Warn and sunny South India, geographically separated by the east-west Vindhya ranges, is distinctly different from North India. Southerners pride themselves on being the orinigal Indians, the indigenous people of this vast country. Their stock has remained pure – unsoiled by the Aryan influences of the invaders who thundered in to India through the mountainpasses in the North.
Physically as well as culturally, the south Indians are different from the people of the Hindi heartland – Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh. Most of them are darker and smaller built and they have ebony-black hair and large, lustrous eyes that probably come from their diet of fish, coconut, tamarind and spices.
The women wear the most gorgeous silks and love to flaunt diamonds in their ears and flowers in their hair. The men wear pride their starched ‘dhotis’ or ‘veshtis’ – seven metres of cloth worn around their lower torso like a sarong. Dhotis are worn formally at weddings, in State Assemblies as well as informally for lounging around.
The South India is the home of Classical Indian Dance and Carnatic music. Every child is taught music or dance. However, despite their traditional cultural moorings, film songs and Western pop music are altering the taste of the modern youth. South Indian love movies, and real-life heroes and heroines are often transformed into real- life politicians and Chief Minister.
In South India natural beauty and a rich cultural heritage provide a stimulating experience. While in Karnataka and Tamilnadu India’s ancient heritage co-exists with the present, Kerala is a kaleidoscope of swaying palm trees, alluring backwaters, emerald paddy fields and golden beaches. In Andhra Pradesh, the Muslim culture of the Nawabs and Sultans has blended with the dominant Hindu culture and is reflected in the cuisines that is sharp and yet different.
Karnataka, India’s eighth largest State, is a land of delightful contrasts, a harmonious mix of the modern and traditional. Though predominantly rural and agrarian, producing 85% of India’s raw silk and more than half of its coffee, the State is also the largest producer of electronics goods and telecommunications equipment in the country. The nerve centre of India’s space programme is located at Hassan in southern Karnataka, and just 50 kms away to the Southeast is the important Jain pilgrims centre Shravanabelagola, the site of the 1000-year old monolithic statue of Lord Bahubali (Goomateswara), towering to a height of 18 metres. Bangalore, the capital city, is famous both as the ‘Garden City’ as well as the ‘Silicon Valley’ of India.
Temple and worship are the dominant characteristics of Tamilnadu. Even the small towns around Chennai, as the capital Madras is called today, are replete with temples- each more famous than the other, and all of them adorned with the finest carvings. The temple complexes are surrounded by high boundary walls, with entrances through lofty ‘Gopurams’. Usually embellished with sculptures, these rectangular or pyramid-shaped temple towers could be several stories higth thus dominating the skyline.
According to legend, Pondicherry was the abode of the great Hindu sage Agastya, a seat of Vedic culture and once called Vedapuri. Lying on the South-East coast of India, 162 km South of Chennai, today it is an idyllic land of Yoga and spirituality.
This is the largest of the four States of southern India with an area of over 275,000 sq. k.m. even bigger than the United Kingdom or New Zealand! It is the land of the warm and friendly Andhras, an ancient race whose history goes back to the Mauryan era (circa 200 BC).
Most of the state lies on the ariod Deccan plateau and the land slopes eastwards to meet the Bay of Bengal in a 1000 km coastline. Physically rich in contrasts, like Karnataka its western neighbour, the State has ancient pre- historic rocks in the Southeast, lush green paddy fields in the deltas of the Godavari and Krishna rivers, lakes, waterfalls, low forested hills teeming with wild life, and many pretty beaches.
According to popular legend, Lord Vishnu, the Protector, in his sixth incarnation as Parashuram, was looking for a secluded place to perform penance and threw his axe into the ocean. Thereupon a crescent shaped land rose from the sea – and Kerala, ‘God’s own country’, was born.
The name ‘Karnataka’ derives from ‘karunadu’ – literally the ‘lofty land’, referring to the Deccan plateau on which much of the State lies. The language of the people is Kannada.
Karnataka is endowed with great natural beauty – a 260 km coastline in the West from Karwar to Bangalore with numerous silver beaches waiting to be explored, and running more or less parallel to the coast after a narrow plain, the Sahyadri ranges of the Western Ghats. These hilly tracts have dense teak and sandalwood forests, rivers cascading down in stunning waterfalls (among them Jog Falls, 292m, the highest in india), national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, coffee and tea plantations set in rolling hills, and peaceful hill stations like Madikere and Kudremukh. Karnataka has all the ingredients for a lovely holiday.
