After 3 gruelling flights and a 150km. drive from Chennai (Madras) we arrived in Pondicherry and in the evening took a walk on the Beach Road under bright lights alongside the Indian Ocean. Presided over by statues of Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru, it is pedestrianised every evening from 6pm until the following morning and it seems as though the whole town is out for a stroll or taking a serious brisk walk.
Here it is perfect weather and we have just had an excellent dinner in the open air overlooking the Indian Ocean. Pondicherry is enchanting in parts and chaotic in others, an extraordinary mix of faded and half forgotten Colonial France and Tamil Indian replete with sacred cows roaming wherever they please. There are masses of trees lining the streets – a French legacy, as well as rampant creepers, trees and shrubs in every square inch of earth, in gardens and covering buildings – hibiscus, oleander, gardenia, jasmine, various acacia and Indian bean trees and of course palms, coconuts and bananas.The colours of the women’s saris and shalwar kameez are perhaps even more brilliant with marvellous colours – every shade of pink, yellow, orange, green, blue, purple and combinations of some or all of these.
In spite of the cows, the streets are clean by Indian standards and for all the chaos and traffic in the commercial centre, it has a tranquil, peaceful atmosphere. The exception to this are the numerous motorbikes which pollute the air in the town centre and make walking very difficult.
These girls, between about 12 and 15, were dancing in some sort of celebration for children, who formed much of the audience. It was a very stylised dance, but beautiful and accompanied by a singer. This by the way was at about 9pm last night, at one end of a lovely public garden near the sea.
This is an interesting place to be, once a French colony, it only became part of the Indian administration in 1954 when the French handed it back. However, the French influence is still strong, with charming colonial houses many of which are now excellent restaurants -some French, some Tamil and others a Creole mix. The food so far has been fantastic.
We are so much enjoying being here. Of course there are streets where the smells are not so good and where the drains are yet to be closed and the pavements are broken or non-existent, but then an elaborate temple comes into view, the colours are eye dazzling and any thing problematic seems a minor impediment. In this age of strife beween so many people of different religions and cultures, it is good to see Roman Catholic churches cheek by jowl with the odd mosque, and Hindu temples to a multiplicity of deities.
We went yesterday morning to the town museum which is in an old colonial mansion with decaying eighteenth century furniture, religious bronzes of the most important deities, and also the plentiful remains of a Roman presence at a trading settlement about 4kms south of the city. It is an extraordinary experience to see here in India, pottery made in what is now Tuscany in the second century AD until about the 4th. and early Chinese ware at the same place. It must have been a busy port trading far west and east….
About 12 kms from the city is the settlement of Auroville, founded in 1968 by ‘the Mother’ a French woman and companion of Sri Aurobindo, a local guru.
No particular religion is followed but the inhabitants live a truly holistic, eco-friendly life, making beautiful objects (textiles and other useful items) from recycled everything – rubber, paper, plastic, rags and so on. They have built it all themselves and planted beautiful gardens and woods. Many of them are French, though there is a fair sprinkling of Aussies and a few Americans on the hippy trail. At the centre of it all is the Matrimandir, a golden dome lined with glass and marble where they congregate to meditate.
Baobab Trees at Auroville
I haven’t yet been to the ashram from which Auroville originated, but I did go to a very good yoga class at the Franco-Indian cultural centre. Today, hidden behind a phalanx of motorbikes and several small dogs, we found the Royal Emporium, purveyors of a huge range of textiles and a few yoga mats, one of which we bought so that I can practice yoga.