Sri Aurobindo at Pondicherry 4

“A son of the two Mothers, he attains to kingship in his discoveries of knowledge, he moved on the summit, he dwells in his high foundation.”

Rig Veda, I.10.2.

We have already quoted Nolini Kanta’s description of Pondicherry as it was when Sri Aurobindo came and settled here. Let us supplement it by a short history of the ancient town and its suburbs as published by = 1 (a symbolic figure), a quarterly organ of Auroville.[1] We find in it that in older times the whole place was flourishing both spiritually and materially, and was considered an important centre of learning and commerce in South India.

“The origins of Pondicherry go back into the night of time. Pondicherry means ‘the new suburb’. The original name of the town, no longer used, was Vedapuri, and a big temple still stands today, the Vedapurishwara temple, dedicated to the great god, Siva, the god of Contemplatives. Vedapuri means ‘City of Knowledge’. The patron saint of Vedapuri was Sri Agastya, legends of whose life tell of his coming from the far Himalayas, travelling South and settling in the country of the Tamils to teach the people the Veda. For thousands of years Vedapuri was a school for young Brahmins where they learnt to chant the Vedic hymns in Sanskrit and to perform complicated sacrifices in the proper way.

“Buddhism came and went, and then in the first and second centuries of our era we find on that same Coromandel Coast a Roman settlement mentioned in the Periple by Ptolemy of Alexandria. Heavily loaded ships from the far Mediterranean, swept by the constant trade winds, arrived via Cleopatra’s Nile — Red Sea Canal at Poduke as our town was then called. A Roman emporium, a trader’s town where Mediterranean wines and swords, Germanic slaves and Roman gold were exchanged for the spices and silks, precious stones, cottons and peacocks of India. The poet prince Illango, brother of the Chera King Kovalan, describes how ‘Auroville’ appeared in the first century. The text is translated from the original picturesque Tamil.

“The sun shone over the open terraces, over the warehouses near the harbour, and over the turrets with their air-holes like the eyes of the deer (a description of windows built with a Roman arch). In different places the observer’s attention was arrested by the sight of Yavanas (a name for Greeks and Romans) whose prosperity never waned.

“In the harbour were to be seen sailing vessels with many sailors from distant lands. To all appearances they lived as one Community. In the streets of the City hawkers went about with cosmetics, bath powders, cool pastes, flowers, incense and fragrant perfumes. In certain places weavers were seen dealing in fine fabrics of silk, animal hair and cotton. Whole streets were full of cloth, corals, sandalwood and myrrh, besides a wealth of rare ornaments, perfect pearls, gems and gold beyond all reckoning.”

The description of the City itself and the central highway leading to it also has its poetic charm:

“Entering into the central highway of the city, rich with the wealth of sea-borne goods and reaching down to the sea-shore where flags of foreign countries fly high, one is impressed by these stretches of white sand where are displayed various kinds of goods brought in by ships of foreign merchants who have left their houses and settled here.

“Here burning in the evening were myriads of lamps: lamps of those who sold coloured powders, who sold sandalwood, jasmine flowers, scents, and all varieties of sweets; the lamps of dexterous goldsmiths, and of those who, sitting in a row, sold pittu; the broad black lamps placed on lampstands by the sellers of muffins; the lamps of fish-mongers glimmering here and there; and high above all the bright beacon lights erected to guide ships to the shore. There were lamps taken out to sea by fishermen in their boats as they went with their nets, night-long lights set out by foreigners speaking strange languages, and finally the lamps lit by the watchmen of the warehouses containing valuable merchandise from far-away countries.”

“Recent archaeological excavations of a hill called Arikamedu, south of Pondicherry, have yielded Greek and Roman coins and imported Mediterranean pottery, reminiscent of a trade very much to the detriment of the Roman empire. Such was the eagerness of Roman ladies to possess the colourful silks and fine muslins of India that Rome lost all its gold reserves in this exchange, but it benefited the kings of the Coromandel Coast, who became fabulously rich and were able to build the huge temple-towns of Rameshwaram and Chidambaram, of Madurai and Trichinopoly, and — only a hundred miles from where Auroville is being built — the magnificent Versailles of India — Mahabalipuram. Vedapuri itself fell asleep. The destructive force of Islam came and went; the Portugese came and called the town ‘Puducheira’ and Dutch ‘Pœbser’, and the Danes — all trying to get some of the gold the Romans had lost, — and built their trading offices, their ‘comptoirs’. In the 17th century came the French, who built on the shore the largest and most powerful fortress in Southern India. As a fortress it was very successful, also as a safe place for investments in gold during troubled times. It quickly became rich, too rich for the jealous British in Madras, who razed it to the ground.

