Of Croissants and Colonialism (and Gurus)

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The Road to Pondy
The trail from Thanjavur to Pondicherry offered multiple temple complexes as pit-stops, and our driver even found us a mini-backwaters trip that took us through mangroves, canals and eventually straight through a fisherman’s net that very nearly met it’s end at the propellers of our boat (none of us were driving I might add).

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Pondicherry
Ever since reading about this little bit of France in India, I’d been incredibly excited to visit Pondicherry; France’s colonial capital in India and an excellent effort at recreating French culture and personality in this unfortunately popular country. You may wonder why on Earth I would travel India and get excited over a few croissants, but after enduring various forms of curry for breakfast for months, you have to allow me this small luxury. And whilst I don’t advocate these attempts to force western culture upon India, these many and varied different cultures have been absorbed and become a part of modern India today.

And Pondicherry really is almost incomparable to traditional India; with gridded streets lined with trees and colonial houses, pretty caf├ęs and shops – painted in a colour code of sunflower yellow to indicate French ownership and a powdery grey to show they were ashram-owned (we’ll come to this later). I sampled some of the baked goods from a French patisserie and I can report they were the real deal (and about a tenth of the price).

We stayed at Le Dupleix, a restored colonial mansion, with the most beautiful leafy courtyard and elegant features such as a tarnished bronze four poster bed, and a waterfall built into the staircase – which of course no guesthouse would be complete without. The place had the immediate effect of making Sam and I wash our hair and put on our smartest clothes, inbetween celebrating and then disguising our jubilation behind a persona of one who stays in these sort of places every day…

Morning brought a new guide and a new outlook on Pondy, as beneath the mansions and French accents lay a not very well hidden secret – the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. An ashram is a sort of spiritual community, often inspired or led by a guru (in this case Aurobindo). All of the grey painted buildings were owned by the ashram, and there were a lot of grey buildings (most of the guesthouses were owned by the ashram and set up for visitors). Our tour focussed upon telling us about the ashram’s history, which is something about some lady who came from France (they called her “The Mother”), met the guru and felt something spiritual and decided to dedicate her life to imposing her views on others. The whole thing unnerved me, as inside an ashram building, we watched people praying at the founders graves, speaking in hushed tones and floating around ethereally with bare feet. Our guide explained some of the virtues the Mother decided underpinned her ‘philosophy’ one of which is youth, which I think is wildly unfair to the less youthful of us, who can still be virtuous. The reverence with which our guide held the ashram made me uneasy, and after sensing this, she took a bit of a disliking to me, which only heightened on our trip to Auroville, just outside Pondy – which I will write about in the next post.

The time not spent being shown around the ashram was spent relaxing and shopping with Sam’s parents. We had some delicious farewell meals, whilst Sam and I lamented being separated after having such a wonderful week together; some of the highlights of which were the evenings we spent eating and sharing stories.

And so we went from beautiful French seaside town, to slightly unnerving ashram, to complete madness (see next post) and then to teary farewells. Pondicherry proved to be an emotional, cultural and spiritual roller coaster – hugest thank you to Michele and Dan for giving Sam and I the most amazing week in Nandi and the best possible way to see Tamil Nadu!

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Above is Aurobindo and the Mother in all their glory. This picture was above our bed in the guesthouse we were lucky enough to stay in (ie. we had no other choice). Institutional vibes.