During its 2000 year history Karnataka has come under predominantly Hindu influence, having been ruled successively by the Satavahanas, Kadambas, Gangas, Chalukyas and Hoysalas, and culminating in the great Vijayanagar empire in the 14th century AD. The Hindu heritage is seen to this day in the magnificent architectural monuments dotted across the State. In the North there are splendid stone temples at Aihole, Badami and Pattadakal built during the 3rd to 8th century by the Chalukyas, some of which are prototypes for the later architectural styles of North and South India.
The temples at Belur, Halebid and Somnathpur in the South, built by the Hoysalas, are unmatched anywhere in India for their ornateness and intricate carvings. And near the heart of Karnataka lie the vast 400-year old ruins at Hampi, believed by many to be one of the most evocative and beautiful architectural and archaeological sites anywhere in the world. Now a World Heritage Centre Hampi is a sombre reminder of the glory of Vijayanagar.
The 17th century Islamic influence in the State is seen in the Gol Gumbaz, the mausoleum of Mohammed Adil Shah, at Bijapur, whose 44m diameter dome is the second-largest unsupported dome in the world (only St. Peter’s in Rome is bigger).
Karnataka has its own folk theatre, Takshagana (similar to the Kathakali of Kerala), and traditional dance form, Yakshagana. The fragrant sandalwood oil and beauty soap indigenous to the State are well known in world markets. Sandalwood and rosewood carvings from here are much sought after. So also are the beautiful silk fabrics and sarees.
BANGALORE: THE GARDEN CITY – Bangalore was the cynosure of all eyes across the world in 1996 when it hosted the Miss World Pageant. Every Indian watching the proceedings on the television fervently hoped that the Indian representative would wear the crown as Aishwarya Rai had done before. While that was not to be, the people of Karnataka had yet another reason for being proud of their Capital. More recently, Bangalore has pioneered a new phase in the digital revolution by becoming the first city in the country to use the TV cable network for the convergence of computers, television and telecommunications.
Although in recent years it has grown into one of India’s premier industrial centres, Bangalore still lives up to its well-known epithet as the Garden City. Lying 1000m above sea level, it has a pleasant and cool climate – almost perpetual and perfect picnic weather! Little wonder then that the hustle and bustle of industrial growth has not been able to replace the relaxed and easygoing atmosphere which remains its hallmark. The many pubs that have come up in recent years on the posh MG Road and Brigade Road, each with its own special ambience, are the favourite haunts of both the young and the not so young!
Lying near the southern boundary of the State, Bangalore was founded by Kempe Gowda, a local chieftain, in 1537, and further developed by Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan in the 18th century. The centre of the city is dotted with beautifully laid out, well-maintained parks and gardens, tree-lined avenues and dazzling shopping plazas & malls. One of India’s best botanical gardens, the 96-hectare Lalbagh, was laid out in 1760 by Hyder Ali. It is home to numerous centuries-old trees, lotus ponds, lakes and some very rare species of tropical plants. The Glass House in the centre of Lalbagh, is inspired by the Crystal Palace, London and is the venue of the annual flower shows.
The even bigger (121 hectares) Cubbon Park, full of beautiful flowering and shady trees, lies right in the heart of the city. It is a favourite haunt for many residents providing them solitude from the hectic pace of life. And close to the park, on Kasturba Road, are the Government Museum & Venkatappa Art Gallery as well as the Visveswaraya Industrial and Technological Museum both well worth visiting.
The city’s most spectacular modern building, the four storeyed Vidhan Soudha, lies on the northern side of Cubbon Park. It houses the State Legislature and Secretariat. Built of granite in the neo-Dravidian style in 1956, its largest central dome is crowned by India’s national symbol of four lions. Its Cabinet room is famous for the massive door made of pure sandalwood. The building presents a truly enchanting sight when floodlit in the evenings.
