Nestling on Tamilnadu’s southeastern coast, lying almost 350km away from Bangalore, Pondicherry is one the last remaining bastions of French colonialism in India. An overnight bus transported us from Karnataka’s busy and hectic capital and dropped us off in front of the Pondicherry Medical College, standing resplendently white under the mid-morning Tamilian sun. The salty sea air was impossible to miss as we got into the Uber we booked to the heart of Auroville, where our Airbnb was booked.
The Gaia guesthouse, where we stayed, was cosily tucked in inside a wonderful open courtyard that had a verdant garden which was tended to by the owners and the housekeepers. A vestige of colonial architecture, the house itself was a beautiful 3-storey building with high ceilings and lots of windows, lending it’s colourful walls to the light of the morning sun.
We counted boutique cafe after boutique cafe, as our taxi made its way from the centre of Pondicherry and Auroville came into full force. The whitewashed edifices of Pondicherry gave way to more earthy and brick-coloured tones that came to define Auroville. A township that came into existence as a communal experiment, Auroville was in almost every essence, a hippie commune that seemed better suited to the psychedelia-influenced kaleidoscope of 1960s Los Angeles than 21st-century India. The Auroville Bakery, an Auroville mainstay and local favourite, has been serving fresh and airy croissants and pain-au-chocolats to customers that queue up from when it opens bright and early at 7:00 AM and until it shuts shop at 5:30 PM.
At Serenity Beach, we lounged on the sand and watched as the waves lapped up the shore. Surfers with their long surfboards, looking like specks in the distance, dipped under the crashing wave and resurfaced on the other side of the break, waiting for the perfect swell. The sand was warm, the sun was high, and the water was inviting and I took a dip in the relatively clean waters of Serenity Beach. After taking some more pictures by the beach, we made our way to White Town.
Stradling the humble 100cc moped we had rented, the two of us rode into the beating heart of Pondicherry the next morning. A short half-hour jaunt on the scooter brought us to the famed White Town, named so for the ubiquitous colonial-era buildings painted gleaming white, most of which have been refurbished now into restaurants, bars, or chic cafes. A splash of mustard in between all this white make for some of the country’s most photographed and Instagrammed spots and it seems like heresy to come to Pondicherry without taking a photo in front of its distinctive yellow walls.
Taking shelter from the fierce mid-day sun at Coromandel Cafe, we snacked on some of the finest batter-fried prawns I’ve ever had. A cold beer and some pictures sneaked of each other with the bright sunlight gleaming off the cafe's white surfaces, which made for wonderful candid photographs, constituted lunch for us as we got back on the scooters and made our way back to Auroville.
The beachside shacks we visited along Paradise Beach were humbly fashioned and were put together with wooden pegs and tarpaulin sheets. The scent of grilling prawn and fish wafted through the beach and called us to the shack where freshly caught seafood was being prepared. Prepared with a myriad of powders and spices that typified the Tamil cuisine, the prawns were delectable.
Located right at the heart of Auroville, the Matri Mandir is the nexus out of which Auroville blossoms. The iconic golden sphere, adorned with equally resplendent golden plates is a visual representation of the values that the township stands for as was built upon. Values that enshrined communal harmony, collective spirit, and not just tolerance, but wholehearted acceptance of one’s neighbours. Stepping inside the compound, you could almost feel the reverence that the workers of the compound had for Sri Aurobindo’s vision of a society without nationalities. Sombre and quiet, it offers the perfect space for reflection and contemplative thought.
After 4 days, exhausting what Pondicherry and Auroville had to offer, we reluctantly got back on the bus back to Bangalore, energized for the next long stint in the city.