The bus curved along the winding coast and made its way through throngs of palm trees and lush fields splashed in brilliant hues of green. I was making the 2.5-3-hour journey from Chennai—Tamil Nadu’s capital and largest city— to Pondicherry, a relatively quiet coastal town and former center of French trade that still echoes characteristics of this bygone era.
As enthralled as I am by the color, life, and pure vibrancy that thrive within Indian urban centers, I am just as thrilled to leave them behind. The quieter enclaves within India offer some of my favorite experiences and are a welcome respite from the traffic, honking, and energy of Indian cities that seemingly never sleep.
After spending a few days in Chennai catching up with a grad school friend and exploring the city’s relaxed beaches and elaborate temples, I was planning to take a bus to Pondicherry. A cyclone intercepted these plans and after a failed attempt at catching a bus while wading knee-deep in water and struggling to stand up as powerful winds swept through, I inevitably had to stay in Chennai for a couple more days.
Needless to say, after I finally made it on a bus out of Chennai, I was relieved to watch the crowds, congestion, and streets strewn with fallen trees fade into the distance. Ahead of me lay the opportunity to explore a coastal town enveloped in history, surrounded by sprawling beaches and small villages tucked among verdant forest, and inclusive of an experiential township embedded with creativity and mindful living.
The city of Pondicherry is divided into multiple sections, including the Tamil Quarter, the Green Quarter, and the French Quarter. The Tamil Quarter’s bustling markets and majestic temples are a stark contrast from the calm, palm-lined streets across the Grand Canal in the French Quarter. I spent a day wandering the energetic Grand Bazaar and sampling masala dosa the size of my head in the Tamil Quarter. Later on, I found respite among the quaint streets of the French Quarter, characterized by shady streets lined with white-washed and brilliant yellow buildings, a fusion of French-inspired architecture and tropical trees and rainbow flowers. I browsed through essential oils and cotton goods tucked into Kalki Boutique and indulged in divine, French desserts from Café des Artes.
While Pondicherry is technically a city, the name also refers to the general area, which stretches along the coast and is inclusive of Auroville, a universal township founded as a space where everyone can live in harmony above politics and nationalities. I chose to stay outside of town in a village on the periphery of Auroville, as I was drawn to the relaxed pace of the countryside and the idea of exploring unassuming villages intertwined among tangles of jungle.
I spent a couple of days exploring the offerings of Auroville, biking through forests, farms, and creative initiatives. Auroville attracts creatives and agriculturalists alike, making it the ideal grounds for a fascinating array of projects to be built, from yoga classes, sound healing workshops, and ecstatic dance, to permaculture farms, cafés built into the trees, and ceramic studios. Visitors are invited to come and explore for a few days or stay a bit longer and find an initiative they’re drawn to volunteer with.
My most impressionable experience was the silent lunch I attended at Goyo, a culinary-meets-meditation experience in an Aurovillian’s home. After having tea in her garden, the humble woman curating the experience rang a bell, said a few words, and invited her guests into her home to enjoy the colorful spread of vegan Korean food in complete silence. Vegan sushi was stacked high on platters and ceramic bowls were filled with mushroom, sesame, and carrot glass noodles, kimchi, and fresh fruits and vegetables in every shade of the rainbow. The lunch is a meditative experience that encourages one to eat with intention and savor the food with each of our senses, focusing only on what is in front of them rather than getting lost in conversation.
Perhaps my favorite way to pass the days in this part of India, though, was to savor the slow and intentional tempo of village life and sink into the restorative energy of nature. Waking slowly each morning to birdsong and enjoying a fresh breakfast beneath blossoming papaya trees. Ambling through rice paddies and letting my mind wander as I am enveloped by colorful fields. Wandering down long stretches of red dirt paths lined with palms and brilliant yellow bell flowers. Walking past bright buildings splashed in vivid shades of green, marigolds and blue and stopping to befriend neighborhood goats and cows. Marveling at temples adorned with colorful statues of South Indian gods and stopping by local eateries to indulge in delicious bowls of coconut milk-based curries, delighting my palate with notes of cinnamon and nutmeg. Drifting off sleep to the humming of cicadas as I slowly swung in a hammock beneath a sky full of stars.