“Rebuilt in the 18th century in the French provincial style the town can be seen from the hills of Auroville, now a part of free India. Only a few small fisherman’s villages without history stand today where the 20th century with its big bulldozers, is moving in to build the City of a New Dawn.”

The above extracts show how important were Pondicherry and its suburbs both culturally and commercially in the good old days of the Roman Empire and — who knows? — even before that. Let us hope some day a more authentic light will be shed on the history of the Aryan, the Indus-Valley and the Dravidian cultures. And at no distant date the whole world will turn to Pondicherry again not only for culture and education and commerce and industry but for the Light of the New Dawn.

To return to our narrative. Financial stringency obliged Sri Aurobindo to move from St. Louis Street to a small house in the Mission Street.

Ramaswami Iyengar came again and stayed with Sri Aurobindo in this house. Amrita, who was at that time in his early teens and a school student, as we have said above, made friends with Ramaswami, and it was through him that he got admission into Sri Aurobindo’s house and had his first darshan[2] of him.

As he says in “Old Long Since”:[3]

 

“In the Matakoil Street, now called Mission Street, Sri Aurobindo lived for six months in a house with a tiled roof. That house has at present undergone a radical change; the very spot is unrecognised. It was in this house that I had Sri Aurobindo’s darshan….

“During his stay in this house I had the habit of meeting Ramaswami Iyengar every evening on the beach…. His heart started melting towards me little by little even as ants slowly and persistently leave a trail on granite. The result was that he began to welcome me to his room. The school remained closed two days in the week, Sundays and Thursdays. Those days I could meet Iyengar in Sri Aurobindo’s house at about 4 p.m. From 4 to 5 p.m. we would be alone conversing with each other. Our relation thus began to ripen. After 5 we would go straight to the beach and join other friends.

“Bejoy Nag’s relative, Nagen Nag, who was suffering from tuberculosis, came to Pondicherry with his friend and attendant, Biren Roy, and stayed at this house. His doctor had advised him a change of air and he hoped that Sri Aurobindo would cure him by his yogic power.

“Some evenings when engaged in conversation with Iyengar on the verandah outside his room, I would see Sri Aurobindo come out from the back portion of the house to the hall in front, take his seat on the same mat with the sick man, put to him some questions and return to his room. I was lucky to have Sri Aurobindo’s Darshan in this manner several times without going near him. At that time I could not speak English well. On his way to the front part of the house and back from there, Sri Aurobindo’s preoccupation seemed to be wholly with what he had come for. He would pay little attention, as it were, to any other thing around him. And yet, I was told, nothing could escape his notice.

“During this period I requested Iyengar once or twice to introduce me to Sri Aurobindo. But my requests seemed to carry no weight with him.

“Sri Aurobindo’s birthday was drawing near — August 15, 1913. I requested Iyengar once more. I appealed to him to take me to Sri Aurobindo on his birthday. He replied, wonderful to say, in a consenting tone. I felt an immense joy.

“On the 15th August Iyengar asked me to come at about 4.30 p.m. I reached there slightly earlier. All the invitees started coming one by one from all sides. By about 5 or 5.15 all of them had arrived. It was probably one hour before sunset. This I surmised by the dimness of the light inside the house.

“In the hall of the front portion of the house some twenty or twenty-five banana leaves were laid out on three sides just as it is done in a marriage feast.

“As far as I can remember, no sooner was the main gate bolted from within than Sri Aurobindo came into the hall and stood on one side; someone garlanded him with a rose garland; all present clapped their hands, and Sri Aurobindo spoke something in English. All this I can recollect but vaguely. This vagueness of memory is due, I suppose, to an overwhelming joy and palpitation in me on that occasion.

“All of us sat down before the banana leaves as we do at a collective dinner. I was one of the guests; with eyes full of delight I saw Sri Aurobindo as he stood before each banana leaf, looked at the person seated there, gently passed on to the next and thus to the last person — meanwhile someone walking by his side served various kinds of sweets and other preparations.

