In and around Pondicherry there are a whopping 350 temples - big and
small. Neighbouring Karaikal has another ninety-nine. The Chola kings
between the 10th and 12th centuries built some of the temples. A sizeable
share is dedicated to the deities of the villages they are located in.
Manakula Vinayagar Koil Temple
The most accessible Hindu temple is the more than 300-year-old Manakula Vinayagar Koil, dedicated to Shiva's elephant-headed son, Ganesha. On normal days 5,000 people visit the site. Most of this sum went for the gilding of the sanctum sanctorum, said to be the only such treatments of a Ganesha temple anywhere, and the silver-plating of the tops of two smaller shrines - one of them to Ganesha's younger brother, Lord Murugan, who is very popular in South India.
Students and job candidates, and those raising new buildings offer their prayers to Ganesha whose booms include the removal of obstacles. And newly bought motor vehicles are given a puja to protect their users.
A fairly young elephant, named Lakshmi, sometimes stands in front of the temple to give one a blessing in the form of a gentle tap on the head, if that's what one wants. Watch closely her marvellous trunk to see if one can detect how she accepts small coins, gives her blessing and passes the coins on to her mahout on the underside of her trunk - all with a twinkle in her small eyes.
Incidentally, Lakshmi bathes at Vedhapureeswarar Temple, after which she trumpets tributes to Lord Shiva and his consort 'Tirpurasundari' ('Parvati') at six in the morning.
Neighbouring shops have all kinds of paraphernalia for prayer, as well as mementoes. One may purchase a strand of perishable fragrant jasmine, or maybe a solid rosary of 108 'Rudraksha' beads.
The Varadaraja Perumal Temple
The Varadaraja Perumal temple or Perumal Temple is said to have been founded in 600 AD when statues of Rama, Lakshman, Sita and Hanuman (the principal forces for good in the Ramayana, one of India's classics) were brought by fishermen from the sea. The main deity is 'Venkatachalapathy' or Vishnu with 'Narasimha' (Like Rama, an avatar of Vishnu) closely behind.
The Vedhapureeswarar Temple
Situated nearby Perumal temple is the Vedhapureeswarar temple or 'Eswaran' temple, which is dedicated to Lord Shiva. Both the Perumal and Eswaran temples have been recently renovated and repainted. The 'Gopurams' or towers are wonderfully colourful, as are most of the other temples.
The Kanniya Parameshwari Temple
Kanniya Parameshwari temple, dedicated to 'Shakti', the supreme goddess, is unusual in that it contains many European architectural elements - Ionic columns, for instance.
The Kamatchiaman Temple
Kamatchiaman temple, dedicated to Durga, a warrior form of Shiva's consort, is remarkable for its dark rust colour and limited ornamentation.
One can locate the architecturally fine sight of the Sri Gokilambal Thirukameswara Temple, 10-km from Pondicherry. Thousands of devotees converge here for a ten-day annual festival of "Brahmotsavam", held during May - June along with the appearance of the full moon.
A devout crowd takes out the massive 15m tall temple chariot, basking in finery, on a procession. It's a remarkable sight. The Lt. Governor of Pondicherry ritually joins the heave. A secular practice, carried over from the French days, when the French Governeurs themselves used to draw the car out on the streets. Besides, the breath-taking Ousteri lake nearby, spread over 10 hectares, is home to rare varieties of birds.
Thirunallar is 5-km west of Karaikal. The sanctum sanctorum of Lord Dharbaraneswara Temple holds Shiva as the main deity. However, its shrine dedicated to 'Saneeswaran' (Saturn), which figures in the story of 'Nala-Damayanti' makes this the most famous Saturn temple in India.
The blessings of Saturn are said to be overwhelming, while its wrath causes great misery. The temple hosts a mammoth festival, "Shani Peyarchi", each time Saturn moves from one sign of the zodiac to another.
Karaikal Ammaiyar Temple
Legend says that Lord Shiva disguised himself as an ascetic, seeking alms from a lady called "Punithavathi" living in Karaikal. Who later, as Karaikal Ammaiyar, was destined to find an esteemed place among his 63 saints. An image of this lady saint is housed in a small and beautiful temple erected right where she lived.
Note: As a general rule, non-Hindus should avoid the areas closest to the inner sanctum, in which the image of the deity is kept, and should photograph only the outer parts of the temple. And don't forget, as at all palaces of worship (except most Christian ones), to leave one's footwear outside, paying a small fee for safekeeping. Easily removed sandals ('chappals') are practical as well as comfortable for visiting Indian homes and temples.
There are 13 Muslim mosques, identified by their minarets and their five
daily calls to prayer.
MASTHAN SAHEB DARGAH
Dedicated to Masthan Saheb Syed Dawood Buhari, a Sufi saint who came to Karaikal from Buhara two centuries ago. He died aged 120, in 1829. Various miracles are attributed to him. The over-170-year-old Kandhuri Festival in the month of November is celebrated in his commemoration. It starts with the hoisting of a huge flag on a pole, reminiscent of a ship mast and a sea-faring tradition. And winds up, 10 days later with a spectacle of floats lit with electric colours.
The most charming of the larger mosques is the Jamia Mosque in the Muslim quarter. It is worth a visit in the evening between 6pm and 8pm to see the distinctive architecture with palm trees behind it and overhead, perhaps, a serenely floating moon. In the vicinity are several small mosques like spot-lit jewels at prayer time. For worshippers in the commercial zone there is a large mosque in Kosakadai Street not far from the Big Market. Non-Muslims should, of course, only enter mosque buildings on invitation and not during prayer times.
Cathedral Notre Dame De I'immaculee Conception
The centre of the spiritual activity of most Pondy's Christians is the Cathedral (Notre Dame de I'Immaculee Conception) in Mission Street, which began in 1770 on the site of an earlier church and was completed in 1791.
If the gates and doors are opens, visitors are welcome. The handsome archbishop's residence next door is also worth a look-in from its gate. Visitors are also welcomed with shy courtesy at two smaller structures - the yellow, blue and white church of St. Francis Assisi (1843) in the fishing village and the shrine in the French Quarter of St. Anthony, which is particularly busy on Tuesday evenings. Non-Christians may enter churches when they are open but should follow Christian practice in not mounting the altar steps.
Eglise De Sacre Coeur De Jesus
French missionary zeal in the 17th and 18th centuries saw a number of imposing churches built here. The Eglise de Sacre Coeur de Jesus, situated on the south boulevard, stands out as an oriental specimen of Gothic splendour. It contains rare and beautiful stained glass panels depicting events from the life of Christ.
Eglise De Notre Dame Des Anges
The Eglise de Notre Dame Des Anges meaning, meaning "Our Lady of the Angles" in Rue Dumas, is a church built in 1855 with bells to gladden the ear. It is notable for its masonry, which uses the finest of limestone mixed with white of the egg making for a texture identical to that of white marble. It is modelled on the Basilica at Lourdes, in southern France.
The Church Of The 'Capuchins' 1765
Now an orphanage this church is one of the few standing remnants of mid-18th century Pondy.
The French Cemetery At Karaikal
For a look-see into a veritable who's who of 19th century Karaikal, wander through the french cemetery on Rue de Marche (Market Street). Administrators, landlords, port officials, women and children lie buried under curious headstones with interest evoking inscriptions. One will also find an aged, tiny chapel within the walls.
Sri Aurobindo Ashram
The central public place for the meditation of devotees of the vision of Sri Aurobindo and the mother is the samadhi. Then there are the special days on the Ashram calendar on which visits may be made to the rooms of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother at the Ashram's Main Building.