That is honestly a compilation of the only french words I know, and Pondicherry being Pondicherry, I just assumed it would fit.
Just a few corrections before I begin this Travelogue:
- Technically, my Auroville/Pondicherry visit was a study trip, so calling this a travelogue isn’t exactly appropriate. But, you’re reading from a guy with this as the title of his post, so I doubt you expected much propriety from me anyway.
- Everything that came out of the study tour, all of the videos, the journal and the final project, will be put up in separate posts. There was so much brought back from this trip, putting it in one post just wasn’t possible.
- At the same time, keeping everything academic out of this post will be nigh impossible, considering how the information overlaps. Just bear with me.
Getting back to the actual post, It began with boarding the Puducherry express at 21:00, for a 11-hour journey to Pondicherry, followed by a bus ride that would’ve taken us to Auroville, the township that we’d be studying.
I loathe to use a word as generic, vague and commonplace as ‘interesting’ to describe the train journey, but that’s exactly what it was. My college being what it is, no part of me really expected a calm journey where everybody would read for a while and then sleep off, but what I could see here, during the wildness of the night, were the roots of the social equations that would be formed and sustained during the trip. The people that gathered while the horror stories were told, the people that went to the train door to smoke together, the people that stayed back and talked well into the night – It was ‘interesting’ to stand and observe these things happening between people who’d never even found a reason to talk before.
I guess what interests me most about trips are the changing social equations. if you’re stuck with someone in a place you know nobody else for 7 days, you’re bound to find common ground. It’s a matter of motivation; extended trips with people force you to venture out and open up more than you usually do, even unconsciously, where just the simple amount of time you’ve spent with a person causes the slipping of everyone’s defense mechanisms and resulting ‘honest’ discussions and interactions.
Everyone was sick of the journey by the time we got to the bus. “Come on,” we thought, “We’ve already spent the night in the train.”
The culmination of this was that while the train journey was a mingling, a social event and a journey where the end didn’t matter, the bus journey was the exact antithesis. It was characterized by silence and Pondicherry morning sounds. “Get our asses to the guest house.” was the mantra for the morning.
By the time we’d reached, we wanted nothing more than to have a calm, morning breakfast, and peaceful shower and nap for a few minutes. None of that happened. We got 5 minutes to changed, a rushed breakfast, and a quick rikshaw jaunt to the visitor centre, where we’d be booking our visits to the Matri Mandir in batches.
Coming to the aesthetics of the place as seen from the rikshaw ride and the visitor’s center, the only thing that can be said about Auroville is how ‘organic’ it seemed. The roads were basically what you’d expect to see in a wildlife Safari somewhere in a National Park, complete with the dirt trail and the trees splitting the trail into two; the monotony broken at times with half-tiled roads and signage about where what was (pay attention to the signs, but try to remember roads – it gets quite confusing). The Visitor’s center was a well-established antithesis to this – it gave the impression of a very cultured kind of luxury, with its yellow-stoned arch-buildings and amphitheatre-styled cafe sitting area and the actual amphitheatre which projected the film about the philosophy of Auroville. It was the perfect blend of rural and urban, and the ruro-urban tinge was what made it seem slightly artificially put together, as if this careful branding was what Auroville depended on. Nothing was truly organic, only carefully maintained as organic.
Essentially, Auroville’s goal is to become an ecopolis where humanity as a whole survives in perfect harmony with itself, without prejudice, without war, without racism, and above all, without f*&king up the environment, and these themes were evident in its construction, the people we saw in and around the visitor’s center, and the conversations we had there. In fact, this ‘globalization of humanity’ went beyond just what could be seen, and turned into the habits of the locals themselves. A little girl (local) whose attire and look you’d immediately associated with a local language and/or Hindi, came up to us and started speaking English with a french accent ! This, along with many such examples, hinted at the fact that maybe the true effects of a globalized society permeated far beyond the simple pretense of sinking skin-deep, and had actually changed social patterns in the area.
When it comes to changing patterns, Auroville seemed to have worked on changing ecological patterns of settlements themselves, with it’s unique ruro-urban structure. One of the first settlements constructed with an aim towards sustainability, within Auroville all the amenities and facilities of civilization and cities survived right next to rural phenomena like farming, etc. Thus, while larger settlements like Auroville take for granted the effect they have on the environment and continue living, Auroille, from the beginning itself, took a completely fresh approach. The aim was for the Flora and Fauna around the are to thrive BECAUSE of, not merely IN SPITE of the settlement. Prime examples of this are Buddha Garden, as well as Sadhana Forest, which I’ll come to in just a while.
However, before we did get to Sadhana Forest, It’s important to talk about the trip chronologically. The next day was the day to visit Pondicherry; the wonderful french-origin settlement on the coast. First stop was the Promenade, which reminded me of the Fontainhas area of Goa, with the beaches and the pastel coloured buildings and great eateries around everywhere. Immediately after reaching we made our way to the coastline, and the roadside beach just near the Gandhi Statue.All of us students from Bangalore, we spent a good amount of time just soaking in the sea and the smell of salt in the air, and those of us from Bombay Reminisced about the sea on the other side of the peninsula.
Some of the eateries we did manage to visit were La Terasse, for dinner, and Cafe Chez Nous for lunch(Keep in mind that Pondicherry and Auroville have some of the most expertly made and affordably-priced pizzas in the country, so that’s always a safe ordering option)
The next morning, we made our way to The Buddha Garden, mentioned before, which is an organic farm a kilometer or two away from our guest house. Auroville promoted research and development of less-impact methods of agriculture, where the agriculture doesn’t interfere with patterns of local vegetation, and the Buddha Garden, which was 100% organic, was the culmination of these efforts. Apart from just being 100% organic, Buddha Garden also produced all of the electricity it consumed, making it all the more self-sufficient. Here we learnt Mulching, preparing the soil with nutrients for different kinds of trees, cleaning, and running around trying to catch escaped chickens.
