A Slice of France in India

Sunrise overlooking the Bay of Bengal

Elfin-sized and embracing the expanse of the Bay of Bengal on the East Coast, Pondicherry (or Puducherry) known affectionately as Pondy amalgamates the bygone French colonial past with an overwhelming Tamilian presence in South India.

The major highlight of this Union Territory which likens itself to a slice of France tucked to a corner of India is its palm-fronded promenade that stretches to about a kilometer and a half from the North to the South on Goubert Avenue. On this pedestrian stretch, the Gandhi Statue at one end and the Statue of Dupleix situated in the Children’s Park on the other are significantly present. There is also the War Memorial, Statue of Joan of Arc, Nehru Statue, Old Lighthouse and Ambedkar Manimandapam which are other prominent landmarks along the seafront.

Early Hours on Goubert Avenue/ Beach Road

On an early morning stroll, a little farther up and a walk down the stairs to reach the pier below is a hub for fisher folk activity. The fishermen are busy sorting their early hours catch with locals dropping by hoping to get a good bargain. The New Lighthouse visible from a distance is open to the public from 3-5 pm. When you plan out your walkabout in the main city, ensure that you make a visit here which is bound to provide panoramic vista from high above the structure and this writer missed out.

You basically find two types of people embracing this killer stretch situated on Goubert Avenue closed to vehicular movement at certain hours.  For the health-conscious, fitness freaks and nature lovers, the sunrise at around 6 am on the horizon facing the Bay of Bengal is something to sit back and enjoy. For the other early-risers, a brisk walk, jog, stretch exercises or yoga can be seen along the promenade to the Children’s Park. As dusk falls, the promenade awakens again with families and groups taking a leisure walk or taking a seat overlooking the bay as the whiff of a tangy sea breeze provides respite from the humidity. For the more adventurous, you may get down to the jagged rocks on Rock Beach but it must be taken note that on one end with work on the submerged reef underway public access is prohibited.

The French Quarter or White Town as it is also called retains its colonial charm through its dainty coloured buildings and houses with bougainvillea plants peeking out from compound walls across shady tree-lined relatively quiet streets. Each of these streets named in French situated in the East of the main city head towards Goubert Avenue better known as the Beach Road. A number of the French homes may have been converted to art galleries and boutique hotels, but there are a few which preserves its magnificence allowing tourists to regale in its colonial past by opening its doors to them as guest homes. What strikes out while you potter on these streets, the more popular ones being Rue Suffren, Rue Romain Rolland and Rue Dumas, most of the houses or buildings are mustard yellow-coloured with grey, white and pink in that order of popularity.

Rue Dumas, French Quarter

Sampling cuisine at White Town gives you a chance to relish the authentic Continental food, including French fare which may be on the higher side. But then there are the cheaper culinary options as well, popular of which are H2K Spot on Lal Bahadur Shastri Road (or Rue Bussy) or even at the Beach Shopping Market for trying out authentic South Indian cuisine or Indian delights for that matter. All day dining places that this writer would recommend for its delectable cuisine, ambience and service would include Sicilys on the Beach Road or the roof-top restaurant Madame Shanthes on Rue Romain Rolland or the snazzy Xtasi Gastro Pub on Rue Bussy. If you are craving for a late nigh snack or drink, Le Café, the 24-hours coffee shop overlooking the beachfront is a safe bet. Baker’s Street on Rue Bussy is a French delicacies concept outlet which provides a wide choice of brunch options besides an array of chocolates and savouries for your sweet tooth. GMT is a spoilt for choice haunt for ice-cream on Goubert Avenue, while Eat My Cake on Rue Romain Rolland provides breakfast options as well as lip-smacking savoury delights.

