Ever since I had seen the movie ‘Life of Pie’, parts of which were shot in Pondicherry, I have wanted to visit this quaint town often described as the French Riviera of the East. Located on the East Coast of India, 300 km from Chennai, Pondicherry has impressive architecture, a dash of spirituality, retail therapy and a mix of Chettinad and French cuisine which will steal your heart away. Read on to discover a potpourri of experiences and marvels that made our trip to this multicultural city memorable.
‘Pondy’ as it is nicknamed will at times make you feel that you are in Goa, at other times in a typical South Indian town and later in a European locale. So, what is it that gives this town a multidimensional or should I say split personality? Now you see it now you don’t. If you look back at history, you will get to know that Pondicherry had been colonized at various points in time by the French, Dutch and British.
The French were the ones who settled here and made it their home giving it a distinctive colonial French identity which is evident when one visits the French Quarters. The rest of the city will remind you of any South Indian town with its colourful temples; shops selling Kanjivaram sarees, brass décor items; women in colourful sarees with long plaits or neat buns adorned with strings of jasmine doing a rangoli of rice flour on the entrances of their home. The stunning beaches, old-world churches and the chic cafes are what gives it a Goan charm.
After landing in Chennai and spending some time there, a three-hour drive took us to Pondicherry. It was late afternoon as we checked into our hotel, an 18th century French Villa which was initially built as the residence of the Mayor of Pondicherry, Dupleix. It had elements of Tamil architecture fused into French colonial style creating a beautiful medley of East meets West.
After checking into our penthouse and freshening up, we decided to explore the attractions. Pondicherry has some beautiful churches, and the first on our list was the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus that boasts of Gothic architecture. The next was the Immaculate Conception Cathedral a 300-year-old church with white and yellow exteriors.
The Rock Beach with a palm tree-lined promenade is the place to hang out in the evenings. Since Pondicherry is located on the East Coast of India, one doesn’t see the sun setting in the sea, something all those of us staying on the West of India are so accustomed to witnessing. Another thing is it receives no rain in June, the time of our visit, unlike the West coast. But to our surprise, the sky had suddenly become overcast and gloomy. As we looked into the distance, an unusual cloud formation in the shape of a giant wave seemed to merge with the sea, giving an eerie feeling that a tsunami was waiting to strike us. We didn’t know whether we should be running for cover or were overreacting. Watching the locals going about their evening walk calmly, we decided to hang in there and make the most.
The statue of Mahatma Gandhi surrounded with eight monolithic rock pillars, that were brought from Fort Gingee located 70 km away, is the cynosure of the promenade. The old lighthouse, guided ships that sailed for trade in semi-precious stones, textiles and pottery from several countries including Rome, was built by the French rulers. The pier is in ruins and is partially submerged in the sea. Another attraction of the promenade is the Le café, originally a customs house, that boasts a scenic view of the sea. We ordered some snacks and watched as the sky turned into a mix of Cobalt and Persian blue, and before we knew it, there was thundering and lightning.
The next day was earmarked for a heritage trail to explore the French Quarters. Our guide Yuvraj explained how a stormwater canal separated the town into the French or White Quarters and the Tamil Quarters. There is even a Christian and Muslim Quarter, and the entire heritage town is laid out in grids. As we walked the streets, lined by stately mustard yellow buildings with ornate arched entrances and magenta bougainvillaea blossoms, we were transported into an erstwhile colonial era. On exploring one property after another, we were spellbound by the beautifully landscaped courtyards in the centre of colonial homes, porticos supported with series of columns, charming artefacts and sepia-toned photographs.
Many of the heritage buildings are repurposed as creative hubs, hotels and even a school—the Sisters of Cluny Convent where nuns teach the underprivileged women to do intricate embroidery. A hotel where the shooting for the Vodafone advertisement of Asha’s Kitchen, which is now airing on TV, was shot were some of the buildings we visited.
The Greco-Roman style Notre Dames des Anges Church, which is inspired by the Notre Dame church of Paris, was established by the Capuchins. While in the other sects of Christianity, it is believed that Jesus was crucified on the cross by piercing nails in his palms, the Capuchins’ interpretation differs. Which is why in this church, we saw the statue of Christ nailed to the cross from wrists, not palms!
