Life of Pi is the story of Piscine Molitor Patel – known as Pi – a young, bookish boy whose life revolves around the hippos, hyenas, bears and other animals at his father’s zoo in Pondicherry, India. Curious by nature, Pi is deeply influenced by religion, and learns about and embraces three of them – Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. But his idyllic life at the zoo comes to an end when his father decides to pack up and move the family to Canada for a better life. They leave aboard a Japanese cargo ship called the Tsimtsum along with many of their animals, who are bound for zoos in the US. A few days into their journey, disaster strikes – their ship, along with most of the animals and the entire Patel family – bar Pi – sink to the depths of the ocean. 16-year old Pi finds himself on a lifeboat with a zebra, hyena, orang-utan and a Royal Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Of course, the only animal to survive is Richard Parker, and Pi must share his lifeboat with him and hope for a miraculous rescue.
The book is hailed as a modern day classic, a glorious spiritual adventure that makes us question what it means to be alive, and to believe. But sadly, I found it lacking.Continue reading→
Located 10 kilometers out of Pondicherry down a narrow, tree lined lane punctuated on both sides with cafes and shops is Auroville, an experimental township founded by The Mother (Sri Aurobindo’s disciple) in the late 1960s. Her vision was to offer Aurovillans an experience of community living. Anchored by the Maitri Mandir (the soul of Auroville), a golden golf ball shaped structure, the community is currently home to about 50,000 people from 16 countries.
Cross-section of the inside of Maitri Mandir, visitor centre, Auroville
“Auroville wants to be 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.”
When you reach Auroville, your first port of call would be the visitor center, where you can read about its history and charter and watch a short movie on its philosophy and on the establishment of the Maitri Mandir. There is also a bookstore selling titles by The Mother and on Auroville.
On the way to Maitri Mandir. Want to see what the old lady looks like? Click on the image
Visitors are allowed to see the Maitri Mandir from a viewing point some distance away from the main temple. The walk to the Mandir is beautiful and peaceful, along a narrow tree shaded walking path. If you want to go in to temple, you will have to take an appointment after you have seen the Mandir. The Maitri Mandir isn’t a temple in the traditional sense, there is no religion followed and you aren’t supposed to pray. It is for
“those who want to learn to concentrate…No fixed meditations, none of all that, but they should stay there in silence, in silence and concentration. A place for trying to find one’s consciousness.”
The Mandir “wants to be the symbol of the Divine’s answer to man’s aspiration for perfection.” but I didn’t get that from its shape – a golden golf ball in the center of 12 petals. Ah well!
The Maitri Mandir, viewing point, Auroville
After we had seen the Mandir, we rode around through the township, though the best way to really understand what Auroville is all about is to stay there. Since that wasn’t happening on this trip, we thought we’d gather information and be touristy. 😀
Auroville is famous for its arts and crafts, incense, and organic foods. There are three boutiques in the complex, which sell a variety of products, ranging from silks, knits, and leather to pottery, metal work, and wood craft, to incense, aromatherapy products, massage oil, shampoos and lotions. All of these goods are hand made using traditional techniques that do not harm the environment.
An audio-video installation on sustainable energy, Auroville
When at Auroville, you should definitely have a meal at the café, which serves up organic food with raw materials that are either grown at Auroville or procured from nearby places, with a strong focus on sustainability. I had an absolutely fantastic fried fish and a yummy lemon cake. The thought of those dishes can still make my mouth water! We also picked up a plum cake from there, and it was one of the best plum cake’s I’ve ever eaten!
On our way back, we stopped at a cute open air cafe for a cup of refreshing lemon tea…then drove on back to our hotel…and spent the rest of the evening at the beach! Bliss…
As our flight started its descent into Chennai, I looked out the window and was mesmerized by the green and blue expanse I saw below me. Delhi seen out the plane window does have a surprisingly vast green cover, but the concrete jungle has very firmly gained the upper hand. From the air, Chennai looks gorgeous, with luscious greens and shimmering blues, and houses that seem to be sprinkled around sparingly.
Sunset on our drive to Pondicherry
The three hour drive into Pondicherry is very pretty, passing as we do along verdant green fields interspersed with still, blue backwaters. Through the tinted windows of the taxi, the sky took on a dramatic blue hue, and I wore down the battery on my iPhone, shooting multiple photographs of the setting sun.
Since we reached our hotel in the evening, and were pretty tired after a full day’s travel, we decided to freshen up and head to the beach – a mere 2 minute walk from our hotel. Pondicherry has a rocky beach, so instead of digging ourselves into sand we sat ourselves down on the rocks and watched the waves crash in – this was our evening ritual for the duration of our stay in Pondy. The Bay of Bengal is pretty rough and choppy, and the waves generally come in strong…but the soothing sound of the surf, the mesmerizing pull of the waves, the cool sea breeze, and the feel of sea spray on my face felt like pure bliss…I could spend hours just perched there on a rock, watching the world pass me by…lost in my own thoughts…
A man at the beach, watching the world go by
There are so many ways in which this trip was different from the rest of our annual holidays. Since we’ve spent a lot of time in Rajasthan, an element of familiarity had crept in to our vacations. This trip down south was like a breath of fresh air – everything was different, right from our mode of transport (flight vs drive) to the people, architecture, landscape, and language.
The French side of Pondy has shaded streets, some of which are still cobbled, beautiful large colonial houses, a lot of boutiques and hotels, and it is fun to walk around to take in the architecture and poke around in the stores. While walking around, you’re also apt to notice a lot of statues dotted around the city. A famous one that you’ll not miss is a statue of Gandhi with four old temple columns around the image, located at one end of the beach. There are some beautiful statues in the oddest of places, like one of an angel on the rooftop of a house!
