétanque, but an evening stroll along Rue Dumas in Pondicherry reveals that the boules tradition in Tamil Nadu is still very much alive.
After Independence, many lower-caste Tamils were given French citizenship and chose to join the French army, which paid them regular salaries. Some ended up living in France under less than happy conditions before returning to their home town in Tamil Nadu where, as ex-soldiers, they enjoyed a much higher status. There are certain quarters of Pondy, as it is known locally, with their warm-coloured, gracious houses and street names stamped on those familiar blue enamel plaques, where you really can imagine you are in a Provençal town.
The French held sway in about five towns in India back in the 17th and 18th centuries, but there was a constant toing and froing of colonial domination in Pondicherry. In 1748 the Brits had their eye off the ball, leaving the large and important fortress of Madras (now Chennai) unprotected, and the French moved in sans resistance. “Ah well,” the Brits said, rather pragmatically, “give us Madras back and you can have those little towns to the south.” Rather curiously, the Tricolour flew over Pondy until 1954, seven years after India was granted independence from Britain.
A lovely town for a meander, made a little more celebré by the filming of the opening scenes of The Life of Pi, but is best known for the ashram at Auroville which has at its epicentre a space-age golden orb or Matrimandir. If you are very lucky you can go into the heart of the orb for the ultimate meditation experience. Here you can see an experimental community in action established by a visionary woman known as “the mother”.
Another little anecdote I want to share with you occurred at about the same time as the French moved into Madras. A tsunami devastated a Chettinar coastal settlement much further south. Out of this catastrophe was born a new beginning: the Chettinars moved inland to a non-fertile area to escape what they perceived to be a dangerous place to live. They then proceeded to build a great trading empire in the east, to Burma and beyond. The fabulous mansions of the Chettinad area are testament to the enormous wealth the area once enjoyed. Some have intriguing statues of soldiers on pediments rather than the more usual gods. It is another fascinating place to explore before retreating to the minimalist Art Deco hotel that we use in this area.
Above all else, come to Tamil Nadu to see the incredible Chola temples of Tanjore, Mahabalipuram, Chidambaram, and Gangikonda Cholapuram, to name but a few. Surely the Olympia of Hinduism must be Meenakshi in Madurai, a temple as big as a town with an influx of between thirty and forty thousand worshippers every day. It is here that you will sense the deep spiritualism that is still a vital part of India today.
Holidays to Tamil Nadu provide a delightful breadth of cultural experience. As well as organising tours with some expert local storytellers, I can also often arrange dinners with local families for further cultural immersion if this is of interest.
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