While there are several temples and churches, in Pondy town, a few of them stand-out for its architectural magnificence and rich history. A visit to the over 300-years-old temple, Manakula Vinayagar Koil is an opportunity one should not miss.  The interiors of the hallowed place with its ornate walls depict Lord Ganesha in His various avatars apart from other deities. But what takes immediate attention is the deified presence of a 27-year-old female elephant, Laxmi, gently blessing the visitors on their head with her trunk. Incidentally, the mammal is the only elephant in Pondicherry. Built in the Neo-Gothic style by the French missionaries in the 1700’s, Sacred Heart Basilica is arguably the finest church here situated on Subbayah Salai. Flanked on the right side of the church is the magnificent Basilica Memorial Tower bearing the statues of Most Sacred Heart of Jesus and Immaculate Heart of Mary. There are three entrances leading from the front into the church. While the left side entrance bear statues of St Mathew and St Mark, the right side has the statues of St Luke and St John, and above each entrance in different languages – Tamil, Latin and English bears the words, ‘I will sanctify this place for my heart is here.’ While you leave your footwear outside on entering the church, the stained glass window panels on either side throws a mystique of colours as you walk along the main aisle towards the altar. Incidents depicting the Life of Jesus are on the stained glass panels while biblical verses in Tamil are ubiquitously placed on the pillars in the consecrated place. Meanwhile, Notre Dame des Anges (Church of Our Lady of our Angels) on Rue Dumas gives an exotic appearance with pastel and lime colours on its frontage serenely glowing in the late afternoon sunlight. Facing the ocean on the East, the Greek-Roman architectural styled church bears two towers in the front with a clock each (only one functional) and a dome behind. There are altars of various saints inside. The stained glass windows filter resplendently on to the interiors. Two years ago, a beautiful grotto dedicated to Our Lady of Angels was constructed in the courtyard. This is the only church where mass is celebrated in three languages –French, English and Tamil. Located on Mission Street, Immaculate Conception Cathedral traces back its long history to over 300 years back with the church built and re-built a number of times. The standing church replicates the Church of Val de Grace, Paris. It has to be noted that though the general plan was one of the French XVIII Century Church, the façade resembles the classical Portuguese ordinary style of the Portuguese colonial era.

Sacred Heart Basilica

Bharathi Park, Botanical Garden and Aquarium, Pondicherry Museum and Sri Aurobindo Ashram should be on your itinerary as well.

While MG Road and Mission Street, strides well for the street to the label shopper, an amble across Vysial Street will retrace the decades to at least 50 years with the fading charm of old Tamil homes struggling to hold its own due to dereliction, abandoned or modernity taking over the street as you walk by.

Old Tamil House, Vysial Street

Outside Pondy town, you should not miss out on the chance of making separate trips to Auroville and Paradise Beach.

Auroville (or City of Dawn), around 13 kms from the main city is a symbolic township encompassing 20 sq km with over 50 nationalities coming in union to sustained development of their land. While a few hours visit may not get you to experience the spiritual and communal integrity of the place to its fullest, a free visitor’s pass to the view point of Matri Mandir, a kilometer away from the visitor’s centre makes for an enthralling sight.  Matri Mandir is dedicated to Mirra Alfassa (known as The Mother) and founder of Auroville. The gargantuan golden spherical structure is a meditation chamber on its inside but entry for tranquility seekers could take a day or more with spot entry disallowed. Each settlement in the township has its own name and charm, and the best option to get a feel of the place is renting a cycle and pedaling around. If you get an opportunity to do communal service in goodwill of free food and a roof above your head, do not let go of the opportunity. This would serve the purpose best of a visit here.

Matri Mandir, Auroville

Paradise Beach as the name itself suggests is an idyllic mass of virgin sands and crystal clear waters on an island 7 kms away from the main city. A bus from Pondicherry Bus Stand towards Cuddalore will drop you off on the main road facing Chunnambar Boat House. A visitor to the beach has to buy a ticket to ferry himself across to the beach island on a boat. The best time to get across to the beach would be no sooner the ticket counters open at 9.30 am. As the morning takes its course, the beach begins to swell up in numbers. Even in the height of summer whilst at the beach, the scorching heat would not affect as you as much. If not cooling yourself in the calmness of the sea, you could relax under the shady thatched dwellings each having seats. Alcohol is a strict NO-NO on this beach and cleanliness is in strict adherence with waste-bins strategically placed. There is a restaurant on the beach for your food and refreshment needs. Right on the beach you can quench your thirst at the tender coconut stall as this writer did. Children would love to sink their teeth into candy floss or go on a joy-ride on the horses or simply click their pictures straddled on it for a small fee. Water sport activities are also available.

