Written by phileasfogg on 02 Feb, 2010
Pondicherry may be French; Pondicherry may be Tamil—but it is also home to an unusual international community named Auroville, which has its roots in the philosophy of an early 20th century Indian philosopher called Sri Aurobindo. Aurobindo’s best known disciple, and the person who carried…Read More
Pondicherry may be French; Pondicherry may be Tamil—but it is also home to an unusual international community named Auroville, which has its roots in the philosophy of an early 20th century Indian philosopher called Sri Aurobindo. Aurobindo’s best known disciple, and the person who carried on and embodied Aurobindo’s philosophy, was a Frenchwoman who is now known only as The Mother. The philosophy of Aurobindo and The Mother revolves around the unity of all mankind, meditation, community service, giving back to the earth, and the attainment of ‘divine consciousness’.
All of these principles were brought into play when, in the late 1960’s, The Mother (Aurobindo had since died), proposed the establishment of Auroville. The many thousands of followers who had been flocking to the Aurobindo ashram through the 60’s were of two distinctly separate types. As someone at Adishakti told me: "There were the European and American hippies, people who lived on drugs and free sex. And there were the very conservative, upper caste Hindus." Obviously, there was bound to be friction between the two groups—and The Mother managed to solve this to a large extent by proposing the creation of an ‘international city’ just outside Pondicherry, where the hippies could shift.
So, in 1968, on land donated by various followers, Auroville was founded. At its heart, in an urn shaped like a lotus bud, was placed the Auroville Charter (handwritten by The Mother), along with handfuls of earth from all across the world.
Auroville was envisaged as a place that would eventually house 50,000 people, who would be involved in activities as wide-ranging as production of handicrafts, environmental research, meditation, etc. The first task, however, was the greening of the land: the area was a barren, dry stretch. For years, says Jean (another of the Adishakti crowd), "We used pickaxes and shovels, digging up the ground, removing stones, and planting trees." Today, just over 40 years and a million trees later, Auroville (about 700 acres) is to a large extent, forested land.
It is also an interesting and unusual area. Auroville, while in India and subject to the Indian Penal Code, has some exemptions that mark it as an international community. For example, the Indian police has no jurisdiction here, unless it’s invited; Auroville is responsible for its own security.
After hearing all that about Auroville, I decide it’s time to pay it a visit. From Adishakti, it’s about 4 km, past a quaint Tamil village called Edayanchavadi, and to the Visitors’ Centre at Auroville. Parking is just outside the Visitors’ Centre.
The Auroville Visitors’ Centre is a small, fairly compact set of buildings and open spaces. There is a book shop (where the most prominent works are the writings of Aurobindo and The Mother); a café; and a boutique shop that sells hand-crafted items—stylish clothing, scented candles, handmade paper products and so on—made in the Auroville community. There’s an untidy garden of medicinal plants (not really visitor-friendly; none of the plants are labelled or explained); an equally uninspiring Eco-Exhibition (that’s what it’s called: just a series of panels on what you can do—and what Auroville has been doing—to preserve the environment. There’s a small stall where jams, scented candles, incense and other Auroville products are sold; and there’s a place where you can sit under the trees and have tea, coffee, lemon juice, locally made fruit juices, and other goodies like banana chips (delicious wafer-thin slices of raw banana fried in coconut oil) and cookies.
Auroville’s best known monument, however, is the meditation centre known as Matrimandir (literally, ‘The Temple of the Mother’ or ‘The Mother Temple’). This was begun in 1971 and is in the form of a huge, glittering golden globe that sits in the middle of what is known as the Park of Unity: a vast expanse of greenery, including a 100-year old banyan tree that’s spread over a diameter of approximately 50 m. To go to the Matrimandir, you have to first get a pass (free) from the Visitors’ Centre. For this, there’s a prerequisite: you have to first sit in a hall and watch a 10-minute film about Auroville and the Matrimandir.
