Kerala, the land of serene backwaters, is now known as God's own country. A drive from Chennai to Pondicherry on the East Coast Road is sure to give you a feeling of déjà vu, though. Once you reach Pondicherry, stay there for a day or two and soak into the place, one is bound to feel the all-encompassing presence of Sri Aurobindo. First thing I was advised to do (like all visitors to this charming French enclave) after a customary walk by the seaside on Goubart Road, is to visit the Aurobindo Ashram on Rue de la Marine.
That entails a very pleasant walk through the French sector. If it's in the evening, the best option is to hire a bicycle and peddle through the bylanes of the picturesque French quarter. By the way, taxi and auto drivers don't expect tips but nor are fares uniform, so use your judgement! Philip Castelino a Frenchman I met who was on the trail of French colonies around the world told me, "I have come here after visiting Chandannagar in West Bengal. Interestingly, I found out that the Guru had stayed for some time after he decided to take up meditation, after his participation in India's freedom struggle and jail term. It was after Chandannagar that the Guru moved to Pondicherry and stayed here forever.” Chandannagar, incidentally, is another erstwhile French colony, like Pondicherry." The Ashram was actually set up in 1926 by Aurobindo Ghose, one of India's greatest philosopher-poets, who originally came to Pondicherry to escape persecution by the British. It was after arriving here that he was drawn into the spiritual realm and discovered the power of yoga. His philosophy, and that of The Mother, is deeply rooted in yoga and their writings have inspired many followers from around the world.
Getting to Pondicherry isn’t difficult actually, despite its relatively tiny size and perch on the south east coast of India. The closest airport is Chennai, around 135 km from Pondicherry, with the option of either road or rail. It’s on the rail map with Villupuram in Tamil Nadu as the nearest station. But the best, and by far the most picturesque, way to reach is by road. There’s AC/non AC bus services every 10 minutes from Chennai's Koyambedu bus stand, very reasonable priced too. The preferable (scenic!) route is the East Coast Road via Mahabalipuram. For a brief stopover to see the great Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram, the best option is to drive down in a car or hire a taxi. It just adds a couple of very pleasant extra hours to an already pleasant drive! The ashram is one of the most well known and wealthiest ashrams in India, with devotees from India and all over the world flocking to it for spiritual salvation. I learnt that I could enter the ashram with my shoes on, but no cellphones, cameras or handbags were allowed.
Once inside, the aura of everything "Auro" is uinmistakeable. Followers of the Guru line up around the samadhi, which is in the central courtyard under a frangipani tree and is covered daily with flowers.
There's pin-drop silence and strangely enough there is not even an urge to talk to anyone, such is the calmness of the place. Besides the Guru's and the Mother's samadhis, I saw Aurobindo's living room, study and meditation foyer. I even bought literature by and about Sri Aurobindo from an in-house bookshop. I could feel the ashram's influence in most of Pondicherry. Some of the ashram's facilities like the library, playground and the main building are housed in other buildings, most of them walking distance from the ashram. As I browsed through rest of Pondicherry, I stopped to have a peep inside the Ashram Art House, do some shopping at Boutique d' Auroville for Auro clothes, Auroshika for incense sticks and Auroshree medicine products. The climate in Pondicherry is generally humid, so I found cottons to be the most practical in the summer; light sweaters and jackets are needed during the short, mild winter. I would also recommend hats and sunglasses, as the sun can be pretty harsh in those parts despite the lush greenery and the breezes blowing in from the Bay of Bengal. Of course, during the monsoon, umbrellas are crucial! A limited number of rooms are available in Ashram guest houses for those on short visits to Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Since rooms are limited and often fully booked, I found it’s better to make reservations well in advance. One can enter the main Ashram freely during visiting hours, but some sections require passes that are available at guesthouses or Bureau Central. Serenity divine Auroville, the global settlement, which is 40 years old now and still going strong, is a place that simply cannot be missed on a visit to Pondicherry. Auroville, meaning the City of Dawn, is an experimental township which actually falls in Viluppuram district of the adjoining state of Tamil Nadu but it’s just 10 km off Pondicherry. Described as a 'new age metropolis conceived as an alternative exercise in ecological and spiritual living', the township stands out as starkly different from the surrounding traditional villages and farms. Especially the crowning glory of the settlement, the Matrimandir, which nestles in its midst. The striking mandir looks like a giant golf-ball-like globe covered with golden discs. As I near it, I’m told "silence is compulsory” and the cult-like atmosphere is reinforced by volunteers who wordlessly motion me to pass them. My efforts to meet their gaze are greeted with complete impassivity. Although originally intended to house 50,000, the actual population today is a mere 2,000 (800 of whom are of Indian origin) seemingly consisting of pony-tailed men riding motorbikes. The best way to move within the settlement, by the way, is by motorbike or a bicycle although rickshaws and taxis can be ordered
Inside Auroville, there are a host of activities to engage in, ideal for a four-hour schedule, like yoga, Tai-Chi, Watsu, different kinds of alternative healing and courses. The variety is wider during the visitors' season, December to March. Besides, it’s a very good idea to dig into some great organic food at the Auroville cafeteria. Pondicherry may have now been christened ‘Puducherry’ officially, but there are some things there that will never change....