Paradise Beach, Main Cuddalore Road

While renting out cycles or mopeds are an option, to get the best of the main city of Pondy is to walk around as the place is pretty much small in size. At every road intersection, there are auto-rickshaws which could be a good option to take you outside the main city to places like Auroville or Paradise Beach or there is always a bus which is a far cheaper bet. Then there are also the colourful cycle rickshaws which could be a pleasant experience for longer distances to cover and yet get the feel of the place. Interactions here may be a tad difficult with the regular person on the street who knows or prefers to speak only Tamil. But that very person is kind and patient enough to extend help needed through gesticulations or broken English.

Pondy is a must-see place for a pleasant short vacay and I am certainly glad to get this ticked off my bucket-list.



A call from the mountains

The Summiteers

Ensconced in the Himalayas, a trekking expedition through the Khangchendzonga National Park in West Sikkim is not for the faint heart. It requires grit, guts and gumption and adherence to the sanctity of the wild. Nature Trekkers Goa had last May undertaken a Himalayan exploratory expedition in the region to a summit of 4171m. This writer reproduces the published article in his website to share with the readers on his challenging adventure which still is afresh in memory. Read on …

Sikkim, a beautiful State nestled in the North East of the country laps up panoramic views to the nature lovers and adventurists. And trekking up to the Dzongri Top from Yuksom through the eco diverse Khangchendzonga National Park in West Sikkim provides one such wondrous opportunity. But therein lays a catch. It is an exploratory expedition that requires courage and conviction, more than physical strength and mental stamina.

Though the relatively short trek, an off-shoot of the more difficult Goechala trek (4940m) may be a far cry of touching the skies, scaling 4171m (13,684 feet) it commands pride no less accounting to its high altitude. Few may be aware that the reverse of the 100 INR showcases the splendor of the snowcapped massif of Kabru South, Kabru North, Black Kabru, Mt. Kanchenjunga, Mt. Pandim among others as seen best from the Dzongri Top. A sight to behold! The best time here is in October under clear skies when the first rays of the sun bathes the majestic peaks with an orangy glow.

Nature Trekkers Goa in May 2017 organized their third Himalayan Exploratory Trekking Expedition in association with Green Woody, Rumtek at this high-altitude trekking trail in a span of three-and-a-half-days.  This writer was one of the successful dozen of the participating 18 trekkers from the State who had tasked out to reach the summit point and return to base camp braving AMS, adjustment to food and stay and climatic conditions.

After acclimatizing themselves at the base camp at Rumtek, 123 kms away, the enthusiastic group of young professionals was transferred to Yuksom for the commencement of the trekking expedition on May 9. But owing to inclement weather, the adventurers began from the trailhead at Yuksom, only the next morning as the weather cleared. From an altitude of 1780m, the motley group of 18 trekkers was presented with an onerous objective ahead of covering twice as much ground to compensate for a lost day. Along the undulating route to their first camp-site at Bakhim 13kms away, the Rathong valley gave a verdant glimpse of the magnificence of the Khangchendzonga National Park to the adventurers who were set to get enamoured with. The Goa-based adventurers met up friendly trekkers and gave way to the beasts of burden as they moved upwards. One could not miss the mounds of pebbles and stones (prayer structures) and colourful flags depicting Buddhism which gave a sanctified feel about the precincts.

On the bridge before Bakhim

The Yak – A Regular Sight

Prayer Structures – Ubiquitous En route

In the initial part of the trek, the murmurs of a waterfall enraptured the senses as the trekkers made their gradual ascent. As they glimpsed the first of the two cascading waterfalls along the trail, they were completely enchanted by its splendor that refreshed their senses. As they continued their trek, they came across another waterfall, which like the previous one gurgled into a stream that painted a lovely landscape. As they passed one bridge to another, the tiring group reached Sachen (2189m) for a lunch stop-over.

A late lunch stopover at Sachen

Moving forth, they passed the fourth and last of the bridges as the mainly pebbled and rocky zigzag trail  eventually gained an attitudinal gradation at Bakhim (2743m) where they reached late evening to set camp. A ramshackle Government cottage which was destroyed by an earthquake in 2011 with pine trees lined up overlooked the camp-site that gave a picturesque view of the Yuksom valley. Nearby, was a loggers’ hut where meals were served. It was quite a spectacle especially at supper having one’s meal under candle-light.

