Thursday, January 17, 2008

My Odeyssey to Pondicherry


A Brief Introduction

A hundred and sixty kms down south of Chennai, on the Coromandel Coast lies the union territory of Pondicherry. A place which is a window to the French culture in India. It has a past of the French rule over it that lasted for about 300 years, which is evident by the buildings that have the French colonial structure and the streets which still bear a French name.
Pondicherry comprises of four widely separated towns, namely: Puducherry, Karaikal, Yanam and Mahe. While the former two are on the East Coast of Tamil Nadu, Yanam is in Andhra Pradesh and Mahe on the West Coast in Kerala. Amongst the four, Puducherry is the capital of this Union Territory.

History Of Pondicherry

Pondicherry has seen the fall and rise of many civilizations in the past. In the ancient times it saw the rule of Pallava Dynasty. In the medieval times it came under the rule of Cholas and Pandyas. It also experienced the Muslim and Hindu rule. While the modern history saw the dominance of the French. Pondicherry was later occupied by other colonial rulers of Portuguese, Dutch, Danes and English who played a major role in shaping the social, political, economic and political history of the Union Territory.

Geography of Pondicherry

Pondicherry holds a population of about 1,73,829. The pleasant climate and river Godavari flowing through Pondicherry makes it fertile to grow many good quality agricultural crops like paddy, coconut, pulses and groundnut. Agriculture and fishing are the major sources of generating income for the local indigenous population of pondicherry.


Pondicherry trip did not happen to me and my friends incidentally or accidentally but with due information regarding the same 5 months prior to it. We became aware of it while we had filled in the forms for our college, Sri Aurobindo Institute of Mass Communication. The college is backed by an autonomous body, the Aurobindo Society which has its headquarters at Pondicherry. Thus it was there in our curriculum since day 1 that we all will be going for a trip to Pondicherry and not just one but all the students were looking forward and eagerly waiting for the trip to begin and so did it.

Nearly a week before it, we were given the consent letters, itinerary and the list of compulsory items to be taken along. Our tickets for the sleeper class were already booked 60 days in advance to the trip’s scheduled date that was the 19th of December. But what disappointed a few of us was the itinerary which had all 8 days of lecture and just one free day. We all had deemed it to be a trip just to have fun and were not expecting this schedule of lectures. But despite that fact we were determined to have loads of fun. So gradually we accepted that, the trip is meant to be a study tour so the lectures have to be a part and parcel of it.

Having submitted the consent forms, now was the time to shop. Yes shop! After all we had been instructed to carry along a few things and we are not suppose to ignore it no??? That was how we reacted and overacted in front of our parents to get double and treble the amount of our pocket money as shopping allowance. So the money problem was solved and shopping
more than what was there in the circular, off course had to happen. After all we were going on a trip from college and this was the right time to spend all the money that we asked for and the excuse would be just and obvious.

Now the next problem was of when to go. Just two days were left before our scheduled date. The time had flown by and it was 16th December. We all were aware of the classes that were to take place on the 17th and the 18th and prayed till the end for them to get canceled. But such fortunate things hardly ever happen to not so fortunate people like us. So a few of us planned it after the class, while the other took a leave and concentrated on shopping and packing. We went to Sarojini Nagar market, shopped till it got dark and finally were all satisfied with it.

On returning back home, having got a few thrashing from parents about how senselessly we part away with our money for petty things and don’t realize the value of it. A little later we realize that somewhere they are right but only somewhere huh! After all had I not bought these lowers what would have I worn for the yoga classes. To go on the beach after all one needs a good skirt along with a contrasting or matching spaghetti too. Yes! The jute chappals, how could have I missed that. Hey! We will also be celebrating the New Year there too, so I had to buy this new party wear top. A sunscreen, a sleeping bag, another spaghetti, a bag, floaters, another pair of lowers and so on. Phew! All cash finished, just 50 bucks left for hiring an auto back home.

Reflecting at all this while packing my bags and baggage made me feel so better. Although it was hard to stuff things in our suitcases and bags, we made through this hurdle too. The bags looked like an overfed, out of shape and an obese man.