The Bangalore Palace, an unusual granite structure inspired by the Windsor Castle, was built by the Wodeyar rulers in the 19th century and is a popular monument among tourists and filmmakers. Another popular spot is the 16th century Bull Temple, dedicated to Nandi, the celestial Bull. An excellent example of Dravidian architecture, the temple has a gigantic 15-foot high sacred bull carved in grey granite.
Andhra Pradesh represents a synthesis of religious customs and traditions. It has the temple of Lord Venkateshwara at Tirumala – one of the most venerated Hindu temples in India, ancient mosques, a towering 61-metre high Cathedral in Medak and the remains of Buddhist structures at Nagarjunakonda going back to the 2nd century BC. It also has a rich heritage in arts and crafts including its own classical dance form, the energetic Kuchipudi, and traditional art form Kalamkari painting that uses a pen and brush technique to paint the narratives of religious legends.
Telugu, the language of the state is often called the ‘Italian of the East’ because of its melodious pebbly sound. Andhra Pradesh women are known for their long, black hair and big, expressive eyes.
There is a mixture in Andhra Pradesh – from Hyderabadi food that is a mix of South Indian and Mughlai foods, to the people who are a mix of Brahmin and Reddys, to many film stars who mix into politics because of their ready-made mass appeal!
HYDERABAD – One of India’s largest cities, and the Capital of the Andhra Pradesh, Hyderabad is famous for its pearls, bidri work, bangles embellished with sparkling, semiprecious stones set in lacquer and, ofcourse, its symbol, the Charminar. This imposing monument with its four graceful 54-metre high minarets, was built two years after the founding of the city in 1591. It presents an enchanting appearance at night when the minarets are illuminated.
Before donning its present mantle, Hyderabad has been variously the capital of the Qytab Shahi dynasty, a centre of the Mughal Empire and the seat of the wealthy Nizams. Separated from its twin city, Secunderabad, by the Hussain Sagar Lake, the city presents a unique skyline, with modern buildings standing amidst fascinating 400 year old edifices.
OTHER TOURISTS PLACES OF HYDERABAD – The Salar Jung Museum houses over 35000 priceless objets d’art, the private collection of Nawab Salar Jung III, the Prime Minister of one of the Nizams. There are carved and inlaid pieces, jewels, ornaments, ivories, gem studded boxes, marble statues, rare manuscripts, miniature paintings, and exquisitely bejewelled swords and daggers of Mughal rulers. A visit to the museum is a must.
The largest mosque in South India, Mecca Masjid, was completed by Aurangzeb in 1694, taking 80 years to build. The bricks for the central arch are said to have been brought from Mecca, hence its name.
The legendary Golconda Fort, which was the earlier capital of the Qutab Shahi rulers, lies on the fringe of Hyderabad. It is a magnificent structure with many interesting features such as the remarkable accoustic warning system and the innovative water supply system that used ‘Persian wheels’ to raise water into storage reservoirs in the fort. The world famous “Kohi-Noor” diamond, which now adorns the British crown, was mined in Golconda.
Some of the other interesting places in and around the city are the Ramoji Film City, reputed to be one of the best equipped film studios in the world; 2500 million year old Deccan pre-historic rocks at Durgam Cheruvu, Jubilee Hills; the crafts village Shilparamam; the white marble Birla Mandir, dazzling in its ethereal beauty when illuminated at night; Qutab Shahi Tombs near the Golconda fort where seven of the Kings lie buried; and the Falaknuma Palace.
What strikes you most when you first arrive is the seemingly endless green of paddy fields and palm trees, the bright terracotta tiled sloping roofs of the houses, people dressed in whites and the relaxed easy going atmosphere.
Lying at the south-western tip of India, and the smallest of the four southern States, Kerala is about 560 kms long and only 120 kms at its widest. Its eastern boundary, shared with Tamilnadu and Karnataka, is mountainous. From there the land slopes westwards to the Arabian sea. Traversed by no less than 44 rivers, the State has cool, mist-filled highlands (avg alt 900 m), fertile plains, dense tropical forests, palm-fringed beaches and a complex maze of backwaters – all squeezed together in a mere 39000 sq km area. So beaches and backwaters, wildlife sanctuaries and hill stations are all within easy reach.
