….Third post on Tamil Nadu…. Click on photos to enlarge/reduce….
The ‘other’ Tamil Nadu: Puducherry, Auroville, Nagore and Velankanni
In Tamil Nadu there are a few places where the “Tamil” character appears secondary for historical and/or religious reasons, they are: Puducherry, Auroville, Nagore and Velankanni. I visited these town because I thought they expanded the cultural character of the State.
The area around Puducherry had trading settlements since Roman times, two thousand years ago, however its recorded history begins after the advent, in the 17th century, of the colonial powers: first the Dutch, then the Portuguese, and finally the English and the French. Today the city maintains a special French character which makes it one of the most popular tourist destinations in South India. The French colonial urban plan is still intact with avenues distributed in a Western style grid and running parallel the sandy beach. The beautiful colonial buildings, churches and temples combine to provides a quaint, charming atmosphere. To a western tourist the town may appear even more “western” than Goa.
Auroville (City of Dawn) is an experimental township near Puducherry. It was founded – as a project of the Sri Aurobindo Society – in 1968 by “The Mother”(a French woman named Mirra Alfassa) and it was planned and designed by the French architect Roger Anger. The purpose of Auroville was declared to be the realization of ‘human unity’. “The Mother” was a spiritual collaborator of the yogi and guru Sri Aurobindo, who believed that “man is a transitional being”, and continued to run the Puducherry Ashrams after his death in 1950.
In the middle of a large, sparsely built, forested area we find the gilded Matrimandir, conceived as “a symbol of the Divine’s answer to man’s aspiration for perfection”. The surface of this spherical ‘dome’ is cladded by convex discs gilded with 56 kg of gold. Inside, at its centre, is a 70 cm crystal ball in gold mount which always glows bathed by a single ray of sunlight directed on it by an heliograph on top of the dome. According to Mother, this would represent “a symbol of future realisation”. The crystal ball is located on the ‘meditation’ floor of the Matrimandir.
A visit to what I consider a sort of ‘utopian New Age center’ is worth because it allows a glimpse into a small community spiritually guided by high morals.
Nagore is renowned for the Dargah, a revered place “of all faiths”. It is a five centuries old Islamic shrine which attracts millions of pilgrims irrespective of caste, creed or religion.
The Nagore Dargah is a shrine built over the tomb of the Sufi a saint Hazrath Nagore Shahul Hamid (1490–1579 CE). According to the administration of the Dargah, about 50–75 per cent of pilgrims visiting the Dargah everyday are Hindus.
After the visit to Auroville, the Dargah made me thinks of a five century old version of another experiment in “human unity”. An interesting aspect of this very large towered structure is the fact that it has a strong Hindu character even though it appears an Islamic religious place.
Not too far from Nagore, and also on the Coromandel Coast, there is another small village that is very popular in India: Velankanni. The town is home to a significant Roman Catholic shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Good Health. The Shrine, known as the “Lourdes of the East”, is also one of the most frequented religious sites in India. Its existence can be traced to the mid-16th century and its founding, by the Portuguese, is attributed to the occurrence of three miracles.
The most interesting aspect of Velankanni was the stark contrast of the religious area, clean and quiet, from the popular beach area, crowded, noisy and commercial. Judging from the crowds in the many tonsure stands, the practice of shaving all of the hair on the scalp is still very popular amongst Catholic as a sign of religious devotion and humility.