Puzzle with a piece missing in Pondicherry

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January 17th 2015
Published: March 10th 2015
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We were leaving Mahabalipuram and heading south to Pondicherry. We woke at 6.30am and headed out to a local chai wallah (tea seller) at Mother Chai Shop for a morning chai. The chai (tea) stand was tiny and the street was empty, so we were happy to be there. While Ren befriended a local dog who was after pats and scraps, I watched the wallah interrupt making our chai to give a young street kid a piece of cake. The kid just walked up to the stand and pointed to the glass jar the cake was in. When the wallah gave it to him, he took it in both hands, put it to his lips and kissed it before munching into it. It was an incredible act of generosity, especially as the wallahcould barely afford to give away his products. We witnessed similar acts of generosity throughout our India travels.

We wandered back to Hotel Mahabs, organised our packs, checked out and jumped into a minibus at 9am. I had started to feel unwell, so the two hour coastal drive south was fairly uncomfortable. We detoured into Auroville on our way to Pondicherry, and I’d been looking forward to experiencing this hippy outpost since reading the trip notes. India seems to attract the eternally idealistic forager who seeks meaning in everything, and the communal ideology behind Auroville probably gratifies this need. I couldn’t help but wonder why a place like this exists in the first place, and why it has been established here on the south eastern coast of India.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t answer my questions about Auroville. I was too unwell. When we arrived at 11am, I walked straight to the Visitors Centre and lay down on a stone bench that was in partial shade from the sun. It should have been uncomfortable, but my exhaustion allowed me to easily drift in and out of sleep. When a stray dog started circling me, a group of local women sitting nearby made sure he didn’t get too close. While I didn’t mind the dog’s curiosity, I was grateful for their concern.

As I lay sleeping, Ren made her way to the Matrimandir (a large golden orb in the middle of a field). She returned disappointed. I would have been too. There’s nothing quite like a large golden orb in the middle of a field. We retraced our steps to the minibus and continued our journey south to Pondicherry, arriving at Hotel Surguru at 12.30pm. I went straight to bed and slept for 6 hours. I felt much better for it.

By 7.30pm I was feeling OK, so we jumped into an auto rickshaw (motorised tricycle with a passenger cabin) and headed to the Satsanga French and Italian Restaurant for dinner. Our driver was a bit erratic and had trouble finding the restaurant, so the trip was entertaining. We had only just been seated and ordered our meals when the power went off. As we sat in darkness, the waiting staff assembled makeshift candles for each table and continued to serve food and drinks. Luckily the power came back on just as our meals arrived. We had fried eggplant with creamy walnut sauce and egg curry with French fries. This was Indian/French fusion food, and it almost worked...almost. On the upside, Ren had a refreshing pomegranate juice and I had a delicious masala chai (spiced sweet milky tea). We left the restaurant around 10pm and headed to the comfortable Anandha Inn for drinks. I was feeling heaps better, which was a relief, as we had a six hour train journey to Madurai the following day.

We woke up much later than intended on the morning we were leaving Mamallapuram for Pondicherry. We went for a quick walk around the back streets of the hotel in search of a glass of chai (tea). Kim and Lee recommended Mother Chai Cafe, so we hunted it down. The chai wallah (tea seller) was very friendly. We‘d arrived just as he’d finished serving some people, so there was free space around the stall for me to watch him make our chais. He juggled a pot for boiling the tea and milk, another of simmering milk, and three or four glasses at a time. He kept moving the pot of boiling tea and milk around to prevent the froth from boiling over. With each boil the consistency of the tea thickened and darkened. From a height, he poured hot milk into the glasses, followed by a stream of the bubbling milky tea through a strainer. He then topped it all off with some frothy milk and handed over the glasses to us in the same flourishing gesture. The tea was smooth, strong and delicious. I can see why this chai wallah had a regular following of locals.

