Following in the footsteps of Piscine Molitor Patel – of The Life of Pi fame, Puducherry became a pilgrimage of the novel type. Tucked away in the basement of a large retail complex on frenetic Nehru Road we were able to locate the Indian Coffee house – where the author Yann Martel were introduced to the story of a Bengal tiger, a zebra, an orang-utan, a hyena and a Indian boy bopping about the Pacific Ocean on a small boat.
In the heart of the old French Quarter we found the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, housed in a beautiful colonial building. The author describes this as the place where Pi learnt to swim, under the tutorage of his uncle.
Located on the more shabby part of town is the elegant entrance to the Jardin Botanique, Puducherry’s 200-year-old botanical garden. Unlike the book we did not find a thriving zoo here, only a few massive Senegalese Ebony trees and the remnance of what must have been a horticultural oasis.
Pi departed by boat. We arrived by train, onboard the Kanyakumari Express. It was still dark when we stepped off the train, shortly after 05h30. Without having pre-booked accommodation in Puducherry a pre-dawn accommodation trawl pursued. All the guest houses and ashrams we called on showed us away. Check-in time is officially from 8am onwards.
With time to kill and for the need to find a place to unhitch backpacks, back pew seats were secured in the Eglise de Notre Dame des Anges. Just in time for the 7am mass – in French. This marshmallow looking church was built in 1858 and commands an impressive setting on Rue Dumas. Lofty palm trees competing with twin handsome belfry.
Church bells tolled enthusiastically. Inside the church, the smooth limestone interior made from eggshell plaster was bathed in golden rays which reached from across the Bay of Bengal. Large electric fans hypnotically circulated oozy tropical air. Gorgeously detailed stain glass windows depicted life scenes of a white Jesus. Towering archways painted in blue and guava pastels made way to heavenly frescoes. The Biblical scenes appeared incongruous to the location. Mass was conducted in French and Tamil, with all the pomp and ceremony expected by Rome.
On conclusion of mass and filled with divine teachings we set foot into the French Quarter of Puducherry. Wide shady Rue’s with French names revealed magnificent French colonial buildings in various states of disrepair. Secretive courtyards adorned with tropical vegetation, water features and sacred deities lay hidden behind high walls. It was Saturday morning and the Gallic heart of India was slowing coming to life. Packs of lazy dogs stretched off the evenings all night gallivanting and black crows pecked at piles of rubbish. Puducherry is an utterly charming place.
“New Guest House’ located on Rue Dumas was to be our home for the next few days. This guest house is owned by Sri Aurobindo Ashram and it is popular amongst the budget and karma conscious. Twin rooms are available at R120 per room per night and offer a balcony with views across the French Quarter, an overhead fan, mosquito nets, private (cold water) shower and Indian style toilet (sans papier..) The most delicious vegetarian meals are served in the canteen and are of the Thali variety. Prepare to spend R30 for a culinary treat. The vibe is monastically spatial.
A beautiful mediation room is available to guests and various cultural programmes are on offer. This includes painting classes, yoga, Sanskrit studies and various personal development programmes.
Perhaps the other reason for visiting Puducherry is Auroville. Located just over 12km’s from Puducherry city centre is the city of the future. About 1000 foreign residents have settled on this patch of soil secured by 124 different countries. This is an international city in the making of the holistic and spiritual kind. Plans are afoot to build a city that can accommodate 150 000 souls from different creeds, colour and nationalities. The city will be self-sustaining with the emphasis on renewable energy and eternal Enlightenment.
The Matrimandir is the spiritual heart of Auroville and it took more than 30 years to build the sphere and twelve pedestals. The inner chamber of the dome contains the world’s largest optically-perfect crystal. It is referred to as the ‘Concentration Hall’- it does not belong to any sect or religion.
More than 150 000 trees have been planted on this former waste land. International architects and like-minded souls are busy creating a utopian world many have been dreaming of. This is a world where nobody owns anything and nobody earns anything. Everything is shared and provided for the betterment of mankind.