With bags packed and locked, I was all set for the D-day and it arrived. I waited for the skies to turn dark, in the colour of night. Our train, Tamil Nadu express, from Delhi to Chennai was scheduled at 10 p.m. and we were told to be there by 9.30 p.m. It was around 9.15 that I had reached at the platform with my two families and my husband. It was the first time I was parting with them all in a go. But my mind hardly threw light on that and focused more on the fun that was about to happen. It was all so exciting. And this excitement multiplied as and when we met someone or the other from our college. We would greet them as if don’t know how many years have passed by and we haven’t seen each other since then. Such is the power of excitement of the trip and I think it was also because we tend to show off a little on such occasions when we meet our friends out of the campus.

The train arrived and we all barged into it because that’s how the crowd is. You have to push and pull and apply a few elbow shots to finally make it in the coach. We occupied the seats and by the time we tried to place our luggage and get settled the train moved, which created quite a panic for all the relatives of the students who had come to see them off. But

then all went off fine. And then began the journey. We were a group of six, so luckily we got 6 of the berths together. Then we adjusted our luggage and once we were through we all felt hungry. So one of my friends took out the fried rice she had brought from home. It was fun.

Singing songs, cracking jokes, playing dumb charades, chatting, giggling, reading, listening to music till long and all night through when it seemed that the head phones were plugged in for an eternity. All these and much more happened all time through. The entire journey went through this way. And we never realized how the time passed and we reached Chennai railway station on the 21st of December.

We were all excited as we had finally made it to Chennai. There we had our friends from audio visual department already waiting to receive us as they had reached Chennai before hand, for they had gone to Kerela to attend a film festival. We all got into the busses, which were packed not just with all we students and teachers but also our baggage, leaving hardly any space for movement. And then began our road journey to Pondicherry from Chennai, which took approximately 4 hours.

Finally the bus halted outside the International Guest House at Netaji Subhash Sarai. We had already been allotted our rooms in pairs. So we got hold of our keys and headed to our rooms for a quick bath, as it had already been 2 days since we last bathed.

Having freshened up after that bath and a short nap, we heard from our fellow mates about a sea shore which was just 7 minutes walk away from our guest house and they all headed towards it. So the 6 of us got ready for the same, in our best outfits that we got for the evening walk by the sea shore.

Reaching there we came to know that it was not a mere sea shore but a rocky beach called the Promenade beach which is taken to be the pride of Pondicherry. It runs for about a kilometer and a half and has several landmarks. The statues of Joan of Arc and Mahatma Gandhi, the old light house, the remains of the old pier and the old custom house which tell a tale of the past. It is said that now the sea level has gone down by a couple of meters in the past 10 to 12 years, due to global warming.

The Promenade beach.

Besides Promenade, we visited 2 more beaches, the Paradise beach and the Auroville beach. Our visit to the former was absolute madness. We were a total of about 35 people. So we divided ourselves into groups of seven and each group hired an auto. On reaching there we bought our boat tickets which had cost us 60 Rs. for two way fare. This boat would take us to and fro to the paradise beach which indeed was what the name suggested. Quite a sea lover amongst us, on seeing the fresh salty water gushing towards the shore, ran and plunged into the waves coming towards them. On the contrary their were those who were afraid of the water and stayed away, although by the end of the day they somehow did manage to combat their fear and made friends with the sea too. It was indeed an ecstatic experience.

To and fro, boat journey to paradise beach (left), the Paradise beach.

Our visit to the Auroville beach was also different. As the name suggests it is close to Auroville. It is around 10-12 kilometers away from the main Puducherry town.

Apart from the beaches, Pondicherry is also famous for its temples and churches. It is said that there are more than 350 temples in and around Pondicherry, 75 of them devoted to Vinayakar (Lord Ganesha). Amongst these 75 temples we happen to visit one of them which was just a 5 minutes walk away from our guest house on way to the Promenade beach. It was the Manakula Vinayakar temple.

What attracted us the most to this temple was that we had heard that their stood a female elephant on the entrance of the temple. This elephant’s name was Laxmi and was 17 years old.