A statue shot through the open gates of a house
Since we had limited time, we hired a bike and went to the Aurobindo Ashram, which is in the French part of the city. Photography isn’t allowed inside, unfortunately, as they have a beautiful cactus garden, with some amazingly tall cactus plants. The Ashram houses the Samadhi of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, and is adorned with fresh flowers everyday. Devotees come in and offer up prayers and letters of thanks, which are collected in a little letter box near the Samadhi. They have a small bookstore where you can literature on Aurobindo’s teachings and philosophy. They have also preserved the drawing room where Aurobindo and The Mother used to rest, complete with Persian carpets, sofas and bookshelves.
The elephant outside the Ganesh temple blessing a devotee
In the next lane is the 300+ year old Sri Manakula Vinayagar Temple. Dedicated to Lord Ganesh, there are 40 different forms of the deity painted on the temple walls. The golden and silver chariots at the temple that are used during specific ceremonies or for particular prayers were made from devotee donations. The main attraction of the temple is the elephant outside – once prayers are offered at the temple, devotees feed the elephant and seek its blessing. Parents make their small children sit on its back (with the mahout) for a few moments to seek its blessings. It’s quite a sight, as the elephant takes the food offered to it and blesses the devotees with its trunk!
One stark difference I noticed here was the relative lack of beggars outside the temple complex. Around most temples you will almost always be hounded by beggars, but here, there were just one or two people asking for alms, and no one got after us.
The museum at Pondy is also supposed to be really good, but it was closed while we were there, so we were unable to visit it.
If all the sight seeing gets you tired, hop onto your bike (or into a rickshaw) and go over to Hot Breads for a cup of hot coffee and croissants. Their choco Danish is excellent, and was my staple breakfast while we were in Pondy.
Sun and sand at Pondicherry
And if you really want to dig your toes into some sand, you’ll have to drive down toward Auroville – there are two sandy beaches there – The Auro Beach and Serenity Beach. You can take surfing classes or hire a surfboard and catch the waves at the Auro Beach if you’re so inclined. I’m not sure which beach we made it to, but our strip of the sand was almost deserted. The husband and I had a blast, standing ankle deep in the water, clicking pictures, soaking up the sun, digging for shells…Unfortunately, we discovered the sandy beach on our last day, else I’m sure we would have spent much more time there. Next time, I guess!
While planning our annual holiday this year, I was very sure of one thing – I didn’t want to go to Rajasthan yet again! Now, don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love the state! But that doesn’t mean I go there every year, right?
This year, I could almost hear the call of a cool sea breeze…of palms swaying in the wind…of lazing on the beach and unwinding…But Goa around Christmas/New Year is jam-packed with tourists, so we decided to head further south, to Pondicherry (popularly referred to as Pondy).
Sea views from the rooftop of the hotel
Ruled by the French until 1954, a canal splits this oval-shaped city into two – the French side (Ville Blanche) and the Indian side (Ville Noire). The Indian side of the city is like any other small town in the country – sleepy, dusty, and congested. Move into the French side, though, and you are greeted with cobbled, shady roads and sprawling houses, many of which overlook the beach.
We left Delhi on a cold, grey Christmas morning, and arrived in warm and sunny Chennai – the closest airport to Pondy – in the afternoon. A 3-hour picturesque drive later, our holiday had finally begun!
The hotel we had chosen was on Rue Dumas in the French quarter, just one lane behind the beach. So though our room looked out onto the quiet, shady street, we had a lovely sea view from the rooftop cafeteria. A 2 minute walk took us to Goubert Salai, the seaside promenade, which during the peak season is almost always crowded with locals and tourists walking along the pavement or sitting on the rocks watching the waves crash in. During off-peak periods, I suspect the rocky beach, the strip of white sand and the pavement would be quite deserted, giving it the look of a sleepy French sea-side village.
Rue Dumas, Pondicherry
There isn’t much to do at Pondy, so you’ll never feel rushed or hurried. We spent all our evenings at the beach, sitting on the rocks, people and wave watching. We hired a bike and rode to Auroville one day, on another we took a day trip to Mamalapuram (Mahabalipuram), and on the third we visited the Aurobindo Ashram and the 300+ year old Sri Manakula Vinayagar Temple (a Ganesh temple), which was in existence even before the French settled in Pondicherry (i.e. before 1666), and then rode over to one of the other (sandy) beaches around Pondy.
We found it a bit hard to find a good place to eat in Pondy, though. The popular names, such as Le Club and La Teresse, were disappointing to say the least. Le Club was over-priced, and their food was barely passable; the food at La Teresse was insipid. So, I chucked the travel guide aside and asked around for good places to eat.
Hotel du Park has excellent continental food (their Fisherman’s basket and grilled fish are excellent, as is the fresh fruit with ice cream and the divine chocolate cake) or try Le Rendezvous (it looked and smelled excellent, though we didn’t eat there as they had a 1 hour waiting for dinner!). I also heard good things about Don Giovanni, a pizzeria on the rooftop of Hotel Corbelli. If you want to sample some South Indian non-vegetarian fare, you can’t go wrong with Apichi– their prawn fry and lappam is like manna from heaven! For pure vegetarian South Indian food, you can try Surguru (opposite Hotel du Park) – I quite liked their dosas. Oh, and for a nice breakfast spread, you can head to Hot Breads (loved their Choco Danish!)