Pondicherry is about 3 hours’ drive away from Chennai. In my two years in Chennai, I’ve had many people recommend me there. Of course, I had never really put any effort to work on that plan. But last week I was provided the opportunity. I mean you can’t always put off the inevitable, can you? My boss asked me if I wanted to go there. It was a rhetorical question really, but to which I replied ‘yes’ anyway. It was a week’s trip, he said, which should give me plenty of time to look around. Really! Who has energy to go out after work? I was rooting for Saturday, and maybe Sunday. Through the week, I’d decided that I will find out as much as I can, about the things to see, places I must visit, and the means to reach there. So I packed my bag, hailed a bus, and off I went on my way. I had vowed to stay awake the whole journey and drink in the scenery, but it just so happens, that road-trips lull me to sleep. No judging.
However, come Monday evening, I felt restless and adventurous and headed out for a drink. I walked towards the city with the intention of stepping inside the first bar I came across. But a little distance later, I managed to find a share-auto and decided to go into the city itself. There, I asked the driver with the help of my rudimentary Tamil where I might find the ride for my return, to which he gave me to understand that I had to come right where he was dropping me off. That settled, I went looking for a decent bar, and like an asteroid pulled by a planet, I gravitated towards the nearest one. The bar was on a roof top and decent enough. Not much crowd though, as you might expect on a Monday evening.
The highlight of the evening however, was yet to come. While returning back (before it was even 10, I might add) I boarded an auto which I had thought would take me back. Turned out to be a wrong one and I managed to get lost. Again. The driver spoke in rapid Tamil when I asked him where I was, and where I needed to go and scampered off. I was hoping that I might be able to take a walk back to my room. A couple of nurses where heading home and I decided to ask them for help. The street was pretty dark and people few. My breath was stinking of beer which I’d had earlier, so I walked up to them praying they won’t presume me a sexual predator. Thankfully they were helpful and told me that the place I was at was called Bye-pass and that I needed to take a cab to get back. Ha! The joy! Finally, in the comfort of my room and a can of beer later, I managed to see the humor in the whole episode.
The office was about 500 meters one way from my room. A distance I had to cover four times each day. The whole distance and indeed a lot of Pondicherry was littered with workshops carrying out repair and restoration of old, probably discarded, Chettinad furniture and artifacts. My two sojourns to Dakshina Chitra (Sanskrit for ‘southern picture’ or ‘glimpse of the south’) in Chennai had acquainted me as to what Chettinad woodwork looked like. And the workshops were filled with them. I looked up online and the furniture, doors, windows, pillars et. all had ‘price on request’ tag on them. I wonder what the middlemen make through such ventures, because the artisans did not look like they were making a lot. The workshops themselves were like shanties and pretty run-down.
I was told by my new boss that I had to go to Karaikal for two days. A fact that I wouldn’t even have mentioned here if the trip had been peaceful. And I mean literally. The whole journey from Pondicherry to Karaikal took us 5 hours, and in those five hours the bus driver kept the radio on, blaring Tamil songs, in full volume and kept honking! Like every 50 metres! Frankly, I’m surprised that my hearing is still intact. Thankfully, on the return journey, I hitched a ride with my boss so I didn’t have to go through the same torture again. India I tell you!
So on Friday evening I was back in my room in Pondicherry and trawling the internet looking for info on various tourist spots. I’d heard that two-wheelers rentals were aplenty, so I looked it up too. There was one particular rental shop which had glowing report everywhere. That settled, I hit the bed happy with the promising day I was looking forward to. I woke up early. And after shower and morning ablutions I was ready to go. The owner, Mr. Joshi, was as charming and pleasant as the internet had promised. Probably more. I’ve been used to internet reviews not matching with the real deal, but in this case it was a pleasant one. He was helpful, and guided me to as to how and where I should be visiting. Of course they were all the usual suspects. The paper-work complete, I headed my way with much anticipation.
Auroville International Village
The Matrimandir (Sanskrit for Mother’s temple or temple dedicated to the mother) is the central attraction and Auroville International Village’s main claim for attraction. Of course for those interested, the lifestyle of the Aurovillians itself might be attractive, but I’m not sure I’m such a spiritual being myself. The temple is spherical in its architecture and has solid gold plates stuck to its shell in a beautiful ‘in and out’ motif. Bigger circle lined by smaller circle, the effect of which is quite mesmerising. It’s a shame that they don’t allow just anyone to pop in there. There’s a viewing platform about 500 metres away from where you have to admire the diva. You have to take an appointment to go inside. You’ll have to attend an orientation lecture about Auroville and its goals and their core beliefs so as to give you a rudimentary idea of what it is all about. Since only 40 or 50 people are allowed inside at any given time, there might be waiting time involved.
The village is spread over quite an expanse and the temple lies in the middle, so you need to cover a lot of road to reach there. I suggest you take a cab or rent a two-wheeler like me. The whole way is lined with trees and it is indeed quite lovely to drive through them. Folks were speeding up, around me, given that the road was relatively empty, but I slowed down and drove at a leisurely pace, drinking in the scenery.
