Walking along the sea front at Pondicherry you could be anywhere except India..
At 5 in the afternoon before the ‘passeggiata’ starts and just after the road has been closed the sea front is almost devoid of people. A little later there are families and groups of friends buying snacks or toys for the children and enjoying the beautiful view of the ocean, but they are overwhelmingly middle class Indians. After the Gateway of India in Mumbai and the Marina beach in Chennai, where one encounters not only a mass of people but a cross section of class and caste, here in Pondicherry there is something rather odd.
Earlier that day I arrived at the wonderful Maison Tamboule in the Tamil Quarter ..The rooms were full of old funiture and tall ceilings, and I even had a dressing room between the bedroom and bathroom. I was the only guest at this calm ninetennth century hotel laid out around a covered central courtyard resplendent with rich velvet cushions in the oriental style, but luckily every evening other diners arrived to eat the best fish curry in town, and break my sense of isolation.
There are three distinct bands from the front going inland based on wealth as is always. Most of Pondicherry is laid out exactly as it was under French colonial rule, and according to one guide book is a little like New Orléans a city not yet visited.
The town is a great place to walk around with surprises everywhere, from beautiful temples to an English bookshop where none of the staff spoke English, Parisien squares with wonderful flowers and french style cafes.
The first up to a canal / sewerage ditch is that part of old Pondicherry that was and still is in the southern half French, but now occupied for a large part by the Aurobindo Ashram and the houses of the rich and often corrupt members of this odd sect. In fact all the buildings on the front, facing the sea are owned by the Ashram (painted in their two-tone grey) except for the Pondicherry Legislature surrounded by the tentacles of this secretive avaricious quasi religious group.
The next band, from the canal to the main commercial street, Mahatma Gandhi Road, is full of old tamil houses and mainly occupied by wealthier Indians..and many of the 4,500 Indians and their descendents, who took up the option to become French citizens in 1954 .. and a few hotels but increasingly being taken over by Ashram followers and I must admit that the houses now owned by the ashram are being beautifully restored.According to a local there is a surfeit of architects in Auroville with no-one to build for.
In 1954 the Tamil inhabitants of Pondicherry were given the option of French passports and citizenship and around 10,000 did so with about 5,000 of their descendents still living in the city ( many others live in Paris and return for the summer), they have to renew their Indian Visas every 5 years. This largest French colony east of Suez has the right to vote in the French Presidential Elections, and a polling booth is set up in the French Consulate. This group known as the ‘Renoncants’ after renouncing their Indian nationality, is regarded as the second richest in Pondicherry, after the Ashram people, as they still receive generous French pensions.
And then the last band that carries on into India and starts at Mahatma Ghandi Drive is the commercial area and the Tamil Indian part of town.
Most of the travel writing and photographs of Pondicherry appear to cover the old French quarter, The Aurobino Ashram and Auroville; but the Indian part of the city with it’s temples and markets is more vibrant. The huge central mainly covered market is about the most interesting part of town. In the centre is the large covered fish market, run entirely by women, with the only men bringing in the fish and blocks of ice. Near a small Tamil temple is the flower market for the town.
Returning to my initial impression that Pondicherry is an odd sort of place, not unakin to something out of the Prisoner with me playing Patrick McGoohan’s role as Prisoner Number 6. I googled Pondicherry and Ashram, and found that the absence of many ordinary Indians along the sea front or even the French / Ashram part of town is that there is a deep suspicion of the whole Aurobindo Ashram complex. There are accounts of much corruption, sexual harassment, theft of property, rape and paedophilia etc in the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry with at least 160 cases against the Ashram in the High Court at Madras..and most bizarrely of all, one group from the Ashram taking the other to court for changing Aurobindo’s words in new publications of his writings..there are links at the end .. Here a bit of contextualization is necessary. The Ashram was founded by Mirra Alfassa – known as the Mother to devotees based on the teachings of Sri Aurobindo Ghosh. From a trust founded with borrowed money, the Ashram has grown to become the largest property owner in Pondicherry. To become an inmate, one has to go through a probation period, following which a contract of complete surrender is entered into with the Ashram. The Ashram allocates the inmate work in one of its departments based on his or her skill sets and qualification and in return provides for food, shelter, medical care, clothing and so on – but strictly no monetary benefits. This contract (called prosperity list) till recently also had clauses that prevented inmates from approaching the police or media. However, a caveat needs to be added here – the contract does not prevent an inmate from leaving the Ashram – and all inmates believe in the surrender! Without any effective internal grievance redressal mechanism – this means absolute power. Over a period of time there have been allegations from Ashram inmates ranging from sexual abuse, pedophilia, physical abuse, medical negligence