David and I managed to leave Chennai on March 18th, after I was finally able to eat more than curd and rice. We spent the next couple of days in seductive Pondicherry, which was under the French until 1954 and still retains a strong colonial charm. We stayed at the Hotel de Pondicherry, which in itself was a special experience: overall decadent feel with spacious rooms with high ceilings and beautiful color combinations. Below are a few images of this heritage hotel, its garden outside, and the veranda/reception...
We stayed in the French Quarter, which is close to the beach and is defined by beautiful streets with colorful and elegant buildings, large trees and blossoming flowers (see example below).
A really welcome change from busy Chennai! Pondicherry has a great boardwalk that gets very crowded around sunset time, with families, vendors, and all sorts of people coming to enjoy the breeze and the sea air. About halfway along the boardwalk is an impressive sculpture of Gandhi surrounded buy beautiful sculptures which David has identified as Chola:
(Gandhi by night. Even though it's not easy to see, in the evening time children turn the sculpture into something of a jungle gym, climbing up and down its side ramps which they use as slides!)
In Pondicherry we had delicious breakfasts...
(The prevalence of white is an indicator of my still recovering belly. This was idly - rice dumplings - with sambar (soup) and chutney, as well as curd and white rice at the American owned Kasha Ki Asha. We definitely recommend it.)
...and drank more fruit juices...
...we found fruit vendors with tasty fruit...
(This man posed for me holding up the bananas, which was really special. I think he was selling more than 5 different kinds of bananas! )...and went to the town temple, where we saw yet another Laksmi (Hampi had one too) blessing generous donors...
In Pondicherry we also saw the most packed autorickshaw yet!
(Walking by a rickshaw parked in front of a school, we noticed all those backpacks and became a little curious about who was sitting inside...)
(It appears that the driver was trying to fit a whole class in his rickshaw! He just piled one girl right on top of the other!)
Of course, we visited the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. This was funded in 1926 by Sri Aurobindo, but quickly given over to a French woman, Mirra Alfassa, to be in charge. Henceforth she was known as The Mother.Today the ashram is a large and powerful institution, owning several businesses and properties around Pondicherry. People have complained that since the death of The Mother (1973), the ashram has moved away from the ideals that were upheld by its gurus. In any case, at the ashram there is a beautiful granite mausoleum dedicated to Sri Aurobindo, commemorating the place where he died. This tomb like structure is covered with flowers and lies under a huge shady tree: it's lovely to simply sit there in silence and watch as many people touch their foreheads to the mausoleum and take a moment to meditate/contemplate/pray/etc.
(The ashram from the outside. No pictures are allowed inside.)
The ashram also resonates in the park of Pondicherry, where gigantic wind chimes hang around the grounds and fill the air with soft notes whenever a breeze stirs the branches. When they sound it's a bit like a gentle reminder to breath and be aware of what is around you...
We left Pondicherry two days ago to come and learn about Auroville, the "human unity" experiment taking place a few kilometers North of Pondicherry. Originally affiliated with the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Auroville is a kind of utopian community founded in 1968, with the purpose to create a city "dedicated to human unity, and based on the vision of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother." When The Mother died in '73, the differences in ideology between Auroville and the Ashram lead to a case with the Supreme Court of India. In 1981, Auroville was recognized as an independent, secular, government organization, and it has enjoyed a very particular status since, having its own parliamentary act in the Constitution. It's a VERY complex experiment, both in its history and present. David and I have been attending a series called "Insight Seminars" which has been very useful in answering some of our questions. In the seminar you are able to talk to other people curious about Auroville, as well as "Aurovilians," people who live here and work within this unique system.
I wouldn't know where to begin to explain Auroville, but here are a couple of things. It's an eco-village of about 2000 people, with a strong focus on sustainability, recycling, renewable resources, and intelligent urban planning/architecture. The central ideology revolves around concepts of unity, spiritual growth, social awareness, perfecting oneself, education and experimentation. There is a lot of volunteering, trading, bartering, sharing, and exchanging going on, and the economy tries as much as possible to move away from cash exchange.
There is much more, and we will only be here for another couple of days, but I highly advise stopping by and taking a look for yourself if you are ever in this part of the world. It is also a place worth visiting for much longer, depending on your interests. In addition, the land of Auroville itself is really beautiful! When it was bought, Auroville was a deserted place, but since the 1960's Aurovilians have planted millions of trees! Today they keep the temperature relatively cool and the air smells wonderful! Our guest house (Center Guest House) has tables under this gigantic banyan tree... it's so beautiful to eat underneath it...
(Huge banyan tree.)
(Our temporary shrine: the picture of The Mother and Sri Aurobindo comes with the room. I really like how David added to it :-))
For the next couple of days we will keep exploring Auroville and then continue making our way South throughout Tamil Nadu. We recently discovered that we will be meeting David's family, as well as my sister (!), in Sri Lanka on April 7th, where we will spend a week together. I really look forward to meeting up with them and getting a feel for Sri Lanka (On the side: my thoughts go out to the hundreds of refugees who are struggling at this very moment because of the fighting going on between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government. The situation in Sri Lanka is really awful, all the more because of the lack of support for the refugees.)
We are now into our 3rd month of traveling and staying in Pondicherry and Auroville has been very restorative. We hope all of you who are in the West are beginning to feel the signs of Spring and send warmth your way.