#17: Walking Down the Sunlit Path
Rediscovering Pondicherry and Auroville.
When I was three, my parents enrolled me in a ‘free progress’ school called Mirambika. ‘Free progress’ meant that students were allowed to learn and grow at their own pace and as per their individual interests. It was a place of dreams — unique architecture (see layout below), ample space to run around, open classrooms that blurred the boundary between the indoors and the outdoors, trees of all kinds, and a lot of emphasis on extra-curricular activities like gardening, carpentry, marbling, clay modeling, theatre, and sports. We didn’t have uniforms, exams, or textbooks — subjects were taught through projects and self-driven experiments.
A typical weekday started with an hour of sports, followed by breakfast and cleaning of classrooms (by the students). We then had 10 minutes of meditation time when the whole school fell silent (there were of course hand movements, winks, and stifled giggles once the teachers closed their eyes) while mellow music meant to aid concentration played in the background. The teachers were called ‘diyas’ - or source of light - and we addressed them as ‘bhaiyya’ and ‘didi’ like family.
I switched to a regular school when I was ten, but the experience left a mark on me. I learned to measure my progress and development vis-a-vis myself rather than others. I seldom felt the need to conform (and whenever I did, I realized I could not) and took pride in being different from most people around me. This wasn’t always easy, but it helps to learn to appreciate your individuality in a world that wants everyone to be the same and yet stand out.
Last month, I found myself in Pondicherry (aka Pondy). I wanted to get away for a bit to focus on some personal goals alongside work. I felt Pondy was an ideal place given its slow pace of life, access to all amenities, and my familiarity with the place, having visited many times over the years. I found an inviting home away from home called Kariappa House, tucked away in a fisherman’s village by the sea. A cluster of interconnected houses - typically how joint-family homes were designed in the past - with a sprawling courtyard under the canopy of trees and a covered swimming pool - it was gorgeous. While the main house is constructed in traditional Franco-Tamil architectural style, two of the structures within the complex are refurbished Tamil houses. Built and managed with the utmost care, it was a pleasure to stay and work out of here. (Note: They have an equally charming sister property called Gratitude Heritage in another part of town.)
What made my stay at Kariappa House even more memorable was all the people I met here. Long-term and short-term guests from different geographies and walks of life, friendly caretakers, and the host. Breakfast time was typically when everyone gathered in the dining room to devour homemade dosas, uthappam, and pongal, and got to interact with each other before setting off for the day. We also had a potluck dinner one night with all the long-term guests and some members of the French Institute, which was a lot of fun.
Most of my evenings post-work were spent walking along the coast to Rock Beach. It was a good twenty-five-minute walk from one end to the other and entailed walking past the colorful Tamil houses of Vaithikuppam, the village where Kariappa House is located. On days I didn’t have to rush back to catch up on work or calls, I would sit on the rocks for hours watching the waves until the moon rose and there was a slight nip in the air.
What I like most about slow travel is that it allows you to experience such ordinary moments that, in retrospect, feel extraordinary - day after day. A new routine sets in, local people start recognizing you, you figure out ‘your spots’, and get familiar with the rhythm of things. You know you’ll eventually leave, but for now, it starts to feel like home.
The French Quarter And Beyond
Pondy is divided into two sections separated by a canal — the French Quarter and the Indian Quarter. The Indian Quarter is further divided into Hindu, Muslim, and Christian neighborhoods. Having been colonized by the French, the Dutch, and the British, Pondicherry became a part of the Indian Union only in 1954. It is one of the most walkable cities in the country and is best explored on foot or on a bike. Every neighborhood is characterized by its own unique architecture and vibe, even while embracing cross-cultural influences.
The French Quarter is the quieter part of town and is marked by Franco-Indian heritage buildings with colorful outer walls - typically in shades of yellow, green, and pink. They have arches and big windows with pop-out grills - used by early French settlers to peek out into the street and observe the daily life of Indians from the comfort and safety of their home.
The Indian Quarter is like any other Indian city, but being in Tamil Nadu, is closer to the likes of Chennai. What I found fascinating about this part of town was the variety of iron grill patterns used in the gates and windows of the houses!
The neighborhood I enjoyed the most though was one I had never visited before. Vaithikuppam, the fisherman’s village where Kariappa House is located, lies at the fag end of the Rock Beach road. It has narrow streets and tiny houses that are a delight to observe at all times of the day. Each home has its own character - personalized with bright-colored outer walls, creative Kollam designs at the entrance, fascinating iron outer gates, and beautiful masks hanging outside the main door to keep evil spirits at bay. The streets are full of kids running around, cycling, and playing games - though my favorite scene was of adults playing games too! Come evening, small groups of men and women could be found seated in their respective circles on street corners playing recreational games. They had their own versions of Snakes and Ladders, Checkers, and the like. A French game called Petanque, comprising wooden and iron balls, was also very popular amongst men of all ages and people gathered to watch when a game was on.
While it’s common to see men playing games in public places, it was delightful to watch women doing the same for a change. It reminded me of a lovely Instagram page called 'Women at Leisure' that features photos of women resting and having fun - something that is (sadly) so rare to see, especially in public places. Even in Delhi, I’ve noticed that neighborhood public parks are full of men during lunch hour - typically guards, salesmen, and support staff from nearby offices stepping out to have lunch, smoke, catch up with colleagues, or play a game of cricket. But seldom do I see women doing the same.