While the highlands kept it sheltered from invaders from the other parts of India, Kerala established strong trading links with the Phoenicians, Arabs and Chinese many centuries before Vasco da Gama landed near Calicut 500 years ago. Thus it developed its own distinctive traditions and culture. The people speak Malayalam, which belongs to the same family as Tamil spoken in neighbouring Tamil Nadu.
The social progress and achievements of the State fill every Indian’s heart with pride. Women enjoy complete parity with men. The infant mortality rate is very low. Hospitals and health centres offer the most advanced facilities. Its telecom network extends to every village. It has the distinction of having achieved total literacy. Many eminent writers (including R.K.Narayan and the 1997 Booker prize winner Arundhati Roy) and satiric cartoonists (Narayan’s brother R.K.Laxman and Abu Abraham, amongst others) belong to Kerala. It is arguably the most advanced society in India.
Kerala has also made a significant contribution to the cultural heritage of India. Kathakali, the masked dance theatre that uses music, song and mime to enact stories, and its feminine counterpart Mohiniyattam (the dance of the “enchantress”) are its two most well known classical dance forms. Kalaripayattu, the traditional martial art of Kerala, is widely believed to be the forerunner of Kung-fu and other east Asian martial arts.
India’s natural system of medicine, Ayurveda, ‘the Science of Life’, was developed centuries ago. Being blessed with a tropical climate and fertile soil (ideal conditions for cultivation of exotic plants and herbs), and sheltered from overland interference, Kerala has been able to preserve and nurture this science. Quality Ayurvedic treatment, including massage with herbal oils, is available at many hotels and resorts at a fractic of what it costs in Europe and other parts of the world. Giver its year-round greenery (which constantly purifies the air), sunshine, beaches and placid backwaters, Kerala is a very popular destination for health motivated travellers and those seeking rejuvenation therapies.
THIRUVANANTHAPURAM (FORMERLY TRIVANDRUM) – Named after Shri Anantha, the thousand-headed, divine serpent on which Lord Vishnu reclines, the State capital is built on undulating terrain of seven low coastal hills. It has a distinctive ambience – a spacious layout where the old and modern are surrounded by gently swaying coconut palms an majestic, gabled, pagoda-roofed traditional buildings.
TOURISTS PLACES OF KERALA – Shri Ananthapadmanabhaswamy Temple, the dominating landmark of the city, is a grand seven-storied structure decorated with countless intricate stone carvings, both on the outside and inside.
Government Napier Art Museum houses an interesting range of exhibits of Kerala, Moghul and Chinese art as well as a large collection of antiques. Shri Chitra Art Gallery, situated in the same complex, is famous for the masterpieces painted by Raja Ravi Varma, a 19th century member of Kerala’s royal family.
The internationally renowned Kovalam beach with its three successive crescent-shaped beaches, fringed by lush coconut groves in a sheltered bay, would be most peoples’ idea of a tropical paradise. It is only 16 kms south of the city.
Veli Tourist Village on the Veli-Akkulam lagoon, just 8 kms north of the city, is a delightful waterfront park with swimming and water sports.
KOCHI (COCHIN) – Kerala’s commercial capital Kochi is renowned as the ‘Queen of the Arabian Sea’. It has one of the finest natural harbours in the world from where Kerala’s spices have been exported for centuries. The descendants of the families who sold ivory, gold, timber and peacocks to King Solomon are said to be still living near the waterfront!
Kochi has a history of visitors who came, saw and stayed on, leaving their imprint on the city and its people. Christianity came to India through Kochi not long after the Crucifixion. The oldest European settlement in India, that of the Portuguese, is Pallipuram Fort in Vypeen Island, Kochi. The Chinese influence is seen in the old tiled houses built in the pagoda style and giant Chinese fishing nets that rim the shore particularly at the mouth of the harbour. The sight of these fishing nets silhouetted against the glow of the setting’sun is unforgettable.
The oldest Jewish Synagogue in the Commonwealth, built in 1568, is in the 2000 year old Jewtown area. Ancient scrolls of the Old Testament and copper plates inscribed in the Hebrew script recording the privileges granted by the rajas to the Jewish community can still be seen here. Other places of interest in Kochi are the Mattanchery Palace, now a museum, the Dutch Bolghatty Palace on Bolghatty Island, the St. Francis Church, India’s oldest European church where the tombstone of Vasco da Gama can still be seen (his mortal remains buried here were transported to Portugal after 14 years), and Kerala’s first ever heritage museum, the Hill Palace Museum.