Laxmi the 17 year old elephant which stands on the entrance of Manakula Vinayakar temple.

What was special about her was that once you offered her a coin, she would take it through her trunk and then raise her trunk and place it over your head and bless you. At that instant one could feel the pang of both a little fear and a child like excitement.

Most of our time from around 10 to 4 in the evening would generally go while attending the lectures. And these lectures happened to be a lot more interesting and different than we thought of. We had people from various walks of life and were willingly working with Sri Aurobindo Society as its integral part on the path of development. We had Shivakumar sir, who is working towards training the youth at the Sri Aurobindo ashram and takes classes for the same. Vijay Bhai a very senior person in the Society who has also had his education from the Aurobindo school and college. Mr. Alok Pandey, a psychiatrist working with and for the society. Sir Sushanto, who gave us an absolutely new vision to look at art and architecture. Mr. Robi Ganguly, a well established photographer, who clicks only black and white photos and is currently working from his house, as he suffers from acute arthritis. Then we had Sir Shradhalu who told us about “Our Role in Nation Building”. Also there was Mr. Sampad who cleared our fears and myths about Sanskrit and introduced to us “The Wonder That is Sanskrit”.

The sessions were no doubt interesting ones but the best out of all was the visit to Matrikunj (Lake Land view), for which we hired 45 cycles and rode them for around 14 kilometers, while the rest of the students and teachers had a bus as a transport to reach there. It was on the 25th of December, the Christmas day that we left for Matrikunj. It was 6 in the morning and we all were ready and had reported at the ashram. With our cycling tracks and caps on, we reared and geared with enthusiasm to ride our way to the destination. While some were confident about it, there were others who were not so sure too. But some how we all sailed through or should I say… rode through it all.

Matrikunj, was a place where I felt nature was at its best. There was a tree house which was the centre of attraction and a delight for us who had never seen it before.

Tree House (left), path covered with pebbles (right).

At a few places the ground had pebbles of different colours, shapes and sizes.

Once all had gathered there, since a few lost their way while cycling, we all came together at one place. Then we were divided into 2 groups. One group would be headed by Shivakumar sir for the lake view and the other would stay back with Maitri mam for a short case study.

The lake that stretches to 800 acres.

Maitri mam is an environmentalist and is working as research assistant with the Aurobindo Society. The first group went to see the lake which stretched along 800 acres and the other went along with mam. There we were given cases regarding the depletion of environment and the problems taking birth due to it. As a group we had to analyse the situation and suggest immediate measures to be taken that would and could make a difference and help save the environment. By the end of it we felt quite efficient and aware.

Having visited the lake and winding up with our case study, we then went to Sharanam. Sharanam is project initiated by the Society to make the village people efficient and equipped for building up and bringing up their village on their own. And when we went there and had a round of the place where, Sharanam- a community hall for the villagers was coming up, we were stunned. Not because it was a marvel beauty like Taj Mahal, but because how every brick of it was being made, which indeed was a beauty par excellence. Mr. Jateen, the master mind behind the design is an architect, who has done his studies abroad and is now working with the society in making the villagers more self reliant.

Once we all were through with our lake view, case studies and visit to Sharanam, came the time to eat. It was a treat for us as it was North Indian food for a change. No offenses, but having had the same South Indian food daily, that too twice a day made me and a few others sick of it. That is why during the dinner time we would prefer eating North Indian, Chinese, Italian or anything for that matter of fact but not South Indian.

Gradually the days past by, and it was the 29th of December our last day at Pondicherry. That day we had no lecture but had a feed back session, for which we were asked to answer a few questions. Having answered them, Vijay Bhai came in to bid us farewell. He asked in a very simple manner, a very simple question… What are you taking along with you from here?
A question to which a large chunk of us, spilled our hearts out.
Hearing them, almost all of us including the staff became quite emotional. But as they say, “To every beginning there is an end” and so did our trip end. On the 30th of December, we moved out of Pondicherry, having packed our baggage of memories we bid adieu to Pondicherry.