“In the courtyard a big jar full of water was kept and by its side a small tumbler. We took some refreshments and after washing our hands we gathered together and kept chatting for a short while. In the meantime Sri Aurobindo had gone to the verandah of the middle portion of the house and sat there in a chair kept for him before a table covered with a cloth. Evidently he was waiting for some other item in the programme. By then it had become dark. In each section of the house one or two lighted hurricane-lamps were put up. The guests took leave one by one or by twos and threes and went home.

“I kept on waiting, not knowing what to do. As soon as the guests left, Iyengar came and told me that three big persons, namely, Bharati, Srinivasachari and V.V.S. Ayer, would see Sri Aurobindo to pay their respects to him. If I could wait till they left, there would only be the inmates of the house, five or six, alone with Sri Aurobindo. He had a mind to take me then to Sri Aurobindo. But for that Sri Aurobindo’s permission was required, he said finally. I nodded assent immediately. It might have already struck seven or gone on to seven-fifteen. A fear lurked in me that I would be questioned at home, ‘Why this delay?’ But still I ventured to give my consent.

“Iyengar once again asked me, ‘Do you intend to see Sri Aurobindo with Bharati and others? Or with the inmates?’ I could not make out what answer to give. Whether in the midst of Bharati and others or in the midst of the inmates of the house Sri Aurobindo would be the same Sri Aurobindo. I began to revolve in my mind how there could be any difference. A little while, it might be less than a minute, I wavered in mind and replied. ‘When the inmates are there.’ ‘If so, you must wait for some time,’ said Iyengar and left.

“At about 8.15 p.m. Iyengar came to me and said: ‘You may get Sri Aurobindo’s Darshan as you pass before his table. Go with folded hands. But no permission to speak with him. While passing by his right, just stand in front, stop awhile, join your hands, silently take leave of him and go home’. Iyengar’s words were imprinted upon my mind.

“I was soon called in. I got up and approached Sri Aurobindo’s table. From the ceiling hung a hurricane-lamp that served to dispel the darkness only partially. Going round Sri Aurobindo by way of pradakshinā I stood in his presence with joined palms and made my obeisance to him. Sri Aurobindo’s eyes, it seemed, burned brighter than the lamp-light for me; as he looked at me, in a trice all gloom vanished from within me, and his image was, as it were, installed in the sanctum sanctorum of my being. Nothing was very clear to me. I went behind him, stood again in front, offered my homage to him and, not knowing whether to stay or go, I staggered perplexed. Sri Aurobindo made a gesture with his heavenly hands to one of those who stood there. A sweet was given me once again. I felt that he had accepted me, though I did not quite know it. I left Sri Aurobindo’s house and proceeded towards my own.

*

“I started now frequenting Sri Aurobindo’s house. My family members knew nothing of it. I became acquainted with one or two of the inmates — particularly Bejoy Kumar. He used to send letters twice or thrice per month by registered post — called Poste Recommandée in French — to Chandernagore. As intimacy with him grew, he began to send letters through me. There was no fixed hour for this work. He used to send for me at any time between 12 noon and 3 p.m. He ordered me not to disclose this posting of letters to anyone.”

Sri Aurobindo’s household moved to 41, Rue François Martin in October, 1913. Nagen Nag and Biren Roy also moved with them. Ramaswamy went back to Tanjore before the end of the year.


[1] Auroville or the City of the Dawn, an international city, has been a creation of the Mother of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and founded under her inspiration and guidance in Sri Aurobindo’s name. It is about four miles from Pondicherry.

In the Charter of Auroville the Mother says,

    1. Auroville belongs to nobody in particular. Auroville belongs to humanity as a whole. But to live in Auroville one must be the willing servitor of the Divine’s Consciousness.
    2. Auroville will be the place of an unending education, of constant progress, and a youth that never ages.
    3. Auroville wants to be the bridge between the past and the future. Taking advantage of all discoveries from without and from within, Auroville will boldly spring towards future realisations.
    4. Auroville will be a site of material and spiritual researches for a living embodiment of an actual human unity.

[2] ‘Darshan’ means the holy sight of a god or of a spiritual or saintly person.

[3] Mother India — October, 1962.

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