Pondicherry & Auroville – The Perfect Escape
I have always wanted to take a leisurely walk along the French Riviera ( and someday I will) but when you have only one slightly extended weekend at hand, you sometimes have to settle for second best. And thus began our journey to Pondicherry with the husband driving, the toddler comfortably strapped into the car seat and me tapping into my phone, taking down notes for this column. This was going to be our first visit to the east coast of India so we were mighty excited.
Pondicherry: A Precious Gem On The Coromandal Coast
A picture-perfect town frozen in a colonial time capsule time – that was my first impression of Pondicherry, even before we parked the car and set out to explore the French Quarters on foot (and pram). The buildings and houses are indeed an architectural delight, what with the expansive French windows, arcs and colonial facades. We walked the length and breadth of the quarters soaking in all the Frenchness, cuisine withstanding, marveling at the antique shops and cobbled streets that still carry distinctly French names such as Rue Romain Rolland and Rue Suffren. While you are there, do take a walk through Goubert Avenue, which is lined up with some spectacular heritage structures like the French Consulate and Raj Niwas.
Le Club seemed like a reasonably good place for a nice sit-down lunch but we as we made ourselves comfortable on one of the tables, we were stoicly told “sorry, no kids allowed” by one of the waiters. It is understandable to have no-kid zones but doesn’t that warrant putting up a clear sign somewhere? I used to dig such places a couple of years ago, but now they just come across as “rude and unfriendly”. Go figure! Anyhow, we lugged the pram over to Le Vietnam, which turned out to be far more family-friendly. The Grilled Fish with Hollandaise Sauce and Bourguignon Beef were absolutely delish and the toddler looked all too happy with her Mi Xao (all that sitting around in the pram and looking at the sights had made her furiously hungry). An orgasmic Chocolate Crème Brulée brought our lunch to a happy ending.
I am usually not one to spend precious vacation hours on temples, churches and ashrams, however “famous” they may be, but the gothic gorgeousness of L’ Église Sacre Coeur de Jesus on South Boulevard, immediately beckoned me in with its stained glass panels and jaw dropping architecture. The Kanniga Parameswari Temple, on the other hand, is the perfect marriage between French and Indian architectural styles that reflect the multicultural ethos of Pondicherry. The Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception on Mission Street, in its all-white splendor, is also worth a dekko. Come evening, we took a lazy stroll down The Promenade, gazing into the Bay of Bengal and allowing the salty breeze to caress our tired bodies.
Auroville: A Hippie’s Utopia
The quieter, more serene Auroville was rather welcome after tourist-packed Pondicherry. We received a warm welcome from our hosts, an Italian couple, who were sweet enough to save us some pizza and pasta because restaurants close down unbelievably early around here.
Tanto’s Far Off Beach Homestay was the stuff of my fantasies – a French-style villa, with large airy rooms, a roofless bathroom and lotus ponds. The place had a serenely organic feel to it, quite unlike a typical hotel or guesthouse.
What is Auroville?
Envisioned and conceptualized by Mira Alfassa (fondly referred to as The Mother’), the spiritual partner of Sir Aurobindo Ghosh, Auroville prides itself in being a place where approximately 2000 residents from over 50 countries reside in peace, harmony and cooperation. The young township, which was founded in 1968, comprises of 80 communities that spiral around a central point, mimicking a galaxy. Each community has its own theme, such as organic farming, pottery, wind turbines, bio gas, reforestation, food processing, herb gardens, natural wellness and animal care. As is apparent, there is a lot of emphasis on eco-living and going back to the basics. We stayed at SriMa, a beach community with guesthouses.
Every house or building is an architectural experiment in itself, integrating naturally-sourced traditional materials with modern and innovative climate-responsive designs. I was equally fascinated by the architectural style of our host’s residence (which was a few steps away from the villa), as it looked like something straight out of a Smurf’s movie. Cars in Auroville are few and far between, as most residents travel by scooters and bicycles. In fact, we felt terribly guilty about marauding the sanctity of the forests with our noisy black Scorpio.
If I had to describe it in words, Auroville reminded me of planet Pandora from the movie Avatar, where every being is connected to the spirit of nature and Eywa, the mother goddess. Interestingly, the center of Auroville is a giant ancient Banyan tree, much like Pandora’s Hometree, which convinced me that I was drawing the right analogy.
The Visitor Center
The Auroville Visitor Center is a must visit for anyone who wants to learn more about this strange, awe-inspiring place. Apart from bookshops and exhibits, the complex also has a couple of boutiques that offer a breathtaking variety of organic clothing, aromatherapy products, organic foods, dried herbs, personal care products, incense, home décor items and other souvenirs – all very tempting but ridiculously expensive.
Matrimandir – The Mother’s Shrine
The Matrimandir is the heart and soul of Auroville. I had read about the stark white, sterile interiors of the meditation hall inside and the giant crystal ball that rests in its center, but unfortunately could not make it in as a detailed tour needs to be booked days in advance. From the outside, Matrimandir reminded me of the globe at Disney Epcot Center in Orlando, except that it was all golden. Pretty, but a little too futuristic for my liking.
After the slightly longish walk to Matrimandir and back in the sweltering heat and humidity, we headed to the café at the Visitor’s Center to replenish our body fluids, which is when my eyes fell upon a name on the menu – ‘Radha Consciousness’. By the name of it, I could only guess what the drink would do to me, but the curious cat in me insisted that I give it a chance over the lemonade. A purple colored flowery nectar, Radha Consciousness turned out to be an absolute delight, and I was perfectly in my senses by the end of it (slight disappointment there)!
Auroville – Where To Eat?
The Solar Kitchen is another unique and inspiring aspect of Auroville. A community kitchen run entirely on solar cooking systems, it is a large buffet where travelers and locals can have a feast at Rs.30 or so. It is also a great place to meet new and interesting people and interact with other Aurovillians.
Auroville also has some amazing restaurants offering cuisines as diverse as the people living here. Tento’s Pizzeria, of course tops the list for its classic wooden oven made pizzas, hearty pastas and the to-die-for Tiramisu. We also had the chance to sample Roma’s Kitchen, which serves up a mean Malabar prawn curry and pan grilled fish. The breads that tumble out of Auroville’s bakery are as soft and sumptuous as can be – in fact, the heavenly aroma of freshly baked bread often spills over to the street outside.
Beaches (In And Around)
Beaches around Auroville and Pondicherry are clean and swimmable but despite being a stone’s throw away from one, we couldn’t spend much time in the waters, thanks to an over-anxious toddler. However, we did manage to catch the sunrise (the west coast only has sunsets on the menu). And no, that doesn’t mean we came back without a dip! Our hosts had a nice little swimming pool in their backyard and they were generous enough to let us use it.
Auroville is anything but a tourist destination; it is a place where you learn as much about yourself as about the world around you. To me, Auroville is an attempt at a self-contained Utopia, where everyone lives in harmony with nature, and with each other. It celebrates the unity of humanity, almost as if it weren’t a part of this sad, segregated and prejudiced world that we live in. Cynics may have their opinions but for a hippie-at-heart like me, Auroville was the perfect escape from reality.