We then proceeded to see the French War Memorial built in the memory of the soldiers who lost their lives in World War 1. The Bharati Park houses the Ayi Memorial built, during the time of Napoleon, in memory of a courtesan who was instrumental in erecting a water reservoir for the city. The princely Raj Niwas which is the official residence of the Lieutenant Governor, is located adjacent to the park.
Arulmigu Manakula Vinayagar Temple is the only Hindu Temple located in the French Quarters. As soon as we stepped here, we were suddenly transported from a French atmosphere to a typical South Indian locale in a matter of minutes. The French Governor Dupleix had tried to destroy this temple several times unsuccessfully as he felt it was an eyesore for the French Quarters. The temple elephant Laxmi had come out to bless the devotees who offered it bananas. Located close to the temple was the Sri Aurobindo Ashram which houses a bookstore and the samadhis of spiritual guru Aurobindo and his companion Mother.
The next day we set off to visit the township of Auroville or ‘City of Dawn’ located 14 km away. For spiritual seekers looking for some soul searching and thirsting for peace and harmony, Auroville is an elixir. This experimental township was built in memory of Sri Aurobindo. We had visited the town a day earlier to make a reservation to be able to do concentration inside the Matrimandir- the focal point of this township. A massive banyan tree which was a tangle of several roots, branches and trunks provided much-needed shade and solace to spiritual seekers.
Nothing compares to the architectural marvel of the Matrimandir, a sphere made with 56 kg of gold, in Auroville. The opening at the top of the sphere ensures that sunlight beams enter the inner chamber of the temple. I had always been intrigued by the Matrimandir whenever I saw its pictures. I wondered what it looked like on the inside and the feeling one would get while meditating there. The universe seemed to have fulfilled my wishes as we were all set to visit the inner chamber.
The inner chamber is entirely white with white carpets, walls. In the centre is a crystal ball on which sunbeams fall from an opening in the roof of the golden globe. As we sat on the floor cross-legged and gazed at the crystal ball, we were awed. I closed my eyes and simply let go of all thoughts. I chose to be in the present moment experiencing immense peace and rejuvenation. I could ‘hear’ silence which is unusual for us city folks who are always surrounded by cacophony and noise. Those 15-20 minutes of stillness and calmness in silence made me have a deep spiritual connection with the divine! It is a paradox that in these moments, one loses oneself and yet finds oneself! I didn’t want to leave but had to.
The afternoon sun was right over our heads as we grabbed an organic meal and ice cream at the restaurant. The shops in the township sell some beautiful accessories, home décor items, handmade paper articles, bohemian chic clothes, aromatic candles, pottery and other collectables. These are exclusive although slightly expensive items which you won’t find anywhere else, so you won’t mind shelling out extra. There are some trendy boutiques in Pondy which also sell some of these. We visited the arts and crafts bazaar at the outskirts. It was disappointing to see hardly an artisan demonstrating their skills or showcasing numerous art forms. For some retail therapy at affordable prices head to the fashion streets of Pondicherry, namely MG road, Jawaharlal Nehru Road, Mission street. Export surplus merchandise of brands like Primark, Marks and Spencer, Disney and Harry Potter is up for grabs at throwaway prices.
Evenings are the perfect time to sample sumptuous French or Chettinad cuisine or seafood at the numerous cafes and restaurants. Serenity and Paradise beaches are also other options you may want to explore. Some of these beaches even offer adventure water sports.
Pondicherry, a former French Colony, is not just a coastal town but also a dream that will take you back in time. The mustard yellow colonial buildings, the chic boutiques and cafes, the sunny beaches and of course the Matrimandir will continue to mesmerise you long after you have bid adieu to Pondy.
Nearest Airport: Pondicherry has an airport with limited flights. The other option is the Chennai airport which has connections from major cities in India as well as international destinations. From Chennai, you can hire a cab to Pondicherry.
Where to Stay: My suggestion would be to stay in the French Quarters or near the Promenade. We stayed at the Le Dupleix which is a heritage hotel in the heart of French Quarters. You can check for hotels on the net depending on comfort and budget.
Travel Tip: Do go on a heritage trail. There are several but I would vote for the French Quarters heritage walk which cost us Rs. 400 per head. If you are a first-time visitor to Auroville and want to do concentration inside the matrimandir you will have to be physically present to make a reservation. If you are lucky you will get bookings for the next day or day after.
This travelogue was first published in Corporate Tycoons Magazine, Oct 2019.