Creme caramel amidst the rickshaws

There is a corner of India which will be forever France. Jeremy Atiyah joined the hippies and sadhus in Pondicherry

THE FRENCH only controlled one town in India, but what a town. They call it Pondichery, we call it Pondicherry. Either way, you would (rightly) expect it to be a steamy, sleepy Tamil place of dropping petals and bananas, populated by soft-treading, barefoot women with flowers in their hair, boney intellectuals on slow-mo bicycles, ash-smeared sadhus, lepers and hippies from Croydon.

But you would not expect these people to be obsessed with a 19th-century Cambridge intellectual and a self-appointed foreign messiah.

A deliberate travesty, but I am trying to make a point. The Cambridge intellectual was none other than Sri Aurobindo, who took a first in classics, and then became guru to India's best known ashram.

At least Sri Aurobindo was Indian. The self-appointed messiah was French. This was the woman known as the "Mother", whose kindly face stares down from the walls of every shop, restaurant and hotel room in town; and who, until her death aged 97 in 1973, had taken responsibility not only for running the ashram, but also for founding the nearby "international" city of Auroville.

But was there not just a little irony in a town full of Indians being so deferential to a member of the former imperial power?

"You are too immature," a bearded ashramite told me over an unpretentious communal lunch of brown rice, yoghurt, vegetable curry and bananas. "The Sri Aurobindo ashram is independent of these old-fashioned concepts. We do not think of nationality or religion. We are finding a new spirituality for the next millennium."

To my eyes, an ashram was a place where people went to learn wisdom from a guru, a monastic retreat involving yoga, meditation, and maybe a touch of hippyism?

"This ashram is about the virtues of work," came the stern reply. "The Mother taught us that everybody should seek enlightenment through work. We all have to be productive. We are not hippies." Oops.

As well as owning large swathes of Pondicherry, the ashram also employs half its citizens in cottage industries, producing goods ranging from perfumes to fabrics to paper. It even runs a number of guesthouses, including the Seaside Guest house, where I stayed: pounds 6 per night for a gigantic air- conditioned double room in a former colonial mansion. The fact that the Sri Aurobindo ashram is all about work does not stop people taking their holidays there. A lot of the guest house residents are visitors from Delhi and Bombay seeking temporary respite from their stressful lives.

As for meals - the ashram enables several thousand people to eat three large, wholesome meals a day in the former governor's residence, paying about 30 pence per head per day. If you are staying in an ashram guesthouse, you can share in this absurd bargain.

But was it the French who set the people of Pondicherry on their path to spirituality? Certainly the policemen carry bayonets, wear red kepis and are proud of it. And India's best mineral water is bottled here. At Le Club restaurant on the Rue Dumas - all whicker chairs and starched tablecloths - I went for a mid-morning fruit juice and was informed, with Parisian disdain, that drinks comprised "70 per cent juice and 30 per cent pure, chilled Pondicherry mineral water, Monsieur." The result was delicious.

And Pondicherry does not stop at fruit juice. Beer is served cheaper and colder here than anywhere in India. The new town contains off-licenses selling "genuine" Napoleon brandy. And the rooftop restaurants serving French food are excellent. Dishes range from approximations (the creme caramel in the Rendezvous) to the spot-on (the coq au vin in the Satsanga).

Of course Pondicherry is not all French. In the east of town, the traffic comprises bullocks, rickshaws, scooters and high-slung Ambassadors, trundling along streets where advertised services range from urology to advocacy to computer training to "shirtings and suitings" - a typical Indian high street, in fact.

But it was hard to deny that France had done something for the place. Tamil Nadu is not the Cote d'Azur, but Pondicherry makes more use of the sea than all other Indian towns put together. Of an evening, for example, romantic couples in Pondicherry come to canoodle in the Place de la Republique. Other improbable locations in the area include the Bazaar Saint Laurent and the Grand Hotel d'Europe, as well as the war memorial for the "French Indians" who died for France.

Basically, the French occupied the whole seaward side of town. Some of their old villas are now collapsing into mouldy piles of plasterwork; others, though, have been magnificently restored, with gleaming fluted columns and white ornamental balustrades running up to verandas overhung with banyan trees.

In the Church of Our Lady of the Angels, I found a troop of schoolgirl nuns and crows hopping between the neon strips. Outside, sleepy rickshaw drivers lounged under their own awnings and a builder with a tray of cement on his head whispered: "Bonjour, monsieur."