Bed Tea at Bakhim Camp-site

Logger’s Hut at Bakhim Camp-site

Early next morning, May 11, while six opted to return, the rest braced themselves to a climb upwards in excess of another 11 kms. The early part was particularly steep and excruciating. As they passed Tshoka (2985m), 3 kms away, a spectacular campsite with a few village settlements overlooking a beautiful lake decorated by colorful prayer flags overhead welcomed them.

Rhodendrons Abounded

Trekking past Tshoka Camp-site

The view from above on leaving Tshoka Camp-site

In the afternoon, at Phedang (3696m) they made a lunch halt. As the pitter-patter of rain drops began, they clambered up to their final stretch to Dzongri. The logged stair-way with loose, wet gravel in between made the ascendancy even more treacherous and challenging. The abundance of rhododendrons, wild flowers and lush oak plantations en route relived the physical strain that began to take its toll. Fog began to set in giving visibility to not more than 100 metres.  As they reached their high altitude camp-site at Dzongri (4060m) in the evening, the view where the camp was set was alluring. The vast tracts of meadow overlooking the pristine clean mountain peaks, was witness to yaks and mules grazing in gay abandon.  As dusk settled in, the temperature dipped and by night it was very chilly. The trekkers slipped on added layers of clothing to overcome the dip in the temperature.

Woken up from our snug slumber at 3.45am before day break the following morning, the adventurers warmed themselves to a steaming cuppa of bed tea. Soon after, the group readied themselves to take to the steep kilometer winding incline to their summit point – Dzongri Top (Dablhagang) soon after. It took us about quarter of an hour to reach the top situated at 4171m (13684 feet) which gave the 12 summiteers a sense of fulfillment and pride. The stunning vista of over a dozen majestic snow-capped peaks including the third highest mountain of the world, Mt. Kanchenjunga, was thoroughly enjoyable and overwhelming.

Shortly past 5 am on reaching our summit

Panoramic views of the mountain peaks from Dzongri Top

After spending at least an hour and a half on top admiring the magnificent peaks, the trekkers descended to Dzongri Base to freshen up, have breakfast and leave for Bakhim.

Back at the lower camp level, they did not feel the biting cold as much though the air grew gloomy as they settled in our tents to play cards or ludo. Later in the evening post supper, the guide and the camp-site cooks sprung a pleasant surprise with a chocolate cake complimenting their successful ascent to the summit earlier that morning.

Next morning, May 13, the adventurers set out to Yuksom with a packed lunch in their back-packs. But unlike on their ascent, the initial part up to the first bridge they came across was off-trail and through the underbrush as slight moisture began to rent the air. The group had to pass this bridge ideally before noon as about then it tends to rain and the area was susceptible to the perils of landslides. Thereon they took the normal course. As the last of trekkers, this trekker, lugging on his 6 km odd backpack trudged back to the idyllic Yuksom village, the first capital of the erstwhile Kingdom of Sikkim, it was mid-way through the afternoon and a sense of déjà vu for this fourth-time Himalayan trekker.

Back at Yuksom Village

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Visitors to my blog are free to reach me on email: hellobasil@gmail.com or alternatively  connect on WhatsApp: 8007217310

I am available for collaborations towards photography, travel and writing.

Hello Blogosphere

To introduce myself, I am Basil Sylvester Pinto, a young at heart individual from a tiny speck of a land in India called Goa. I profess as a journalist with an English daily here, but social media acquaints me better as a photographer, more so in fashion. It is not that I have not dabbled in freelance photography, but it is does not provide butter to my loaves of bread.

I have evinced a great interest in high altitude trekking in the Himalayas and mid May I will be embarking on my fifth Himalayan trekking expedition.

This blog  will be a forum  to express my thoughts on any issue that may pique my interest.  It will  act an outlet to channelize my various hues of emotions that my moody persona warps itself into.  I will also share my experiences of my travels and adventures from time to time. 

I will also write on events I attend, review books I read apart from sharing my works in photography.