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.
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.