Call it Puducherry or Pondicherry it’s still quite French
If you enter the French quarter or what was once called the ‘White town’ of Puducherry (for larger picture, click on the map) you might as well have stepped into another world. The paved streets with French names, the colonial style architecture and the lack of crowds make you feel as if you aren’t in India.
The various sectors have been planned and the streets are wide and perpendicular to each other. French is spoken widely and is still the official language (along with Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam). There are foreigners around to complete the illusion of being outside India. 🙂 The fact that Puducherry was once a French colony is evident.
Not surprisingly there is another area in the city called ‘Black town.’ This may not be as pretty as the French quarter, but it does retain its quaint old look. Narrow roads, but not too crowded and like in the “white town” people of all classes and gender move around on cycles.
The place, which has a holiday atmosphere, is full of eateries, guest houses and restaurants. Tourists don’t stay here for long though, as there is nothing to see as such in Puducherry itself. Not unless you count the beaches. There is one main ‘Beach Road” which is like a promenade and people collect here in the evenings. You can’t actually touch the water, not on this beach, as the seafront is raised and separated from the sea by boulders. On the day we visited, it was drizzling, but the heavy rain was over and it was very pleasant walking around. Otherwise at this time of the year Puducherry can get very hot.
There is a plethora of guest houses and hotels to choose from. There is also the Ashram guest house where rates are very reasonable, starting from Rs 600/- for a double room. There are other places where you can get a room for as cheap at Rs 300/- with a clean bathroom. However these ashram places have a curfew of 10. p.m. for some reason and smoking and alcohol is not allowed in the rooms.
The only way to move around if you don’t have a hired car is if you use the rickshaws. Unfortunately they don’t go by the meter and charge you anything from Rs 25/- to Rs 50/- for traveling a distance of even half a kilometer. Best is to walk around the city as it’s small enough (we did a lot of walking) and traffic is limited. Cars may actually stop for you! 🙂 The other option is to hire cycles which you can get at Rs 20/- a day. This is a good idea, less to save money and more to avoid intimidation by rickshaw drivers.
The town’s popular tourist attraction is Auroville which is about half an hour’s drive away. Auroville was built by a French lady now known as the ‘Mother,’ a disciple of Sri Aurobindo (freedom fighter and spiritual leader). The township is supposed to embody “Unity in Diversity” and is an “experimental community would evolve humans by helping to bring into being a more advanced consciousness called the supramental ” whatever that means. We did visit and got a general view of the place, but no one is allowed to actually see the township, except its office and a hall, not unless you actually live there.
But not everyone is allowed to live here, although we were told the opposite. We know someone really well in Pondicherry and they were refused to be allowed to stay there overnight. When we asked the guide as to why he said students were not allowed! We told him that the people who were refused were not students, but working people, and he could not meet my eyes then. I asked if foreign “students” would be allowed and whether all foreigners would be allowed and he quickly changed the subject. And this is a place which is supposed to embody “Unity in Diversity”?
These are pictures of the MatriMandir where the people from Auroville do their meditation and prayer. It looks more like a spaceship to me. And that would be funny if it weren’t true…I mean the town is modeled on the solar system! From the air it looks like it too.
The pictures were taken with a zoom camera as we were not allowed even this close:
Actually I find nothing wrong in restricting entry into Auroville, but then why say “everyone” is allowed? If they want to restrict entry to “believers” they are welcome, but I think it must be more than that because they say “everyone” is allowed. Even in the audio-visual shown to us there was a lot of hoopla about how people of all kinds from all over the world came here and the idea was “unity in diversity.”
We had encountered some racism in some Pondy restaurants (I will be writing about that later in another post) and were therefore not surprised to know that at Auroville they are very particular about whom they let in. When we came back to Mumbai I checked on the net and found that there were others who had had similar experiences. This blogger has written about an “Auro” beach from which Indians were shooed away. And a foreigner who has lived in Auroville himself has written:
While Auroville’s charter claims it to be a place of tolerance and equality, many of its residents seem to harbor opposing views. Racism between the Indian citizens and the Westerners, as well as among each of the groups themselves is very noticeable. The North Indians, like in the rest of the country, do not see their southern compatriots as equals. At the same time, some of the European residents I met always referred to their fellow Indian Aurovilians as “they” or “them.” And then there were those who found fault in people’s different religions.
If you read the rest of the entry he describes how “materialistic” Aurovilians can be. I personally have nothing against materialism and frankly only see extreme materialism as clashing with spirituality, but pretending that one is not materialistic does clash with spiritualism. To me spiritualism has always meant truth and honesty in all things and also self awareness. If these two things are missing you cannot be anywhere near spiritual.
Sadly, in Puducherry, a town where the ‘Mother’s presence is palpable, where her pictures are hung in hotels, restaurants and in shops, where her name is uttered in hushed tones, racism is also palpable. The Indians themselves practice it…waiters, rickshaw drivers, guides, security guards…and so do the whites. I had heard about the whites being racist from someone who lives there, and I also read something on the net. We ourselves did not meet any foreigners during our trip and an ordinary tourist in fact will not come into contact with them. But if one is sensitive it can be upsetting to see foreigners getting better service. In one self-service restaurant (Le Cafe owned by the government) a waiter was serving each and every foreigner and Indians were repeatedly refused service, even those with babies on their arms. This happened on two consecutive days with loads of different people…we found it more amusing than hurtful though.
One great thing about Auroville – those who built it look after the land really well, have planted thousands of trees and in fact have turned the once barren area into a lush forest. Hats off to them for this achievement.
Puducherry was an interesting experience overall. We enjoyed ourselves and did not take any ‘slights’ personally and did not argue with anyone. After all there were some really decent restaurants and we met some really nice people. And the town itself was beautiful, the area was green, the air was pure and well, it was a very different experience.
The place is about 3 hours drive from Chennai and the drive is picturesque. The salt pans, rice fields, coconut trees and the lush vegetation made the drive a real treat. And the road is excellent.
I almost forgot about the shopping! You can buy a lot of hand crafted items here ranging from bedcovers to table mats. Also a lot of pottery work and jewellery, all hand-made. And a great variety of incense and aromatic stuff. Stuff like candles, herbs, teas, incense sticks, mosquito and insect repellents etc. Apparently quite a few of these industries are run by the Aurovillians themselves.I also managed to buy some “stoles” at a sale, for just Rs 50/- each and I thought they were a steal. They can easily be used as duppattas, although they are a trifle short.
(Map is from the wikimapia and the photographs are all copyrighted to me)
Update, 25th May 2008: Purnima has written about her experience of Auroville and well, it confirms my suspicions about the dubious goings-on there. It was from Purnima’s post that I got the link to the bbc article which – horror of horrors – talked about child abuse! Sure, the Aurovillians have denied the allegations, but naturally, they will. Auroville is nothing a cult that should be disbanded by the Tamil Nadu government.
Related Reading: Life on the streets of Puducherry – a photo essay
A visit to Mammallapuram – a photo essay
The cave temples of Ellora in Aurangabad – a photo feature
A tour of the Ajanta Caves in Aurangabad – a photo feature