In keeping with the deeply religious moorings of those who live around temple towns, the people of Tamil Nadu proudly wear their caste symbols on their foreheads. Called ‘naams’ and ’tilaks’ these symbols are made of ash, vermilion or sandal paste in a U-shape or horizontal lines.
However, modern Tamil Nadu is much more than temples and prayerful people. This sunny stretch of land on India’s southeastern coastline has exquisite beaches, a booming film industry and film stars who change overnight into stars of a political firmament. The Integral Coach Factory that keeps the railways supplied with its wagons, and the Kalpakkam Nuclear Power Station, which also has the only U-233 fuelled operational reactor in the world, Kamini (Kalpakkam Mini Reactor), are all located here; so are some of the finest educational institutions which date back to the British period.
South India’s nightingale, M. S. Subbulakshmi, and India’s “missile man” APJ Abdul Kalam, who have been honoured with the country’s highest civilian award, the ‘Bharat Ratna’ (Jewel of India order), both hail from this State.
Tamil Nadu represents the nucleus of Dravidian art and culture. The Chola, Pandya and Pallava dynasties ruled in relative isolation in this region and Hindu architecture evolved vigorously under them. The renowned Meenakshi Temple in Madurai with its nine gopurams, the tallest and most-gaily decorated one being 48 metres high, is visited by nearly 15000 people every day. Other temples at Rameshwaram Temple in the far south, Thanjavur, Srirangam, Chidambaram and Kancheepuram have their own history and unique features.
Proud of their rich cultural heritage, the people of Tamil Nadu do everything possible to preserve their culture. Ancient customs and traditions, going back 3000 years, still thrive. Their mother tongue, Tamil, is the oldest living language in the world. The classical dance of the ‘devadasis’ (temple dancers), Bharatnatyam, which had gone into decline during British rule after flourishing in southern India for centuries, was revived by the setting up of Kalakshetra at Chennai in 1936, and is now famous throughout the world. Bharatnatyam combines melody, rhythm, facial expressions, hand gestures and postures of the body to portray narratives of devotional themes. A visit to Chennai is not complete until you have attended a performance of this dance.
Wax-moulded bronze icons were introduced by the Cholas in the 9th century for worship in their temples. Replicas of these icons, and granite sculptures of Hindu deities, are still made by skilled artisans and adorn homes all across India. The most commonly seen is Nataraja, Lord Shiva as the celestial Lord of Dance. The rare artistic appeal of this icon has made it a symbol of Indian art throughout the world.
A unique form of painting was developed at Thanjavur (Tanjore) during the 16th century. Made in relief form on canvas or glass, the paintings used gold & metal foil and semi-precious stones to simulate the ornaments of the deities portrayed. The art form is still flourishing, and Tanjore Paintings are considered prized possessions.
The ‘city of a thousand temples’, Kancheepuram, has preserved its age-old tradition of weaving exquisite silk sarees. The clack of handlooms is still heard amid the ringing of temple bells.
The warm coastal plains in the East gradually rise to the Nilgiris (the Blue Mountains), in the Northwest, and the Palani hills in the West. Lying at the junction of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the Nilgiris have their own ambience – eucalyptus covered hill slopes, tea gardens, hill stations, teak & sandalwood forests and wild life.
Udhagamandalam (Ootacamund or ‘Ooty’), the erstwhile summer headquarters of the British government in southern India, offers a cool retreat, as do Coonoor and Kotagiri the other hill stations nearby. Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary lies in the thickly forested Nilgiri foothills.
Celebrated with festivity and joy in January every year, the harvest festival, Pongal, is the most important festival in the State, during which people worship the sun, the earth and cattle in thanksgiving for a bounteous crop.
CHENNAI (MADRAS) – In 1639, a tiny fishing hamlet, Madraspatnam, was given to the East India Company by the Raja of Chandragiri for establishing a trading post. Soon a fort started coming up there, attracting weavers to the area. The locality came to be known as Chennapatnam. Along with the growing fortunes of the East India Company, Chennapatnam also grew, and today it stands as Chennai, the fourth largest city in India and the capital of Tamil Nadu.
