Wet Drive to Pondicherry

Trip Start Feb 23, 2009
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Trip End Mar 18, 2009


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Flag of India  , Union Territory of Pondicherry,
Tuesday, March 10, 2009

    First morning at the Rain Tree, and I asked in the lobby where we were supposed to have the breakfast that was included with the room. The clerk said that normally it's in the 24/7 restaurant across the lobby, but that restaurant is closed some mornings, so we had to eat in the lower ground floor. "If it's closed sometimes, then it's not really a 24/7 restaurant, is it?" I asked, teasing the clerk. I got a very serious reply: "Yes, sir. It's a 24/7 restaurant. But sometimes it's closed."

    We didn't really know of anything we wanted to see in Chennai, so after breakfast (with soft jazz) we took a hired car and driver for a long drive to the French Colonial city of Pondicherry. Our Delhi friend Punita said it's nice to drive down there, see what's left of the French architecture, and have a nice Indo-French lunch. I had been told it was a 2.5 hour drive, but it started to pour rain, so our drive took more than 3.5 hours. Our young driver seemed to not know much about where we were going (although I had asked the hotel for a driver/guide), and he didn't speak much English, but at least he was fairly cautious about passing other cars/cycles/livestock on the road, which is a deadly sport in India and Sri Lanka. I haven't talked much about this because most blogs do, but if you're an American you have to be very brave or have a strong sense of destiny to put your life in the hands of these drivers. The rules are just completely different, and Jae, who is no shrinking violet herself when she's behind the wheel, refused to ride in the front passenger seat for the whole three week trip. I couldn't count the number of vehicles I think we ran off the road, playing chicken with 3 or more simultaneous vehicles.

    We did enjoy seeing a different part of India by being out on country roads, where the scrubby vegetation became more tropical as we moved down the coast. We saw more women wearing traditional saris, and I'm so sorry I wasn't fast enough to snap the most iconic picture imaginable...a woman in a bright beautiful sari driving a motorcycle as she was texting on her mobile phone!

    India, of course, is the world's biggest democracy, and there was a vibrant election cycle going on, which was gradually replacing "Slumdog Millionaire" as the number one topic in the newspapers. Outisde of the city, there were handpainted (because it's cheap) billboards everywhere promoting candidates. Many of these paintings looked like they were portraying third world dictators, as drawn by the artists of Mad Magazine.

    When we got to Pondicherry (now renamed Puducherry), first we couldn't find either of the recommended restaurants, even tho we had the addresses, because our "guide" didn't know how to get to the main streets. One particularly low moment was when we were very hungry, and the driver got out of the car, leaving the engine running in the middle of the street, and thru the rain on the windshield we could see him walking around to autorickshaw drivers asking for directions.

    We finally found our recommended restaurants, but the news wasn't good there either. At the first, which had a nice view of the stormy ocean just across the promenade, we were told we could wait an hour for a table. We went to the second choice, which was hosting a private party and wouldn't seat us at all. (Since it was raining, both restaurants were unable to use their outside seating.) Finally, we decided to try a less attractive hotel/restaurant that looked like it had a good view of the water. It did, but they didn't seat anybody in the room with the good view, they seated everybody in the room that had plastic over the windows. The food was not very good, and it was presented to us with a large helping of apathy.

    The day had been mostly a wash, but we wanted to visit the nearby experimental community of Auroville, which sounded like some sort of commune. It was very complicated to find (at least for our driver), because it is not quite in the same location at the official town of Auroville, which is just a handfull of markets where two dirt roads meet.

    I will now quote liberally from Wikipedia:

Auroville (City of Dawn) is an "experimental" township in Viluppuram district in the state of Tamil Nadu, India near Puducherry in South India. It was founded in 1968 by Mirra Richard (since her definitive settling in India called "(The) Mother") and designed by architect Roger Anger. Auroville is meant to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity....

In the inauguration ceremony attended by delegates of 124 nations on 28 February 1968, The Mother gave Auroville its 4-point Charter setting forth her vision of Integral living:

   1. Auroville belongs to nobody in particular. Auroville belongs to humanity as a whole. But to live in Auroville, one must be the willing servitor of the Divine Consciousness.
   2. Auroville will be the place of an unending education, of constant progress, and a youth that never ages.
   3. Auroville wants to be the bridge between the past and the future. Taking advantage of all discoveries from without and from within, Auroville will boldly spring towards future realisations.
   4. Auroville will be a site of material and spiritual researches for a living embodiment of an actual Human Unity.

After the death of The Mother in 1973, problems arose over the management of Auroville between Aurovilians and some of the initial pioneers based at Puducherry. A period of turmoil followed.

In the middle of the town is the Matrimandir, which has been acclaimed as "an outstanding and original architectural achievement". It was conceived by Alfassa as "a symbol of the Divine's answer to man's inspiration for perfection". Silence is maintained inside the Matrimandir to ensure the tranquility of the space and entire area surrounding the Matrimandir is called Peace area. The Peace area in which the structure is situated is characterized by three main features: the Matrimandir itself with its twelve gardens,twelve petals and future lakes, the Amphitheater and the Banyan Tree.

Inside the Matrimandir, a spiraling ramp leads upwards to an air- conditioned chamber of polished white marble - "A place to find one's consciousness". At its centre, a 70 cm crystal ball in a gold mount and glow with a single ray of sunlight that is directed on the globe from the top of structure. According to Alfassa, this represents "a symbol of future realisation."

When there is no sun or after the sunset, the sunray on the globe is replaced by beam from a solar powered light. Matrimandir has its solar power plant and is surrounded by manicured gardens.

    We pulled into a muddy parking lot filled with tour buses and school buses. After a mandatory viewing of an introductory film, we walked thru the woods about a kilometer to see the giant sphere, the Matrimandir. It was a nice walk thru the trees, but there is no paved walkway (in the interest of world peace, I guess) so the walk was pretty muddy also. We got to a small viewing area that overlooked the lovely manicured gardens, the labourers who were gardening, and the Matrimandir, which was indeed striking. We didn't see anybody going in or out of the Matrimandir, so I presume visitors are not allowed inside. It started pouring rain again, anyway, so we headed back to the muddy parking lot by way of the muddy path. Fortunately the rain was delightfully warm, and the dozens of school kids were enjoying it enormously, and practicing English on us with glee as they passed us.

    That night, back in Chennai, I was still keen to hear some decent music, so we went to a free Carnatic Music concert at Raga Sudha Hall in the district of Mylapore. Akshay Padmanabhan (Vocal), Akkarai Swarnalatha (Violin), Guru Raghavendra (Mrudangam) We arrived very late and Jae was concerned we were underdressed, but it was a very casual affair in a small auditorium, where the audience of about 20 people  conversed during the music and walked in and out. At one point, a woman stood up in front of the performers as they were playing, and took flash pictures of the audience. We were the only Westerners there, and probably the youngest as well.
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