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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.