Thursday, June 12, 2008
French Quiche Meets Indian Massala
On Monday we got a car and driver and rode two hours through the beautiful countryside south of Mamallapuram to Pondicherry (aka Puducherry, nicknamed Pondy.) The French ruled the region for 300 years, but it became part of India over 50 years ago. The layout of the town (including a giant park called Government Place) and much of the architecture are French influenced and many street names are in French.
But the overall feel is predominantly Indian. We drove along the waterfront, stopping for a closer look at the dramatic Gandhi Memorial, before having a French-influenced lunch of quiche, tomato salad with olive oil, and fresh shrimp cocktail in a rooftop restaurant called Le Rendezvous.
The area is home to two famous ashrams, the Sri Aurobindo Ashram downtown (http://www.sriaurobindosociety.org.in/index.htm,) and its offshoot, Auroville (http://www.auroville.org,) a few kilometers north of town. The first was founded by one of India's most renowned freedom fighters and spiritualists, Sri Aurobindo.
Born in 1872, he was one of the leaders of the early movement for the freedom of India from British rule. After a period in prison for sedition, he settled in Pondicherry where the British had no political influence. He subsequently turned to the development and practice of a new spiritual path he called integral yoga.
A woman who was born in 1878 in Paris to Turkish and Egyptian parents founded Auroville. Known as The Mother, she was a devotee and collaborator of Sri Aurobindo’s to whom he entrusted his work when he retired into seclusion in 1926.
In the mid 1960s she started Auroville, a place "where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities." Inaugurated in 1968, Auroville continues to develop and currently has approximately 1,700 members from over 40 countries. The plethora of westerners plying the chaotic bicycle-choked town streets on motorbikes is one of the dominant characteristics of Pondicherry.
At Auroville, after we viewed a 5-minute video we received free tickets to make the one-kilometer walk to the Matrimandir, a large round gold structure where followers meditate. (If we would have requested tickets two days in advance we could have entered the building, but alas we had not.)
We returned to Mammalapuram to spend the night. The next day we went by car to Chenai, and then continued on to Bangalore by train. Even though it was 11:00 at night when we arrived, there was still a lot of traffic. The intersection near the Spar was grid locked and completely chaotic because the traffic signal was not working. “Aren’t there any cops,” I asked the driver naively. “No, Madam,” he responded. “There are no police. It is nighttime.”