Bob Kane had done a stirling job organising our couriers for our weekend jaunts. Christopher Jerald, our midweek driver, had agreed to take us out for the day Sunday. Our destination was Puducherry (formerly Pondichéry), a former French colony off the Bay of Bengal. Whilst we were happy with Babu’s services the day before, Chris’s superior English made for a more engaging and interesting conversation en route. If one were to notice the Madonna icon on the dashboard, it wouldn’t be hard to establish the man’s religious conviction. Christianity is India’s third largest religion, with approximately 24 million followers, constituting 2.3% of India’s population. Chris asserted that no significant conflict existed between Hindus, Christians and Muslims in the south of India, as compared to parts of the north.It’s the feeling I get as well.
On the NH45 near Chengalpattu, we passed a sign for Mamallapuram, our destination the day before, some 30 kilometres to the south. We crossed the Palar River, a significant passage of water that rises in Nandi Hills in Kolar district of Karnataka state, to the north of Tamil Nadu. We soon passed a region of hills and lakes. Karunguzhi, which lies some 8 km from Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary and the blue waters of the massive Maduratakam Lake, followed. A large, prominent, walled complex on a hillside came into view near Thenpakkam, a huge cross clearly visible from afar, signifying its purpose. Numerous small temples appear frequently en route, just off the roadside. One in particular that caught our eye about 1 km from a toll booth, representing the God Shiva. Every square inch of landscape on either side of the highway seemed to be taken up by rice fields and Casuarina plantations (used as firewood).
The topic of conversion switched to politics. India is divided into 28 states. Central government elections for Congress occured two years ago, whilst local elections for a seat in the Assembly in Chennai were as recent as four months ago. I tested the waters with Chris over the conflict in Sri Lanka. I was eager to learn from him and found him a willing and informed partner. The war between the Sri Lankan Army and the Tamil Tigers involved the massacre of many civilians by government forces. This touched the same ethnic group that dominates Tamil Nadu, drawing sympathy and funding from the people of this southern Indian state, which left me wondering how this affected their relationship with India’s central government.
On the coastal road near Puducherry, one passes the Kaiga nuclear power plant in Kalpakkam. Chris told us of a radiation leak (also reported in a Times of India article) that had occured at the plant in 2009. Another nuclear plant is under construction in Koodankulam, Tamil Nadu, however, since the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan, local awareness has increased, with opposition and protests intensifying as a result.
A general shift in the appearance of number plate registrations from TN to PY meant we were now in the former French colony of Puducherry. We reached Pontecherry, the quaint little seaside town, characterized in part by its French colonial architecture. Thousands of motorbikes crammed the streets. The town, following a gridpattern design, is divided into two sections, the French Quarter, where even the street names are in French, and the Indian Quarter. Here in this town French is still one of the official languages.
Our first port of call was the market, a hive of activity. Passing through the fish market to the rest of the market was located, the piles of curry powder in large bowls and an unimaginable assortment of other spices confirm why India defined the beginnings historically of what became the spice trade. After a coffee, Chris took us to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in downtown Puducherry, founded by Sri Aurobindo on the 24 November 1926 . Traditionally, an ashram is a spiritual hermitage. Today the term ashram often also denotes a locus of Indian cultural activity such as yoga, music study or religious instruction, the moral equivalent of a studio or dojo.
The Manakula Vinayagar Temple in Jawaharlal Nehru Street is so-named in that, in Tamil, ‘Manal’ means sand and ‘Kulami’ which transcribes to the “Vinayaka who lives in a region bounded by sand, in reference to God near the pond of sand. We explored the area several blocks from the temple, so as to pass the time before it opened around 16h00. The temple is dedicated to Lord Ganesh, a Hindu deity,whose image is found throughout India and Nepal.
Local legend says that a Frenchman living near the temple frantically tried to remove the Ganesh idol from the temple in vain. The idol reappeared miraculously each time when it is removed. The Frenchman convinced by the ability and power of the Idol and became an ardent devotee of the Lord. It is for this reason that an elephant is brought to the front entrance each day to bless worshippers.
As non-Hindus, we were not allowed within the inner sanctum of thr temple, though we did have a bindi or coloured dot applied to our foreheads, for which we were expected to make a donation. Once a sign of religious devotion or martial vows, bindis have become a fashion accessory in world culture. The point over which a bindi is applied is thought of as the “third eye,” or the sixth chakra. This spot is believed to relate to intuition and the inner mind. The application of paint to this spot has been remarked as having a protective effect, of being a sign of blessing and of being able to help strengthen and quiet the mind. In some traditions, the mark signifies a sign of marriage.
Chris found a lovely local restaurant where we enjoyed a vegetarian lunch. At our request, he took us to a confectionary shop where we bought some Indian sweets, in particular, Barfi. Plain barfi is made from condensed milk, cooked with sugar until it solidifies, however there are many varities. Barfi is often flavored with fruit (such as mango or coconut or nuts (like cashew and pistachio) and spices such as cardamom. They are sometimes coated with a thin layer of edible metallic leaf known as vark. Visually, they are typically cut into square, diamond, or round shapes.
We then headed back along the coastal road, though soon it turned dark as night fell. Despite this, the towers of the nuclear plant at Kalpakkam were still visible from a distance. The coastal route took us near Mamallapuram, past where we had lunched the day before. We reached the Gem Inn around 18h00.
Quote of the day: “The aim (of the traffic) is to occupy any free space, regardless of the direction you are travelling in”.