As we sat drinking our chai we watched the regulars (including some expats) being served. The chai wallah knew all their special requests, remembering who had which biscuits from the various jars in front of the stall. There was a very friendly dog who greeted all the customers, stood with them as they ordered their tea and then walked them to the few seats scattered around the stall. He’d done this to us too and had received a pat for his efforts. However, one of the regulars informed me that the dog performed that routine for biscuits… and he pointed to the third jar along and said ‘those ones are his favourite’. I didn’t get the doggie a sweet treat… but if we’d been in town that day I would have brought him back a meal more suited to a canine than cashew nut cookies.

We hurried back to the hotel via some back lanes where people were washing dishes, hanging washing out, feeding their cows and generally getting ready for the day. We watched in fascination as a little calf was given the left over porridgey rice water from a cooking pot. He seemed to love it. But then I realised that he was tethered so tightly that he could hardly move his front legs. 😞

Back at the hotel we piled into a minibus and left Mamallapuram at 9:30am. It was a three hour drive to Pondicherry further down the east coast, but it felt much longer. Even though Pondicherry is physically in Tamil Nadu, it is a separate Union Territory and is governed directly by the Central Indian Government – which is an unusual case in a Federal country.

The landscape was once again full of mango plantations and coconut trees. We also passed a vast section of salt fields. It was a pretty vista, but the minibus was cramped and Andrew struggled with leg room and generally seemed off colour. It looked like he was coming down with a bug.

There was a scheduled stop before we got to Pondicherry – Auroville. On the way, there were ample opportunities for hippie spotting...westerners with varying lengths of matted hair, tie-dye clothes and baggy hippie-pants. By now Andrew was feeling very lethargic and tired, so he chose to lie in the shade rather than visit the Auroville complex.

Auroville is a kind of alternative community, or more to the point a group of 80 rural communities that are home to nearly 2000 residents who have to buy a house to live there (most of whom are foreigners). It was established in the late 1960s by a French woman known these days as simply ‘The Mother’. The basic founding principles were that the community should find more sustainable ways of inhabiting the planet, and that the community be open to all creeds and all nationalities. While all that sounded fantastic on paper, as with most communes/cults, the way it has manifested felt quite weird and very selective.

At its heart is a giant sphere – the Matrimandir – which took 37 years to build and looks like a giant gold golf ball. It’s thought to house the world’s largest solid crystal. They meant it to look futuristic (think James Bond-esque), but it just looked terribly cheesy (think Austin Powers). Before coming to India I had read up on the community, and the literature had a pompous, preachy, semi-religious tone which had me offside from the start. On the other hand, they seem to have an impressive range of renewable energy and sustainability projects, and they grow enough food to feed their entire community.

I had been hoping to get more information when we visited, but apart from the long march to view the Matrimandir, the whole complex was closed for Pongal. One redeeming feature of that long walk was that the gardens were well manicured, and the shaded walkways had beautiful flowers and gorgeous old trees. ‘The Mother’ had assigned spiritual significance to certain flowers which she thought contained symbolic messages. The walkway had posts with some of this information, as well as various quotes and sayings.

For a cynic like me, without more information on how the various projects at Auroville worked, or the opportunity to talk to the people who actually lived there in order to find out more about the day-to-day life within the various communities... there was little to counterbalance the feeling that it was all a bit elitist and exclusive. Especially considering the poverty immediately outside the gates. I can certainly admire the basic principles of the group, but I found the religious reverence to ‘The Mother’ quite creepy, and it was hard not to dismiss this as an eccentric remnant from a bygone era that attracts the usual commune types. I couldn’t help but draw certain parallels with Animal Farm. I have to admit that I was surprised at how quickly, and how much, Auroville raised my hackles.

Putting that experience behind me, I was happy to finally arrive in Pondicherry (also called Puducherry, or Pondy). It was a French colony until 1954, seven years after the rest of India gained independence from the British. Even though it had an underlying French feel in the French quarter, it wasn’t as French as the brochures make out, and there was a very definite Indian-ness about it outside this small area.

