A Morning in the City of Dawn – Auroville

A Morning in the City of Dawn – Auroville

My first trip to Pondicherry was with my family when I was a teenager. I don’t remember as well as I probably should but I do remember being in awe with Auroville (lol).

I remember driving past the sacred Matrimandir which was still being built at the time (back in 2007) and that I was proud of being able to take a clear picture of it through the fine mesh covering one of its gates. And I definitely remember making a mental note to come back again because I loved the peace and quiet in the green ‘jungle’ with its red sandy path.

So one morning, 9 years later, I found myself there, alone this time. My aunt was kind enough to ask her driver to drop me there and I was quite shocked because the one thing I seemed to have forgotten was how long it takes to get inside from the main road. Trust me, its not a walk, if that’s what you were planning on doing.

We passed through what looked like a sleepy little Tamilian road with little shops and B&Bs scattered everywhere. But instead of the usual scrawny brown kid being chased by a helpless mother, I noticed an increasing number of hippie goras, some of them proprietors of these roadsidey establishments. It was a little unsettling since I guess I am not used to it.

Well anyway, after what seemed like forever, we reached Auroville. The driver dropped me off with an awkward ‘I’ll see you at 1’ and left me standing in the dirt. I found the very nondescript entrance – in the shape of a small canopy of trees – and headed towards my destination.

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The walk to the visitor’s center from the parking lot is short and seems to transport you to an oasis in the middle of a dusty desert. You seem to come out onto a vast expanse shaded with trees and small crowds of people going about their daily businesses while Indian tourists look around helplessly. It’s quite like walking into a contemporary Arabian bazaar.

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Well I had heard that if I wanted to see the Matrimandir, I had to watch this compulsory free video and receive a free pass, so in I went to the small auditorium. I didn’t learn so much from the old scratchy film as I did from the pamphlets and informational boards outside and I can briefly explain a few things about Auroville.

Auroville is an ‘alternative’ township built not so long ago in 1968, on the ideologies of Mirra Alfassa, also known as The Mother, and the yogi/philosopher Sri Aurobindo. The township has been described as ‘an international community of dedicated to the ideal of human unity’ and is ‘an international community, dedicated to peace, sustainability and ‘divine consciousness’, where people from across the globe, ignoring creed, colour and nationality, work together to build a universal, cash-free, non-religious township’.

So there are about 2,500 residents spanning 52 nationalities there! Together they run projects like schools, sustainable farming, handicrafts and more.

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A model of the Matrimandir in the visitor’s centre

 

After I finished watching the film, a bored guard outside the door handed me my free pass and told me if I anted to come back to go inside the Matrimandir, I would have to book an appointment and come back the next day (which is kind of a pain really). But anyway, I decided to walk down to the temple for the time being.

 

Much like Auroville’s entrance, the path to the Matrimandir takes one through a beautiful half man-made half natural canopy of greenery with some goats interspersed at regular intervals. Cycles are available too, but I decided a walk would be better (plus my tights pants wouldn’t have let me sit on a bike. I blame the great south Indian food I was having).

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Auroville’s resident chameleon

The morning was too hot for a November day and I was just about to start cursing myself when I came across one of the biggest and widest banyan tree I have ever seen in my life.

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Aurovilleans believe that this tree has been around for about one hundred years but I beg to differ. It is DEFINITELY way older than that. Its branches have grown far out from the trunk and into the ground like a eerie real-life version of the Hometree from Avataar.

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Back in 1965 when The Mother and French architect Roger Anger (who designed Auroville) decided to build the township, he drove to a barren plateau and noticed the only form of life, this very tree which would later become the geographical center of Auroville.

In 1968, it was under the shade of this grand tree that the founders and a select delegates inaugurated this township.

A few meters from the tree is a path that leads down to the Matrimandir and the iconic golden dome seemed to peek out from amidst the branches as I walked towards it.

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The ‘soul of the city’ is surrounded by an expanse of rolling gardens with trees bordering them. The gardens are divided into 12 individual parks each with different flora and have names like Harmony, Perfection, Gratitude and Bliss.

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Trees around the viewpoint

The golden globe (pun intended) seems to rise up from the earth, ‘symbolising the birth of a new consciousness’.

They generally don’t allow you to walk into the gardens I guess and that’s why I had to stand at this viewpoint and take this picture.

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Those who are lucky (and/or patient) enough to come back another day and go inside know that the mandir has an inner chamber which is divided into two hemispheres, the upper one completely made of white marble. In the centre sits a crystal glass globe which receives light from an Pantheon-like opening in the dome and diffuses it to a small pond below the structure while lighting up the room itself.

I believe the ambience inside the dome is that of complete silence. Dare whisper or, God forbid, cough in there and be ready to squirm attract the ire of those in deep meditation. Definitely not for a clumsy fool like me then.

