The extravagant Gandhi Monument on the Pondicherry Esplanade.
I am a huge fan of South Asian colonial architecture — but, sadly, not too many of the pre 19th century gems survive.
Of the Portuguese-Spanish colonial treasures there’s really only a few left: Galle, in Sri Lanka; the Intra Muros section of Manila; Banda Neira in Indonesia’s Spice Islands; and Panjim, the capital of Goa, in India.
Pondicherry is really the only surviving example of French Colonial 19th century town planning and architecture. The old French colony is 100 kilometers south of Chennai (Madras), once the 18th century seat of the mighty British East India Company.
Aurobitty channels Lady Edwina Mountbatten in Cluny Park.
The former palace of the French Colonial Governor-General, now the home of Pondicherry’s Governor.
Many of Pondicherry’s heritage buildings are painted like buildings in the French Riviera.
Air Asia now flies to Chennai from Kuala Lumpur in under four hours. And from Chennai Airport there is a new, four-lane highway that drops one at the French-colonial-coastal fantasy-land in just 90 minutes.
I stayed at the delightful Hotel de L’Orient, a Neemrana Non-hotel (their term). The building is a late 18th century townhouse with superb 18th and 19th century interiors.
A dish of Marigolds at the Hotel de l’Orient, Pondicherry.
A priest greets guests in the Hotel de l’Orient’s lobby.
Entrance to the Neemrata Hotel de l’Orient, Pondicherry — a hotel beauty gazes into the morning light.
The French quarter of Pondicherry — as opposed to the Tamil quarter next door — survives in no small part due to semi-divine intervention. In the 1950s popular seer Sri Aurobindo and his French born ‘divine spouse’, The Mother, bought up huge tracts of historic Pondicherry and restored them; their ashram buildings were painted Christian Dior grey and white.
Further inland they founded a commune called Auroville which survives today as a model of inter-racial harmony, alternate lifestyles, and unkempt median strips.
Meditation Centre in Auroville Pondicherry
Unesco and the French government have, over the past few decades, donated generously to the restoration of many heritage buildings too: some of these are painted mustard and white in the French colonial tradition. French institutions such as the Lycée, the Académie Française and the École Française d'Extrême-Orient (EFEO) survive to this day.
The gorgeous librarian at the École Française d'Extrême-Orient.
A Chola period Garuda statue in the École Française d'Extrême-Orient library’s collection.
In the EEO library, which is open to the public daily, I discovered a sari-clad lady librarian of such indescribable beauty that I had to request a book! They had thousands of research books from the 18th century to the present day and I discovered that South Asian Art and Architecture was the EEO’s specialty. Their museum contains some striking examples of ancient and ‘medieval’ Tamil classical art.
‘Ancient and Medieval’ is the prescribed look for most of the area’s European, American and Australian ashram-loyal inhabitants too — earth tones and muted hues are all the rage in tropical day-wear.
There is a pervading sense of piousness amidst the pizza parlours and artshops too — rather like Bali in the 1980s.
• • •
On my first morning I woke early and walked to Cluny Park in the centre of town: I strolled past the multi-hued kiddies grouped outside the Lycee; past the vibrant coloured Tamil housewives parked outside UNIVERSAL spice store; past the old Mexican fortune-teller in an orange sarong sitting on the footpath, and past the Tamil flower ladies outside the busy Hindu temple opposite.
The park was alive with morning meditators and fitness fanatics, all dotted amongst the colonial-era garden ornaments. Tragically, brutalist, rough-hewn-granite-columned pergolas have recently been installed at strategic points by a local architectural conservationist.
What it is about architectural conservationists? About how the wheels fall off when they move into the garden. Dr. Kinsley, in his famous report in the 1950s, attributed this to the sexual repression of the over- fastidious.
Mahatma Gandhi's monument
At the opposite end of the scale, successive joyous, local, communist governments have added all sorts of funky statuary in Pondicherry’s many squares, including a monument to Mahatma Gandhi on the esplanade that is breathtaking in its ugliness. Chola-Era Hindu columns are ‘pretty-littered’ amidst rows of Orly-Modern-not-quite-Phillipe Stark street lamps.
I was oftened relieved to return to my hotel, a haven of chic homo-erotica.
25th March 2012: To the spiritual hub of New Pondicherry
Almost immediately behind the Raj Niwas, (Governors Palace), are the pearl grey and white Ashram buildings. The atmosphere in these streets on the French, seaward side of the Canal is serene. The compound of the section of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram (occasionally open to the public) encircles what was once the grand 18th century villa of the former, distinguished governor Dupleix, (1742-54). Under the spreading branches of a miraculously long lived Service Tree is the Samadhi containing the mortal remains of Sri Aurobindo who left his body in 1950, and Mira Alfassa known as the Mother who was interred there after her death in November 1973.
The Mother and Sri Aurobindo, in 1950. (Courtesy photo by Premasagar on Flickr)
The ambience here is one of peace and quiet as people come here for meditation. The ashramites and visiting devotees move quietly and perform obeisances. The Mother’s love for flowers is reflected in the Ashram’s gardens that are lush flowering plants such as orchids. A remarkable miniature cactus garden can be seen just inside the entrance.
I hugged the tree, following the example of my spiritual guide, Jan Allen, and was rewarded with a blast of well-being.
On cloud nine I floated towards the soft-grey dining hall, removed my sandals and squatted down on my haunches next to shiny stainless steel bucket of dal (chick pea slop).
Everywhere neat queues of weathered devotees formed. People ate in silence or read from the collected writings of the great guru. ‘Prefects’ (burly Belgians in starched kotha pyjamas) stood guard.
(One weatherd observer did not notice the gentle expressions of the sweet old ladies, and the quite youthful students of the Ashram school and the dear old male devotees with their acquired wisdom and gentleness. Ed.)
First Fleeter Nabob Johnny Allen and wife, Jan, the Lady Aurobitty Baby Push.
The other side of the Raj Niwas is the Ashram Dining Hall where you can get a bite of organically grown food that is prepared using a solar oven on the roof of the very gracious building. The food is lovingly prepared and served by devotees, it varies each day but is always simple vegetarian fare.
My friend Jan told me how she used to present her son to the mother every year on his birthday and stay at the Ashram for a few days for fine tune.
When the mother was dying all the disciples moved into the Ashram for a long vigil.
One night Jan was awaken by the sound of concrete walls being broken — a gentle tap-tap-tap-ing that grew into a din; the walls of Shri Aurobindo’s tomb (he had died in 1950) were being opened so that The Mother’s body could be interned with his.
In the East, it is only in India that ‘foreign living saints are afforded the same adulation as native spiritual gurus.