A Short Trip to Pondicherry

It was a Saturday morning but the line was short at the shoe-keepers’. Less than a minute was what it took to hand in our two pairs and collect a single token for them. A busload of schoolgirls had been cleared just ahead of us. Another minute, and we were inside, unshod on hallowed ground, guided by smile and arm and firm words to turn rightward after the gate. That was the last spoken instruction. We walked in an unbroken line into complete silence in an alfresco setting, kept in line the whole length by volunteers who’d walled up the short distance to the samadhi of Aurobindo, and the Divine Mother. Round the granite-marble structure—a large knee-high square —folks broke ranks to kneel and feel the marble on the brow and thus absorb inner peace—or anything else they might’ve been seeking from the Hindu philosopher and his Spiritual Partner, who are both interred beneath the stone. Thereafter they squatted in the yard by the samadhi, or in the shade on the floor along an L-shaped verandah. The weight of the hush smothered everybody into silence, even my irrepressible wife, who took to pinching my arm to show me things.

Matri Mandir, Pondicherry

We sat in the verandah to gaze at the samadhi, which was what everybody was doing who wasn’t meditating with eyes closed. So much solace people drew from that stone in the heat of Pondicherry. Most of them were Indians, but many were foreigners. A white man who’d been squatting in the yard got up to leave and went up to the samadhi for a parting bow. He was wearing a veshti, clean and white and better gathered at the waist than any Indian had managed who wore that thing. On top he wore a saffron T-shirt. He attracted my attention because he had the demeanor of the high achiever, a saadhvi, so full of gravitas, and oblivious to his surroundings. I wondered how far he’d gone on Aurobindo’s path of evolution to the Life Divine. He knelt, too, and pressed his brow to the marble.

Not much later, I was enraptured by a face that was enraptured by the stone. Pretty face it was, its beauty doubled by the bliss upon it, and because all else had their eyes on the stone, I watched that visage freely. A few minutes passed and the young lady came round and knelt with her back toward me, lay her cheek on the marble, giving thus the most intimate offering one could give Aurobindo. Even as I was leaving, she lay there, arms on the stone, stone and cheek melded, eyes closed. Right Thinking came over me of a sudden, and shamed me for having stared. I went into the bookshop, in line again like water in a channel, and saw many, many pictures of Aurobindo and the Mother at all times in their lives. I envied Aurobindo his eyes, his height, and his Christlike beard.

Were people coming to the ashram having read the man? I didn’t pause before the books. I didn’t buy the pictures. But I left the Ashram resolved to get around to Aurobindo soon.

There’s the Aurobindo Ashram, which I’ve been describing until now, which is in the French Quarter of Pondicherry, and there’s the vast Auroville, 12-kilometers north of town, founded by French-born Mirra Alfassa, anointed Divine Mother by Aurobindo himself. Begun well after Aurobindo’s death, the Mother’s plan was to manifest in Auroville Aurobindo’s vision in its totality. Arid at the time of founding, Auroville is now a land of milk and honey, and neem and tamarind, and green grass flourishing in sweltering heat. And it is a source of leather goods and ethnic clothing and incense and aromatic oils and semiprecious ornaments and a hundred kinds of trinkets for men and women.

When the Mother founded Auroville, the vision was to draw 50,000 “servitors” fit for the quest for what Aurobindo called the Life Divine. For some reason, only a little more than 2000 have been mustered for the cause in the forty years that have passed, half of them Indian, and the rest mostly French and German. The founding was a grand affair, with representatives from each independent nation gathered on bare ground that would become Auroville. To the rites that were performed, the UNESCO added its blessings. The delegates had brought with them soil from their homeland, to pour it in an urn on this campus which would spearhead the evolutionary process of man, so that all humankind would eventually experience the Life Divine right here on earth, through engaging in the Integral Yoga detailed by Aurobindo.

