“A journey of thousand miles must begin with a single step”
The charming quaint town is a destination that offers something for all types of travellers. From beautiful beaches a dash of spiritualism and delectable food to stunning French architecture, Pondicherry has it all.
Pondicherry, now known as Puducherry and popularly referred to as just Pondy, is a Union Territory of India and is known as the French Riviera of the East. This charming town has retained its old-world charm and comes very close to giving you a feel of the French culture without actually being in France. This exotic Union territory is just three hours from Chennai. “Give time a break” says the Pondicherry Tourism slogan. It seems appropriate, for a break in this seaside town does take you into the slow lane. Pondicherry was a French colony until 1954.One can still see a lot of French influence even today, as many of the streets in the city continue to be known and called by their French names.
Pondicherry was designed based on the French (originally Dutch) grid pattern and features neat sectors and perpendicular streets. The town is divided into two sections: the French Quarter (Ville Blanche or White town) and the Indian quarter (Ville Noire or Black Town).
Many streets still retain their French names, and French style villas are a common sight.There are also a number of colonial-era buildings, churches and statues.
I visited Pondicherry last summer which is not an ideal time to visit, the ideal time being November – Feburuary when the temperatures see south and the place is much cooler. My visit was a trip organised by Mr Prashant Shah who has spent much of his student life in Pondicherry and can speak both Tamil and French fluently.We boarded a late night flight to Chennai and reached there early morning.
We assembled outside the airport for the Traveller to take us to Pondicherry. Our group size was 10 later in Pondicherry some more people joined the group and the size was doubled. The Traveller arrived after sometime and after relishing a south Indian breakfast in Chennai
We commenced our journey to Pondicherry having a coconut water break on the way.Though it is a coconut growing state, the prices were comparable to Mumbai.
It took us about 3 hours to reach Pondicherry.We had lunch at La Terrasse – a multi cuisine restaurant.
I savoured some seafood while others ordered pizzas and vegetarian dishes.The food was okay but the rates were high and the service was slow.
After lunch we proceeded to Naturra Ashram our abode for the day.The ashram had strict rules – the gates close at 10.30 PM but we enjoyed the peaceful ambience of the place. Living in an ashram was a novel experience for all of us. The place is neat and clean.All of us were tea addicts so were looking for some place for a cuppa we discovered a coffee shop close to to the Ashram.The tea / coffee was good and the ambience was that of peace and tranquility.
After tea we set out for a walking tour of Pondicherry.We first took a walk on the beach and after spending some time on the beach, we walked along the Beach road or Goubett Avenue.We visited the following places : 1)Statue of Mahatma Gandhi2) Statue of Joanne d’Arc3) French War Memorial4) The Pondicherry Museum
The Group at the Beach on the Promenade
After the leisurely walking tour it was time for dinner. Pondicherry offers a wide variety of cuisines like French, Italian and a wide variety of Continental dishes.There are varieties of South Indian and North Indian dishes also.After a lot of discussion we decided to go to a Garden Restaurant ‘Le Club. With the help of the staff we ordered a salad ( Salad Nicoise) a salad with all salad ingredients with tuna and hard boiled eggs, Ratatouille a vegetarian dish, Coq au Vin a chicken dish, Bouillabaisse a traditional fish stew and Sole Meunière. A dinner is never complete without a dessert. For Desserts we went to the famous Baker Street where you have a wide variety of Pastries to choose from. We ordered different types and shared them. Believe me the pastries were the best I had ever had.In Pondicherry you can satisfy your sweet cravings – selecting from Crepes,Fondues,Croissants,waffles etc.
After dinner we returned to the Ashram since we had planned to get up early the next morning,rent out cycles and take a cycle tour of the place, besides we had not had any sleep the previous night. Some opted to sit on the beach and enjoyed coffee and snacks at the 24 hour cafe ‘Le Cafe.
Cycle Tour of Pondy
The next morning, we rented the cycles from the Ashram for Rs 100 for 3 hours.It was fun cycling and took us back to our school days.Pondicherry has clean roads and the traffic is not as maddening,It is a spick and span city with greenery all around.The cycle tour was very refreshing.We cycled to a famous South Indian Restaurant Saravana Bhavan for breakfast . The place was teeming with people at 7.30 in the morning.After Breakfast we set out for sight seing.
Pondicherry has 32 Churches some of which are Church of our Lady Angels,Sacred heart Church ,Dupleix Church ,Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus,Immaculate Conception Cathredral. We visited the Church of our Lady Angels.Next we visited the Pondicherry Museum where you get an overview of the French Colonial rule in Pondicherry.Lunch was at the Indian Kaffee Express. I loved the Pancakes and the Waffles with maple Syrup.
