As the rays of early morning sunlight, and a familiar voice, penetrated the haze, I re-awoke to the fact that I was dozing on a pavement in the Adyar bus depot. “Hurry up, sleepyhead,” cried Shishir, as he picked up our back packs and headed towards the red and white MTC East Coast Road Express bus, with ‘Chennnai to Puducherry’ written on it. For fear of being left behind at the mercy of mongrels and men, I lunged forward and grabbed his t-shirt. By 7.04 am, the bus was trundling along on its way, passing through Chennai’s IT corridor, and onto Rajiv Gandhi Salai.
As we bought our tickets, and consulted the conductor about where to get off for Auroville, my friend gave me looks of inane disbelief at what he had done. “I can’t believe I am sitting in this bus with you when I could be comfortably sleeping in my bed right now,” he grumbled, as he plonked down next to me. I smiled lazily, and left it at that.
Three hours and a mini headache later, the conductor hollered from in front of the bus- get down here da! The screen of flying dust that the bus invoked in its eager retreat parted to reveal a few auto-repair shops on one side and a ‘Beach Café’ on the other side of the road. After a little game of pick and choose, since we had planned nothing, we decided to walk down the alley that directed us towards Auro Beach.
Auroville, as its website defines, is a ‘universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities.’ The purpose of Auroville is to realise human unity. It is located about 10 kms away from Puducherry, which lies on the Coromandel Coast, along the Bay of Bengal. It was an initiative of the followers of Sri Aurobindo and was founded in 1968 by Mirra Alfasa, reverentially known as The Mother. Her belief in the supra-natural and in humanity led to this experiment which was later supported by the Indian government and UNESCO.
The population of Auroville is international, with people from over 30 nations residing in this circular crafted city. This, probably, was the reason why I suddenly felt I was no longer in India. The hippie-happy-go-lucky atmosphere was infectious- as the relaxation seeped in, I felt in my bones that this would be a good trip.
After much contemplation we arrived at the Baywatch Guest House to rent our shack. There are no fancy outfits, or big multi star hotels in Auroville. Their belief in simplicity was reflected in their ways of life. The shack was entirely made of bamboo and thatch leaves, held up on four bamboo poles, with a bamboo staircase leading up to the door. I climbed up with a sense of mounting excitement, while being fully aware that Shishir was about to start crying.
I have to admit, I was relieved when I saw a fan and a tubelight, along with a mosquito net. “But where is the washroom?!” queried a tremulous voice from behind. Shanty, the demure sari-clad owner, directed us towards the three rust colored doors across her vegetable garden. “Common loos!” The boy looked at me as if I was the scum of the earth. My attempts to console him were huffily ignored. Maybe that’s because I could not keep the grin off my face.
Auroville is considered to be a centre of spirituality and peace. The fact that every passerby, of whatever nationality, greeted one smilingly was a bit unnerving, since we Indians aren’t used to it. But this was pleasing, in an After Eight mint way- the gesture made me smile once I’d stomached that it had actually happened. We were to encounter this constant display of affection and a sense of brotherhood many times in the following day.
I had been advised that the best way to get around Auroville was on a two wheeler, which are easily available on rent around the locality. On a deposit of Rs. 1000 as security and an Identity card, we claimed the overused silver Honda Activa as ours for the next 24 hours. “You are lucky that everything around here is so cheap and easily available,” yelled Shishir as we zipped down the expressway, towards Puducherry.
There isn’t much to sightsee around Auroville, except the Matrimandir, which is closed to visitors on Sundays. Puducherry is a union territory aligned with the shore, as most coastal places are. The place to see is the ‘French colony’ or the administrative area, which also overlooks the Gandhi Beach, which is the main beach in the town. The heritage of being a French colony is preserved in the stone tiled roads and colonnade style buildings; bougainvillea bushes over doorways and cafes spilling onto the roads.
Aurobindo Ashram, founded in 1952, is a major centre of meditation and yoga and is located in the French colony. The entrance is a meek wooden door, which would be easily missed if not for the snaking queues and the festive air outside it. In stark contrast, the ashram itself is pin drop silent. The path through the well maintained garden leads to the memorial tombstone of Sri Aurobindo. The white marble is cold under the feet. The air is so heavy with meditation and reverence, it is almost tangible.
As I paid homage and moved on to the next section, like any religious tourist, I felt the emptiness in my heart where the spirituality should have been.
After buying a copy of the Mother’s biography, as a gift for Shishir’s mum, we walked across the road to the Manakula Vinayagar Temple. The aged holy elephant at the entrance was performing its duty- accepting offerings, in the form of currency coins, and blessing by tapping its trunk on bowed heads. He was the source of a lot of commotion and excitement. Everybody, including us, wanted a picture with the celebrity.
The temple itself is dedicated to Lord Ganesha, the immensely loveable elephant god. The even longer queues here managed to scare us away and we only managed a quick bhraman of the temple before heading out towards the beach. The air was filled with the fragrance of kapoor, the ringing sound of bells and chants. Everywhere, 3D statues of Ganesha looked down upon us from their pedestal high up on the walls.
All roads of the French colony lead to the Gandhi beach. On a Sunday evening, the long strip of metalled road, cement pavement and rock beach are flooded with people, and it looks like a mini- circus. With a live concert belting out Kutchery music, hawkers selling everything from pink flossy candy to blinking blue balls, men walking on stilts, and children tumbling about the entire place, it feels as if the celebrations of life, and this weekend, can never stop.
With the alacrity of a pair of monkeys playing to the tunes of their owner, we lost ourselves in the menagerie that is this world, on this holiday.
The tourist brochures boast of a few famous restaurants in this area. Satsanga was a French and Continental restaurant, which looked like exotica the moment we entered. It was located in the courtyard of a former colonialist’s abode. Bougainvillea vines crept down the bright red and yellow canopies and every round table was strewn with rose petals and alight with a single candle. The place was overflowing with affluent globe-trotters, and suddenly, two students on a budget vacation felt strangely out of place.
Not wishing to lose face however, we sat down, waiting to be waited upon. No menu card arrived for what seemed an hour, but was only 15 minutes. When we finally ordered, the food tasted terribly stale. Gathering courage against the predictable snootiness of the manager, this drawback was brought to his notice. So my surprise is understandable, when the man very docilely picked up the dish and did not charge me for it. Yes, human nature does surprise you at times.
After a night of immense tossing and turning, since the mosquito net had holes in it, and odomos does not really ever work, we rode into Auroville proper for the first time. The town is circular, with the Matrimandir or the spiritual zone located bang in the centre. Orange and green hues dominate, which lend their aura to the atmosphere of peace that has been the aim always. I could feel my inhibitions coming down as the breeze cooled my face.
The surroundings of the Mandir are quite unconventional, in keeping with the rest of Auroville. There are garment, agarbatti and aromatherapy retail outlets, along with a museum and a café. It looks more like a mall than anything else when first entered, and the Mandir is nowhere in sight. We acquired our passes and walked the kilometer of orange street, to get to the Mandir. As common tourists are not allowed inside the complex, we were to satisfy ourselves with gazing at it from a distance only.
A giant golden golf ball sits in the middle of large patches of grass, and to one side, it is looked upon by a graveyard. We sat on one of the monolithic square structures that studded the sloping shaded view point. “What an idea,” exclaimed my friend, when suggested a penny for his thoughts. “Building a space age vehicle, this looks like a UFO to be able to contact the supra-natural. Amazing!”
The meditation that went on inside must have had its effect, because while we trundled on our way back, both of us felt relaxed after a long time.