பாண்டிச்சேரி

The first destination in India was பாண்டிச்சேரி (Pondicherry) or as its called: “Pondy”. Pondy is a small former french colony on the east coast of India just south of Chennai. It’s known to be a quaint town with good food due to the lingering french influence and it is also famous for the nearby Auroville, an experimental community founded on the principles and life work of Sri Aurobindo, a major philosopher, yogi, and spiritual leader of the 20th century. This also draws many french people to Pondy because Sri Aurobindo’s main partner and collaborator was a french born woman known as “The Mother”.

Pondy has a really cool confluence of east and west. There is White Town, the east section of town, close to the promenade, where the french had primarily settled. The conditions are a bit nicer, the restaurants are more expensive, and there are a lot of french tourists and french expats. Then on the larger west side of the city there are three quarters for christians, muslims and the big section for hindus.

This last section contains the bustling shopping on packed streets, a thing well worth witnessing. Extravagant dresses sell for just 150 rupees (about $2).

Please observe and enjoy my collection of urban cow photos, shown below.

After meeting some fun people from the US and UK we took a day to check out Auroville with our new UK friends. The starting point in Auroville is the visitor center right near the center. From here you can watch a short video that makes Auroville sound like a really weird cult, and has excessive focus on the Matrimandir, a structure in the middle of Auroville that looks as if it landed straight out of a 70’s scifi film for the purpose of silent meditation. I tried not to bring too many preconceptions to this area and despite my failure I was actually pleasantly surprised by what I did get to witness in Auroville.

The area around the visitor’s center is like a  very nice college campus, but with hippie shops and cafes. While walking into this area I started to get the impression that Auroville, a town that supposedly is trying to set an example of a sustainable alternative way to live, is just reaping in money from tourists. I’m happy to admit that I was actually quite wrong. For one thing, the cafes and shops are incredibly cheap. They certainly aren’t drawing in enough money to sustain a community. The other major thing, is that most of Auroville is closed off to tourists. It’s possible to stay in Auroville, but there is a minimum stay of five days. The next step after this is to volunteer in the community. Auroville has sectors of research in both pragmatic fields like sustainable energy and agriculture, and in spiritual studies. The general gist I got, was that this place is not a tourist destination, it’s for people that are genuinely interested in living in a different way and exploring alternatives. Personally, I the biggest take-aways for me were the aforementioned realization and secondly the books about Sri Aurobindo and the Mother that I purchased. If you’re really interested in this, feel free to contact me personally.

Just near the Matrimandir, at the center of the village is a huge banyan tree. These trees have roots that grow down from the branches and make new trunks for the tree. They are said to have spiritual significance in hinduism.

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the Matrimandir

I’ll leave this subject with a quote from the visitor center. “In this effort to improve human conditions, there have always been two tendencies, which seem to be contrary but which ought to complement each other so that progress may be achieved. The first advocates a collective reorganization, something which could lead to the effective unity of mankind. The other declares that all progress is made first by the individual and insists that the individual should be given the conditions in which he can progress freely. North are equally true and necessary, and our effort should be directed along both these lines at once. For collective progress and individual progress are interdependent. Before the individual can take a leap forward, at least a little of the preceding progress must have been realized in the collectivity. A way must therefore be found so that these two types of progress may proceed side by side.”

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The next day Andrea and I decided to rent a motorcycle. We had been seriously considering purchasing motorcycles and driving this up to northern India where we would sell them again. We unfortunately decided that logistically it just wasn’t practical, given the amount of time we have here. But I do have to say that given enough time it would actually be an incredibly cheap thing to do. I now dream of the opportunity to buy a Royal Enfield and just cruise! It was my first time on a motorcycle and I gotta say it was freakin’ exhilarating. I got a decent feel for the bike on the outskirts of Auroville, which we returned to because of the quiet atmosphere and, more importantly, quiet streets. After maybe two hours of time on the bike I drove back into the city to our homestay, which was absolutely crazy. I can say that I learned how to drive a motorcycle fast. The scariest moment was probably when I as attempting to make way through a narrow opening on the road next to the massive truck repaving the road and I stalled out in the middle of everything. Despite the rumble of engines and the incessant horns and vehicles stubbornly approaching, I was able to some how get the bike moving and make it out. After that, it didn’t feel all too crazy when a boy guiding a herd of goats ran across the road in front of me, but the goats didn’t cross yet, but they were starting to, but I passed between the boy and the goats, and while that was happening someone pulled out from a side street in front of me and cross my lane so I had to speed up to pass the goats but slow down to not hit him and I think there was probably someone driving the wrong way down the road at the same time. PHEW!!!

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Another day we visited a small sector of town in the south that didn’t seem to get much tourist attention. The buildings here were beautifully colorful.

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There are many drawings like this in front of the entrances to buildings. I’m yet to find out the meaning.

Okay, time for some random updates:

Cities in India typically have two different names. After the liberation from Britain in 1947, the new free India started renaming it’s cities to give them more Indian sounding names. Hence, Bombay is now Mumbai. Most of the others are more subtle changes, such as Pondicherry -> Puducherry. That being said, so far it seems like the old names are sticking. Some of the names have only changed within recent decades, and it seems like old habits are hard to break when it comes to someone petty things like this.

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One of the most impactful things I witnessed was a building where four workers were toiling at primitive sewing machines to make linens. They weren’t beautiful linens that required a workers touch. They were simple single-color linens. The machine involved two foot pedals that alternated which set of vertical threads was on top or bottom. The hands controlled a wooden puck that would slot between the two rows of vertical threads, stitching in a horizontal row of thread between. I don’t think I have ever seen such a simple machine before, in the way that I am certain there is an automated machine developed that does exactly this, and likely with significantly higher throughput.

There’s a huge variation of size of Indians. Some people are really tall or big, but it’s also not uncommon to see a group of people that make little Andrea look like a giant.

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east coast sunrise!

Amazing foods: Masala dosai, uthappa, parotha.

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We’re yet to get the mythology for this one…
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Hindu Last Supper

Oh, and I bird shit on my head the other day. There’s a first for everything. I hear it’s supposed to be good luck or some shit.

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