Church of our Lady Angels
At about 5 PM we set out to Paradise Beach where you can play Beach Volleyball. The beach also has a restaurant and changing rooms.
Pondy has four main beaches- 1)Promenade2)Auroville3)Serenity4)Paradise.Previous evening we had spent time on the Promenade which is at a walking distance from the Ashram.We spent around 2 hours on Paradise beach after which we were on our own Hema (a friend I made during the trip) and self decided to go to the Promenade and sit on the beach where we chatted enjoying the pleasant breeze and enjoyed some snacks .The Promenade is a popular stretch of beach front along the Bay of Bengal. It is a 1.2-kilometre-long stretch in Pondicherry, starts from War Memorial and end at Dupleix Park on the Goubert Avenue. The Beach road is closed for the traffic from 6.30 in the evening till morning during which time the entire area takes a look of a carnival with bright lights and hawkers selling goodies..We returned to the Ashram at about 10.30 pm and called it a day.
We shifted from the Ashram to a hotel in the Promenade “Lotus Bay View” Which had a very good sea view. We had breakfast at Saravana Bhavan and then set out for Auroville which is about 20 minutes drive. Auroville was begun by a woman, Mirra Alfassa, more fondly referred to within Auroville as “The Mother” in 1968. The Mother, a woman of Egyptian descent living in Paris during the students’ movement, saw this as “A time to experiment with new structures of life, a new way of being and thinking,” The Mother believed that man was a “transitional being” needing to meet both his material and spiritual needs in order to be completely whole.
The ideals of Auroville include the idea that Auroville is owned by no one and there is no politics or religion; Auroville is simply governed by the Foundation of Auroville and is autonomous, for the most part, from the Indian government. Finally, Auroville was constructed on barren land that as the story was told to us, was completely wasted by the tribal people who lived there before the current residents, with absolutely no growth except for a single banyan tree that still stands today. Therefore, the people of Auroville are environmental champions that have restored the land nearly to its former livelihood. Finally, at the center of Auroville is a large golden globe, the Matrimandir. This huge structure was conceived by the Mother as a symbol of man’s striving towards perfection and the birth of divine humanity. Inside the structure is a white marble room for meditation.We had a few hours so we went to the Visitors Centre. The VC offers detailed exhibitions and video viewings on the city’s aims and activities, a special section on Matrimandir and an information centre well-stocked with numerous brochures and handouts on Auroville’s educational and cultural activities. You will also have the opportunity to shop for unique products manufactured in Auroville at the boutiques.I bought some organic mango chutney,wheat grass powder and peanut butter.In addition VC offers visitors delicious multicultural cuisine at its popular restaurant,a cappuccino bar, cycle rental etc.We had a simple vegetarian lunch at one of the restaurants.
Banyan trees are, in general, considered to be sacred in India and worshiped across the country. Perhaps, this is what prompted The Mother to select a Banyan tree as the geographical center as it was located on the exact point on which she wanted the center to be.
This Banyan tree is more than 100 years and during the beginning of the construction of the Matrimandir was the only tree on the barren plateau. An integral part of the Matrimandir complex, the Banyan Tree, with its peculiar aerial roots is spread across at a diameter of 50 meters (164 feet). Visitors can view the Banyan Tree, which is located to the west of Matrimandir, from the viewing point.
We took a token to visit the Matrimandir viewing point in the city’s Central peace area.You can visit between 9-12 am or 2-4.30 pm. A relaxed 15 minute shaded walk from the Visitors’ Centre gets you there, or use a shuttle when needed.You can meditate inside Matrimandir with prior booking.
After taking few photographs we returned to the hotel. In the evening we strolled around the roads soaking in the the peace and tranquilty of the place.Pondicherry has many pubs and night clubs.
We had planned to spend rest of the evening in one of them but the idea was cancelled due to lack of consensus. Hema and myself decided to have dinner at the Bay of Buddha at the Promenade.
The Next day was almost free except for a visit to the Hidesign factory outlet and the flea market which starts at 11 am.We decided to give it a miss and three of us headed for Mahabalipuram which is about 2 hours from Pondicherry. The drive is very beautiful and the roads are good.