You don’t really need to spend much time at the viewpoint and so I started heading back to the visitor’s centre to buy me some stuff. The walk back was seemingly refreshing, maybe because I found me some inner peace at the Matrimandir!

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I made my way to Kalki and the other boutiques to buy some handmade paper diaries (obsessed with stationery which I never use!) and my beloved scented candles and just about made it back to the parking on time after gulping down a necessary filter coffee, burning my tongue in the process.

The driver was waiting for me as if I had taken too long. With a hurried ‘sorry’ I got in the car and we drove off. I just about got a last glimpse of the Alibaba-ish canopy before it disappeared out of sight and I sank into a post-splurging melancholy of how I  was supposed to lug all my Maroma candles on the flight back.


Sitting back at home in Delhi writing this, I think I’d be seeing myself back there soon, (inside the Mandir this time) especially since I am out of Auroville’s scented candles and handmade paper stuff.

And of course, inner peace.

Petite Pondicherry

Petite Pondicherry

Where France merges with South India

Unlike most Indians’ favourite seaside (read: party) destination Goa, Pondicherry rarely features in domestic bucket lists. In fact, with an area under 500 sq. km., it is much smaller than its western rival; quite unknown as a party destination;  not popular for naked beaches; and even less popular for its churches.

In all aspects, Pondicherry’s France rivals Goa’s Portugal.

Although the tide is stronger on this side of the coast and life seems slower, it is hard not to fall hopelessly in love with this beautiful city, even if you’re here just for a day.

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A typical Pondy building in White Town

If you look at the map of India, you’ll notice that Pondicherry (now Puducherry…*sigh* what is it with changing perfectly good names?) seems to be shaped like a ‘C’, bound by Tamil Nadu. In fact, you’ll notice that it is divided in two regions with a part of Tamil Nadu running in between. Lying about 155 km south of Chennai, this city is a Union Territory, which means it has laws different from other Indian states (and that the liquor is tax-free! In fact you’ll know when you enter Pondicherry when you hit the first liquor shop off the highway!).


A Brief History

The area we now know as Pondicherry was ruled by the south Indian Pallava Kingdom in the 4th century A.D.; much later from the 10th – 13th centuries, it came under Chola rule and subsequently under the grand Vijayanagar Empire in the 14th century.

In 1674, the French East India Company landed on Indian shores and established its HQ right here. The then Pondicherry was divided into the French and Indian Quarters, remnants of which can be seen until this day.

During the Anglo-French wars in the 18th century, the town became subject to change in rule often and in 1763 under the Treaty of Paris, the British ‘returned’ Pondicherry to the French only to take charge of it again during the French Revolution. But in the 1850s, the French were allowed to regain their settlements there.

Pondy was under French rule right up till 1954, long after India regained its Independence, a legacy the city hasn’t been able to shrug off what with the neatly-planned quiet streets, the colonial-style houses with bougainvillea pouring out, the aromatic French-Indian cuisine and designer wear, and the abundance of French speakers.

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Some popular Pondy signs

Today it is a hot tourist spot for those visiting the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and nearby Auroville, or for those who simply want a weekend getaway.


Having been there thrice – twice in the past six months – I’d say that there are a lot more things to do than going to the beach – or partying – in the city the locals fondly call ‘Pondy’.

1. Sri Aurobindo Handmade Paper Mill: In case you didn’t know, Pondy is known for its handmade paper and if you don’t know how its made, you must step inside this mill (located right at the beginning of White Town) to see the process for free! No pictures allowed here. Don’t forget to pick up some nice paper products from the small shop inside (it’s cheap!). Please note that the mill is closed in the afternoons so I suggest you go there in the morning.

 

Address: Shop No. 50, S.V. Patel Salai & Kasim Salai, Kuruchikuppam, Puducherry, 605001

2. Pondicherry Museum: Pondy’s modest museum may not have much to show to its visitors but go there if you’d like to get a broad sense of how the city has developed overtime. Divided in two floors, the lower one showcases mostly prehistoric relics while the first floor houses artefacts from French-Indian homes during the pre-Independence period.

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Don’t miss the coaches and other transport in the balcony. I sneaked some pics although you aren’t allowed!

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Entry: 10 INR

Address: St. Louis Street, Near Raj Vyas, White Town

3. Governor’s House: Also called Raj Nivas, this grand building is located just around the corner from the museum. The present edifice which has influences of both French and Indian styles, has been erected on the foundations of the earlier Hotel de la Compagnie (the French trading company that earlier ruled Pondy from 1674 to 1769) constructed around 1733. The French governor Dupleix also inhabited it till 1761. It was destroyed by the British and rebuilt between 1766 to 1768 and since then has undergone several renovations and re-modifications.

edDSC_0882 copyToday it is home to Pondicherry’s Lieutenant Governor. Earlier visitors couldn’t go in except on certain occasions, but the present Lieutenant Governor Kiran Bedi has opened it to the public so you can venture inside.

