We just want to clear up one point. The movie, Life of Pi, was based on a fiction that the Pondicherry Zoo animals were sold off to a Canadian Zoo. For the record, there was no Pondicherry zoo! Pondicherry has plenty of exotic attractions but a zoo is not one of them!
The distance from the Chennai (formerly Madras) airport to Pondicherry is around 160km. Taking around 3.5 hours by taxi on an excellent coastal highway with the trip costing around $50 in modern comfortable cars. If you’re heading down to Auroville (more on that later) be sure to book an Auroville Taxi as the drivers are reliable & careful. If not, use a taxi booking service at the airport.
Head straight down to ‘Pondy’ if you wish, or if you’d like a real treat, stop off for a couple of days at Mamallapuram, (formally Mahabalipuram). A seaside fishing village and 7th Temple town, Mamallapuram is one of the important archaeological sites of India. Discovery of the site by the British rulers of the Raj unlocked mysteries of ancient Indian art and culture. Sites around the town include temples carved out of boulders and the rock face.
For a few rupees you might ascend the lighthouse for even greater views. Be sure to buy a history book from the book vendors – this helps to bring the site to life. And check out the multitude of local stone carvers chipping away across town.
There is accommodation at all levels. We chose the Raddison Blu Resort only because it boasts one of the longest swimming pools in South east Asia. Our 14 year old was sold! That and the fabulous buffet breakfasts which are so delicious in Indian 5 star hotels. We are big fans of a masala dosa for breakfast followed by home made yoghurt and fruit which last us well into mid afternoon. The resort itself has some pleasant features but is in need of an overhaul. It’s not a great example of luxury indian hotels but being in walking distance to the Temples and village, and fronting onto the beach with heavenly waters perfect for swimming.
While we were at the resort, friends were staying at $20 a night hotel just along the beach from us. Basic (bathroom, overhead fan, bed, table and chair) and charming – right on the beach overlooking the fishing boats, and just off the street with eateries that offered all sorts of opportunities. Very atmospheric. Don’t miss out on eating fish in the seaside restaurants. Simply order fish and you will be presented with a tray of local fish and given a few options of how it can be cooked.
The freshest fish we have tasted for a long time.
Next stop Pondy. Book a taxi from one of the agencies on the main street (a substantial saving on the Hotel taxi) and head further down the coast for 2.5 hours to Pondicherry (now officially Puducherry but no one seems to notice), one of the French colonial towns of India which was finally given back to India as late as 1954. The legacy the French left behind is undeniable. This is picture-book colonial France with a Creole flavour. The French quarter stretches from the promenade to a canal (very stinky canal) about 5 blocks in, that divides the town from a city that resembles India. Bustling with energy and colour.
We stayed at the Promenade hotel, a venture of Hidesign, a local leather company that has enjoyed world wide distribution. It is billed as a 4 star hotel and could definitely do with some TLC. However, what sells this boutique hotel (especially room 29!) is that it faces the promenade and the Bay of Bengal, with three sets of shutters that fill the room with light. By day it’s all pretty relaxed out there, minimal traffic, lots of promenaders, but at night with the promenade blocked off from traffic, it becomes a carnival! The hotel has excellent food including a very smart rooftop restaurant and good facilities including wi fi & a smallish pool. The landscaping interestingly is by Mardi Widjaya, the Australian expat Bali landscape superstar. The French quarter has the street names in the French style, the homes are architecturally classic and generally in excellent repair. They are dripping with colour from the lush vegetation. They are a pleasure to explore with interesting high quality shops and outstanding eateries by any measure.
By contrast, the Indian quarter has a bustling main street with wonderful sights, sounds and shopping opportunities. There are several large jewellery ’emporiums & plenty of street market stalls. Slightly inconspicuous is a sign proclaiming the ‘Goubert markets’ within which is the flower market. This was one of the location settings in the early scenes of ‘Life of Pi’. You’ll have seen nothing like it. Apart from the heady fragrance, the colours and variety, the hustle and bustle is extraordinary. Wreathes, chains of flowers and flower petals piled high on trestles. The majority of women here wear strands of jasmine in their hair. Very elegant.
Next stop is Lakshmi the temple elephant. This has got to be one of Pondy’s most famous ‘citizens’ an elephant of great charm and charisma. She makes an appearance every day around 4pm and accepts coins in her trunk for the temple. Once she has the money, she blesses you by placing her trunk on your head. This is an absolute treat for adults and kids alike, and taken very seriously by the locals.
Sri Aurobindo was an Indian ‘mystic’ originally a freedom fighter who took up a gentler path and with him a following that is world wide with the centre of the movement based in Pondy. In and around town, there are numerous buildings concerned with the Aurobindo Ashram. For more information, go to the usual suspects, google etc.
After Sri Aurobindo took a vow of silence, a French devotee woman ‘Mother’ became the ‘spiritual’ leader and spokesperson for the movement. The Aurobindo movement had, and still has enormous political clout in India and through connections the realisation of a ‘dream’ for a ‘universal city’ came into being in 1967. We understand that Auroville is a bit of a thorn for the Ashram, being seen as not being true to the word of the teachings of the man. Having said that Auroville is something worth experiencing.
8 Kms. Up the road from Puducherry, Auroville is a scattering of communities over a substantial parcel of land. There are some 1500 ‘foreigners’ who muddle through a set of non rules all aimed at keeping the communities busy, happy and functioning. There are great choices for accommodation, from serene garden settings (where the Dalai Lama has stayed, you never know, you might get his room!) to basic pleasant accommodation.
Auroville is to be explored. Motorised and non motorised bike transport is easily organised. Transfer money for a credit card (Aurocard) for anything you need money for and while you’re at it get the most honest exchange rates you’ll find. You are required to register. Again do your research. The centrepiece of Auroville is the Matrimandir. A temple that could truly be called a wonder. Conceived as a golden ball being thrust out of the earth. This is an attempt at spiritual architecture that hits the mark. Gardens leading to the temple are a designated silence zone and no photo zone.
Visitors must register to visit the temple with visits lasting 30mins a time. What happens is, you congregate at the given time and are taken into the temple through an entrance at the base, given socks, you take the walkway that leads to the meditation chamber suspended high inside the dome. 20 minutes are allocated to meditate in the chamber, which is all white marble with columns around the periphery and in the centre, a crystal ball (said to be the largest to be found) which collects a beam of light being focused off the sun. This is the light that illuminates the chamber.
The rules for silence are strictly administered by acolytes that will give a stern look or wag a finger to an offender. A mirror walkway to the one up, leads down and out. The beam of light from the crystal ball will be seen – at times – through the main building that eventually can be seen beneath the dome, touching the earth. The whole structure is suspended off the ground. You then get a tour of the the chambers that represent the earth being pushed up by the dome. Each chamber is a meditation chamber with a name like ‘tranquillity’ and its’ own colour. I guess you choose your chamber according to your mood.
The experience is a must and depending on your level of spirituality you will be anywhere on the spectrum from awestruck to fascinated. We felt we were starring in a futuristic movie from the 1960s going into the cosmic Mothership, single file in silence in white cotton socks (supplied) on the spiral walkway to the inner white marble chamber. It is really like nothing you’ve ever experienced. Guaranteed. And fabulous.