I felt like a peaceful island, bare but for a single snow drop bloom on a tuft of grass, floating in the sea. It is my first memory of bliss.

I was at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry on a school trip and placed my head on the samadhi of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother. I promised to return on my birthday every year. And I did but only 15 years later after many chapters started and ended in my life and I felt about as good as a half written story on a crumpled bit of paper tossed away in frustration.

Where and how do I start with Pondicherry? Trite as it may sound, I fell head over heels in love with this town when I first stepped off a bus as an 8 year old. I came along with my mother, aunt and cousin to visit one of my cousins studying at the University. Namitha and her friend waved at us. They had cycled down to greet us sometime past midnight, I think. I was impressed. That sort of thing never happens in Bangalore.

From that visit, I remember greedily wolfing down raw mangoes smothered in red chili and salt while hiding in the guest house so I didn’t have to share my loot, sitting in the park throwing a tantrum wondering what all the fuss was while looking at the Governor’s house, watching my mother as she picked up a pink crab on the beach thinking it to be a shell and as she jumped a foot off the ground when it nudged her hand asking to be put back on the sand, the big black rocks right by the road and the sea that didn’t seem deterred by them at all and looked so angry like it wanted to swallow the town whole along with me (this was right after a cyclone and I was sure it had its sights set on me), following the trail of ants with my eyes at my cousin’s hostel, dried flowers the color of dried blood pressed on creamy fragrant candles, voices all grown up and hovering somewhere over my head, circling and crisscrossing like wayward mosquitoes…

*

We must’ve driven through a downpour. There are shops with blue shutters downed, pink and purple houses, and vast stretches of fields – all hazy through the wet windows. At Pondicherry the sun is shining.

The auto whizzed through narrow lanes and the French quarter. I felt like I was greeting an old friend again. We arrived at L’Escale, a narrow white building on Dumas Street. Julie, an old dog, greeted us.  At the lobby, which had an arrangement of bags and other show pieces, we checked into the Mahe de Bourdannais room; it had a pillar and a half. It was in the lane behind the Promenade and we could see the sea from the café at the top, its furthest edges blurred in a mist. The pier stretched a long, lazy arm into the sea.

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At 8 in the morning, it was HOT! But that didn’t stop Tee and me from setting off down the Promenade. The sea was a glittering hot blue molten jewel. Clusters of school children crowded the rocks. I spent the morning braving the sun to walk down the Promenade past the memorial, the lighthouse, the residential villas’ high garden walls – bougainvillea escaping it like tendrils of hair from a tightly wound bun, a rickshaw on display, the pink church, the Gandhi statue and the Auro boutique where they sold candles, incense sticks and stuff made with handmade paper. Then there was the little French library/book shop, the cool courtyard at the Alliance de Francaise, a theater with a rooster over the entrance…We had lunch at Le Café gazing at the sea, tiny specks of boats at the distance and bouys, before heading to the Aurobindo Ashram. I placed my head on the Samadhi with yellow roses laid out on it and while it was peaceful I didn’t experience that intense joy I had felt the first time. But then sacred experiences are sacred because they don’t repeat themselves.

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I wanted to visit Auroville and the Matri Mandir on my birthday.  Aay found a kindred spirit in the auto driver who took us to Auroville, a good 20 minutes away past a shop selling Hanuman and coconut trees that looked like they had received a tight slap from the recent cyclone and not quite recovered and come back to their upright position. There was also a sleeping devi.

We had to walk down a path that cut through a lot of greenery and ponds to reach the Visitor’s Centre, sidestepping centipedes. The brick buildings were beautiful and a huge chime called Swaram made music. We watched the short film on Auroville and got a viewing pass to the Mandir. The viewing platform is a good km from the center.

The Matri Mandir, which The Mother declared as the soul of Auroville, covered in gold discs rose up from the garden.  Once we finished this we had to register our names to visit the Inner Chamber. We returned for a round of shopping at the center’s boutiques and book shop, and for a simple lunch at the cafeteria.

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Later, the auto driver took us to Panchavati and a Shani Temple. Panchavati is said to be the only place with a statue of a giant 5-faced Hanuman. The fifth face can be seen from behind the temple through a  meshed gap in the wall. The Shani Temple was otherworldly, like it had sprung up in the middle of nowhere. I felt like I had stepped back into another age. We had to go to a rather derelict looking building which had a well at the back with water the color of algae. With our back towards it, we had to throw a one rupee coin into it before heading to the main temple where a giant statue of Shani (Saturn) stood glaring down at us. I cowered under his stern gaze and felt I was trespassing. Outside, there were locals selling sesame seeds/oil wrapped in colorful pieces of cloth. There were trays of these diyas, with each color representing a planet. Further inside, the nine planets are represented in stone and stood in mournful silence. The disquiet within me grew louder as the silence around tried to push into me.

Later that night, we celebrated my birthday with a round of mojitos, a tantrum and tiny perfumed soaps at L’Espace before we headed to Le Club where I blew out the candles off a delicious chocolate mousse cake from Baker’s Street, a French bakery, which Ay had procured during her disappearance earlier in the evening. Topped with red, red wine, the night sped into morning.

*

At the Matri Mandir, the crowd was ferried in vans and we were led by a resident to the gardens surrounding the Mandir. He explained the rules to be followed within the mandir and the architecture – the 12 petals, the size of the discs which are made of 24 carat gold fused in glass, 12 being the number of Shakti. The globe is supported by 4 pillars for each of the four directions, each of which also represents the Divine Mother – Mahakali, Saraswati, Lakshmi and Maheshwari. The Park of Unity is still under progress and a lake is being planned around the Mandir.

Aurovillians stood silently as we walked up and into the Mandir, which was incredibly beautiful and the experience surreal. We had to walk in silence and were signaled to wear socks before proceeding up a winding ramp, sailing in a daze through the soft orange glow. It could be the core of the earth, a space ship or a mother’s womb.

We sat in silent concentration for 15 minutes in the Inner Chamber that was all-white with a circle of massive pillars and white cushions around a huge crystal ball. A single ray of the sun entered from the top and pierced into the crystal and its light brushed the floor. The energy was really, really strong.  The end was signaled by the blinking of a light and we walked back down the ramp in silence.

We were then led to the lotus pond. The ray of sunlight actually descends down to the smaller crystal placed in the centre of the many petaled lotus pond. We could wander around the garden, sit by the amphitheater or under the shade of the Banyan tree around which Auroville has grown and spiraled out.

Back in Pondicherry, and after an afternoon at Madame Shanthe and a plate of coq au vin, we watched the full moon gather up in the sky, by the sea. I leave knowing I will be back in time to see dawn break over Auroville.

 

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