How the “Aurovilians” live is hard to tell for the first time visitor on a day-trip. The closest a first visit can get to in Auroville is a distant viewing of the Matri Mandir, which is a hall of contemplation, not a hall of meditation as the introductory video asserts. A white hall it is said to be, a hall of silence, set in a giant golden globe which, to be honest, looks rather like the golden golf-ball that people call it who don’t revere it. But, of course, its beauty is revealed in the appreciation of its details, drawn in the main from Hindu iconography, and also the meaning the Mother attached to every flower, and other things.

You earn the opportunity to view the ball by first watching the 10- minute video at the Visitor Centre, which deconstructs the ball for the viewer and shows how its form, content and design are consistent with Aurobindo’s vision. It is all very moving, and puts you in the mood for the long walk in the sun to the viewing point which, when you arrive there, brings you to disappointment in the shape of a clump of trees with shingles round their base and stone slabs and a low hedge that none dare cross: Rules work when they’re backed by divinity.

To go into the Matri Mandir, you should apply a day (sometimes two days) in advance. It is all very Western, a system to achieve Oriental divinity in the systematic manner the West has mastered. Which means this exclusive expanse of land which is home to two-thousand favored people is in danger of a tenuous existence with the not-so- attractive villages that surround it. But travelers have known for centuries the means which to use to be accepted by local Indians: Not too far from the Visitors Centre, the claim is made on a plaque that people on this arid land have been waiting for foreigners to come save them, and, having come now, they have fulfilled a 500-year old prophecy.

It is a prophecy from the legend of Irumbai.

Abutting the Auroville campus lies the Irumbai village. Five-hundred years ago, a yogi, Kaduveli Siddha, had sat there in a penance so harsh, the heat coming off him turned the place into an inferno. By the guile of Vellai, the dancing girl of the village temple, the effects of his penance were neutralized with no damage done to his spiritual vows. Pleased that the crisis was over, the king of the realm ordered a thanksgiving at the Irumbai temple, featuring in the main a dance by Vellai herself. She danced so well the yogi saw Shiva in her, and when she did a complex movement and her anklet came loose, the yogi leaned forward and tied it back. The king and the courtiers mocked the yogi for ministering to a dancing girl. Outraged, the yogi invoked Shiva, who, intervening, caused the granite lingam in the temple to explode, and everywhere the fragments of that phallic symbol of Shiva fell, the land became infernal. The king collapsed in capitulation at the yogi’s feet.

“What is done can’t be undone. Still, your contrition is true. One day people will come from far off places and save your land.”

Was the king relieved with the concession? Foreigners came a good five-hundred years after he went into his grave, and fulfilled the yogi’s prophecy. You can buy the things that come off their works at the pleasing air-conditioned Auroville boutique on Nehru Road in Pondicherry. The quality of everything is good, and the service isn’t bad. I bought a leather portfolio there. My wife bought Yoga Shampoo, incense, oils, and after contemplating awhile, she decided not to buy a pearl necklace. And, oh, I bought a Brahmi tonic to boost my memory.

Nehru Street

A floating population of other men and women, also from far off lands, flit about on motorcycles roundabout Auroville, and the tiny French Quarter in Pondicherry, which is right by the sea and laid out in a neat grid. Whereas the restaurants and the squat boutique hotels that line the streets are all very pretty with a period-look and with period-names in French, and the coffee and the cuisine are all very good, the streets were what captured my attention, and I roamed them round and round savoring their names: Rue Romain Roland. Rue Suffren. Rue Surcouf! After that pirate! Ah, but the Frenchman Surcouf captured the fabulous English ship the Kent, and he killed also its captain, Rivington, in the Bay of Bengal, in one of the most daring pirate-attacks in history. In this French district, Surcouf is a hero.

Rue Surcouf

These are notes from a two-day stay. I’ve resolved to go back to Pondicherry soon, and stay in Auroville, and learn a little more regarding the Life Divine, Integral Yoga, and enjoy for a period this Francophile enclave in this Anglophile subcontinent, this quiet district in this bustling Pondicherry. I’ll write about it here, please do come back.

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