Special Six: A first glimpse of Puducherry

I used to think Pondicherry was a part of Tamil Nadu until I filled in the visa application. I realized that it was a union territory of India, and now known as Puducherry. What drew me to the city at this point in time was Auroville. However, during my stay, I did explore parts of the city, especially the heritage part and the French colony part.

The following are the special six glimpses that I enjoyed:

(1) Staying at Maison Perumal:

Maison Perumal is a lovely boutique hotel in the CGH Earth chain of hotels. Located on Perumal Koil street in the heritage part of the city, it has a lovely ambience and provides the experience of staying at a 150 year old Chettiar house, with its lovely inner courtyards and swing. The little restaurant in the hotel offers a limited menu of what it claims to be authentic Tamil cuisine. I did enjoy the food there and tried out some dishes that I had only read about but not tried before, like ‘vatha kuzhambu‘ and ‘ilaneer payasam‘. Since ‘vatha kuzhambu‘ is not a variety of ‘kuzhambu‘ (a tamarind based gravy dish) that we make in Sri Lanka and I had only come across its mention in Tamil Nadu and not other states of India, it was a lovely experience to try this meal with its complex flavours of bitter, sour and spice. Apparently, the berries are soaked in buttermilk and sundried before the ‘kuzhambu‘ is cooked. In short, the stay at Maison Perumal was a lovely experience – akin to a heritage home stay with traditional meals.

(2) Mahakavi Bharathiyar Memorial Museum:

It was while browsing online for places of interest in Pondicherry that I came across the Bharathiyar museum. I was initially surprised as I thought the poet had lived in Tamil Nadu. I read a little bit more on the museum and I understood this was the house that the famous poet had lived during his years away from Tamil Nadu from 1908 – 1918, when he had escaped being arrested by the British for his writings. I visited this museum as the first place to go to after I had checked in at my hotel. The reason being that my mother had made me memorize several of his poems during my childhood, as she was a fan of his work and often quoted him in her writings.

The museum was in a quiet residential street and looked as if it were another house on the block. The inviting little home is being managed and maintained by the Government of India and visitors can freely visit the premises, where some of his handwritten pieces are being kept. I looked at the handwriting and tried to envision what sort of a person he was behind that famous image of him with the white turban, black coat and large mustache. His writing seemed to be so precise and neatly written as if he were someone who thought well before putting his thoughts on paper. Not like someone who scribbled their thoughts on pieces of paper as an idea came to his or her head. Or perhaps, it was simply that the pieces of writing on display were his final drafts after he had gone through the creativity phase. Even so, it was so neatly written and evenly positioned that I wondered if he had been someone who had wanted everything well organized at his home and in his personal life. His writings are full of being fearless and courageous and being an empowered individual who contributes positively to society and somehow I guess I associated this with being a person who was non traditional or rigid. Not being a handwriting analyst, perhaps his handwriting did indicate this adventurous spirit.

There is also a library with all his works under one roof, which is open to researchers and school students to study his work. Apparently, Eswaran Dharmarajan Koil Street, where this house is located was also home to many of the famous scholars of that time (the pre-Independence era India). The museum was within a couple of minutes walking distance from Maison Perumal. I also understood that there was another museum within its vicinity dedicated to Bharathidasan, a poet and contemporary of Bharathiyar and who changed his name from the one given by his parents so that he could express that he was an ardent follower of Bharathiyar.

(3) Puducherry museum

The small museum has a few interesting galleries, that is worth visiting for. I liked the Chola and Pallava Dynasty sculptures as well as the French India colony gallery, with pieces of household furniture and utensils recreating the homes of the colonizers during that period.

(4) Sri Aurobindo Ashram

Sri Aurobindo’s life seems to have taken many a turn before he embraced spirituality. Having studied at Cambridge University, he worked for the Maharaja of Baroda and as a Professor of Baroda University from 1893 – 1906. He quit his job after the partition of Bengal and moved to Calcutta to engage with the Nationalist movement. However, it was about this time that he started engaging in yoga and by 1910, he decided to quit politics and moved to Pondicherry to pursue his new spiritual pathway. His experience with yoga led him to develop a practice called the Integral Yoga. In 1926, he founded the ashram with his spiritual collaborator, the Mother. The ashram is currently run by a trust and is open for visitors as well as members.

