Monday, December 31, 2007

Gone Pondy

Around the last week of ’07 I made a trip I had been hoping to make since almost a year before. And unlike any other trip I’ve ever made I went with nothing but an open mind (no fixed plans, no places to stay, no company!, nothing but a credit card --with a credit limit which can be best described as Puerto-Rican-- and a very old digital camera). So… I decided to write some notes to accompany the photos that I took…

This is not either a Pondicherry Travel Guide or a Trip Report. Rather, it’s a collection of notes on interesting sights and sounds that caught my eye when I was there. If you’re looking for a Pondi Travel Guide, I quite recommend the following:

  1. WikiTravel - Pondicherry : Kept up-to-date by wiki contributors, this site’s a concise review of the to-and-fro Pondi experience. There’s a separate page for Auroville. For the hardcore travel-hackers there are wikitravel phrasebooks for French and Tamil.
  2. This website, although with an unusual sounding title, had some very good information about Pondicherry and Auroville. The phone numbers and costs are old and unreliable. Better links for those can be found in the next..
  3. The most reliable source of information on Auroville is the official site, and the Visitor Information, Guest Houses and Services site. Highly recommend calling them up!
  4. Similarly for the Ashram… Call up well in advance…. Guest houses are are the best deals you can get in Pondi.

Introduction: Pondicherry (now Puducherry, but best known as Pondi/Pondy) is a small town on the east coast of India close to the famous metro of Chennai/Madras. Pondi was the capital of erstwhile French India, and has a whole lot of history associated with it, and could even put a goldfish to sleep. What’s interesting is that present day Pondi still retains a sizeable French population and civil influence till date. I was most impressed with the French architecture on the streets and design of the streets: streets with French names (but also in JalebiScript), tiled roads that cut each other at right angles and houses which were no more than 2 stories high.

The French people have really integrated themselves very well in Pondi. Although the town’s population is 90% Tamil —and that’s understandable as Pondi is surrounded on three sides by Tamil Nadu, and by the Bay of Bengal on the fourth – the French influence is pervasive. The city’s population thrives on a steady diet of tourists from all over India and the world, all of whom come to see either the aforesaid ‘The French Riviera of the East’ or The Sri Aurobindo Ashram.

Which brings us to the Ashram... Sri Aurobindo was an important figure from days of the Indian Freedom Struggle and had played a leading role in organizing the ‘extremist/radical‘ forces in Bengal. He found his spiritual calling whilst in jail and gained enlightenment during subsequent practice in Pondi. With the growth of his followers and after he was joined by his spiritual partner (Mirra Alfassa aka the Mother), an ashram was set up in Pondi and the ‘Auroville‘ experiement was started about 10kms from there.

As must be evident from what I have written till now, Pondi is quite a ‘spiritual‘ city. And so, there’s not much to do for the AVERAGE tourist, who basically seems to want to visit generic tourist spots (read melas) and party at local haunts. The discerning traveler however, knows what to look for in a city like Pondi. And he finds that partly inside the heart of the city, and a lot more at the City of Dawn (A’ville) outside the city. For the first half of my trip I stayed at an Auroville community called ‘Sri Ma’… and it was beautiful as these photos tell better:

Pondi is not irrelevant to the general tourist either. After having walked the Promenade at Goubert Salai (‘Salai ‘means road in Tamil), one can get a fine cup of coffee or ice-cream at “Lé Café”, or French croissants/Danish pastry/German Marble-cake at “Hot Breads”, to be followed by dinner at “Lé Club“. No Le Disko unfortunately. Pondi is a really small city and, being the type of guy who ENJOYS his walks, I used to take these excursions from one end of town to the other. For the 3 days I was in the city, I think I covered the length and breadth of the city atleast 4 times on foot! Small place… It’s easy to rent a cycle, a motorbike or a car from the tourism infrastructure in the city for meager rates, but I highly recommend either the walk or bicycle to not miss any of the sights, sounds or smells of the city.

It was during these walks that I was also mistaken by a few (many?) people to be a local of Pondi! [:D] Dressed in a tee, sneakers and cargo-shorts, humming Brimful of Asha, and with a tan to add the credibility of a local to my already ‘approachable-and-friendly’ image, I was consulted a few times by distressed French tourists and bored Indian tourists for directions and advice on a city I had barely discovered myself. On times that I failed to deliver, and/or when the tourist found a ‘real’ local, I saw amazing spectacles of French people talking in fluent Tamil(!), or Tamil people speaking fluent French(!)..... “Oui Mademoiselle!”

One sight and one sound from my trip remain stuck firmly in my head:

This one evening on a walk around the Tamil part of town, at a Tapri that I crossed, there were some local Tamil men sitting around, in their dhotis, down on their haunches, sipping some chai, and basically doing their thing. Right then, a (White) French man, wearing an Ascot cap, Chucks and three-fourths comes around to the Tapri, orders some tea, pulls up his pants a little, and joins RIGHT in the conversation with the others in fluent Tamil! There he was, slurping his tea like they do it there and talking the talk… Wow, what an awesome spectacle! Now, THAT’s what they meant by “When in Rome…!”

On the bus journey from Pondi to Chennai, I heard a Tamil song that sounded vaguely familiar in tune. I didn’t get it till midway through the song, but then it hit me – it was a note-perfect copy of one of Rihanna’s songs - being sung in Tamil! Some remake!

All in all, an good trip and a refreshing change!


pureananda said...


very nicely put...

Kanan Saurabh said...

Now now now!
You are blogging and I did not know!

This reminds me of the Pondy trip I made myself with two other chaps. Was fun. We stayed in a hut, got hung-over and I had my spectacles stolen by a crow!
How you managed to enjoy it by yourself though... is beyond me!

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