Or did he? It can be so hard for western visitors not to turn imperialist in India. Pondicherry was doing things to me the Mother may not have liked. Clearly the time had come for me to do her bidding - and make the pilgrimage to the city that was free of nationality and religion, Auroville itself.

That afternoon I joined a local group tour. On the bus from Pondicherry was an American lady whose desire to come to this place had arisen after meeting a "God Realised" woman in San Fransisco.

"Really?" asked a bearded German in sandals. "But what do you mean exactly by God Realised?"

"That woman just had no life. She'd sleep two or three hours, then spent the whole day, you know, giving darshen."

Indians in the group were also engaged in the task of understanding each other.

"From which city you are hailing, sir?" a Bengali gentleman was asking a Keralan. "The Tamils' command of Hindi is terribly poor!" an Assamese was exclaiming.

Such multi-culturalism was perfect for a visit to the future city of the world. On the way we had passed orchards, banana-fronde huts and bullock carts; now in the visitor's centre we were looking down on a scale plan of the completed city as it is designed to look some time in the next millennium.

"The shape is of a galaxy, with cement arms lined by corridors of greenery swirling around a hub," explained our guide. "The four arms of the galaxy represent the industrial, international, residential and educational areas of the city. At the hub is the Matrimandir Temple."

For those who care, Auroville does not look likely ever to be finished. Given that its foundation stone was laid on 28 February 1968, I saw remarkably little evidence of any construction at all. We were told that only 45 per cent of the necessary land had so far been bought - efforts are still being made to acquire the rest.

We peered about dirt tracks, trees and lots of flowering shrubs with names like "progress" and "psychological perfection". A building site? Some half-constructed public buildings emerged from the trees like Aztec ruins - the conference hall we were informed ("Can you hear the acoustics?").

The one building in Auroville that might have been worth writing home about was the Matrimandir Temple itself. There in the heart of it all, the temple was approaching completion.

To reach it, we began passing checkpoints manned by Auroville volunteers. Walk here! Stand there! Remove shoes! No bags or cameras! No talking please! Single file!

Even without this reduction of our scraggly tour group to the level of the Mother's school children, the first glimpse of the temple, a great golf ball dome filling the horizon, would have been quite impressive. Eventually, we were told, it would even be covered in fibre-glass gold- plated disks.

Stepping inside the dome, we saw ramps flying off in all directions above our heads, with teams of ant-like workers apparently at work. A perfect James Bond set. We proceeded, like prisoners, along a circular spiralling walkway that took us slowly to the top, passing signs reminding us that no "dampness, dirt or dust" would be allowed into the innermost chamber.

And finally there it was, a momentary glimpse through a doorway of the innermost sanctum itself, a high enclosed room of unadorned white marble, housing nothing but a huge glass crystal, catching mystical light from a hole in the ceiling. The heart! The key, the essence, the innermost truth - of Auroville!

I shuddered to imagine any community at all, let alone a "world city", basing itself around such a corny architectural concept. Blame it all on Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, I told myself, as we drove back to the bananas, the petals, the rickshaws, the smells, the beer and the delightful Eurasian chaos of Pondicherry.

pondicherry fact file

Getting there and around

The author flew to India as a guest of Gulf Air (0171-408 1717), who fly to Madras (now known as Chennai) from London on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The fare is pounds 481 plus around pounds 27 taxes. Pondicherry is 160 miles south of Madras. Fly to Madras and take a prepaid taxi, booked inside the airport, to Pondicherry. The cost will be less than pounds 15. Otherwise, hot, crowded buses from Madras cost 50p.

For internal flights, the author used the excellent Indian airline Jet Airways (UK reservations: 0181 970 1525). A 15-day pass for circular or same-direction routings costs $550 (pounds 338). Sample one-way fares include Bombay-Madras ($154) and Delhi-Madras ($235).

Where to stay

The author stayed at the Seaside Guesthouse on the seafront (14 Goubert Avenue), where huge air-conditioned doubles are available for around pounds 6. The ashram also owns several other guesthouses in town. If you wish to dine in the ashram, tickets covering breakfast lunch and dinner can be obtained from the guesthouse for around 30p per day.

Visas

All British passport holders require visas in order to visit India. Contact India House, Aldwych, London WC2B 4NA (0891 444544 for recorded information, calls cost 50p/minute).

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