Since I’ve come all this way, I decide I might as well see the Matrimandir. So I watch the film, collect my pass, and trudge off down the 1 km dirt track through the woods, to Matrimandir. On the way, I’m passed by cyclists and by an electric shuttle (available for the elderly or disabled; note, though, that the shuttle won’t take you right up to the end; you’ll still need to walk about 200 m). It’s a pleasant walk past lovely old palms and other trees, with butterflies flitting about. I pass the banyan, and then arrive at Matrimandir. It sits in the middle of spreading green lawns and an amphitheatre made of red sandstone. It will eventually be surrounded by twelve gardens, currently in the process of being created. The Matrimandir gleams like a somewhat tacky jewel—the huge circular tiles on the outside are 24 carat gold leaf (sandwiched between sheets of glass and fused together). The inside, according to the video at the Visitors’ Centre, consists of a hall that’s all white—white marble walls and ceiling, white carpet below. Visitors like me, however, only get to see the Matrimandir from the outside; if you want to go in and meditate, you need to apply well in advance to the Visitors’ Centre.
So, not having applied (and actually, not harbouring much of a desire to meditate, anyway), I take some photos and head back to the Visitors’ Centre. I buy a glass of lemon juice (refreshing), go to the ladies’ (smelly), and then walk back home to Adishakti.
Today, 2,000 people from 40 countries live in Auroville. For them, I guess it’s a great place to be. For me, it was just another experience, and not one I’d want to repeat. Partly, perhaps, because I’m not an exceptionally spiritual person. More probably, because I got the uncomfortable feeling that the entire setup was very commercial—a ‘scam’, as one Adishakti artiste labelled it. The principle of simple living and high thinking just doesn’t seem to be reflected here; it’s all very targeted towards the affluent, what with the expensive boutique, the swimming pool (yes, they have one: the fee is Rs 250 a day) and a general air of having lots of money and plenty of free time in which to meditate on things other than having to earn a living.
I’m sure Auroville has its fair share of people who genuinely want to do good, and who work hard in that endeavour. Unfortunately, from what I saw, that wasn’t quite the impression I got. Still, it’s a peaceful, green area, so that’s some consolation. Worth one visit, but that’s it.
There’s an old belief in Hindu tradition—at least in Tamilnadu—that many, many years ago the god Shiva sent a sacred bull called Nandi down to earth with a message for humanity: that people, in order to purify themselves, must have an oil massage and bath…Read More
There’s an old belief in Hindu tradition—at least in Tamilnadu—that many, many years ago the god Shiva sent a sacred bull called Nandi down to earth with a message for humanity: that people, in order to purify themselves, must have an oil massage and bath everyday, and must eat only once a month. Nandi, unfortunately, got muddled and gave the wrong message: that people must eat everyday, and have an oil massage and bath once a month. Shiva got annoyed at his bull’s blunder, and sent Nandi down to earth permanently, as a cow to help mankind earn his living.
Since Pondicherry is contiguous with Tamilnadu, the beliefs and traditions here are the same as in Tamilnadu. Among them—and drawing from that story about Nandi—is the harvest festival of Pongal. Pongal spreads over four days. The first day is known as Pohi. It’s celebrated by getting rid of old odds and ends that have been cluttering up the house over the year—all of these are thrown into a fire and burnt. Somewhat reminiscent of Lohri, I think, though it’s also a striking symbol of making a new start in the new year.
The second day of Pongal is devoted to the worship of the Sun God, but it’s the third day of Pongal—the ‘bullock Pongal’—which is, for us, the highlight of the festivities. By this time, we are a very mixed crowd at the writers’ residency in Adishakti: there’s a Dane, two Americans, a Brazilian, a German, a South Korean and me (who doesn’t know a thing about Pongal, so is as fascinated by the rest of the gang). We’ve been told that we’ll be able to see bullock Pongal celebrations in a nearby village. It’ll mean trudging there, and possibly getting pushed about a bit by excited revellers, but we don’t mind.
Fortunately for us, Adishakti has its own cow shed, and the workers there have decided to invite us for the festivities. This is one of the happiest surprises I’ve received in a long time!
Agriculture is an important source of livelihood in rural Tamilnadu, and cattle play an important part in it: tilling fields and providing milk, besides (of course) being the proverbial sacred cow. Bullock Pongal is all about showing gratitude to cattle for their role in the life of the village. The cows at the Adishakti cow shed are a pretty lot, a lovely caramel in colour, straight-backed and big-uddered, with large melting eyes. For the occasion, the workers have prettied them up even more. The cows’ horns have been painted, and little garlands of orange and white flowers have been looped around the horns. More garlands, mainly of curry leaves, have been hung around the cows’ necks along with balloons(!), and their foreheads have been decorated with a streak of vermilion.