(5) Eglise de Notre Dame des Anges

I visited this church on Surcouf Street in White town simply because it looked pretty in the photos I had seen of it on the web. The church was founded in 1738 and is one of the oldest churches in Pondicherry. It is also the only church in India that apparently has masses in French, English and Tamil.

(6) Coromandel Cafe

While I was quite happy with having all my meals at Maison Perumal, I am glad I did go out for dinner to a restaurant within the French colony. This cafe and restaurant is at La Maison Rose on Rue Romain Rolland. While the ambience is glitzy and meant for specials, my friends and I just walked in for dinner after having explored the neighbourhood. Fortunately for us, there was a table in the crowded restaurant. Why I have included this cafe in this special six list is because of their food. It is delicious and worth a visit, if you are visiting Pondicherry.

There are some places you visit that makes you think you want to revisit the place and there are others, that you are sure that you will not visit again, unless work brings you there. I enjoyed my brief time in Pondicherry/ Puducherry but it is not a city that I would want to revisit the next time I visit India. That is also because there are so many places in India that I have long wanted to visit and I have only visited a handful of them so far.

Auroville – a brief glimpse

Nearly three years after my last travel outside of Sri Lanka, I considered traveling again. However, unlike previous times, when I would consider places I had wanted to always visit and choose one from the list, this time, I wanted to choose differently. I wanted to go to a place that I felt perhaps might give me a sense of peace and perhaps an interest to stay longer in subsequent visits. In the last few months, I had been looking at places which might be ideal for meditation or simply a retreat. I came across Auroville during one of my web searches. The concept of Auroville attracted me.

“There should be somewhere on earth a place which no nation could claim as its own, where all human beings of goodwill who have a sincere aspiration could live freely as citizens of the world and obey one single authority, that of the supreme Truth.”

Who wouldn’t be interested in learning more about this lofty vision created by Sri Aurobindo and The Mother in the 60s?

I initially thought of staying within Auroville to experience what the place was like. However, given that it is a long drawn-out process to apply for and be allowed to stay within Auroville and the fact that I couldn’t stay for long away from home at this point in time, I decided to stay in Puducherry and visit Auroville to get an initial glimpse and feel for the place.

Hiring a three-wheeler, I visited Auroville with a couple of friends and learnt a little more about the place at the visitor centre.

The city was planned to have a 5Km diameter with a population of 50,000. In 1968, 5000 people from 124 countries participated in the inaugural ceremony.

From the visitor centre, we were allowed to walk up to the visitor viewing point of Matrimandir, considered the soul of the city and a point for silent reflection. The city was designed as four sections: industrial (north), cultural (north east), residential (south, southwest) and international (west).

Given that visitors are not allowed beyond the viewing point of Matrimandir, without prior approval, I did not have the opportunity to see any of these areas of the planned city. Nor did I gain an understanding of what the city dwellers considered the ‘supreme truth’ as we never met any of the residents. However, I did see some of the products manufactured by the industrial section of Auroville at the shops at the visitor centre as well at the craft bazaar at Puducherry.

The one km walk from the visitor centre to the viewing point was a lovely walk through the woods along a pathway, that had benches placed thoughtfully along the way for those who might want to rest a little.

At the end of the pathway, one came to the viewing point of Matrimandir. It was a golden orb in the distance, which did not evoke anything in me. After some time gazing on the orb, we decided to return to the visitor centre.

I guess I am glad that I choose to do this mini trip to first see if Auroville would be a place that I would be interested in staying for a longer period. My first glimpse of the place gave me the sense that the city had been envisioned in the idealistic 60s cultural context – that of a commune living, which was closed off to the outsider. To what extent the original vision was still being upheld, I have no idea but the current residents are very particular about the place being closed off to visitors. I instinctively felt that this place was not a place that I would want to live in, even though its principles of equality and humanity appealed to me.

Back at the visitor centre, I revisited the wall with the quote that I deeply resonated with ever since I came across it in a translation of Bhagavad Gita, as I was recovering from my road traffic accident back in 2005.