We got up and piled in the car for the drive to (eventually) Pondicherry. There were a few stops to be made on the way, though…
We headed first to Mahabalipuram, and stopped at a hotel for breakfast. For a change, I had poori, which are sort of like balloons made from chappatti. I’m not really sure how else to describe them! They come with some chutneys and sambar, and you pop them first to let the steam out before mopping up the gravy. In the street there were gap year people aplenty, all skinny, sunburnt and dreadlocked. The unusual hairstyle led to questions from Jay, who wasn’t really impressed when I let him know how it is achieved!
We continued to the Shore Temple, a world heritage site on the coast. We got tickets (10 rupees for Indians, 250 rupees for foreigners, again Jay was not impressed). This small ancient temple has certainly suffered from its placement on the sea, with the wind and salty air constantly eroding the carvings, but people are working to preserve it. The temple itself is small, and you can only just squeeze in and walk around the tower. There were ancient Tamil inscriptions in the surrounding rocks, as well as many statues. The sun here was unforgiving, and most of the foreigners were starting to slowly boil. Naturally this was an opportunity for lots of pictures of ourselves standing in front of the famous thing!
On the way out there were ice creams and mango sticks (basically a mango flavoured mivvy, yum) and then we took a very short drive to the Five Rathas, another ancient site, with spectacular statues. The central attraction is the huge stone elephant, and of course there were many pictures to be taken here too. I also caught a bit of shade in the pillared buildings while watching the families queueing up for their stone elephant picture.
We escaped from the crowds back to the car and headed for Pondicherry, where a (more modern) temple visit was in the plan, but we went for dinner first in a hotel, which was quite western to my eyes. The menu contained a mix of south Indian food and European dishes. Krishita had some chips with her food while the rest of us went for rice and nan with our curry – no one could resist pinching a few chips though.
We got into Pondi proper and the first thing to strike me was the Frenchness of the place. It was very strange to see the blue street signs with rue de la something and the Tamil script above.
There were lots of European tourists/ex pats about, and the usual bothering to buy souvenirs switched subtly from “madam” to “madame”. There were also a lot of cafes and restaurants with French sounding names, although I wasn’t convinced by the one offering Indian, French, Chinese, Vietnamese and Italian cuisine. Seemed like a bit of a stretch to do all of those things well! We left our shoes in the car and walked to the temple on the hot road.
We waited in the busy street for the temple to open, while market traders sold flowers, souvenirs and food behind us. When the temple opened we bowled in with the crowd and filed through the railings to visit Ganesh. Somehow we got stuck in the slow lane again, but eventually got through and made the rest of our visit.
We came out of the temple and headed to Sri Aurobindo ashram, but what should Sellappan spot but an elephant lumbering through the market. I don’t think much prepares you for the sight of a huge elephant striding through a busy street, with only passing interest from the crowd! The elephant was painted and was on her way to the temple to give blessings, so we decided to visit her after the ashram.
I didn’t know at the time but this ashram is linked with Auroville which we visited later. Upon entering the ashram, silence is mandatory so I didn’t have the chance to ask any questions! The ashram had gardens full of flowers, and then a central table filled with picked flowered arranged in intricate designs. We sat there for a while, and then exited through the gift shop as is traditional. The large shop sold works by the founder in many, many languages, as well as texts on meditation and spirituality.
Of course, all I wanted to do was meet the elephant, so off we all went to where she was standing outside the temple. Sellappan gave me a two rupee coin and told me to give it to the elephant and she would bless me by bopping me on the head with her trunk. I considered this for a moment (how do you give an elephant a tiny coin?) but he went first to give an example. The coin goes in the crook of her trunk, and then vanishes. Then, she lifts up her trunk, and touches you on the head with it – it feels like getting hit on the head gently with a heavy cushion.
The elephant trainer was a slim man with a tiny stick, and he kept the elephant supplied with water and food, as well as collecting the silver coins sprayed out of her trunk. He also fed Lakshimi (the elephant’s name) football-sized balls of rice straight to her mouth. She wore two silver anklets that jungled as she shifted around.
Just then we had a call from Balu who was passing through Pondicherry to pick us up and show the way to his house. We left Lakshimi behind and followed him to his place outside the town. After meeting the family and freshening up we went to Auroville, his and his mother’s hometown. Auroville isn’t just any old place though. I think the closest word I have in my vocabulary is a commune, but it describes itself as an International Community.
Auroville was founded by a Frenchwoman “Mother” and started its life as a red soil desert. What is there now is a town of about 2500 people, which is fairly self-sufficient and run on green power, with lots of organic farming. Aurovillians are all paid the same amount regardless of their job in the community, and everyone is expected to work 9-5, Monday to Friday at whatever job they do. Auroville looks after you in return, including housing and healthcare, you also have access to its education programme and evening activities which teach a huge range of skills.
Balu grew up in Auroville with his mam in a house periodically visited by snakes in the woods. Auroville accepts citizens from all over the world, and membership is not easy to achieve, Thorough background checks, questions bout ideology and trial runs in the community are just three of the hurdles to jump. There is a great sense of peace and tranquillity inside the town, and the whole place is beautifully maintained and manicured. It was only through Bali’s invitation that we were able to come in at all.
It was sunset as we walked around the grounds towards the Matrimandir, the enormous meditation hall. This hall is covered with huge mosaicked concave discs, made from tiles of glass and gold leaf. The Matrimandir is almost in the centre of the community, but the actual centre is an enormous tree which grew from one trunk, and then put down roots from its branches to form the 33 trunks it now has. It is a single-organism mini forest!
Next, Balu took us to the house he grew up in in the middle of the woods. There was no lighting, so we went by the light of phone screens and Baku’s sense of direction until we reached his place. On the way there he told us about how his mam used to find snake skins in cupboards. Sitting in his second home we chatted, and a little orange lizard ran under the door to investigate, it quickly changed its mind and zipped back outside again!
We returned to Balu’s house outside Auroville for a family dinner cooked by his mam and his wife. They filled our plates until we could take no more! Balu’s house is a new build, and has only recently been finished. There are three storeys above ground and a basement which has space for lots of guests, lucky for us! The air conditioning in the room was a real blessing too and after such a busy day sleep was very welcome.