etc. When some of the inmates protested, their prosperity was withdrawn – meaning that their food and shelter too was withdrawn. Some inmates left the Ashram. A few others, rather than leave the Ashram and retract from their leap of faith and surrender, decided to go to court to get their food and shelter restored. After, a long protracted legal battle one of the cases came before the Supreme Court of India. The apex court turned down the prayer in the case. That is a different story requiring different legal analysis that I would not want to go into here. In the meantime some inmates got together and formed an association to protest what they saw as gross human rights abuses. When their complaints fell on deaf ears, they organized two dharnas in January and February 2012 – and the inmates who participated in the Dharna were show-caused asking why their prosperity list should not be revoked – against which these inmates have gone to court. With some of the organizers of the Dharna – they have been removed from their allotted jobs and few privileges have been taken away. Since then, the inmate association has been trying to draw attention to their plight in whatever form possible. Given the Ashram’s insular nature these efforts seem to have met with little success – leaving the protesting inmates cynical about the larger society. Now they seem to believe that the only recourse for them is a state takeover of the Ashram management. The logic for this demand seems to be hinged on two simple requirements – transparency and effective grievance redressal mechanisms. They point towards the government takeover of Auroville – another institution founded by the Mother – through the Auroville Foundation Act of 1988 “for the better management” as a precedent. A small diversionary note is required here – though the Ashram is the centerpiece of Pondicherry’s economy – beyond employment; there is hardly any interaction between the local Pondicherry citizenry and the Ashram. In fact, the local populace views the Ashram with deep suspicion. On the other hand given the vast resources owned by the Ashram, there seem to be a background political struggle to gain access and control of these resources. These resources are hidden behind some 40 trusts and a further 30 subtrusts. Apart from being the biggest property owner in Pondicherry the ashram owns many businesses including petrol stations.. Unfortunately, avoidable death of 3 women allegedly abused by the Ashram management (according to their suicide note) and four others in critical condition in the Government Hospital in Pondicherry – all of them from the same family – had to happen before the issue has come to centre stage. The Tamil media at least is abuzz with the news and all political parties in Pondicherry including the ruling party are going on a Bandh on the 20th December demanding exactly what the Prasad family (Those who attempted and committed suicide ) have been demanding for over a decade – the takeover of the Ashram by the State from the present management. Too little, too late – 3 lives are already lost.
The old brewery on the sea front front was the location of great photographs by Dhruv Dhakan and Swarat Ghosh. The international and cosmopolitan side of Pondicherry with the Alliance Français and it’s French schools, cafes and bakeries helps to alleviate the oppressiveness of the grey walls of the ashram buildings and guest houses.
I visited Auroville on a day tour ( a snip at £3) from the Pondicherry Tourist Office, which also included a church, a temple and the forlorn city museum.
Both UNESCO and the Indian Government for some reason decided to fund and provide land to build this city planned for 50,000 people..
“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.”
Although the planned city of 50,000 has after 60 years only about 2300 people around half Indian, Unesco and the Indian government still help finance this secretive village.
It is a very slick operation with a visitor centre where one has to watch a video before you are allowed to visit a small part of Auroville, the rest is off limits to the visitor.
I must admit that I arrived with mixed feelings I do find the concept of communal living rather seductive but am very sceptical of communal living attached to a cult, and as it transpires a rather dangerous cult.
This new form of living was the dream of the Mother a one time Egyptian occultist and according to the biography of Aurobindo by Peter Heehs a previous member of the Ashram, his lover.
At the centre of Auroville, set in a rather poor area of Tamil Nadu, is the gold plated Matrimandir built for meditation, containing apparently the world’s largest Crystal.
There are only 1800 adults in auroville , and only about 700 non Indians and again according to official figures only 4% are in the 20 -30 age group., many are now old and need domestic help and gardeners who come from the nearby Tamil villages. It is this foreign master and and Indian servant relationship that has led to many Tamil blogs against Auroville describing it as a new form of colonialism. Tamil land given by the Government has recently been sold at vast profit, while it has been acquiring other parcels cheaply. However there is a darker side and Auroville like the Aurobindo Ashram has been beset by claims of child abuse, sexual harassment, financial irregularities and even murder, a BBC documentary in 2008 outlined among other things the abuse of local children by white aurovillians.
It is on the surface a peaceful and beautiful place to visit and those, sometimes vulnerable people not aware of it’s darker side are often sucked in, to what from many disclosures and court cases show, that like virtually all cults side, it has a more sinister side.
Links to the Aurobindo Ashram and Auroville