We checked in at Surguru Hotel at 12:30pm. Andrew went straight to bed while I did a quick trip to the closest shop to get him some drinks to keep him hydrated. The room was clean enough, but by this stage of the trip I have to admit that I was getting a bit sick of wet room bathrooms. This one was especially wet! How hard is it to install a shower curtain? Ok, enough grumbling.

I left Andrew tucked up in bed and joined the group for a walking tour of Pondicherry. Our hotel was very centrally located in the heart of the Tamil quarter. We walked to the French quarter which was smaller than I expected, but it had an unmistakably European vibe – in stark contrast to the rest of the town. The clean and orderly grid of wide tree-shaded, bougainvillea-draped streets were lined with elegant old villas, many of which have been restored and converted into boutique hotels, restaurants and chic shops. A few buildings were heavily guarded by police dressed in Francophile uniforms. There were also a couple of bakeries selling pain au chocolat, adding to the French flavour of the area.

We stopped near a property with high walls concealing a colourful garden full of flowers. This was the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, founded in the 1920s. Sri Aurobindo was a somewhat violent nationalist-turned-guru, who eventually passed leadership of the ashram to The Mother (of Auroville fame). Inside there was near silence, as people sat in quiet contemplation in the garden around what looked to be Sri Aurobindo’s tomb. This may have been a nice space under normal conditions. However, given the crowds visiting on that day, we were basically conveyor-belted through the garden and tomb, and then pushed through the very crowded library and gift shop until we tumbled back out onto the street. It was a disappointing experience which left me feeling hollow.

Next we stopped at a local temple dedicated to Ganesh – the Sri Manakula Vinayagar Temple. Given it was Pongal it was crowded beyond belief, so we didn’t even attempt to go in – it took us long enough to just navigate ourselves through the area near the entrance. There were a few stalls near the entrance doing a roaring trade in flowers and offerings which also added to the bottleneck. The people going into the temple blessed themselves with the holy fire burning outside, while the people coming out had little hand-sized servings of sakkarai pongal – a pudding of rice, milk, jaggery (solid product of reducing sugar cane juice or palm sugar), coconut, raisins, cashews and cardamom.

Leaving the temple, a few of us turned towards the beachfront. Locals and tourists were packed along the promenade, where hawkers were selling fairy floss and seaside toys. There was a huge garlanded statue of Gandhi surrounded by pillars... I saw all of this from the comfort of the terrace bar of a hotel where we had stopped to have drinks.

It was very pleasant sitting on the terrace watching the madness of Pongal crowds on the beach, but I wanted to get back to the hotel to check on Andrew. Damien insisted on accompanying me back to the hotel, and no amount of insisting that I was a big girl who could get back to the hotel on my own made any difference. We caught an auto rickshaw (motorised tricycle with a passenger cabin) back to the hotel which had to weave its way through thick walls of people streaming in all directions. I think that you can get a good measure of a person by how they act when things aren’t going smoothly – and in my eyes, in that one act, Damien went from being a ‘great travel buddy’ to a ‘big brother from another mother’. 😄

Andrew was feeling a bit better, so we joined the others for dinner that evening. We caught auto rickshaws to the French quarter, and it was a crazy ride. I had a suspicion that the drivers had made a bet about who would get there first, but then our driver got lost. Satsanga is a French/Indian fusion restaurant set in the loveliest of settings in a garden hung with coloured glass lamps. We sat on the terrace and enjoyed the lovely cool breeze. Unfortunately, that’s where the good review ends. The service may have seemed fast if we were glaciers. But alas we were not, and we were hungry. It didn’t get any better when the very average food arrived. We shared dishes of egg curry (which wasn’t too bad), fried eggplant in a creamy walnut sauce (which wasn’t too good), slightly soggy French fries, overcooked vegetables and rice. It was by far the worst meal we’ve had in India to-date, and the most expensive. The only memorable part of my meal was the fresh pomegranate juice. It was extremely delicious, especially with a shot of vodka through it. 😉

As noisy and dusty as Pondicherry was, I have to admit that I enjoyed navigating a city planned in a grid. Don’t get me wrong, I do love the winding narrow streets and high getting-lost risk factor of an organically grown old city... but my inner Melbournian gets very excited about good grid planning too.

