Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Pondicherry: An Ideal Getaway From Chennai

If you are thinking of a nice weekend getaway from Chennai, Pondicherry (now called Puducherry, but I am sticking to Pondicherry because more people know it that way) is almost sure to top the list of the options available. It is 160 kilometres from Chennai and it takes about three hours to get there. Most of the route passes along the scenic coast. No wonder that the highway is simply called the East Coast Road, abbreviated to ECR in Chennai. One can take a bus or a taxi from Chennai. You may want to stop at Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram) on the way. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, about 60 kilometres from Chennai. There are beautiful temples carved in stone, situated along the beach in this small town. The monuments are believed to have been built between the 7th century and the 9th century. But they have been standing so close to the sea for so long that the exquisite carvings have lost all their sharpness. Most of them are just some irregular shapes with rounded edges. The finer details of the works are lost, but the temples, chariots, pillars and sculpted reliefs have stood the test of the time and look impressive even today. That is the reason why Mahabalipuram is a popular destination for tourists.

There are several beach resorts on the way to Pondicherry. It is an interesting town...Pondicherry. Most of it looks like a typical coastal town in Tamil Nadu, while a small part makes you feel as if you were somewhere in France. Pondicherry came into being in 1673 under the French rule. It was the capital of French India until as late as 1954. The French Quarter is a charming little place, blessed with the lovely backdrop of the Bay of Bengal. Many of the streets retain their French names, while some buildings remind you of French villas.

Over the years, Pondicherry has become synonymous with Sri Aurobindo Ashram. The ashram was founded by Sri Aurobindo, a prominent freedom fighter, philosopher and poet, on the 24th November,1926. Soon after that, he withdrew from public life, handing over the running of the ashram to his French co-worker, Mirra Alfassa, better known as the Mother. The ashram attracts lots of visitors from India and abroad. Bureau Central, located on Rangapillai Street acts as the information centre for the ashram and helps visitors in all possible ways, including arranging accommodation in one of the ashram guest houses. I have made only day trips to Pondicherry and so I did not get a chance to stay in any of the guest houses. But I have heard that they are very good.

It is best to explore the French Quarter and the area around the ashram on foot. I walked to the ashram and joined the queue of people waiting for their turn to enter the ashram premises through a small door. I had expected the main ashram building to be quite large, but it is surprisingly small, a rather unassuming structure which you enter directly from the footpath outside. Later I came to realize that the ashram is spread out over the French Quarter in the form of numerous small units, all painted in the characteristic white and grey. There are guest houses, dining halls, book shops, educational institutes and cottage industries. These industries are engaged in activities like batik painting, embroidery, handmade paper, incense sticks, herbal soaps, candles, oils, perfumes and book publishing. You have to see the variety of incense sticks sold under the brand name 'Auroshikha' to believe their extensive range. Their packing is very attractive and their scent divine. SABDA (Sri Aurobindo Book Distribution Agency) is a well-maintained bookshop selling literature based on Sri Aurobindo's and the Mother's philosophy.

The main ashram building that houses the samadhi (tomb or cenotaph) of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, is open for visitors for four hours in the morning and four hours in the afternoon/evening, with a two-hour break in between. As you enter the premises, you are led through a flower-filled little garden path towards the inner courtyard where the samadhi occupies the centre stage. The samadhi is a simple marble structure under the canopy of the branches of a large tree. But what is striking is the elaborate decoration on it done with fresh flowers. It is completely covered with an arrangement of colourful blossoms, making the area redolent with their mixed fragrance. People come silently, kneel down to touch the samadhi with their forehead, then move away to sit in the courtyard that extends on all four sides of the samadhi. Everybody sits quietly, in meditation or prayer. No cell phones, no music, no talking, no clicking of cameras as photography is not permitted...only occasional chirping of birds. For most, this is the high point of their visit to Pondicherry. Spending some quiet moments near the samadhi is an enriching experience.

My favourite place to visit after the main ashram building is the Goubert Avenue which runs parallel to the beach. It is within walking distance from the ashram. The seat of the local government, the secretariat is located along this avenue. Some lovely guest houses and hotels occupy other places of pride along this beautiful promenade. The beach here is lined with rocks, not sand. A prominent landmark in this area is the tall black statue of Mahatma Gandhi standing under a white dome supported by pillars. Walking along this not-so-crowded avenue with balmy breeze blowing from the majestic Bay of Bengal is very enjoyable.

Another place of interest very close to the ashram is the Manakula Vinayagar Temple. It has been around even before the French came and settled in Pondicherry somewhere around 1670. It is a Ganesha temple and there is always an elephant at the entrance to bless people. Outside, there are little shops selling knick-knacks. I loved browsing in them before buying some pretty incense stick holders carved from light green stone. The lanes around the ashram are lined with small bookshops, boutiques and little eateries. It is fun walking around there.

About eight kilometres from Pondicherry is the experimental township called Auroville. It was founded by the Mother in 1968 with an idea of international brotherhood and harmonious community living. At the heart of this sprawling township is Matrimandir, a golden metallic sphere. Entry into this magnificent dome is restricted as it is reserved for those who wish to practise meditation seriously.

One can spend a few days in Pondicherry or one can just make a day-long trip from Chennai, as I did. Either way, it is a trip that soothes you, and refreshes you before you get back to your busy life in the city.

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