Down South: A Weekend Getaway in Tamil Nadu
I have to admit that I’m not a fan of India’s big cities. For my taste, there are too many people, traffic is too dense and it’s too loud and too polluted. Chennai (formerly Madras), where Metrohm’s main office is located, was no exception. So I was glad that our Metrohm colleagues had made a plan for me to visit some smaller coastal towns in the state of Tamil Nadu over the weekend: Mahabalipuram and Pondicherry. Both these towns have a special character thanks to their history and are good places to escape the hustle and bustle of Chennai.
Mahabalipuram is just about an hour’s drive from Chennai and is one of the major tourist attractions in Tamil Nadu. It’s famous for its ancient temples and monuments, which date back over a thousand years. The structures date back to the 7th and 8th century CE, during the rule of the Pallava dynasty, which ruled in South India between 275 CE and 897 CE.
Mahabalipuram is an impressive site to visit. Temples and reliefs are spread all over the small town and tell the stories of Gods and of life over a thousand years ago. Many of the structures in Mahabalipuram were never completed. But that doesn’t diminish their value—quite on the contrary: from the half-finished structures, experts can learn about how artisans and architects worked at the time to build the monuments of Mahabalipuram, most of which weren’t built from the bottom up, but carved out of massive rocks.
There is one object worth seeing in Mahabalipuram that doesn’t seem to be manmade: Krishna’s Butterball. The giant boulder stands on a hillside and it seems that it’s about to roll down any second, but it’s been in place for at least 1000 years. There are only speculations on how this peculiar rock formation was formed and why it stays in place.
After another hour’s drive, we reached Pondicherry. While most of India was under British rule until 1947, Pondicherry was a French colony until 1954. Colonial-style houses as well as French street names are what’s left from that period. In between the French-colonial houses, the street life in Pondicherry is very much Indian: chaotic traffic, rickshaws, temples, food stalls, … you name it. Because of its French past, Pondicherry still has a special administrative status. Even though the town is in Tamil Nadu, the low liquor tax is much lower here than in the rest of the state. So people like to come here in the weekend to have a good time, enjoy the beach and drink.
For foreigners, Pondicherry isn’t necessarily known for its low liquor tax, but rather for Auroville. This community was founded in 1968 by spiritual guru Mirra Alfassa, who’s known as The Mother, based on the vision of philosopher and guru Sri Aurobindo. It is meant to be a place where people of all nations could live in harmony with each other and with nature on their quest for divine life. The visible commitment to the surrounding environment in Auroville is remarkable: the area is green with trees planted and taken care of by Aurovillians, and it’s free from litter, which is a rare sight in India.
Auroville was originally intended for 50’000 people. However, in its beginnings, it counted only 400 residents. Today, about 3000 people of 58 nationalities live in Auroville. The concept of a strong community and «divine anarchy», as The Mother described the organization of Auroville, still attracts people from all over the world. My prognosis is that, with economy and consumption speeding up and more and more people joining the countermovement, Auroville will probably continue to grow in the future.