Work is Prayer
The essence of Pondy revolves around the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, even though parts of the population have nothing to do with it. The Sri Aurobindo Ashram is a spiritual community in Pondicherry that grew out of a small community of spiritual seekers and Sri Aurobindo’s disciples after he retired from politics and settled in Pondicherry in 1910. When he decided to withdraw from public life to focus on his own spiritual work in 1926, he handed over the responsibility of managing the ashram to his spiritual collaborator, Mirra Alfassa, known as ‘The Mother’.
The Mother believed that work is prayer and work done in true spirit is meditation. So the ashram has several departments and workshops where sadhaks (spiritual seekers) do their sadhana, which involves running the ashram admin offices, guest houses, cottage industries, dining room, schools, galleries, nursing homes, farms, and bakeries. Every member is engaged in some form of work and allotted a place to stay as a member of the community.
Ashram buildings in Pondy can be easily identified as they’re painted in blue-grey color inspired by the shade of the deep sea. A handful of ashram cottage industry departments, like handmade paper making, marbling, embroidery, batik, and scent-making are open to the public and are a must-visit if you are in Pondy. Additionally, I recommend visiting the Samadhi (one of the most peaceful spots in Pondy) and grabbing a meal at the ashram dining hall to get a sense of the ashram community and ethos.
A Unique Experiment
An extension of the ashram is an experimental township called Auroville in Viluppuram district of Tamil Nadu, located 30 km away. In French, "Aurore" means dawn and "Ville" means village/city - making “Auroville” the ‘City of Dawn’. It was founded in 1968 by The Mother as a universal township where men and women of all countries could live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, politics, and nationalities. The purpose was to realize human unity and contribute decisively to the Indian renaissance. The place was inaugurated by delegates of 124 nations in 1968 and has a four-point charter penned by The Mother:
Auroville belongs to nobody in particular. Auroville belongs to humanity as a whole. But to live in Auroville, one must be the willing servitor of the Divine Consciousness.
Auroville will be the place of an unending education, of constant progress, and a youth that never ages.
Auroville wants to be the bridge between the past and the future. Taking advantage of all discoveries from without and from within, Auroville will boldly spring toward future realizations.
Auroville will be a site of material and spiritual research for a living embodiment of actual human unity.
At the heart of Auroville is the Matrimandir in the shape of a globe made of gold discs that reflect sunlight. It has an inner chamber that contains the largest optically-perfect glass globe in the world, four pillars (called Maheshwari / Wisdom, Mahalakshmi / Harmony, Mahakali / Strength, and Mahasaraswati / Perfection), and twelve petals in the shape of The Mother’s Symbol (more about this later).
The Matrimandir is surrounded by beautiful gardens known as the Peace Area, beyond which are the four zones of Auroville: the Residential Zone, Industrial Zone, Cultural & Educational Zone, and International Zone. Beyond this lies the Green Belt where environmental research is conducted and farms, forestries, a botanical garden, seed banks, medicinal plantations, and water catchment bunds are located.
While the township was originally intended for 50,000 residents, it currently has about 2500 residents from 54 countries. The township has its own governing body, restaurants, guest houses, building construction units, information technology cells, small and medium-scale businesses, workshops, organic farms, bookshops, and boutiques, among many other initiatives. It’s a fascinating place to experience the confluence of different cultures, languages, generations, and interests.
However, as inspiring as it is, it’s also evidently going through an identity crisis of sorts. The basic operations are afloat, but due to the lack of charismatic leadership after the passing away of The Mother, the place seems to lack direction, innovation, and evolution. It continues to attract tourists and creative people from around the world - from architects and permaculture practitioners to musicians and researchers - and there’s always something interesting brewing here - but seems to be disconnected from the original intent of the place.
If you’re ever in Auroville, I recommend visiting the Auroville Visitor’s Centre, Matri Mandir, Solar Kitchen, Sadhana forest, Svaram (an experiential music research center), Bread and Chocolate cafe, and the Mason & Co. chocolate factory. You can find more information about Auroville here.
The Sunlit Path
So what’s the connection between my first school, Mirambika, and Pondy/Auroville?
Mirambika was conceptualized and run based on the principles of Integral Education as articulated by The Mother. The curriculum and approach to personal development were inspired by her vision and classes were named after the values enshrined in The Mother’s Symbol (see diagram below). Every year, each batch of students would sit together and decide which value they wish to imbibe that year - and the class would be named that for the year in lieu of ‘Fourth Standard’, ‘Fifth Standard’, etc.
There are many details about the school that I’m sure I’ve forgotten over the years, but one thing that remains etched in memory is the Sunlit Path - the entrance to the school. I had no idea why it was called so back then, but years later I discovered that 'The Sunlit Path’ is the title of a book that contains excerpts of conversations between The Mother and her students on a range of topics, from how to control one’s thoughts to overcoming the ego and dealing with the challenges of life.
Walking through the picturesque lanes of Pondy felt like walking down the Sunlit Path. It felt like homecoming because the ashram buildings and activities reminded me of the first public safe space I knew as a child. A source of light at a time when my mind was constantly focusing on the darkness. A reminder to slow down and reflect on the values I want to imbibe. To walk the streets aimlessly and unabashedly - taking whichever path I fancied - with the confidence that I’ll eventually find my way home.
It’s funny how so much of who we are and what we go through - our insecurities, traumas, safe spaces, and values - are connected to our childhood. Revisiting the past - memories, feelings, and physical spaces - can sometimes provide direction in the present, even if the message is as simple as hang in there.