Right at the beginning of the road, there are two tattoo parlour opposite each other. Yes! I was beginning to question what kind of tourist place does not have a tattoo parlour? Am I right? The street itself is littered with handi-craft shops which you can buy if you have the interest and time. After driving for about 30 minutes I finally reached the entrance to the temple. As you enter the gate, you’ll see two buildings at each side of the gate. A brown one and a white one. I went to the white one first (as told to me that I should by the helpful Mr Joshi). Inside, there’s much more detailed information about the whole establishment. Pictures, scale models of the final draft of the village itself, and a 10 minutes video of the history of construction of the temple, which you need to watch to get a ticket if you want to go see the temple. You can request for bus pass too if you wish to, but I chose to walk. Its just a kilometre from there. And not for nothing is it called nature’s trail. Though hot and quite humid, I enjoyed the to and fro walk.
After you return, you can head to the brown building. There are boutiques here that sell everything, from clothes to knick-knacks, furniture to trinkets made by the residents inside the village, or their CSR subsidiaries outside the village. There’s also a café there where you can rest your tired legs and eat delicious walnut cake made from locally produced ingredients and drink your coffee while you eavesdrop on two older women discussing spirituality in the table nearby. There’s also a shop that sell only wind-chimes. Not those small ones though. Big and long ones, almost 4 feet long, that gives a whole different sound, which is actually quite melodious and symphony-sque. I returned from there at about 1 in the afternoon feeling a little drained but much moved and worth the effort the sweltering afternoon sun.
Pondicherry had been a French colony so there still is a sizable French population residing there. Mr Joshi had told me that I should absolutely visit the French quarters. A couple of hours would suffice, he’d said, so I decided to rest a little. I headed out at about 3 in the afternoon. The sun was still high and mighty but I didn’t mind much. I headed to Aurobindo Ashram first, but on the way I ran out of Petrol and the bleeding scooter died on me. I had to push that useless junk for about a kilometre to find a petrol station. In the heat! But once inside the Ashram itself I forgot everything about my struggle. The serenity, the calm, the peace can only be described as soothing. Which is actually quite fascinating because, it’s a small enclosure and surrounded by streets on all sides. You are required to leave your shoes outside and switch off your phones. I cheated by keeping it just on silent instead. And you’re not allowed to talk. Only whisper if you must. But truth be told, you won’t feel like much talking anyway. Its just so calm and serene inside. Flowers blooming everywhere. I wish I knew what kind of flowers they were, but I was just happy to gaze at their beauty. A couple of squirrels were playing inside. One of them literally climbed my leg. A friend of mine had implored me to go to a pottery workshop which she said was within the compound, but sadly I couldn’t find one.
I exited the ashram strangely solemn and ready for another avenue. The French quarters beckoned and I straddled my bike to gallop around. Much less gallop and more of a leisurely pace though. The whole enclave is almost a mile long and about a kilometre in breadth divided into blocks al la America. The streets are all named in French and the people walking by were speaking in French too. It was like I wasn’t in India! I toured the place riding my motorcycle internally cursing the otherwise wonderful Mr Joshi for suggesting me that 2 hours would be sufficient! I could explore the place the whole day and still not be able to finish it. Of course I’m usually much more inclined to do my exploration on foot. The residencies were very enchanting. What with old world architecture of the windows and balconies and the Bougainvillea lining the walls in full bloom. Here again, I could identify a lot of Chettinad influence in the architecture.
Feeling a little unsatisfied with myself, I went to my final destination, a seaside promenade at the edge of the enclave itself that the local call beach, because apparently it used to be a beach earlier. Now it’s lined with granite rocks. Perhaps to check erosion.
I walked about the promenade for a while. My evening was not over however. There was a surprise waiting for me. Just as I was about to return thinking that I’ll hit a bar or something, I could hear good music coming from a building nearby. It was a building of Alliance Francaise. I looked it up online and discovered that there was concert by French band L’Imperatrice the same night and I guess the artists were doing a soundcheck. Serendipity you might call it. But the entrance was closed and there was no ticket info in the website, so I called the reliable Mr Joshi again to ask him if he had any idea about it. Sadly, he didn’t either, but he did tell me that there was another entrance on the other side of the building. So I went there to have a look. The person at the door said that the concert itself was free but it was meant for members only. However, should I choose to become a member, I could become one by paying 350 Rupees for a month. Needless to say, that I paid. And boy was it worth it. Every Paisa of it. Those who wished to dance and willing were dancing. I am not much of a dancer, but I was tapping my foot and swaying on the spot the whole time. I returned the next day a happy person.
Note: 1. Thanks to a certain Mee for pushing me to write this. I wouldn’t have been able to write it if she weren’t constantly nagging me about it. You should blame her for your suffering.
2. Pondicherry has a local Tamil name Puducherry which is its official name now, but folks still it “Pondi” in short. I guess calling it “Puddu” would sound a little silly.