Address: Rangapillai St, Pondicherry, India

4. Bharathi Park: After you are done taking photos at the Raj Nivas, walk over to the Bharati Park right opposite. The park seems to be White Town’s lungs. You will see small children run around the park while lovers talk under the shade of it’s many trees and the odd family spreads out its picnic.

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The park has four entrances, the one facing Raj Nivas being the most prominent. At the centre lies an imposing Greco-Roman structure called Aayi Mandapam, named after a prostitute by the same name.

Legend has it that during the Vijayanagar Empire, a king was passing by when he saw a grand edifice. Mistaking it for a temple, he knelt down to pay his respect but after he found out it was the house of the prostitute Aayi, he was livid. The king ordered to tear her house down and sentenced her to be hanged. But after she begged him for mercy, he let her go on the promise that she demolish her house, which she did, and also built a large water pond for the town.

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During a severe water crisis in the French era, this very pond was the only source of drinking water in the town. Later, Napoleon III heard this story and ordered the construct of the monument in the park as a thanks to Aayi, and  it is perhaps India’s only monument dedicated to a prostitute.

Notice the Latin plaques on the base of the monument although if you are like me you won’t understand them!

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Address: Compagnie St, Pondicherry, India

5. Immaculate Conception Cathedral: Pondy’s oldest church was built in 1791. It has an imposing facade of white with gold, much like most fancy-looking south Indian churches. The Jesuits, who came to the French colony in 1689, built a church here with financial aid from Louis XIV. But this church was destroyed by the Dutch a year later.

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After being rebuilt and destroyed over many years, work was finally finished on its present structure in 1791. If you step inside, you will notice its resemblance to many churches in Italy.

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This church also has the distinction of being visited by Mother Teresa!

Address: Mission Street, Near V.O.C School, Pondicherry

6. Sacred Heart Basilica: This red Gothic church was consecrated in 1907 and in 1908 a parish was built. The church has two towers and above the entrance is a biblical verse in Latin (2 Chronicles 7:16).

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Notice the beautiful stained glass of 28 saints depicted in the devotion of the Sacred Heart of Jesus inside the church.

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The church  received its status as a basilica by the Holy See in 2011. Its first mass was held at the western wing of the present church by Mgr. Gandy on 17, December 1907 and the new parish surrounding this church has been established on 27, January 1908.

Address: M.G. Road, Pondicherry
7. Notre Dame des Agnes: This Greco-Roman church is a pink, stunted version of the Notre Dame and was built under Napoleon III in 1855. In fact, Napoleon even visited this church!
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It is the only church in Pondy that offers mass in English, Tamil and French. The two bells have bells believed to have been bought from France but since the vibrations damaged the structure, the bells are not in use anymore.
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The church looks out to the Bay of Bengal but past a statue of Joan of Arc on the opposite side of the road.
P.S. Beware of shoe thieves here!
Address: Dumas St., Pondicherry
 

j) Sri Manakula Vinayagar Temple: This temple has been in existence long before the French occupied Pondy. It is the city’s most famous temple because of the sweet elephant Laxmi that blesses pilgrims and tourists that meet her. Interestingly, the temple is dedicated to  the elephant god Ganesh and has beautiful freizes. If you are lucky enough, you might see Laxmi walking down the streets in the evenings. Although I didn’t visit the temple on my last visit, I did manage to sneak a peak at Laxmi through the crowds one evening.

Address: Manakula Vinayagar Koil St., Pondicherry

 

k) Seafront on Goubert Ave: End your tour of White Town on this rocky seafront which comes to life in the evenings.

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You can see the Gandhi statue here, the War Memorial on the opposite side of the road, dedicated to French soldiers in World War I, the yellow French Consulate, the famous Promenade Hotel, Sri Aurobindo Ashram and an 1870 statue of Governor-General Joseph Francois Dupleix.

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A panorama of the Gandhi statue on the seafront
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The French War Memorial

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The French Consulate
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Governor-General Joseph Francois Dupleix

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Enjoy a gelato from the nearby Italian Gelateria Montecatini Terme GMT and take a long walk on the beach.

If you want to have the proper Pondicherry beach experience, I suggest you visit the government-run Ashok Beach Resort that allows visitors to access their private beach. Alternatively, visit the Auroville/Auro Beach situated off the ECR, opposite to the road leading to Auroville or the Serenity Beach about 20 minutes north of Pondy – it’s mostly a fisherman’s beach.

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Views from the Ashoka Beach Resort

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P.S. Be careful while venturing out into the sea here since the tide is WAY more stronger than you can imagine and the beaches, except for the Rock Beach, shut by 5.30-6.00 pm.


While you are in Pondicherry, you MUST visit Auroville and nearby Mamallapuram (Mahaballipuram), more of which will be in the next post.