Pondicherry... It's all French to Me

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

With 20 days of college life remaining, we decided to visit our favorite hangout place one last time - as students. Pondicherry - For all those who have been there, you know how different the place is and for those who have not been there, you would be getting a culture shock as you venture into this Union Territory through Tamil Nadu. Because, after Goa, Pondy is probably the only other place in India where the West merges with the East. Hence, the place is sometimes referred to as "La Côte d'Azur de l'Est"  or the French Riviera of the East.

Day 1, 11th March 2011, Friday: We had to bunk two afternoon lectures to reach Pondicherry before evening. Our start was not very heartening as we had just received the news of Tsunami hit in Japan, which was followed by a tsunami red alert in Chennai and nearby areas. We, ten of us, boarded a TNSTC Volvo from Chennai at 1.30 p.m. and reached Auroville by 5 p.m. We had made up our mind to stay close to the Auroville beach (Yeah! You heard it right - in spite of the ongoing alert) for three reasons - the shacks there are pretty affordable, the experience is mindblowing and also because Auroville is just 1 km away.

Auro Ba Cottages
After dumping all the backpacks in our respective shacks at the Auro Ba cottages, we took a bus to Pondicherry main town to hire bikes. We hired 5 gear-less scooters from Mission Street, after paying a security deposit of Rs. 2,500 and submitting copies of the driving licenses.

Now, one of the first things that come to my mind whenever I go to Pondicherry is Food - Food that is delicious and French. It was 7.30 p.m. and we all were starving; so we decided to go to 'Rendezvous' for dinner. After a lot of wrong turns down the identical and perpendicular (Read confusing) French colonies, we finally managed to find the place. Rendezvous, as the name suggests is supposedly a French restaurant, though all the french items we asked for were unavailable. The steaks and sizzlers were good, but not great. And they took a hell lot of a time to serve the food. In all, it's definitely not as good as Lonely Planet suggests. One thing that would remind me of this place is that I tried Squid here for the first time - It tasted like chewing eraser. 

After the dinner, we went to the Promenade and strolled around for sometime, feeling the cool sea breeze and hearing the waves crash on the rocks. We left the place at 9.30 p.m. and drove back to our cottage at Auroville. We had to drive carefully at night on the highway that led to Auroville. We played 'Spin-the-bottle' in our shacks for the next few hours, with lots of truths and secrets being shared, until we were all drop dead tired to continue. 

Day 2, 12th March 2011, Saturday: My next day started earlier than the others. I woke up at 6 a.m. and took a stroll down the Auroville beach. It felt so serene in the morning, with the waves crashing on the white sands and the sun just hovering above the clear waters. Standing there all alone with the waves touching my feet, I felt very connected to the sea.

By 7 a.m. I was back at the shack to get ready for the Matrimandir trip. Three days back I had faced a grueling telephonic interview with a Matrimandir Mother in order to book two entry passes for the Matrimandir Inner Chamber. The staff is very selective about who they let into the Inner Chamber and once I had passed the 'test', we were instructed to report at the Auroville Visitor's Center before 9 a.m on this day. By 8.30, six of us were on our way to the Matrimandir (while the rest four continued snoring). We reached the Visitor Center at 8.50 a.m. and grabbed some breakfast at the cafe there, followed by watching the Auroville video being screened at the Video Room. Like I said, we already had two passes and were lucky enough to get four extras, due to some cancellations. 

We were taken till the Park of Unity in an electric shuttle. After handing over our bags, mobiles and cameras at a locker room at the entrance (There goes all our worldly possessions), we followed our guide - a French lady, into the Park. She made us sit on stone benches in an area meant for a future lake and spent another 15-20 minutes to explain us the history and every part of the Matrimandir - The soul of Auroville. After instructing us to maintain absolute silence, we were led to the Matrimandir entrance, where we had to take off our shoes. I felt a triumph feeling (Remember the interview??) as I ascended the stairs that went inside the Golden Globe. I had been here only once before, during the summer of 2003 when the temple was still under construction and entry was yet to be restricted.

