Day 2 in South India
India’s former French colony, Pondicherry, still retains some of its colonial past with the look and feel of the French Quarter in New Orleans. A few blocks of the coastal city contain cobbled streets fronted by a number of mustard-yellow townhouses with balconies, Christian churches, French-speaking schools and some lovely shade tress.
However, the stop in the center of town at the ancient Sri Manakkula Vinayakar Temple shouted “India” to me. Manakkula Vinayakar (built sometime around 1665) is an elephant temple and the place where I received my first elephant blessing. Like Ganesha, the elephant-headed deity, is the god of transitions and destroyer of evils and obstacles. He is placed at the doorway of many Hindu temples to keep out the unworthy.
I was walking through a crowded area with vendors selling flowers, trinkets and fruit, when I nearly ran into this huge elephant outside the temple entrance. He was gussied up with chalk designs and a necklace. Just make a small donation and the elephant blesses you by raising his trunk and patting your head.
Ganesha is a beloved Indian deity, the son of gods Shiva and Parvati with an elephant head, curved trunk, big ears and a huge pot-bellied body of a human being. Ganesha is also revered as the god of education, knowledge, wisdom and wealth. In fact, he is one of the five prime Hindu deities along with Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva and Durga (all of whom I was learning about daily).
Ganesha is often worshipped at the beginning of ventures such as buying a vehicle or starting a business. Sure enough, as I was leaving the area I saw a family with a new car which they had decorated with Hindu designs and flowers. A priest came out of the temple to bless the vehicle.
The next morning I returned early to visit inside the temple with Bhaskar, my host, and our new Hindu driver who would be with us the remainder of the trip. Seemed appropriate that we ask Ganesha to remove all obstacles in our path (especially other fast moving vehicles on India’s crazy roads). Seriously, I could identify with Ganesha and began to look for and find him everywhere. (one cannot take photos inside a temple, however.)
After removing my shoes and entering the dimly lit sanctuary, I slowly walked down a central aisle flanked by numerous gold-plated pillars and many paintings of Ganesha. Also there were statues of other gods along the walls, some made from stone and others with precious metals and decorative gems. There was a large stainless container, which seemed out of place, but it is customary and holds the monetary donations. The priest was situated near the rear, donned in a loin-cloth and shirtless, except for a cord that went from his waist up and over, across his chest to the opposite side of the waistband.
I can’t remember exactly what the altar was like, but it was recessed and I am sure it had a golden statue of a god and lots of flowers around it. Bhaskar explained, ” Place your money in the plate, capture the spirit of the flame with your hands and move them toward your bowed head.” I did and the priest then touched my forehead, leaving a chalk spot and gave me lotus blossom. I felt honored and accepted. Apparently receiving the flower was a special blessing.
We then departed for Auroville, described to me as,”an idealistic international community dedicated to peace, harmony, sustainable and ‘divine consciousness’, where people from the globe work together to build a universal, cash-free, non-religious township. The goal is human unity.” That’s quite a mouthful but the place was welcoming, felt gentle and compassionate.
Auroville’s website states: The concept of Auroville – an ideal township devoted to an experiment in human unity – came to The Mother as early as the 1930s. In the mid 1960s the Sri Aurobindo Society in Pondicherry proposed to Her that such a township should be started. She gave her blessings. The concept was then put before the Government of India, who gave their backing and took it to the General Assembly of UNESCO. In 1966 UNESCO passed a unanimous resolution commending it as a project of importance to the future of humanity, thereby giving their full encouragement.
Today Aurovillians come from some 45 nations, from all age groups (from infancy to over eighty, averaging around 30), from all social classes, backgrounds and cultures, representing humanity as a whole. The population currently stands at around 2,200 people, of whom approx one-third are Indian.
You may visit as a guest or stays can be arranged in guest homes. Others join for six months to a year and some never leave. Everyone does some kind of work.
The center of Auroville contains the Marrimandir, which represents the Divine Consciousness. I must say it looks a lot like the big ball at the center of Epcot, except it is golden. The giant sphere, covered in discs, also has a futuristic, UFO spaceship quality to it. Would have loved to have gone inside, but that requires a minimum of two visits.
There are twelve rooms in the Matrimandir Petals and twelve gardens around the Matrimandir. Visitors, like myself, walk along a wooded path to a viewing area but are not allowed to go near or inside.
Again, according to literature: The Matrimandir is a shrine of the Universal Mother and the Soul of Auroville; it is meant for those who, in the Mother’s words, are sincere and serious and truly want to learn to concentrate. The Matrimandir is not a temple in the conventional sense of the word; it is neither a place of worship, nor to be associated with any religion, whether ancient, present, new or future. It is where individuals go to concentrate.
Our guide, who left the corporate world and now lives in Auroville, called the community, “a 45-year old experiment, not an ashram which is a discipline.” I also met a young man who was born and raised in Auroville, went away to college and has now returned. Auroville seems to become a way of life.
We returned to Pondicherry and later visited the famous ashram in the city, Sri Aurobindo. Again, I was not permitted to take photos, but you pass by the flower laden samadhi (tomb) of Aurobindo and the Mother. Many people scattered throughout the courtyard were sitting in meditation.
Sri Aurobindo was a Bengali revolutionary and philosopher who fought against the British and wanted to free India. He started the ashram in 1926, based on his ideals of a peaceful community brought together by combining yogic philosophy with science. Devotees here work in the world, rather than retreating from it. Following his death in 1950, his activities were continued by his disciple universally referred to as The Mother. The Mother, as I learned earlier, went on to found Auroville. She passed away in 1973 at the age of 97 but her influence still remains strong.
That evening I dined on fresh seafood under the ancient mango tree in the courtyard at Le Dupleix, a heritage hotel. Pondicherry cuisine blends the best of India flavors with French influences. Delicious! The rooms in this luxury old villa, now boutique hotel, evoke the time of the Governor Marquis Joseph Francois Dupleix. I remained at The Promenade, but both hotels offer top of the line lodging.