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Passage to Pondicherry

If you happen to be in India on your birthday, Pondicherry is the place to spend it. This former stronghold of French India, in the southern coastal state of Tamil Nadu, is now most famous as a site of spiritual pilgrimage. The ashram there, founded in 1926, grew up around the yogi Sri Aurobindo and his French counterpart, Mirra Richard, known to her followers as the Mother. According to her writings, each year, on a person's birthday, the soul ascends, "merges into the Source in order to replenish itself," and "comes down charged for a whole year to pass." I was more concerned about charging the battery in my laptop—but I had resolved to come to Pondicherry with an open mind.

Although April in southern India is the beginning of a humid, punishing summer, Pondy (as it's commonly called) is one of the region's most pleasant and easygoing cities. Especially if you arrive after a tour of Tamil Nadu's spectacular—if dusty and congested—temple towns, Pondy feels like a blessing. Local families sit on the rocks at the seawall, watching the waves; Indian and foreign tourists stroll down the elegant seaside promenade, eating Italian gelato in exotic flavors—lychee, almond, and pistachio. Navigating a pathamong the bicycles, autorickshaws, mopeds, and careening compact cars is difficult at first, but the Beach Road (which is officially named Goubert Salai) is often closed to traffic. The night I arrived a friend took me up and down the promenade on the back of his moped. "Pondy," he shouted over his shoulder, "is India Lite."

The city, designed and fortified by a series of French governors, is an oval bisected vertically by a canal—which once divided the city into French and Indian districts, the Ville Blanche and Ville Noire. To some extent the division still exists; most of Pondy's luxury hotels and restaurants are located on the east side, in old French colonial buildings that take advantage of the breeze off the ocean. Some of these have been beautifully preserved; L'Hôtel de L'Orient on Rue Romain Rolland is one of those rare Indian hotels that seems to remember the past while acknowledging that the country has moved far beyond it. The staff looks after therooms (which are filled with French antiques, such as a teak tea box and an enameled armoire) in a style appropriate to the climate—caring, without being especially hurried.

The old French seawall may haveserved a practical purpose recently: when the Indian Ocean tsunami devastated towns and villages up and down the coast of Tamil Nadu last December, Pondicherry was spared. (The regional government is now using some of its aid money to extend the city's rock barrier farther into the sea). When I learned about the tsunami, I e-mailed friends in the city, most of whom said that they had heard about the disaster in the same way I had, on the Internet. "There was so little sense of danger here," one Pondicherry resident wrote, "that when later there was a rumor of another tidal wave, more people ran toward the beach (to see this unusual natural phenomenon) than away (to save their skins)." The opposite, of course, was true for the surrounding areas, and the nearby utopian community at Auroville responded with a large-scale relief effort, providing temporary shelter and distributing food and supplies to thousands of victims.

Although I enjoyed Pondy's lovely colonial hotels, I figured that if I really wanted to experience the ashram, I had to stay there too. At the Park Guest House, strictly enforced rules and stern portraits of the ashram's founders suggest a 19th-century sanatorium; at about six dollars a night, however, the view makes it one of the best bargains anywhere. The spartan rooms look directly out over the Bay of Bengal, gray in the early morning, blue as the sun is coming up, and by the afternoon bright green. I had ample opportunity to observe it at every time of day, since by that point in my trip I was experiencing what long-stay backpackers refer to asDelhi Belly. Luckily, the Park's seaside canteen serves dry biscuits and tea. On my first morning there, I discovered that each table is supplied with a bit of the Mother's wisdom encased in Plexiglas, where you might otherwise expect to find the soup of the day: "If we always find mud around us, it proves that there is mud somewhere in us"—an incentive to perk up if there ever was one.

When the French travel writer Alexandra David-Neel visited Pondicherry early in the last century, she described "a dead city that had once been something and remembered it, rigid in its dignity, irreproachably correct, concealing beneath an impeccable coat of whitewash the cracks in the old walls." To her, the city's gardens looked "funereal." Visiting the Botanical Gardens today, you enter a whimsical, secluded space, protected from the street by foliage. The gardens officially open at 9:30 a.m., but there are several gates and innumerable caretakers, some more accommodating than others. A toy train, theJoy Train, snakes passengers through intermittently labeled native and foreign species. Gardeners and other early-morning infiltrators rest on the benches at the stations, like commuters in a somewhat scruffy Wonderland.

During the summer, the best time to go out is early in the morning, when the streets are quiet and cooler, and sweet milk coffee and idli, airy rice-flour cakes, served withsambar (curried lentils) and coconut chutney, can be bought from street stalls for a few rupees. As you walk farther west, the French influence recedes, and both the small, village-style houses and concrete block apartments are painted sun-bleached pastels. Tamil movie and political posters are everywhere, highly dramatic and often interchangeable—long before California did it, Tamil Nadu was electing film stars to public office. My trip coincided withthe national elections, and Tamil Nadu's chief minister, the former starlet J. Jayalalitha, had just been voted the least popular politician in the country, according to a poll in the weekly India Today. Nevertheless, she appeared on poster after poster, smiling jovially underneath her party's double-leaf symbol.

Pondy is full of trees and shrubs: orange flame-of-the-woods, pink and white plumeria, and richly scented frangipani, which releases an almost overpowering sweetness. Walking along South Boulevard, you reach Mahatma Gandhi Road and the Sacred Heart of Jesus church, where the doors and windows are thrown open to worshippers, the breeze off the ocean, and the occasional crow, lighting on the still blade of a ceiling fan.

Before leaving New York, I had read Peter Heehs's absorbing biography of Sri Aurobindo, who was famous as a journalist and freedom fighter before he became the celebrated yogi of Pondicherry. Aurobindo Ghose was born in Calcutta in 1872. When he was seven years old, his Anglophile father took him and his brothers to England, where he put them under the care of a guardian, stipulating that they not be allowed to "make the acquaintance of any Indian or undergo any Indian influence." Aurobindo distinguished himself at St. Paul's School, in London, and King's College, Cambridge, as a brilliant student of both modern and classical European languages and literature. Contrary to his father's wishes, he also studied Hindi and Sanskrit, and developed an interest in "revolutions and rebellions which led to national liberation." In 1893, he returned to India in the service of the Maharaja of Baroda and soon became a leader in the struggle for his country's independence.

Aurobindo initially saw Indian philosophy as a means to enact political change, and even his decision to settle in Pondicherry was politically motivated. He took refuge in the French Indian city in 1910, after the British government had issued a warrant for his arrest; once in Pondicherry, however, he increasingly devoted his lifeto writing and the study of yoga. (Sri Aurobindo's "integral yoga" is a complex mental discipline best described in his own exhaustive writings; safe to say it has nothing to do with Downward-Facing Dog.) Soon Indian and foreign devotees began traveling to see the famous yogi, and an ashram grew up in Pondicherry.

I met Aurobindo's biographer, the intense and soft-spoken American ashramite Peter Heehs, at his office in the Sri Aurobindo AshramArchives on Nehru Street, a blue-gray building with an immaculately maintained courtyard and polished concrete floors. Technically anashramite is anyone who works in one of the ashram's departments—from the laundry to the dining room to the perfumery (called Auroma)—in exchange for room and board. "Pondy is like a college town, and the ashram is the college," Peter explained, and, except for the afternoon tea-and-cookie break (during which the devotees heatedly discussed Tamil politics), the archives did have the atmosphere of a particularly light and airy university library.

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