Category Archives: Pondicherry

Lutheran Looms and Pilgrimage to Pondicherry

Spinning wheels and Lutheran meditation; tsunami fishing, idolatrous infection and the Life of Pi in la France.

In colonial times, Danish and German missions were active in this area of southern India (see yesterday’s post for our first adventures here and photos here).  We were hosted in Tiruvannamalai by the Arcot Lutheran church, whose motto is “not to be served but to serve”.  At their centre for destitute women cloth was being woven on manual looms and traditional spinning wheels just like Gandhi used.  Many of us queued to purchase towels, tablecloths, satchels, decorations.  An American couple, who were on the very first St Olaf Global trip in 1968, shared how they lived simply in the US (with just one bathroom and a second-hand car) so they could retire at 58 years and come here to teach English.  Doug had owned an art gallery, and bumped into a keen buyer just as they wanted to leave, confirming his conviction that life is not random.

The church also runs an inter-faith dialogue center called Quo Vadis, Latin for “Where are you going?”, which Jesus’ disciples asked before his final journey to the cross (John 13:36).  As their flyer says, “life is a pilgrimage where we would like to stop for a while to ask each other where are we going and where are we coming from?”  They have an internet cafe and a library of diverse spiritual books for pilgrims.  That evening we rolled out dough for chapatti bread while sharing our spiritual journeys, before folk dancers – yellow-saried women and white-singleted men – spun, circled and leapt to tribal drumming.

After a long day, the final meditation on the moonlit roof induced more sleep than enlightenment.  As we gazed at a flickering lamp, the leader told us to imagine the light coming within us for a few minutes, which was fine, but I hoped the light would then go out so I could go to bed.  I wasn’t the only one who suppressed a groan when the leader described said source of illumination descending into our bodies, and I realised it was going to crawl for eons through every single limb.

After leaving Tiruvannamalai, we lunched on the cool pillared veranda of the Lutheran bishop’s residence, a dilapidated, 18th-century British East India Company warehouse on the Eastern coast.  The December 2004 tsunami damaged the chapel a few metres lower, and flattened a church school down the road.  The church engaged in emergency tent accommodation, reconstruction, and counselling fishermen afraid to re-enter the sea: their source of life had betrayed them and brought death.  Now the school has been rebuilt and kids enjoyed the playground by the beach.  Vibrantly painted fishing boats, long and slim, were pulled up on the sand.

We spent last night in humid Pondicherry (population 220,000), a coastal French colony from 1672 – 1954.  Our guide mangled street names like Rue de la Marine, Rue Bazar Saint Laurent, Rue des Missions or Rue Dumas, though managed the less continental Canteen Street and Mahatma Gandhi Road.  A long canal separates the former Ville Blanche (white town) area by the sea from the inland Ville Noir (black town).

European Catholic churches were filled with rosary-reciting Indians.  Plastic-looking crucifixes were as garishly painted as Hindu temples, and Pieta statues of Mary holding Jesus’ body were wreathed like Hindu deities.  Our hotel balcony overlooked a demolished building.  Tin-roofed, thatched shacks leaned against the remnants of walls, clothing hung out to dry, women washed their hair and cooked over open fires in the rubble.  On the wall above them was a sign for “Computer Education. Institute of Technology”.

While in Pondy, we briefly glimpsed the ashram of Guru Sri Aurobindo, educated in European classics at Cambridge, where devotees were stealing flowers from his grave.  We boated across a palm-encircled lagoon to wade in the Bay of Bengal at sandy Paradise Beach, where women swam fully clothed.  And we rode the “Joy Train” around the 1826 Botanical Gardens.  Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi (2002) mentions this toy train and begins in an imaginary zoo nearby (see New York Times article “The Zoo Is Fiction, but It Just Might Spring to Life”)

In the evening I went for a stroll.  I bought a pair of sandals from a cramped stall, and chanced upon a small Hindu temple.  Five schoolboys practised, “Hello, my name is…” and shook my hand.  A smiling man insisted I receive prasad – blessed rice and chickpeas on banana leaves.  Some early Christians worried that food offered to idols could harm the soul.  St Paul tackled the issue in his letters and it’s still a hot potato for some Asian Christians.  I was more worried about my stomach.  I wasn’t carrying the alcohol hand steriliser that doctor friends gave me and temples don’t always seem too clean.  After reading of my concern, my friend Grant of the sickness sweepstake called me a wimp:

Speaking on behalf of my bet re: stomach complaints, please do not hesitate to eat anything given in temples.  The dodgier the better.  And forget all that alcohol hand cleanser stuff.  A “Real Man” wouldn’t worry about such things.  Chow down.  Time is ticking and you seem far too well.