We started our much-awaited trip to southern India from the peaceful haven of Pondicherry. The dream of visiting Pondicherry – especially the Ashram of Sri Aurobindo – took almost three decades to fulfil. The last time we came to Chennai, we could not visit Pondicherry. So, with plans firmed up, we set off for Chennai on a chilly winter morning. The balmy weather of Pondicherry, we hoped, would give us the much sought-after relief from the cold and foggy Delhi winter. And sure, it did.
It is a three-hour drive from the Chennai airport to the Ashrama guest house where we managed to book our accommodation. There are many similar guest houses run by the Ashrama, but we got our accommodation at the guest house on Rue Romain Roland.
It is cosy, neat, clean, and peaceful. It also has a strip of beautifully laid garden. Yet it is just a stone’s throw from the beach and some half a kilometre from the Pondicherry Railway Station. The guest house has a small restaurant where the inmates can eat their breakfast, lunch, and dinner by prior intimation and within the stipulated time slots. The main Ashram, which is a little distance from this guest house, also serves tasty, simple food for which coupons are to be collected from the Central Bureau of the Ashram.
An interconnected block of houses in the Ashram surrounds a tree-shaded courtyard, at the centre of which is the Samadhi or shrine made of white marble. It contains the mortal remains of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. Covered with beautiful flowers, this Samadhi is the main attraction of the Ashram. Visitors and disciples pay their respect by bowing down before it. They sit around it in the surrounding balconies in silent contemplation. Besides the main building, the activities of the Ashram are conducted from different buildings located within a short distance from each other. Various activities are going on inside the houses, but everything is being done quietly, without making any unnecessary noise.
Pondicherry city itself is a unique blend of old and new. While the newer parts of the city are like any other Indian town with its busy markets, shops, offices and vehicles of all descriptions, the older parts, especially the French Town, are quiet and laid back. Although the buildings in these parts of Pondicherry are old, they are not dilapidated. On the contrary, most of them are brightly painted and well-maintained.
The French-styled villas are mostly used as guest houses or hotels. Through half-open gateways, we saw nicely laid gardens leading to pillared verandas and rooms in the main building inside. The French Town of Pondicherry, with its old buildings, shaded avenues and quaint small eateries, ice cream parlours and bakeries is quite visibly a town within a town. Its architecture, layout and general atmosphere have a distinctly foreign flavour, with an Indian touch. The street names are in French as well. Pondicherry is full of pretty churches. We visited the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception and the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Both were beautiful. A service was going on at the Cathedral. We spent some time listening to the choir.
Next to the French town and the Ashram lies the small but beautiful beach of Pondicherry. The beach road is closed to vehicular traffic. One can, therefore, walk along the promenade unhindered and enjoy the beauty of the seaside. The promenade, I guess will be one and a half kilometres long, lined on one side with hotels and restaurants. This, no doubt, is the most “happening” place in Pondicherry. Townspeople and tourists alike throng the seaside in the evening and soak in the atmosphere that is peaceful but joyous at the same time.
The beach, however, is rocky and therefore unsuitable for swimming or bathing. The endless waves of the Bay of Bengal break on the boulders, creating a huge pool of foam and froth, recede and return with renewed vigour and splash again, the resultant spray carried far and wide by the strong breeze. Nothing soothes a tired mind better than watching this never-ending play between the sea and the land. There is another beach (I guess it is a large sand head) called Paradise Beach which is reachable by boat. That is also a beautiful beach and popular with swimmers and bathers. We, however, did not go there.
We hired an auto rickshaw for a day and moved around Pondicherry, seeing the various sights. The auto also took us to Auroville, which is a huge Ashram (or commune) mainly set up by foreigners influenced by the philosophy of Sri Aurobindo. The inmates are mostly volunteers who stay for long periods and participate in various community activities, besides yoga and meditation. A huge golden globe – known as the Matrimandir (Temple of the Mother) is a major attraction for common visitors to Auroville. It is a meditation chamber, but to gain entry one has to apply weeks ahead. We, along with a large group of visitors, saw it from outside. With greenery all around, Auroville is indeed a beautiful place.
The famous archaeological site of Mahabalipuram is just a few miles from Pondicherry. As we had been there before, we skipped it this time. Instead, we visited the old city of Chidambaram – some two hours by road from Pondicherry. It is famous for its Thillai Nataraja Temple. The chief deity of this temple is Lord Shiva performing the “Cosmic Dance.”
Luckily, there were not too many visitors at the time we reached the temple. We had a good darshan and also had the time to go around and see the huge temple which also has deities other than Nataraja. The carvings on the temple, its long, arched verandas and its various halls are beautiful but are in decay. There is a large water body within, where the reflection of the temple is wonderful for photography, but unfortunately taking photos inside the temple is not allowed.
After visiting the temple, we visited the mangroves of Pichavaram, a little distance away. An hour’s boating in the creeks and backwaters through the thick mangrove forest was a nice experience. For a day’s outing from Pondicherry Chidambaram and Pichavaram are good destinations.
Although we would love to stay for a few more days at Pondicherry, that could not be. This time our trip would be a long one, and the plans and dates could not be altered. So, early in the morning following the trip to Chidambaram, we proceeded to our next destination – another old temple city – Tanjore or Thanjavur.