Pondicherry & Auroville

The day after we completed our final year college exams, 5 of my classmates and I began a trip through Kerala – Chennai – Pondicherry – Bangalore. For the next 10 days, as we drove through Kerala we were delirious from having just finished college, the adrenaline rush of holidaying and the endless possibilities of life before us. Strolling hand in hand, making best friends for life.. we were what I would now consider, the most annoyingly happy bunch of people in South India. Thankfully, life hit us hard as we reached Pondicherry.

Prior to our arrival, we were informed that Pondicherry was the ‘Goa of the East’ (of India) and as ‘creative’ media students, we naively imagined the works. We carried tiny denim shorts, bikini tops, dresses and makeup for all the nights we were going to go around town sipping cocktails or glugging beers (we were also quite superficial besides being naive). The day we landed was a dry day, so all our cocktail dresses were pushed to the bottom of our suitcases. We set out to find ‘Paradise beach’ in our shorts and swimsuits underneath. On the main beach road, we stopped to take some selfies. After a 10 minute session, we turned to find a mini mob staring at us hungrily. A policeman yelled at us to head back home as he vehemently blew his whistle and dispersed the mob. We never found the beach, we didn’t attend any parties and ultimately, we were not “allowed” to go to Auroville as it was on ‘strike’ as part of the dry day.

April 2010, at the Hotel Athiti terrace pool because We did't find a beach we could swim at.

April 2010, at the Hotel Athiti terrace pool because We did’t find a beach we could swim at.

Six years later, I moved base to Pondicherry, living on the same street as the hotel we had booked on that fateful trip. From the French Colonial tropical vibe to the Aurobindo Ashram’s asceticism to Auroville’s quirky, sustainable aesthetic; I have a whole new view of Pondicherry now. It has become my second home.

To appreciate Pondicherry, you must first learn about the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and Auroville. It is rather difficult explaining these two entities, it is best to read and experience them yourself. A large part of Pondicherry’s French town buildings have been protected because they belong to the Ashram (most grey & white buildings). A visit to the main Ashram building for a meditation is a beautiful experience for people looking to introspect. For the more active, there are surfing classes and lots of shopping to do in the Tamil quarters. There’s Pondicherry’s first department store Casablanca, the Auroville boutique – Kalki and a whole lot of street shopping.

There’s a lot of walking/cycling to be done within Pondicherry, mercifully there are plenty of cafes and restaurants on every corner to help you beat the heat and humidity. Some of the nice ones are Cafe des Arts, Cafe Artika, Dis Dis, Cafe Dumas and the sea facing courtyard of The Promenade Hotel. For dinner, I would never miss a night under the stars and the mango tree at Le Dupleix as well as the Pan Asian food at Bay of Buddha that overlooks the sea and the lighthouse. Other restaurants include La Villa, Pale de Mahe, Coromandel Cafe and Villa Helena (if you’re not white, finding a table at the last one might be a task).

Pondicherry is a place to explore and recuperate, I enjoy taking friends who visit to the Ashram Handmade Paper factory for a little tour on how the paper gets made and then of course splurge on some stationery. Another of my absolute favourites from the Ashram is a small boutique called Laboratoiries Senteur. A quiet, cool place that was started with the sole purpose of providing The Mother her favourite perfume which was difficult to import during the war years. It now sells a range of natural skin care products like aloe vera creams, mango butter and essential oils. My favourite section is the perfumery. Packaged in old fashioned glass dispensers, they smell of the sea and sunshine. With prices that seem to be stuck in time, this is an excellent place to pick up little gifts to take back home. My favourites are Ocean Spray, Mere and Samata.

Auroville is an enchanting experience if you know where to go, how to get there and have an inclination to the slow lifestyle. It is definitely not everyone’s cup of (organic, ethically sourced) tea. Geographically, Auroville is based in Tamil Nadu and is a twenty minute drive away from Pondicherry. A lot of tourists find Auroville quite frustrating and many more Aurovillians feel the same about tourists, but c’est la vie. The first thing to do would be to get acquainted with Auroville at the Visitor’s Centre, get a pass and then walk over to the Matri Mandir. The Matri Mandir is a beautiful gold globe that was built from scratch by Aurovillians over many years. Inside it is a meditation chamber with the world’s largest crystal that spreads light from a single beam that penetrates from the top of the room. It is surrounded by spectacular gardens and is accessible only to Aurovillians on all days. Tourists that are accompanied by an Aurovillian can visit at certain hours in the morning with prior permission or you could apply for a pass at the Visitor’s Centre.

The food in Auroville is some of the best continental food I’ve eaten in India. Go to Bread & Chocolate for breakfast – try their vegan cold chocolate, the croissant and scrambled tofu on toast.  Naturellement for lunch – all their pastas are delicious and not overcooked or drowned in sauces. Don’t miss Martina’s Special Cake here. If not coming from North India, and would like to try Indian food head to Roma’s Kitchen. My all time favourite chocolate brand – Mason & Co also conducts tours of their chocolate factory, though I haven’t attended one, I am sure learning their ‘Bean-to-Bar’ process would be fun. The best thing you can do is befriend an Aurovillian and explore the place with them. Understand their lifestyle, cycle through the forests or even attend one of the private parties.

Sourdough, crunchy peanut butter, chocolate tarts and bars from Bread & Chocolate

Sourdough, crunchy peanut butter, chocolate tarts and bars from Bread & Chocolate

lived in many cities in India and I learnt I’m not cut out for urban life. Pondicherry and Auroville are the only places besides Goa where I feel at home.