Just after sundown—there’s still plenty of daylight—the workers perform the puja, the ritual worship, with a fist-sized lump of cow dung being given pride of place on a little altar marked out on the floor of the cowshed. They offer coconuts, flowers, incense, and a special rice dish called pongal (more on this later) to the gods, and then the cows are made much of. A plate with the ritual offerings and a small earthen lamp, its flame burning bright, is briefly held in front of each cow, the whiff of smoke from the lamp waved in the animal’s face to bless it. The cows seem to like it, too: they look on curiously, pushing their faces up and gazing at the lamp. What I like best is the very personal touch the workers add to all of this: they hug and kiss their animals, and it’s obvious they really do love these cows.
With the ceremonies over, it’s now time for animals and people to indulge themselves. The cows get given their fodder, and we get given portions of prasad (blessed food; any edible item that’s been ritually offered to a deity). Here, the prasad is the pongal, a sticky, semi-solid dish of rice cooked along with ghee, lentils, raisins, nuts, sugar and cardamom. It’s rich but very good, served on a ‘plate’ of a clean banana leaf. Fabulous! To end, each of us gets a six-inch section of sugarcane to peel with our teeth and chew on, savouring the refreshing juice. For the foreigners, the entire thing—the worshipping of the cows, the pongal and the sugarcane—is a novel experience. For me, it’s a bit more familiar: I haven’t seen it before, but I can understand it.
If you’re in Tamilnadu or Pondicherry around Pongal, do try and catch a glimpse the bullock Pongal festivities—it’s a charming and colourful festival. By asking around (maybe at your hotel?), you can easily find out the nearest place where bullocks will be taken in procession.
Written by wanderer on 21 Jul, 2000
For a first time visitor, Pondicherry's 'French connection' might be a little puzzling. Often referred to as 'A little piece of Medieval France in India' and '... a sleepy provincial French town', Pondicherry has managed to retain its French aura. From it's delightful restaurants offering…Read More
For a first time visitor, Pondicherry's 'French connection' might be a little puzzling. Often referred to as 'A little piece of Medieval France in India' and '... a sleepy provincial French town', Pondicherry has managed to retain its French aura. From it's delightful restaurants offering French cuisine and streets bearing French names, Pondicherry's French connection is very much alive - yet, very subtle. As one tourist guide proclaims '... Pondicherry's Frenchness seems to play hide-and-seek'.
In Pondicherry you will find a 'West Boulevard' parallel to a 'Chinna Subbraya Street' and a 'Des Bassyins de Richmont Street' crossing over 'Mahatma Gandhi Road'. Having once been the capital of erstwhile French India, the heritage of this town has a special flavour not found anywhere else in the Indian sub-continent. The French town-sense, neatly laid roads cutting each other at ninety degrees, wide and vibrant beach promenade, French colonial history, the eventful life of Joseph Francois Duplex - whose majestic statue overlooks the Goubert Avenue contemplatively, architecturally admirable churches and public structures of a bygone era, all of these coalesce to give Pondicherry its unique milieu.
Written by wanderer on 20 Jul, 2000
All in all, I spent two days in Pondy and took another overnight bus back to the humdrum of big city life. Forty-eight hours are enough to look around the town and Auroville geographically, but I guess to try and get the pulse of the…Read More
All in all, I spent two days in Pondy and took another overnight bus back to the humdrum of big city life. Forty-eight hours are enough to look around the town and Auroville geographically, but I guess to try and get the pulse of the life of this magical town and to explore it thoroughly, it could even take eternity!
So, what are you waiting for? If you are looking for virgin beaches, clean gold yellow sand and 45 kms of frothy and picturesque coastline, stuff those backpacks and head out for Pondicherry for a holiday you will never forget. It's sun, surf and tranquility all the way.
For additional information on Pondicherry, you could contact:
Pondicherry Tourism Information Bureau
Directorate of Tourism
19, Goubert Avenue (Beach Road)
Pondicherry - 605 001
Tel: (0413) 34575, 33590, 39497
For booking rooms at Pondicherry, you could contact:
Guesthouse at 'Quiet' - (0413) 622329