Sun, surf and spirituality

Pondicherry is a mesmerising mix of French and South Indian
cultures, writes Aradhika Sharma

The beachfront is a long promenade along the sea
The beachfront is a long promenade along the sea 

Pondicherry, or Puducherry, as it is now called, offers an irresistible cocktail of balmy seas, swaying palms, the exotic French-ness of the place, interesting cuisines, European architecture and an eclectic group of locals that comprise the Tamils as well as international communities. Add to that, another group ó the ashramites, or the people who belong to Sri Aurobindo Ashram, and you will admit that that anyone may want to sample the smorgasbord that is Pondicherry.

It has grown from a sleepy little town, where people used bicycles to get from one cobbled rue (French for street) to another, to a busy, tourist- savvy place, abuzz with exotic shopping places, restaurants and the most fancy spas and heritage resorts.

The main attraction of Ganesh temple is Laxmi, the beloved elephant, standing at the gateway
The main attraction of Ganesh temple is Laxmi, the beloved elephant, standing at the gateway Photo by the writer

The coconut woman near Ganesh temple has been around for a long time, say local people
The coconut woman near Ganesh temple has been around for a long time, say local people Photo by the writer 

A view of the Auroville meditation hall
A view of the Auroville meditation hall
Thinkstockphotos/ Getty Images

The beachfront of the yore was a long, concrete promenade along the sea, where only a few people would stroll. Today, an ocean of humanity engulfs you on the beach. It all looks very interesting, though the robust Tamil crowd is a bit intimidating. On the weekends they have a bandstand playing rousing tunes. Appreciative audiences surround them and cheer them on with roars of approval; sometimes there maybe a fair or an exhibition, and then you will hear popular Tamil numbers blaring out! Still, if you care to explore, you may find a quiet concert being held in Alliance Francaise, just close by, an island of serenity, or enter an exhibition hall where photographers from around the world are exhibiting their works.

The smells and the food at Pondicherry can be strong for the uninitiated. Though the coconut oil, jasmine flowers, and the sea ó all combine into a heady fragrance. The smell of sambaar and dosas and freshly brewing filter coffee is simply wonderful! Around the ashram and in the ashram departments, youíll smell the fragrant, hand-made agarbattis. Around the temples, there will be more overpowering perfume of camphor and dhoop. Itís all very sensuous really. All your senses are engaged and you may not even notice.

There are many cuisines you can choose from. South Indian food is of course cheap and delicious. Crisp ghee-roast dosas, spicy Chettinad biryanis, street-cart vendors frying vadas and bread pakodas. For a snack, one can even have some cut pineapple and papaya or just get a sugarcane juice. Those fond of fine dining can get some French food at the Rendezvous, a specialty French restaurant, wood-fired pizza at the Satsanga or a buffet at The Promanade, a luxury hotel just across the sea. One can also eat at the ashram dining hall that prepares food for over 2000 persons on a daily basis.

The French part of the town is owned either by the Sri Aurobindo Society or by the Muncipal Corporation. The French-style buildings have been declared heritage buildings by the French Government. The huge grey walls enclose sprawling, overgrown courtyards that surround graceful, tall buildings with deep porches and massive windows.

Sri Aurobindo Ashram is housed in one of these buildings. There is great serenity around the samadhi of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. The samadhi is covered with wonderfully decorated flowers, beneath a sprawling tree. Thereís complete silence here. People can either sit in meditation or silently pass by.

In direct contrast is the Ganesh temple nearby with Laxmi, the beloved elephant, standing at the gateway. The area is full of noise and colour with flower sellers, shops selling temple knick-knacks, women selling jasmine braids and of course, lots of beggars.

Then there is that coconut woman, who has been around for a long time, say local people. Rotund and dark with a flashing smile, the lady must have sold a million coconuts. Hardly anyone passes by without buying from her.

Women Ďmaní most of the enterprises here- in the vegetable market, the fish market, and the boutiques. They haggle, they fight, they fix a jasmine braid on the hair of a sister and they beg`85basically, they are a strong, enterprising presence.

The traffic is, well, simply crazy. No oneís heard of traffic rules. The policemen in their red pillbox hats are around, but have never been remarkable for controlling traffic. Manic Tamil youth on motorcycles, swearing bus drivers hurtling down narrow lanes, even the cyclists donít care that they may bang into someone. You have to watch out for yourself here. But itís all a part of the fascinating, mesmerising, quintessential Pondicherry.