The very word Pondicherry makes you think of the French Riviera but there’s more to Pondicherry than just that. It has so many shades woven in its social and cultural fabric that it is difficult to decipher what it really stands for. Pondicherry is a study in dichotomy:
Parisian Style Living or the Tamilian Kitsch
Tourist friendly roads or unruly traffic
Hospitality bringing alive ‘Incredible India’ or coldness scaring away the tourists
Expensive French cuisine or a sumptuous dinner in Twenty Rupees
French Quarters reminiscent of a beautiful past or Tamilian Quarters representing the ugly face of urbanization
One side makes you question the delay in visiting this place and the other side makes you wonder why you came here in the first place. Divided not just by a canal into two quarters but by a mind-set and culture, Pondicherry is a city of paradoxes. On a scale from 1 to 10, I experienced the extremes. So let me take you on a roller-coaster ride. Fasten your seat belts!
Day One – From being Scammed to being Saved
On the eve of Holi, when the entire North India has a license to get dirty with colours, I decided to see the colours of the erstwhile French Colony. Boarded the first Volvo at 6 am from Koyambedu to Pondicherry via East Coast Road.
The Pondicherry trip started on a bad note, thanks to Blue Lagoon, which I booked through www.airbnb.com. Going by the property description on the website, I had booked a clean and tranquil cottage so close to the Auroville Beach that you can hear the sea waves crash. But 5 minutes in the property and I realized I have been scammed. I left the place and shared my concern with both the property owner as well as the Airbnb customer care. In spite of assurance of a really urgent response, I got none.
I was on the middle of the road in a totally unknown place where people were not only rude and unfriendly but also refused to talk in any other language except Tamil. And to make it worse, I had to deal with the Tamilian Autowallahs. They have a reputation that precedes them and it was true. They function like a mafia and will ask for exorbitant prices. The public transport is almost non-existent in Pondicherry and therefore you’ll have no other option but to comply with their demands.
Being a long weekend, almost every hotel in Pondicherry was sold out. I checked at various hotels, including Surguru but they refused, saying they don’t give rooms to solo female travellers. Really? Are we a bad omen or do we disturb the decorum of your hotel? After searching online and calling several properties, at last I got a room in Raj Residency, a very lousy hotel in a loud, unhygienic and unsafe looking colony.
The Pondicherry Tourism office on the Beach Road came like a messiah. On their suggestion, I checked Park Guest House and luckily they had a room available. Forgoing my advance payment at the two hotels, I checked in because it is a guesthouse managed by Aurobindo Ashram and they follow first come first serve policy. Economical, clean, no frills attached and beautifully located on the beach with manicured lawns and a great view of the sea, the ashram was a paradise. Here I saw some of the most dazzling sunrises and sunsets. If you are not spoiled for luxury and can do without room service then this is the real deal.
After settling in, I decided to explore the cobbled tree lined streets of Pondicherry, which still retained their original French names. The houses were all French colonial style villas – majestic walls, extended compounds, the famed French windows and balconies, the white and mustard coloured building facades.
I was soaking the bygone French era beauty – French culture centre, Le Francaise, Statue of Dupleix, Eglise de Notre Dame des Anges, Park Monument (Aayi Mandapam), Governor’s House, Saint Joan of Arc Statue, Bakers street, French consulate and Secretariat among others. After a walking tour, it was time to listen to the hunger pangs at Adyar Anand Bhavan. I saw lot of activity around Gandhi memorial statue, his largest statue in Asia.
Aarangetam, a dance recital, was keeping the visitors glued to the stage on the Promenade road. Alongside a modern art exhibition possessed the onlookers and a weekend market kept the regular families busy.
The Park Guest house closes by 10 pm and so after having snacks at Le café, which became my favourite halt during my trip, I called it a night. It was a full moon night. The sea, the moon, the waves were enacting a romantic musical. The cold breeze and the soothing sound of the sea waves didn’t make me miss an air conditioner. Lost in the beauty of the Spiritual den I didn’t realize when I slipped into dream world.
Day two – Taking a History and a Spiritual lesson
When the glorious sun rises, even the laziest souls wake up. I was no exception. Fitness enthusiasts starting their day with a Suryanamashkar, fishermen embracing the sea with their colourful boats and morning walkers strolling around with their four legged best friends gave me company. After taking ample of Vitamin D and Vitamin SEA at Pondicherry Pier, I returned to the Guesthouse Cafeteria. The breakfast was a fixed simple ala-carte menu prepared and handled by a women only group. Thanks to insightful tips from the Front Office I planned my next two days itinerary. Today was dedicated to exploring the historical and spiritual side of the town.
First on the list was the Pondicherry Museum. The century-old Law Building, one-time residence of the French Administrator is now a rear window of the past. It’s a small Museum easily covered in an hour or so.