There was clearly much, much more of the city to be explored, but I quite liked what I had seen so far. Amidst the noisy and bustley streets, there was an underlying quiet presence to the city that endeared itself to me and made we wish we had more than one day here.

Next we travel southwest to Madurai in inland Tamil Nadu.


10th March 2015

Communes and community!
Interesting comments on this commune. Must look into this more. I think all of us travel bloggers should live in a community and look after the others' property when they travel! Ha, how about that?
11th March 2015

Re: Communes and community!
Meryl now that's a community I would happily be part of! We'd have to write pet-sitting into the agreement too :)
10th March 2015

Maybe the shower curtains are constantly stolen?! Lol
Oh I so want to do this trip. Thanks for sharing, which tour did you go with for this?
11th March 2015

Re: Maybe the shower curtains are constantly stolen?! Lol
As much as I complain about wet bathrooms, I would rather a wet bathroom over a manky shower curtain... Andrea I think you will love India! I will message you the details.
10th March 2015
rangoli in tamil quarter

Kindness and craziness...
How lovely to encounter acts of kindness from the chai wallah to the women protecting Andrew while he slept to your friend Damien. These sweet treats make traveling memorable! Then, Auroville, the golden orb, and a wild rickshaw driver provided proper craziness to spice up the visit. As I often do with your delicious offerings, I looked up eggplant with walnut sauce. There was neither an Indian nor a French one, but one from Georgia--perhaps they "fused" a bit too far afield. Glad to see that a fine snooze put Andrew ready for trucking again.
11th March 2015
rangoli in tamil quarter

Re: Kindness and craziness...
Tara you made me chuckle about the Indian-French-Georgian fusion. I think 'kind and crazy' sums up some of our travels in India very well... :)
13th March 2015

I've always like the name of this town. A nation of generosity and you were able to observe the kindness. Life is grand...so many more good people than bad. Trying to figure out why or how Auroville exhist is like the chicken or the egg conversation. So glad you were feeling better. Expats are always an interesting group. I always wonder how someone picks the one country or town to stop traveling. Did it capture their heart, did they run out of money or energy, or is it the place they always dreamed of. Mert and Ren, we hope to buy a house this year. We'll call you when we are ready to travel and you can watch our house. We've been thinking about that for months. We are pleased to have eaten a fine Indian meal before reading this blog. We have gotten wise in our old age.
15th March 2015

Re: Pondicherry
Merry I have always been fascinated with the name 'Pondicherry' too! Having been an expat for a lot of my life, I find that they can be a real odd bunch of people...especially when they move to another country and then create a little bubble of 'just like at home' to live in. We will happily house and pet sit for you guys!
14th March 2015
mother chai stall

Love this photo
15th March 2015
mother chai stall

Re: chai
Thanks Merry! x
24th March 2015
rangoli in tamil quarter

It's amazing how intricate these are and how long they take to put together. Love the colours!
25th March 2015
rangoli in tamil quarter

Re: Gorgeous
It is such a skill...but then people (and cows) walked right through them, sometimes before they've even finished!
24th March 2015

Raised hackles
We didn't go to Auroville as we had the same immediate gut reaction you did...it just raised our hackles! We liked Pondicherry, that weird French-Indian fusion was great (apart from your unfortunate meal that is!). Vodka and pomegranate juice is one of the best drinks ever...I seem to remember recommending it to you!
25th March 2015

Re: Raised hackles
You've just confirmed a feeling I've had that we missed out on potentially good food in Pondicherry! I loved that vodka and fresh pomegranate juice...I've tried it with bottled pomegranate juice here and it just wasn't the same. I'm back to my old standard of vodka and cranberry now :)

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