Pondicherry, or Puducherry as it is now called, is 150 plus km from Chennai. If you’re coming from Chennai or some of Tamil Nadu’s inland cities, Pondy may well seem to be a sea of tranquillity.
The older part of this former French colony (where you’ll probably spend most of your time) is full of quiet, clean, shady cobbled streets, lined with bougainvillea-draped colonial-era townhouses numbered in an almost logical manner. Puducherry is split from north to south by a partially covered canal.
The French part of town is towards the east. The newer side of town is typically South Indian. Part of Pondy’s vibe stems from the presence of the internationally famous Sri Aurobindo Ashram and its offshoot just out of town, Auroville, which draws a large number of spiritually minded visitors.
Enjoy the shopping, the French food, the beer (au revoir Tamil Nadu alcohol taxes—Pondy is a Union Territory), the sea air and plenty of yoga and meditation. If you are planning to do a road trip to Pondy, you will be happy to know that the highway is beautifully maintained and there are enough stops on the way to break for meals, fresh fruits and coconut water.
We made a pit stop at the crocodile farm where our attention was drawn to the Gharial, the Indian crocodile, with a peculiar little pot at the end of its snout! He is obviously a shy chap—I came closer to the pond and he ducked into the water with only his snout sticking out!
What was originally a marketplace named Poduke or Poduca is on record as a Roman trading post in the 1st century, in the 4th century, it became a part of the Pallava Kingdom of Kanchipuram. As the years rolled on, many kingdoms vied for this little outpost – the Cholas, the Pandyas, the Vijayanagar and Bijapur kings, till the French acquired it in 1674.
When we arrived in Pondicherry we lodged into this fabulous, hotel, Le Royal Park, which, from the outside, looks very grand and very French. In fact, the building reminds me of the General Post Office at Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, which was also a French colony for a very long time.
We saw that the French had left their trademark architectural highpoints in many a building and pathway, as we walked down the clean roads inside the French quarter of the city. All the streets have French names and every house has these cantilevered shutters painted green, which speaks volumes of their French origins.
We paused outside Le Dupleix, which is one of the oldest houses in the area and has often been featured in many colonial era paintings. The street markets are good for picking up pretty dresses for a song! The Promenade is a supremely modern beachfront boutique dripping with contemporary design flash. It’s owned and operated by the swish Hidesign group and is trying to magnetise itself as a centre for Puducherry’s small social scene. I picked up a very attractive hanging lampshade made of paper.
I love the entrepreneurial spirit of the Kashmiris and the Bongs who have set up shops here, so far removed from their homes. A walk into the Mother’s Ashram and the number of Bengali men and women there in saffron robes, acting as guides and monitors, gives us an insight why so many Bengalis have set up shops here.
The Mother’s ashram is a clean, serene place where so many come to find their internal peace. Bengalis have a special connect with the Aurobindo Ashram as Sri Aurobindo was a Bengali who was born and brought up in Kolkata. In the book and music shop, we find a number of French women doing duty behind the counter. A well-kept garden surrounds the place and adds to the serenity. French women find an affectionate connection here as the ‘Mother’, Aurobindo’s disciple, was of French origin.
In the evening, we went to the promenade to enjoy the fresh sea breeze and discover traffic is banned there in the evenings. A local told us that the seawall was built by the French nearly 300 years ago to prevent the erosion of the coastline. The 2 km long wall rises 27 feet above sea level.
To protect the seawall from the direct onslaught of the waves, rows of granite boulders have been placed next to it. Pondicherry’s coastline and beaches have spawned many activities—scuba diving, surfing, boat rides to nearby islands and beaches for camping and bird-watching, jet skiing, canoeing, kayaking, backwater sailing, beach yoga.
There are many interesting places to visit in Pondy like the Notre Dame des Agnes Church, Sacred Heart Basilica, Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception cathedral, Bharathi Park, facing Raj Nivas, the neo-classical Governor’s residence, École Française D’Extrême-Orient and Institut Français de Pondichéry, (two beautiful French heritage buildings), Sri Manakula Vinayagar Temple dedicated to Ganesh, where you get a head pat from an elephant, Puducherry Museum, Gandhi Memorial and Hotel De Ville on the seafront, and the Old Lighthouse on Goubert Avenue.
Our final visit was to Auroville, which is only about 13 km away from Pondy. Designated as an international community—one had to go see what it was all about. It seems to have been inspired by the example of the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondy, where people from all walks of life and from all over the world come to find peace. We were disappointed because visitors are allowed inside the dome only on prior booking but we had no clue!
So we decided to go back out to the pathway which leads up to the circular dome structure. From a distance, it does look like one of those gold foil covered chocolates that come in transparent boxes!
I was told that the climb up into the dome was quite strenuous and that inside it is all white ceiling, white walls, white cushions and place mats. One single beam of light comes in from a vent in the roof and falls on a crystal at the centre. People come here to meditate for extended periods and stay on in nearby hostels and guesthouses.
Sri Aurobindo Ghosh was the youngest of three sons to his rich father. Born in 1872, he was a brilliant student and did very well at King’s College, Cambridge. After 14 years of living abroad, he returned to India and plunged headlong into revolutionary activities while holding on to a teaching job at Baroda. He was imprisoned a number of times for his seditious prose and through all those years, he understood and nurtured his spiritual awakening.
He sailed to Pondicherry from Kolkata with a few friends and they all lived like gypsies, always hounded by the British police.
The Sri Aurobindo Ashram was founded by him on November 24, 1926. At the time, there were no more than 24 disciples in the Ashram.
In December of that year, Sri Aurobindo decided to withdraw from public view and appointed his co-worker Mira Alfassa, thenceforth known as ‘The Mother’ in charge of the ashram. Mira was a Frenchwoman who had seen Krishna in her childhood visions. For her, Sri Aurobindo merged into her vision of Krishna and she just stayed on. She passed away in 1950. Now a trust runs the place.
The people living here are allowed to stay if they perform some service. They get free food and lodging. We left Pondy feeling a sense of peace and tranquillity, which Pondy seems to create in all who seek solace.