After taking the history lesson it was time to explore Spirituality at Aurobindo Ashram. In the central courtyard of the main building lies the stone samadhies (tombs) of Sri Aurobindo and his French disciple and spiritual companion, the “Mother” (Mirra Alfassa). In the pin drop silent environments of the Ashram, you can either meditate or absorb the deafening silence or buy books from library. All Ashram buildings, workshops, Guesthouses are grey coloured, and highlighted with white.
Next on agenda was Auroville. After haggling with few Autowallahas, finally managed to get an auto for Rupees 175 (started with 400). Auroville means the city of Dawn and was meant to be a global melting pot where anyone from anywhere can come, stay and meditate. When it was inaugurated, representatives of 124 countries and 23 Indian States placed a handful of earth from their homeland. The place is still under construction. Over 2,000+ residents from across the world live in Auroville and engage into various community activities like organic farming, renewable energy, village development, and handicrafts.
A 10 minutes introductory AV about Auroville followed by a 10 minutes of walk through the shaded pathway and you reach the Matri Mandir. To visit the Matrimandir meditation hall you have to take an appointment 2 days in advance for the meditation sessions. While coming back there is a shuttle service available. The refreshing drinks served at the food and drinks corner is what you’ll need after visiting Matrimandir. The boutique outlets sell a wide variety of good quality Auroville made products.
Day three – Exploring the unexplored backwaters of Pichavaram
Exploring the spiritual side of Pondicherry usually quells the hunger of many but my hunger for exploring the offbeat places took me to the most amazing place I discovered during this trip. A conversation with a Guesthouse staff sparked a desire to explore the unexplored backwaters of Pichavaram.
I boarded a bus to Chidambaram, the temple town of Tamil Nadu, from New Bus Stand, Pondicherry and then after half an hour wait at the Chidambaram bus stand I took a local bus to Pichavaram. Pichavaram is 75 km from Pondicherry.
On one side it has world’s second largest mangrove forest (after Sundarban) and virgin Pichavaram beach on the other side. You can either hire a paddle boat or motorboat, operated by the Tamil Nadu tourism department, to take you through the mangrove forest daily from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m.
Being a solo traveller, I had to wait and convince a group to explore not just the mangrove forest but beach as well. Ours was the only boat, which decided to do both. And the funniest part was neither the boatman nor the boys understood English. I had to make use of sign language to communicate with them. However, it was totally worth it. The place is a heaven for nature lovers, bird watchers or peace seekers.
The emerald green water being kissed by the Mangroves is a sight to behold. The backwaters are just three feet deep but the water is murky and ideal for prawn fishing. Usually women do prawn fishing on the shores and men do normal fishing. On our behest and a tip of Five Hundred Rupees, our boatman took us inside the smaller narrow canals. They are so narrow that Motorboats can’t go inside these canals. After spending close to four hours we were back. And I returned to Pondicherry with one more offbeat destination added to my list. En route to Pondicherry, the sun was setting on beautiful Pennair River.
Day Four – Getting up-close to many facets of Pondicherry
Last day I settled to do a PDTC packaged tour for two reasons – I was tired of traveling alone in the scorching heat and humidity of Pondicherry and secondly I wanted to tick off all the must see places. Our trip started with a visit to Handmade Paper Factory where we were shown how handmade paper is made, followed by a visit to Aurobindo Ashram and Manakula Vinayagar Temple, the 500-year-old temple of Lord Ganesha that survived the French invasion.
Behind the ashram, there were Ashram run souvenir shops from where I bought few organic products. I cannot stop admonishing myself for buying a few of those. Our next stops were Auroville, Sacred heart Church renowned for its splendid Gothic architecture, Eglise de Notre Dame des Anges Church built by the French Missionaries in 1865, Panchvati Hanuman Temple which is fairly new construction in an ancient city, Chunambhar Boat Complex from where we took a boat to Paradise Beach. We had a lunch break at Surguru Pure Vegetarian Restaurant. The service is quick and a complete value for money restaurant.
Pondicherry is quite hyped but I must say it lives up to that hype. It is a long weekend destination. November to February is the best time to visit it.
So this was my potpourri of myriad experiences. I am waiting to hear your Travel See Write stories.
- For a hassle free stay, pre-book your accommodation in the French quarters
- Explore the French quarters on foot or on cycle
- Don’t miss the sunrise and sunset on the Pondicherry Promenade
- Food tips: try authentic French Cuisine in the Bakers Street. Visit Le Café for the view. Promenade hotel for their food
- Go boating and island hopping at Paradise Island
- Visit Backwaters either in Pichavaram or Cuddalore
- Meditate at Auroville Matrimandir Meditation Hall
- Shop for great quality organic products at Aurobindo Ashram & Auroville
- Visit flee market for really unbelievable deals. Bargain hard
- Go scuba diving with Temple Adventures over the weekend
- Go with somebody. It does get lonely, sometimes
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