We arrived here around 6 am in the morning, and the work was done by around 9. Washing off together in the tap just beside the dining house, we made our way to breakfast provided by the organizer herself, and cycled back to the Guest House house.
That evening, we were scheduled to visit Swaram, an ingenious music store local to Auroville, whose entire concept is based on coming up with and perfecting the art of making instruments using natural materials found in and around Auroville. Some of the work we saw here, and the marvelous never-seen-before nature of the instruments left us absolutely awe-struck, and we treated to a workshop in making our own instruments out of bamboo.
Now, finally coming to Sadhana Forest.
Sadhana is a completely Vegan space, just a few kilometers off Auroville, dedicated to rehabilitating the Tropical Evergreen Forest that prevailed on the Tamil Nadu coast just before the French landed and took over Pondicherry. In just a few years, they’ve already been successful on re-establishing 13 acres of forest land with first generaiton Acacia trees, and their final goal is to rebuild the entire forest cover that the coast used to harbor.
This place, quite honestly, had some of the most positive vibrations I had ever come across. The only possible drawback of the place would be the fact that it is completely vegan, and no processed foods are allowed inside, but being a vegetarian by choice anyway, I was used to control in terms of food. Plus, the food that they served for the three meals was nothing if not filling, nutritious and clean, and it was actually difficult to get hungry in between meals, even with the massive amount of physical labor we engaged in.
Here’s how Sadhana Forest works –
- For a price of around 450/- Rs a day, you get 3 square meals a day, which include fruit, a bed to sleep on, free Sadhana Forest Wifi (Just because we live in trees and walk around shirtless doesn’t mean we’re Barbarians, in the words of a volunteer) as well as a plug point to charge all electrical devices for four hours a day.
- In exchange for this, every individual is expected to put around 4-5 hours of work in per day towards the final goal of the place, be it mulching, irrigation, cooking, firewood gathering, furniture building/maintaining, etc
- The minimum time you have to stay is around three days, and there is no cap on maximum.
- Because of the cheap living conditions, the cleanliness and nutrition of the food provided and the brilliant positive vibrations of the organizers, Sadhana Forest becomes a hub for grobetrotters and travellers to seek refuge in. These people stay over for a month or two, as a pit stop in Auroville, and then go along their way. Because of this, the place is a constant cultural hub absolutely buzzing with diversity, understanding and positivism. The evening Open Mic that was held there had local portugese love songs, an Israeli family dancing to an ethnic and popular folk song while the grandmother played it on the recording, two Korean women singing another ethnic song and various other brilliant examples of the sheer diversity and beauty of the human endeavor for art (Every wednesday night is open mic night, btw, and every night features events of various types that the locals take part in)
Bottom line, for a wholesome Auroville experience, do not miss out on Sadhana Forest. While the visitor centre and the Matri Mandir are targeted on branding the displaying the philosophy of Auroville, Sadhana Forest was one of the few places out here that I found was dedicated to actually living this philosophy, which means the key to understanding what Auroville is all about is buried in the time you spend at Sadhana.
Unfortunately, it being a rainy morning, I’d decided not to carry my camera here, thus there are very few pictures of this place with me. The few that I did take, and some other jounral drawings/ writings I did, however, are here –
Last day left to us, with the exhaustion of 6 days spent running around already getting to us, we decided to visit some of the places closeby, namely, Upasana Design Center and the Youth Centre.
As seen here, while the Youth Centre chared some of the Visitor Centre’s aesthetics, they manifested in a wonderfully organic form here, as opposed to the carefully curated latter. Only the young would think of painting a cycle in the colors of cheetah and sticking it onto the branches of a tree, among other decorative pieces. The entire place looked like a wonderful collage of scrap that came together to form something marvelous. Everything from rope swings to tree-trunk seats was available, adding to the charm.
At Upasana Design Centre, while Uma, the woman running the show, wasn’t available as we reached only later in the evening, we had a brilliant time just walking around and appreciating the beauty of the place. Sloping tile roofs almost lifted directly from old japanese castles, long, wodden floorboards running down the length of the corridors, concrete pillars that look like freshly cut rocks, brilliantly curated and managed garden along with a nice and rainy evening – everything that day seemed to work for Upasana’s favour, as we slowly fell in love with the place, without even being able to see the work it generates (The shop was closed)
Concluding travelogues is always the most difficult part, so I usually just end with things that i wanted to say but didn’t fit very precisely with the narrative I was going down through the piece.
The first thing is to look out for Solar Kitchen in Auroville, which is a mess/restaurant that prepares all of its food using Solar power, and solar power only. For 200/- Rs per meal, it feeds upto 500 or more people through the day using only Solar Energy, and the moment you walk in there will be a blackboard up keeping track of how much food has gone to waste through the day. Sustainability, everywhere.
Rikshaws from Auroville to Pondicherry will not cost more than 400/-, and keep this in mind because they WILL try to fleece you.
It might not be recommended for safety’s sake, but if you’re an adventurer, cycling in Auroville through the night (post 9:30) is absolutely brilliant. Very few places give you the same sense of peace and tranquility, that same closeness to nature as Auroville does, so while some things about the place might be shifty and worth being skeptical of, this aspect of it definitely isn’t.
So, there it is. I tried to postpone the end, because I believe no good journey ever ends and by extension neither should it’s travelogue, but I must finally say goodbye to the keyboard. However, as memories keep resurfacing I will keep adding to this, so look out for the edits.
For now, signing out.
Oh, as an afterthought, this travelogue actually has two other articles linked to it, the first is the project that i ended up making keeping Auroville in mind, and the second one is the aftermovie, which are linked below –