Pondicherry is the archetypal ambling town: cleaved in two with the French quarter along the beach, boasting pretty high-ceilinged wood-slatted residential houses with walled gardens and bougainvillea, and with the markets, mess, businesses and ‘talking streets’ of the Tamil (‘black’) town to its west. While the French area, with 300 heritage buildings, is well maintained (the majority owned by the ashram), the Tamil area, despite its 1000 homes now classified as heritage, is dangerously dilapidated. The European Commission has funded the restoration of Calve Subraya Chettiar (Vysial) street (between Mission and Gandhi streets), while Muslim domestic architecture is clearly visible in the streets of Kazy, Mulla and Tippu Sultan, in the southern part of the Tamil quarter.
Many people come to Pondicherry to visit the campus-like ashram of Sri Aurobindo Ghosh and his chief disciple Mirra Alfassa (‘The Mother’). Ghosh was an early 20th- century Bengali nationalist and philosopher who struggled for freedom from British colonial power and wrote prodigiously on a huge variety of subjects, particularly Integral Yoga and education. In his aim to create an ashram utopia he found a lifelong compadre in the charismatic Frenchwoman Alfassa, who continued as his spiritual successor after his death in 1950. It was Alfassta who pushed into practice Sri Aurobindo’s ideas on integral schooling, the aim of which is to develop all aspects of the student’s being – “mind, life, body, soul and spirit”. In the ashram school, class sizes are limited to eight students, and both pupils and teachers enjoy an extraordinary freedom to alter classes according to individual needs. Alfassa died in 1973 at the age of 93. Both Ari Aurobindo and Alfassa live on as icons, their images gazing down from the walls of almost every building in Pondicherry.
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