Though a modern metropolis with a population of close to five and a half million, Chennai has a very open and spacious feel to it. The city has grown more outward than upward. An efficient transport system, supplemented by the commissioning of India’s first elevated railway in 1995, adds to the relaxed atmosphere.
The feeling of openness is accentuated by the 12 km long Marina Beach that forms the eastern boundary. The beach attracts health conscious walkers and joggers in the mornings and whole families in the evenings when it turns into a fair ground.
Chennai has a very big film industry, aided in no small measure by the Vijay Vahini Studios, Asia’s largest. Cinema halls continue to draw large crowds despite the onslaught of television with its myriad channels. However, the advent of cinema and television has not dimmed the people’s abiding interest in classical dance and music. Chennai hosts a very popular month-long Music and Dance Festival from mid-December every year where the best known exponents of classical dance and music participate.
The city’s early growth and long association with the British are seen in the broad tree-lined avenues, buildings in the Indo-Saracenic style, and, ofcourse. Fort St. George around which the city grew. The fort now houses the State Legislature and Secretariat. The Fort Museum has exhibits from the days of the East India Company. Also in the fort is St. Mary’s Church, the oldest Anglican church in Asia, consecrated in 1680, and still an important place of worship.
Excavations in the Arikamedu area on the right bank of the Ariyankuppam river, 6 km South of Pondicherry town, have revealed that a port town flourished here over 2000 years ago which had trading links with Rome and Greece. And it continued to flourish during the Chola period in the 10th and 11th centuries.
More recently, French dreams of having an empire in India began and ended with Pondicherry. The French arrived in 1673 and ruled for the better part of 300 years till, in 1954, Pondicherry became a part of the Indian Union. The Union Territory of Pondicherry comprises of four scattered coastal enclaves – Pondicherry (or Puducheri, as it is called today) and Karaikal in Tamilnadu, Yanam in Andhra Pradesh and, Mahe in Kerala on the West coast.
These scattered territories contain in them the best of the French influence in India, which makes them, particularly its headquarters Pondicherry, something unique and quite different from the rest of India. Traces of the French influence are seen in the policeman’s ‘kepi’, spellings on signboards and buildings, names of roads and public places, and the accented Tamil, English and French that can still be heard. The French heritage is also visible in the neatly laid roads, wide beaches, imposing churches, the statues of Joan of Arc and Joseph Dupleix, who was the Governor of the French colonies from 1742-54 and, in some superb restaurants which serve authentic and delectable French cuisine!
The abiding influence which now permeates everything in Pondicherry is that of Sri Aurobindo, the great seer, prophet and poet of the twentieth century. The stormy petrel of the Indian freedom movement in Bengal, Aurobindo moved to French Pondicherry in 1910 when the British started hounding him. Here he founded an Ashram to give shape to his ideals – his vision that an era dominated by man’s mind would come next in the evolutionary cycle; and that adaptation to the age of the super-mind would be easier through a system of ‘internal Yoga’, synthesising yoga and modern science.
In 1924, Aurobindo was joined by a Paris-born painter-musician who became his disciple and close companion till his death in 1950. Coming to be known as ‘The Mother’, she guided the growth of Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Today, the Ashram draws people from all over the world, and its inmates have become a community that plays a dominant role in keeping Pondicherry an ‘oasis of serenity’. The birth anniversary of Sri Aurobindo, 15th August, is a very special day at the Ashram, when thousands of people from all over the world visit it to pay homage to him.
Under the influence of Sri Aurobindo Ashram several other yoga learning centres have come up in Pondicherry including the world renowned International Centre for Yoga Education & Research, popularly known as the Ananda Ashram. An annual International Yoga Festival, held from 4th to 7th January, attracts participants from every part of the globe. Aiming to develop the conscious process at all levels – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual, the festival programme includes practical yoga classes and discussions on various yogic topics.
