Take one ounce of art & culture, add equal parts breathless scenic beauty, mix with spiritual riches and natural diversity. Simmer on the slow flame of sunny lazy afternoons. Serve hot with Wine. If I were a cook, that's how I would describe Pondicherry.
My Journey begins from Chennai in the April of 2010. I travelled from Bangalore for a visa interview at the US consulate. In Chennai, I stayed for a couple of hours at a hotel nearby to keep my luggage and rest for a while. Even in those couple of hours, the city amazed with its borderline paranoid hold on Tamil traditions and culture. The picture that I saw in that brief window was a city where self-obsession was masquerading as pride. Just one morning old in the heartland of Chennai, I needed a vacation. And the germ of this idea formed as I stood in the queue for my Visa interview. Twenty minutes later, my passport safely held by the Consulate after a successful interview, I packed up my stuff, tested my newly-acquired digital camera, see the picture below, threw on a pair of slippers and headed to the bus station. That is where the journey begins.
Pondicherry is around 150 kms from Chennai by road, but thousands apart in terms of spirit. Let me not get ahead of myself and begin with the beginning .. with the journey. I got onto a Volvo bus from CMBT, the service for which is quite frequent. The bus takes the Eastern Coastal Road (ECR) to Pondicherry for about 3 hours. The path is full of natural scenic beauty, with a beautiful beach that runs right alongside. It was tempting to stop en route, and I vowed to travel some time on my own to visit Mahabalipuram, Kalpakkam, Marakkanam and Kalapet. I reached Pondicherry in the night, and headed straight to a Hotel. It was right opposite Auroville, actually a little back on the same road which I had travelled. The hotel was besides a beach, a private entry included. Tired after a tough day, and lulled by the sound of sea, I slept like a baby.
The next morning I was up early and started the day with a run off to Beach Road. There is a statue of Gandhi overlooking the beach and this forms the busiest and brightest spot of the city, especially on a morning. It was a breath-taking view particularly for the terrestrial animal that I have been for most parts of my life. I waited by the Gandhi statue for sunrise, stretching and cooling off.
[Putla bana ke rakh diya, di khokhli pehchan hai
Na yaad uski soch hai, bas yaad-bhar insaan hai]
[Hui subah aur ghar se kaan par rakh kar kalam nikle]
Next up on the list was Manakula Vinayagar temple. Now, this temple has been in existence even before the French came to Pondi, somewhere in the late 1600s. It is dedicated to Lord Ganesha and Lord Murugan (which is another name for Karthikeyan, Ganesha's brother). I am not a particularly religious guy, but there is a temple elephant here, by the name of Lakshmi which blesses the temple visitor. Also, the priest would apply chandan to your fore-head. I may not be much inclined to God, but to theatrics I never say no. So, there I was chandan on the forehead in front of Lakshmi, ready to greet and get the wishes.
On my way back to the hotel, I went across to the Pondicherry Museum and Aurobindo Library. The afternoon was spent lazily lounging at the beach with a book, under an umbrella, dozing off to the sound of sea waves, and reading Murakami. I say that the best vacation that you can take is from yourself, and Pondicherry is the ideal place for that. It is best experienced between spots, in those moments of calm, when time takes a break - you are not expecting anything to happen and nothing does.
Before long, evening loomed over and I strolled back towards the city. I walked along the Gandhi Statue and beach road and found Alliance Francaise's building. Alliance Francaise is an international group with an aim to promote French art and culture. I have been to the one in Bangalore a couple of times for some plays and exhibitions. Pondicherry has a strong French connection with the colonial past clearly reflected in the names of streets, restaurants and buildings. Moreover, there is a strong French population base here. It is a quaint building and houses a cafe, an exhibition hall and lecture rooms. I walked in to a painting exhibition and was pleasantly surprised by the diversity on view. I captured a few on camera, one of which I have added here.
The plan for next day included a ride through Auroville to Matri Mandir. I started, after a stuffed breakfast, to catch my ride. I had originally planned to rent a bike, which is easily available. But, the climate was good and breezy. So, I just decided to walk my way over. In retrospect, that turned out to be a really good decision. The pathway is an well-paved, green and pedestrian friendly. I found a gem of a cafe called Dreamers Cafe, with excellent coffee and an even better conversation. Another patron of the place was a retired military personnel, who had become a resident of Auroville. He explained the rationale behind universal township and global village that Auroville has come to represent. It was an almost utopian thought and yet, here it was. The talk digressed from sociological implications to the economic sustenance of the place and further to the philosophical background of commune living. Dreamers probably was an apt name for the place.
At my next pit-stop, I had some French pastries and garlic bread at another cafe before I went on to Matri Mandir. It was on a whole quite a satisfying and enriching walk. I stayed for an hour or so, mostly spent reading, before going back. I was supposed to leave in the night and needed to spend just a couple of hours.
So, I headed to Chunnambar, which has a boat house and paradise beach. It is a little bit off Pondicherry city, but worth the trouble. There was only one problem, and that was the lack of time. Before, I left for the bus station, I clicked a final shot, and that was the one image which stayed with me. Next time, one of these shacks would be mine for a full day.