All images and text are copyright Chris Wormald 2010 and may only be used with written permission.
2009 and Dec/Jan 2011
I took a stroll along the wide promenade, listening to the waves break on the boulders heading to the white painted lighthouse style building with its café midway down the prom; waiting for a latte and a pain-au-chocolate, I eavesdropped on a cosmopolitan crowd sitting around chatting in a multitude of languages.
On the other side of the road, opposite the sea, were hotels and villas that would not look out of place on the Cote de Azure. Wide tree-lined boulevards with French names, head away from the sea to a network of peaceful avenues lined with some magnificent French Colonial mansions and villas with flower filled gardens.
The Library Romain Rolland, named after the French writer and pacifist, is situated near a tree-lined park with fountains and sculpture. The Government Hospital also borders the square where pregnant women near their time, wait in the shade of the trees with anxious relatives, for their time to enter the hospital. Large posters outside the hospital, urge parents to value a girl child as much as a boy, in a culture where wedding dowries are still widely expected and a new bride still faces a lottery of love/death when she first enters her in-laws home.
Pondicherry was a French Colony for nearly 280 years and it had a lasting influence on the town’s culture, layout and architecture. If like me, you decide to spend some days in this lovely town and walk or cycle around, widening your circle from what was known as the White Town, you will find you keep stepping back into India, over the smelly, empty canal into what was once called the Black Town, with its chaos and colourful temples, myriad of shops, workshops, eating places and friendly people.
Pondicherry or Puducheri, as it is sometimes called, is also famous as the home of the Aurobindo Ashram, founded in 1926 by Sri Aurobindo, a Cambridge educated Yogi from Bengal, who was later joined by The Mother (Mira Alfassa) a French painter, who dedicated her later life to carrying on Aurobindo’s work after he retired. The ashram went from strength to strength and currently owns 120 buildings with 2000 people involved in everything from education, to paper-making, to publishing. The main ashram buildings including the school and Samadhi are fairly close but walking around white town, one constantly stumbles across yet another ashram guest house or business offshoot.
Strangely, the community favours light grey as the exterior colour for their buildings, but sometimes they allow vibrant bougainvillea bushes to add colour to an otherwise bland look. Whatever colour they choose for their buildings, the Aurobindos are a major player in Pondi, and the ashram guest houses are good value and very clean but have a plethora of rules and a 10.30pm curfew for guests, they are however, often booked up in advance. I stayed in a lovely guest house near the sea until it filled up with pre-booked ashram folk and I struggled to find an acceptable, affordable room for the remainder of my stay.
I didn’t even try the Park Guest House this time, having heard that it was “full”. Instead I settled on another “Lonely Planet” recommendation – The Kailash Guest House on Mission Street. Friendly staff and immaculate rooms and a forthcoming restaurant on the first floor; this place gets my recommendation.
Spiritually minded visitors can attend regular meditations in the main ashram buildings and the yoga possibilities are widespread both within and without the ashram.
I read a bit more about Aurobindo and the Mother recently. There seems little joy and spontaneity the ashram (or the ashramees that I encountered) they do really seem to think that we are not on this earth to enjoy it or each other. They view themselves as being in the forefront of the supramental, a new evolution in the human race.
The international community of Auroville, set up by the Mother, is a 5 mile bike or taxi ride away,it is an ongoing experiment in cross-cultural living, pushing the boundaries in everything alternative, from renewable energy to radical architecture, economics to recycling and sustainability.
The strange Matrimandir is the symbolic meditation centre of the town, resembling an enormous golden golf ball. One has to book ahead to go on the tour including the interior which apparently is pure white and houses a large crystal. It seems to be impossible to book to see inside the Matrimandir on the same day as one first arrives in Auroville. I would have liked to see inside.
Agni jata, Ray Meeker’s famous fired earth house, featured widely in architectural magazines, is now a private residence set in a lovely garden well away from the Auroville tourist trail. It takes a bit of finding but is worth the trek. None of the rickshaw drivers I asked knew where it was so it took half a day.
There are supposed to be many opportunities for interested volunteers with alternative leanings in Auroville and a wide range of accommodation depending on ones budget, from simple to luxury on site, but when I tried everything was full.
Back in Pondicherry, the streets near the ashram have some very good craft outlets including crafts made in Auroville. Purchases can be sent from the nearby post office, where the very helpful staff will do up parcels for you using hessian and sealing wax to the standard required to send goods abroad from India; a welcome change from the obduracy I found at the Shantiniketan post office.
French cultural life in Pondi carries on at the Alliance Francaise with its library, café, exhibitions and films. Some of the best hotels and places to eat nearby are French owed and run and by no means cheap, for example the beautiful colonial pillared mansion that houses the Hotel de L’Orient.
Recently there seems to have been a burgeoning of shops and cafes run by the children of the original French/Tamil business people, catering for each other and young backpackers. They are for the most part lighthearted and fun with cutting edge graphics, products and menus, and names such as Café des Artes, L’e Space Coffee & Art, Fabindia, Kashha ki Aasha, Pondy Cre’Art.
Pondicherri is a three hour taxi ride from Chennai airport, which has direct BA flights to and from London and direct Air France flights to Paris. It is an excellent introduction to India, flying into or out of Chennai avoids the stressed out hurly-burly of Mumbai or Delhi. I have flown into and out of Mumbai and Delhi and into Calcutta but not from it. Coming into Chennai has got to be gentler on the nerves than arriving in the early hours in the other capitals.
I flew back to London a few days later on a good BA direct flight.
This time I’m going the other way – Ha! Next stop Tiruvannamalai
Read the Tiruvanamalai pages to find out why I spent 35 days there when I thought I would stay for 5!
Pondicherry suffered from Cyclone Thane. There was a lot of damage to established trees, however it was a natural disaster and Gaia is good at recovering from those. It is mankind who is not.