The sight of packed taxis outside the airport brought a smile on my face. That sudden rush of excitement carrying so much anticipation and hope, just the way a child does, felt carefree and joyous as I stepped outside. I asked the driver if he was willing to take us through the East Coast Road to Pondicherry. And, the next thing we know, we were cruising on the scenic highway with Bay of Bengal stretching along on one side.
It was a breezy, overcast morning. Arriving in the middle of the monsoons, I expected no less than a downpour. To our delight, those four days zipping in the scooter, wandering in the lanes, gobbling up gelato, eating wood fired pizzas, finding great coffee shops and vegan eateries, there were just occasional drizzles, which added to the sheer joy of discovering this French colonial town.
On a quest to observe and absorb the beauty
After a three-hour ride from Chennai, we arrived in the heart of French quarters, popularly known as the White Town. Villa-turned heritage properties, graceful mansions, elegant buildings converted into government offices, all painted in shades of yellow, blue, gray, and white. I found semblances of classical architecture, pronounced by columns and arches; wooden gates covered with pink bougainvillea; tree-lined avenues intersecting at right angles; and a Promenade built along the seashore. This part of Pondicherry echoed simplicity and grace.
With boutique shops, arty stores, cafés, sophisticated restaurants, and art galleries beginning to fill up the gastronomy, and art and culture scene—the White Town we saw also revealed an avantgarde style.
On those days, after an early dinner, we would take a long walk in the Promenade. In the evening, this area would come alive, reverberating with the laughter of small children, debates among old men huddled on a bench, whispering of young couples sitting on the rocky shore and the general mood of the crowd that fill up the space. You can sit here for endless hours, watching the sea and life would go on with its pace, unhurried and unperturbed by the hustle and the monotony of daily affairs.
One thing that you wouldn’t miss out on this seafront boulevard is Le Café, a 24/7 coffee house that serves you great homestyle fries and burgers and cold coffee with a price that is easy on your pocket. Sadly, going by what the signboard claimed, it was closed at midnight. Further, walking on this road, on Goubert Avenue, I came across the AURA store. The goods are bit pricey, but you will find an assortment of charming items for gifting and souvenirs: incense sticks, soy candles, ceramic crockery, scarves, bags, to name a few.
Then on a rainy night, we discovered Celine’s Kitchen and all our day’s tiredness disappeared just like that, when we ate a scrumptious meal of rice, dal tadka and paneer butter masala.
Under the rule of French, Dutch, Portuguese and British, Pondicherry became a melting pot of diverse cultures and influences, which today reflects in its food, language, customs and the way the society has transformed over the time. The years of influence took shape in the form of creole cuisine; the Greco-Roman classical architecture evident in buildings or the French Gothic style noticeable with pinnacles and domes in churches; homes with gardens and courtyards; and not to pass by without noticing the Franco-Tamil styled houses.
For someone who admires architecture, he or she must spend a day or two to take a walk around, explore the area on foot; discover the crisscrossed streets with French names—Rue Dumas, Romain Rolland, Rue Francois Martin; and heritage mansions; and observe how the pattern and design of buildings transition as you move from White Town to Tamil quarters.
A dream ahead of its time
Pondicherry has yet another side to offer—a land called Auroville—which came into existence as a product of vision, love, and labor and a mission to create a future where humans live together in harmony, raise the collective consciousness and coexist in a progressive community, where education is not meant for competing against one another but to awaken one’s faculty to the highest state and evolve.
This futuristic society, dreamed ahead of its time, was conceived by Mirra Alfassa, one who is also revered as The Mother who wanted to bring into fruition and integrate Karma Yoga, an ideal of Sri Aurobindo, which he imparted to his disciples.
When I had first visited Auroville many years ago, I was not cognizant of its significance and how this place was realized by a dream of uplifting and awakening the world. This time when I went to the Auroville Visitor’s Center, I sensed a spiritual energy pulsating in this place. And how can it not be? A space that has been built with a pure and sacred intent of uplifting the human consciousness and community cannot be anything else but divine.
Auroville is twelve kilometers away from the White Town. We decided to take our scooter to spend a day for sightseeing, explore few permaculture farms, and try artisanal coffee at the popular Marc’s Café that has an in-house roastery. You can also buy assorted coffee blends from their shop. I bought one, a Turkish Arabica blend that I never used it for drinking, for it smelled so good, almost therapeutic that I kept it as a souvenir.
Whether you wish to spend two hours meditating at the Matrimandir or do an early morning yoga on the beach or lie in a hammock with your book or perhaps, rent a cycle to move around, this quiet side of Pondicherry has much more to offer. I realized that this place is worth more than a day’s exploration. You must stay here for a few days and become a part of the community to understand the energy of this area and observe how people are steadily working toward accomplishing their personal goals and collectively moving toward attaining Auroville’s all-encompassing ideals for humanity and for spiritual movement.
And on many occasions, I felt how uncannily Pondicherry has the nostalgic setting of Goa’s easy-going mood and retains the tranquil nature of a remote Himalayan village.
While I enjoyed the cobblestone lanes and the beautiful houses of White Town, my experience in Auroville, even for a short time, healed my senses. I soaked up the beautiful energy that I felt on many instances: while walking from visitor’s center towards Matrimandir, while reading The Mother’s vision, while riding through the silent road and while eating my Satvik lunch.
I captured those golden moments with all my senses.