Mahabalipuram lies on the Coromandel Coast which faces the Bay of Bengal. This is an elegant place which was a well established sea port during the 7th and 10th centuries of the Pallava dynasty. This was the second capital of the Pallavas who ruled Kanchipuram. The name of this place ‘Mahabalipuram’ has a history. A very rude cruel king Mahabali reined this place and in a fierce battle king Mahabali was killed by Lord Vishnu and the place was named after the dead, arrogant Mahabali. Mahabalipuram is a world Heritage sight and modelled on the Buddhist Viharas. Places to visit are :
1)Kotikal Mandapa2) Trimurthi Cave 3)Krishna”s Butterball4)Ganesha’s Ratha 5) Arjuna”s penance 6)Panchpandava Mandapam 7)Varaha Cave 8) Rayar Gopuram 9)Ramanuja Mandapam 10) Lighthouse Museum 11)olankehwar temple 12)Pancha Rathas 13) Draupadi Ratha,Arjuna ratha ,Bhim ratha,Dharamraja Ratha,Sahadeva Rath,Elephant Ratha,Lion Statue and the Shore temple. You need 2 days but we had time only till evening and we had to drive back to Pondy and then back to Chennai to catch a late night flight. So we could only see the Shore temple ,Pandava Raths and the Light house and Krishna’s butterball.
Built in the 7th century, Shore Temple depicts the royal taste of Pallava dynasty. During the reign of Rajasimha, the temple was constructed when Pallava art was at its apex. Ravaged by wind and sea, the temple has witnessed the historical events of India. This work of genius was recognized and listed amongst the World Heritage site by UNESCO.Shore Temple comprises three shrines, where the prominent ones are dedicated to Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu. In the Garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum), an image of Shivalinga embraces the site. At the rear end, one can find two shrines facing each other. Here, one shrine is dedicated to Ksatriyasimnesvara and other to Lord Vishnu. In the shrine, Lord Vishnu is imaged reclining on the ‘Seshanag‘, which is a symbol of consciousness in Hinduism. The exterior wall of the shrine is dedicated to Lord Vishnu and the internal side of the boundary wall are elaborately carved and sculptured. The images on the sculpted panels depict scenes from everyday life. However, the sculptures are incredibly real and artistic. The exterior walls of the temple are segregated by plasters into bays, where the lower part has been impressed into a series of nurturing lions. The archaeological department has excavated certain other figures from the site.
The five Rathas is a set of magnificent monolithic rock temples. Panch is a Hindi world which means ‘Five’. These fine rock temples are located in a sandy compound. These five Rathas are the perfect examples of the evolution of Dravidian style architecture. They are built in the shape of pagodas and they look similar to that of the Buddhist shrines and monasteries. The Rathas have an association to the great epic Mahabharata which describes the heroes of Mahabharata with their wife Draupadi which is termed as Pancha pandava rathas. The five rathas are (i) Draupadi’s Rath, (ii) Arjuna’s Rath, (iii) Nakul – Sahadev’s Rath, (iv) Bhima Rath and (v) Dharamraja Yudhistar’s Rath.
On our way to the Lighthouse we bought some trinkets from the hawkers outside.
Mahahabalipuram lighthouse is open to tourists since 2011. It was closed in 2001 owing perceived LTTE threat. The first light was commissioned here in 1887. The lighthouse with a circular masonry tower made of natural stone became fully functional in 1904. India’s oldest lighthouse, built around 640 AD by Pallava king Mahendra Pallava stands next to this modern structure. The Pallava era lighthouse is a protected monument, maintained by the ASI.
Krishna’s Butterball (also known as Vaan Irai Kal and Krishna’s Gigantic Butterball) is a gigantic granite boulder resting on a short incline in the historical town of Mahabalipuram in India. The boulder is approximately 6 meters high and 5 meters wide and weighs around 250 tons. It stands on an approximately 1.2-meter (4 ft) base on a slope, and is said to have been at the same place for 1200 years.
We had lunch at Hotel Guru since both my co-travellers were vegetarians we ordered a vegetarian thali on a banana leaf and as far as I recollect the servings were unlimited.
After lunch we spent some time at the beautiful clean beach.
We also took a boat ride to see the temple which lies beneath the sea for which we had to go in the deep waters of the sea. We took many pictures in mid sea but could not sight the so called temple under water.
The boatman took us for a ride but we had got carried away.The sun was setting and we had to return back. We reached Pondicherry around 9 pm had dinner in a restaurant near our Hotel and soon thereafter we commenced our journey back to Chennai and reached on time to catch our flight. I reached Mumbai around 8 in the morning and crashed on the bed as I had not slept the previous night.
“I have not been Everywhere but it is on my List.”
Take a flight to Chennai book in advance.Book a cab and if more than four book a transport according to the group size.You can book online but check the reviews of the Cab Company before booking.Pondicherry has many good hotels you can choose one according to your budget. Treebo South Avenue and Le Pondy are some of the good hotels in Pondicherry