For a brief moment you would be forgiven for thinking that you had stepped outside of India; what with it’s French street signs “Rue law de Lauriston”, Soho inspired street side cafes, bohemian stores fashioned from high ceiling white washed houses selling handmade treasures and trinkets, but then the searing heat, the roaming Sadgurus loosely clad in faded orange fabric smeared with incense powder and the auto rickshaws zipping along the broad streets reminds you that you are well and truly within the cultural vibe of one of India’s most darling of destinations, three hours drive south of Chennai in pretty, paradisal Pondicherry.
From the moment we drove into the outskirts of town, the landscape was vastly different from that of Delhi, for starters, you could see the sky, stretched wide across the tropical panorama of lush banana plantations and dense green clusters of oversized palms all the way to the sea. This was the first time in India that I had seen the ocean and knowing that Pondicherry is perched alongside the Bay of Bengal and that we would cycle along its promenade was truly exciting. Apart from the signature dusty roadsides, the feel was completely different from the North; where Delhi is built up, the approach to Pondicherry is far more sparse, dotted with thatched roofs reminiscent of Thailand. Women, all of them, in bright cheerful sari’s, men wearing the traditional Lungi’s (long checkered skirts) knotted above their knees with their spindly legs poking out. And then as the walls of the houses and villages change from neutral to turquoise blue, peppermint green, pink and the yellow of fresh cut mango you find yourself in the heart of Pondicherry
The history of the City of Pondicherry is recorded only after the arrival of Dutch, Portuguese, British and French colonialists. A marketplace named Poduke or Poduca is recorded as a Roman trading destination from the mid 1st century. The Cholas of Thanjavur held it from the 10th to 13th centuries, only to be replaced by the Pandya Kingdom in the 13th century. The Vijayanagar Empire took control of almost all the South of India in the 14th century and maintained control until 1638 when they were supplanted by the Sultan of Bijapur. The French acquired Pondicherry in 1674 and held it, with an occasional interruption by the British or Dutch, until 1954 when it was incorporated into the Indian Union along with the rest of French India. This rich European history coupled with its prominent Indian heritage create an eclectic mix of cultural drama, touristy vibe and laid back coastal living (don’t even think about shopping anytime after lunch until evening, they’re sleeping behind the counters).
No matter where your feet carry you in India, the undercurrent of spirituality resonates everywhere and with Temples, Cathedrals and Ashrams standing harmoniously side by side, Pondicherry wears its Holiness well. One of the most influential Parisian’s in Pondicherry was the earnestly seeking and accomplished Pianist and Writer, affectionately called The Mother who in 1914 met her spiritual guide Sri Aurobindo and went on to create the Sri Aurobindo Ashram which blossomed under her guidance. Her influence lives not only in the educational centre but more fervently in the colourful garden where she lovingly attributed character traits and endearing personal qualities to over 800 flowers. Beyond the Ashram, her next vision was the concept of Auroville – a somewhat idealistic township devoted to an experiment in human unity and a place where everyone can live side by side, above all religion, politics and culture. In the mid 1960s the Sri Aurobindo Society in Pondicherry proposed to her that such a township should be started and with a nod of assent, she gave her blessings. The best description I’ve read about Auroville is that it belongs to nobody in particular but to humanity as a whole.
To reach the Matrimandir, the spiritual soul of Auroville, the pathway is punctuated with slabs of sandstone decorated with hand-painted flowers and their spiritual attributes described below. Though I’m sure someone has strategically placed “courage” and “tenacity” to help keep your mojo going as you walk the main path because it’s absolutely scorching heading through the bush, “how are these women still keeping it together in a sari?” our clothes are sticking to us and I feel like a soggy paratha. It was one of many bemusing sights that kept us laughing. After seeing the Matrimandir or Meditation Temple which rises from the dust in the form of a golden sphere and is really quite spectacular, we went in search of a bus, actually by this stage a rickshaw would have done, but then along came an old yellow bus bumping along the uneven road and scores of exhausted women, grabbing and falling over each other in search of a seat. I think being the only foreigners (this includes my friend from Delhi) we managed to get a seat and became the object of curiosity for the entire non air conditioned ride. You see, there is no mistaking if someone comes from the North or South of India, their looks are so distinctive and I noticed often how many people looked at my friend. I could almost see them thinking “is she one of us?”. Many times people stopped to ask her if she was Indian, even asking if she was South American. What a relief! Never mind the real foreigner! Finally, we arrived back at the main centre, parched and on the brink of doing anything for an ice cold drink only to discover that the bordering-on-hippie township is actually a flagship for eco-tourism so no ice, no soft-drinks, no anything that could cool us down. Luckily for us, our auto rickshaw driver on the way back to the hotel was able to swerve into a local dhaba where we went into the back storage area to retrieve a cold bottle of coke and drank it with the zeal of the last supper.
In the centre of Pondicherry stands a Temple in dedication to Ganesh, the God of New Beginnings. With its pastel painted carved fresco’s towering over the charcoal cobblestone narrow streets, spilling forward with fat pink lotuses and strings of fragranced flowers, split coconuts and fresh fruit brimming at each successive stall, the main entrance to the Temple is an enclave of beauty, aroma and invitation. Its interior of gold walls and adorned Gods and Goddesses set into the walled cavities set a gentle humbling lull into the incense filled smoky air. With oil diya’s burning, broken petals and crimson dust scattered at the feet of the statues it was the first time I’d had a chance to experience this side of Indian life. In fact, a visit to Pondicherry in the South is a complete contrast to the India I’d experienced so far and a haven that like the beautiful temple offerings, is itself an offering of wonder, happiness and promise.