Matrimandir and the Banyan tree
Inside we were given clean white socks to cover our feet with, before ascending the spiral ramp that leads to the  Inner Chamber. The white marble chamber has at its center the crystal orb, through which a single ray of sunlight from the top of the globe is directed through the vertical length of the Matrimandir till the Lotus Pond beneath it. The lights were dimmed as we sat there in silence for 15 minutes - meditating, while the sun played hide and seek with the clouds and the same got reflected beautifully on the orb.

Left: Lotus Pond, Top Right: Inner Chamber, Bottom Right: A single ray of sunlight
Photography Courtesy: Google
As the lights went on and off again, it was signal for us to leave the chamber. We dropped the used socks in the bins provided on the way down. Once outside, I looked up to appreciate the majestic beauty of the shining globe. I spotted few immigrants doing some maintenance work on the golden plates, some 25 feet above the ground, hanging on safety harnesses like rock climbers.

We were then led to the Lotus Pond beneath the Matrimandir - a  pond made of 216 marble petals, with a crystal at the center. The pond is another sight worth seeing as it's like a tiered waterfall. The water from the perimeter of the pond was cascading down the petals till the crystal and from there it was getting recycled.

Maintenance work on the golden plates in progress.
Photography Courtesy: Google
Our next stop was the Amphitheater. We were told that this was the place where the inauguration ceremony of Auroville was held in 1968, when delegates from 124 nations came and put their respective nation's soil into an urn. We saw the lotus bud shaped urn at the middle of the amphitheater. This place hosts huge gatherings and bonfires on three days during a year - on 1st January every year on the occasion of a new beginning, on Auroville's Anniversary (28th February) and on Sri Aurobindo's Birthday (15th August). Our last stop was the Banyan tree, from where we were led out of the Park.

After the overdose of Spiritualism, we hunted down this place called Satsanga on Rue Labourdonnais (Quite a mouthful for a street's name). Satsanga is run by a French Expat and has a nice courtyard style seating area. There we hogged on deliciously creamy Italian food and French steaks and fries - a true gastronomic experience!!! Then to satisfy our sweet tooth, we went to Baker Street, a French delicacies concept store and tried their desserts.
On my insistence, few of us went to the Promenade again. I wanted to go to the bridge that runs into the sea at the far end of the Promenade. I had always wanted to go there, but instead of the bridge we ended up underneath the bridge. Nonetheless, I was having an euphoric feeling as it meant another strikeout from my wish-list.

Bridge at the end of the Promenade that runs into the sea
The place would look familiar to all those who have watched the movie 7 Khoon Maaf. A scene from the movie was shot here during low tides. We climbed up the pillars and went till the last easily accessible connector and sat there. The waves were crashing fiercely few feet below our feet and we were getting occasional splashes of water. I could see some boys at the far end and I felt jealous of them. We were running out of time, so I promised myself that the next time I come here, I'm going to go till the last pillar.

With this our Pondicherry trip came to an end and by 6 p.m. we were on a bus back to Chennai, but not before grabbing some premium yet inexpensive Scotch Whiskies.

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  1. Very well described indeed....please bring the pics tomorrow!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. :) thats all u did in Pondy???? :P

  4. Not exactly... But I chose to put a limit to my artistic freedom ;-)

  5. Amazing post.. it took my hand and guided me through those faded lanes of memory which came alive reading this post :)
    Amazing pics.. especially the first one :) Copyrighted by Sanghita Nandi huh? :D Who gave u the copyright? ;)

    One suggestion...
    Most travellogues suffer from the "we did this - then we did this - then we did this" syndrome.. Try to avoid going into that mode..

  6. Yeah even I had that in mind while writing... Tried a lot to avoid that but failed... Will keep in mind from next time onwards...

    You liked the pics right?? So worth Copyrighting
    ;-) ...