Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Pondicherry - Day 16

[Saturday May 4th: It's a beautiful day in Stratford; a warm sun and a cool breeze. And of all the weather I have experienced in all the places I have had the chance to travel, a late spring day in Stratford is hard to beat. While I would miss those crisp, clear, snowy mornings, the amazing colours of autumn, and the blue skies of summer, if I could make arrangements for this kind of day to be everyday, it would be perfect. But until then, a February day in Pondicherry is a wonderful alternative.]

After travelling in India for three weeks it was very exciting to arrive in Pondicherry. We are in France! Well, maybe it's not actually France, but until 1962 Pondicherry was French territory and enough of this history and culture remains that you can still find a perfect French restaurant, walk down a lovely French street and if there is a gate open, peek into the courtyard of a beautiful French home. Local constables still direct traffic wearing the rounded flat-top hat or kepi of the French gendarmerie.

Defined by a river that empties into the Bay of Bengal, Pondicherry is an imperfectly divided city with the French Quarter on the south bank, the Indian Quarter north of the river and Sri Aurobindo's ashram somewhere in the middle. Ang Lee's recent adaptation of The Life of Pi was filmed in these streets and wonderfully captures the beauty of Pondy.

Today we joined our guide Suna and were introduced to her Pondicherry which included the city ashram, the French Quarter and neighbouring Auroville - not geographically part of the city but none the less attached to the life of Pondicherry.

My mini-memory paintings are like steps taken through the day. In Pondicherry, the houses painted grey belong to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and this is the most interesting ashram I have visited throughout India. As a follower of Sri Aurobindo, Suna explained that anyone can come here to stay regardless of your religious beliefs. It is a place for artists and crafts people and the followers of yoga. Sounds lovely, don’t you think? The feelings at the ashram were very positive and the work on display was wonderful. We visited the paper makers and batik artists whose work is sold to help support the activities of this religious community. While my knowledge of Sri Aurobino, the founder of this religious place is limited, the well tended gardens and buildings of the ashram neighbourhood certainly give a positive look to Pondicherry.

Also giving Pondicherry much of its colonial flavour is Rue Cazy. It is here where the history of the French, the English and the Spanish mixes into vibrant architectural details. The owners of these historic homes are reclaiming and restoring each building to its original form and in vibrant purples, pinks, yellows and orange, they are making Rue Cazy a visual delight! The French wrought iron work reminds me of Havana and Savannah and even Paris which is maybe the most fitting comparison. Our cameras worked overtime on this lovely little street!

Lunch today was at Le Club on Rue Dumas. The sun was very hot and the covered patio with slowly turning overhead fans was a perfect place to spend our noontime: out of the sun, under the green leafy canopy, with a gentle breeze. Time slows in Pondicherry, and our lunch was no exception, but it was worth the wait. If you visit Pondy, visit Le Club for lunch but be sure that your afternoon is free.

Our afternoon was not free and for this delicious leisurely lunch we had to give up part of our visit to Auroville.

Driving in India: The road to Auroville is one lane - maybe one and a half - and it is under construction so on each side of the road is a ditch. Driving in front
of us was a large colourful Tata truck hauling dirt. Coming towards us was another
very, very large Tata. And so the age old question, who goes first? At least that would have been my thought in the unlikely event that somehow I was driving one of those trucks. However, I was a passenger on a bus, and each truck continued to proceed in the direction it wanted to travel. One scraped by a tree while the other balanced its wheels over an open ditch. The room between them was almost non-existent, but somehow at the pace of a snail they made it. I can still hear the sound as we all took our first breath as the two trucks passed. Best show of the day!

Auroville is an experimental township, an alternative community founded in 1968 by a figure known as The Mother. It is a surviving artefact of a time when European artists and intellectuals turned their attention, and their sense of design, to India. Imagined as the catalyst for a worldwide revolution in the way we live, Auroville is multi-national, pacifist, non-denominational spiritual community. The township is laid out on a spiral design with hand-made houses turning in towards the city centre where a golden sphere towers over the landscape. Our visit to Auroville was brief as lunch at Le Club stretched into the afternoon and two trucks slowed our commute but we were able to capture a bit of this interesting place in photos and in our memories.

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