Remember the opening scenes of Life of Pi? The ones with the lush gardens, spurting fountains and posh European mansions? Well that was Pondicherry, a breezy oasis in south India that’s the East’s answer to the Cotê d’Azur. Perched on the edge of the Bay of Bengal, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, Pondy, as the locals call it, is as laid-back as a Jamaican after a couple of doobies, and feels a bazillion miles away from the chaotic madness of boom-town India. A colourful, sunshiny hideaway that blends French colonial and south Indian cultures, a good dollop of spirituality and just a sprinkling of easygoing surf culture, in the best combo since Milli and Vanilli.
SO FRENCHY SO CHIC
Way back in 1850, the Brits had their mitts firmly on India but let the French stay in a few small pockets. Pondy was one of them, and the French stuck around until Pondy joined the newly independent India (throw your hands up at me) in 1954. Et voila, you have a city designed by a bunch of French governors that’s divided into French and Indian quarters.
The French Quarter, where travellers often spend most of their time, is on the east side. Here, wide streets with fancy French names are lined with colonial mansions in sun-bleached pastels, most of which have been restored and converted into boutique hotels and restaurants. There’s a palm-tree lined oceanfront boulevard where vendors sell hot-pink fairy floss and fresh coconuts, stylish European women cycle through bougainvillea-draped laneways, and the buttery scent of croissants hangs in the air. Over in the Tamil Quarter you’ll find the India you had in your head. A frenetic grand bazaar bursting with marigold garlands and the smell of incense and spices, Skittle-coloured houses and tuktuks, and sari-clad women yelling in high-speed Hindi everywhere.
The first thing you need to pack for Pondicherry is an open mind.
The Sri Aurobindo ashram is in the middle of the French Quarter, meaning shizloads of people come here to “find themselves” every year. Meaning you’ll probably end up meeting some real weirdos. Hopefully you’re one yourself.
The ashram was started in the ‘20s by the ultimate slashie: revolutionary, poet, philosopher and yogi Sri Aurobindo and his main gal Mirra Alfassa, known as The Mother. They’ve both now gone to the spirit in the sky, but their ‘shram still runs the Pondy show. Ashram workshops, guesthouses and boutiques, run by “ashramites” who work in exchange for room and board, are dotted all around the place, making Pondy kind of like a uni town.
Visit Sri Aurobindo and the Mother’s tomb in the ashram courtyard and you’ll automatically get darshan, or a blessing. You can’t miss the tomb. It’s the thing constantly smothered in fresh flowers, since the Mother believed flowers could talk. Remember that open mind you packed?
For more mind-bending, jump in a tuktuk and ride for 20 butt-numbing minutes to Auroville, the international community that’s been luring people who’ve given the finger to society since it started in 1968. Its 2,400 residents come from 49 countries and are the ultimate flower children, living without money or ownership but with a barter system that’s in line with the Mother’s vision of international human unity.
As a visitor, you can eat your bodyweight in mung beans at their vegan cafes, shop for handmade organic clothing, spiritual books, natural beauty products and hand-rolled incense at its boutiques, and do yoga and tai chi classes, sustainability workshops and other stuff to make you feel like a really good person. For the ultimate karma cleanse, visit the 29-metre-high Matrimandir, the huge gold ball that’s plonked in the centre of the community that the Aurovillians took 40 years to build by hand. Inside is like a set from Barbarella, complete with crystals, golden fountains, white walls and carpets, and an inner chamber that’s so beautiful it will probably make you cry. You big baby. You’re allowed 15 minutes in here to, in the words of the Mother, “find your consciousness.” (Hint: it might be behind one of the crystals.)
On the outskirts of Auroville is another hippy haven, a reforestation community called Sadhana Forest. You can stay here as a volunteer, doing forest regeneration work, cooking, cleaning, harvesting and other Amish-like activities in exchange for food and board. If that’s not your jam, on Friday nights you can take the free tour of the Forest, which ends with an arty-farty film screening and free vegan dinner. Dreadlocked and bearded babes are virtually guaranteed, too.
To keep the spiritual times rolling, drop in on shamanic healer Rahul Bharti, who runs group healing sessions on the rooftop of his massage centre on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Having learnt from healers in India, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Nepal, he uses cupping therapy (where suction cups are put on your skin), natural remedies (including applying your own wee to your face to fix acne – open mind, people, open mind!), and massage to attempt to cure everything from bad backs to cancer. Just ask him to cure that plantar wart on the bottom of your foot, we dare you.
If it’s sin-ridding you need, there’s the Sri Manakula Vinayagar Temple, just down the street from the Sri Aurobindo ashram. Find the elephant in the room (no, seriously), give him a few rupees, and he’ll snuffle them up with his lavishly decorated trunk, then give you a blessed pat on the head. It’ll be like you never even drowned your best friend’s iPod and blamed it on her cat. Promise. And, because all this healing can be goddam exhausting, finish up at the The Dune Eco Village and Spa for Ayurvedic treatments, yoga, meditation and Watsu, which is basically shiatsu massage done in a pool and is all kinds of amazing.
Surfing in India? Yep, you heard right. Take a rickshaw five minutes from the French Quarter and you’ll find Kallialay Surf School on Serenity Beach. You can hire rashies and boards and hang ten with Juan and Samai Reboul, the Spanish brothers who run the school. Sure, you might see a few plastic bottles floating beside you, but hopefully by now you’re so zen you’ll think they’re exotic creatures saying hi.
Once you’ve been dumped more times than you were in high school, you can take your sandy butt for a beer and a burger at the Bodhi café, a lofty, thatched-roof joint that looks out over the ocean and plays sweet tunes all day long.
Hotel Gratitude is a haven for the travel weary and anyone wanting a quiet space to be creative. A restored colonial mansion, it’s all columns and arches, sunflower-coloured walls, four-poster beds and a palm-filled inner courtyard. There’s wi-fi, yoga and massage, plus it’s kid-free. Sha-wing!
Finish your afternoon shop in the French Quarter at La Maison Rose – part bohemian boutique, part alfresco café. Take a seat under the mango trees, order a gazpacho and a kir royale, and prep your best self-satisfied smirk.