A courtyard inside the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Puducherry, India. (Nathalie Raïssac-Jarrard)
At a retreat in India, lessons on yoga and life By Kyle Jarrard
Published: August 19, 2008 PUDUCHERRY, India:
The first sound in the morning is crows, right at 5. Then we hear waves off the Bay of Bengal slapping the shore. In the garden, a man meditates while walking quickly over the lawn of the ashram guest house in the dark. Along the shore, other men pace the beach in the silver jetty light. Fishing boat lanterns like stars ride the black sea south to north.
My wife and I have come to this old French comptoir (formerly Pondichéry) in southeast India mostly for the yoga. The classes used to be held in one of the many parcels of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram scattered across the colonial city. But for this retreat, there's a new venue and to get there you have to be on Ajit Sarkar's bus by 5:45. There are 20 or so of us, nearly all from France.
Ajit, in his 70s now, grew up in this famous ashram with his parents, who went into the retreat founded and inspired by the yogi and guru Sri Aurobindo and his vision of universal consciousness and peace. In this idyllic world, Ajit learned everything from ballet to track to gymnastics, but especially yoga, a skill he has taught with acclaim for decades both in India and in France. His official retirement since 2003 is a fiction of contentment.
It's the school he's building that keeps him going, in addition to being in top form himself. We the chosen students, by contrast, can barely see straight in the shadowy dawn as the bus heads off through Puducherry. For the first few blocks the streets have French names: Rue Dumas, Rue Suffren, Rue Romain Rolland. Then we leave town and head south over fetid canals and clogged streams, through trash-heaped neighborhoods thumping with all-night Hindu festival music while men in dhotis stand around sipping tea out of plastic goblets. Cows with brightly painted red and green horns meditate in the middle of the road as we plunge into the lush Tamil Nadu countryside.
Vellai Thamarai: Imagine going to a school named White Lotus. It's not yet entirely finished but is supposed to be by January. Nearly every villager in Cinna Kattupalayam lines the road to greet our bus with cries of hello and bonjour. On a Monday morning, the children are beside themselves at the prospect of going to school. There are enough smiles for a thousand mornings.