Temples and churches form an integral part of the ethos of Pondicherry. The striking thing during a visit is that people worshipping in churches or temples or those paying homage at a dargah, do so in complete harmony! The most significant of the important churches is the terracotta-and-white painted Eglise De Sacre Coeur De Jesus, dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It is famous for its gothic architecture and rare and beautiful stained glass panels depicting the life of Christ. The other notable churches are the Eglise De Notre Dame de la Immaculate Conception and the Eglise De Notre Dame des Anges in Pondicherry, as well as the Eglise De Notre Dame de Lourdes in Villiyanur, 9 km from Pondicherry.
More than 350 temples dot the region in and around Pondicherry; some, built by the Cholas, date back to the 10th and 12th centuries. The most celebrated are the 18th century Veda Puriswarar Temple, the Manakulavinayagar Temple, the Panchanadeeswarar Temple at Thiruvandarkoil, with its 10th century sculptures, and the 12th century Sri Gokilambal Thirukameswarar Temple, which is considered architecturally the finest, and is located at Villiyanur. Around mid-May each year, on the day of the full moon, Villiyanur celebrates the Car festival when the gaily decorated temple car, towering over 15m high, is drawn by hundreds of devotees and taken out in a procession around the town.
The Tamil poet-patriot Subramanya Bharathi, popularly known as Bharathiyar, came to Pondicherry in 1908, a fugitive from British India, like Sri Aurobindo (who came two years later). He wrote some of his finest patriotic and romantic compositions here. Another great Tamil poet, Kanakasubburatnam, whose works compare with Bharathi’s in patriotic fervour, was born in Pondicherry. He assumed the name Bharathidasan, meaning ‘the disciple of Bharathi’. The houses of both these highly revered poets, converted to the Bharathi and Bharatidasan Memorial Museums, are visited in large numbers by the people of Tamil Nadu.
The lovely 1.5 km beach is clean and the water cool, soothing and unpolluted – ideal for sunbathing, swimming or relaxing. Cooled by the breeze from the Bay of Bengal, the promenade attracts the residents for strolls, jogging or merely sitting on the parapet by the sea and letting the mind wander.
Just North of the border, in Tamil Nadu, is the ‘City of Dawn’ Auroville, envisioned as the ‘Universal Town’ and developed under the guidance of The Mother with the cooperation of many nations. Launched in 1968, and still being developed, it symbolises an experiment in international living where people from different faiths, nationalities and beliefs can live in peace and harmony. The vast meditation hall and spiritual centre, Matrimandir, lies at the heart of the township, surrounded by 800 acres of land. The 1000-odd residents live in 14 communes, speak 55 different languages, but have a common goal – to evolve into fuller human beings.
Eight k.m. south of Pondicherry is Chunnambar, renowned for its beautiful beaches and scenic backwaters. A beach resorts and Water Sports Centre here offer opportunities for yachting, wind-surfing and boating, as also a thrilling high speed ride on a hydro-plane. You can even take a sea cruise and watch dolphins at play. Another really pleasant and relaxing experience is a river cruise from the new port in Uppalam to Arikamedu, the site of the ancient Roman settlement. Karaikal, the second region of the Union Territory in Tamil Nadu, lies 132 km south of Pondicherry along the coast. It has a rich religious heritage and is the chosen destination for many pilgrims in search of peace and tranquility. Of the many shrines in the area, the most popular are the Darbaranyeswar Temple at Thirunallar, the Dargah of Mastan Syed Dawood, the Nagore Andavar Dargah and the Vailankanni Church, dedicated to Our Lady of Good Health, which is visited by people of all faiths. The temple at Thirunallar, five km West of Karaikal, houses Lord Saturn, and is said to be the only Saturn temple in India.
SHOPPING IN PONDICHERRY – Pondicherry dolls, made of plaster of parts, papier-mache or terracotta, called ‘Puducheri Bommai’, and ‘korai’ mats, made from a species of grass found in the area, make good gifts. A guided tour of the Anglo-French Textile Mills, established over a century ago, is not only an educative experience, but also a rewarding one since you get a ten percent rebate on anything you buy there. The much acclaimed fabrics of the mill make ideal mementoes and gifts. You could also pick up fine marbled silk and hand-dyed fabrics, handmade paper, handloom rugs and bedspreads, pottery and incense sticks made at the Ashram.
If you are looking for a quiet sojourn, away from the cares of modern life and are seeking tranquility, inner peace and harmony, there are few places to rival Pondicherry.