Pondicherry – A Potpourri of Different Worlds

sunrise at pier 2The very word Pondicherry makes you think of the French Riviera but there’s more to Pondicherry than just that. It has so many shades woven in its social and cultural fabric that it is difficult to decipher what it really stands for.

Pondicherry is a study in dichotomy -

  • Parisian Style Living or the Tamilian Kitsch
  • Tourist friendly roads or unruly traffic
  • Hospitality bringing alive 'Incredible India' or coldness scaring away the tourists
  • Expensive French cuisine or a sumptuous dinner in Twenty Rupees
  • French Quarters reminiscent of a beautiful past or Tamilian Quarters representing the ugly face of urbanisation

One side makes you question the delay in visiting this place and the other side makes you wonder why you came here in the first place. Divided not just by a canal into two quarters but by a mind-set and culture, Pondicherry is a city of paradoxes. On a scale from 1 to 10, I experienced the extremes. So let me take you on a roller-coaster ride. Fasten your seat belts!

Day One – From being scammed to being saved

Aayi Mandapam - Copy

Aayi Mandapam, Pondicherry

On the eve of Holi, when the entire North India has a license to get dirty with colours, I decided to see the colours of the erstwhile French Colony. Boarded the first Volvo at 6 am from Koyambedu to Pondicherry via East Coast Road. The Pondicherry trip started on a bad note, thanks to Blue Lagoon, which I booked through www.airbnb.com. Going by the property description on the website, I had booked a clean and tranquil cottage so close to the Auroveille Beach that you can hear the sea wave’s crash. But 5 minutes in the property and I realised I have been scammed. I shared my concern with the owner as well as airbnb but got no help. I was on the middle of the road in an unknown place full of rude and unfriendly people who refused to talk in any other language except Tamil. And to make it worse, I had to deal with the Tamilian Autowallahas. They have a reputation that precedes them and this was true. They function like a mafia and will ask for exorbitant prices. The public transport is almost non-existent in Pondicherry and therefore you’ll have no other option but to comply with their demands.

Being a long weekend, almost every hotel in Pondicherry was sold out. I checked at various hotels, including Surguru but they refused, saying they don’t give rooms to solo female travelers. Really? Are we a bad omen or do we disturb the decorum of your hotel? After exhaustive online search and calling several properties, at last I got a room in Raj Residency, a very lousy hotel in a loud, unhygienic and unsafe looking colony. This is not how I had envisioned my Pondicherry Trip to be, so I decided to look for a safer and a better accommodation in the French Quarters. The Pondicherry Tourism office on the Beach Road came like a messiah. On their suggestion, I checked Park Guest House and luckily they had a room available. Forgoing my advance payment at the two hotels, I checked in because it is a guesthouse managed by Aurobindo Ashram and they follow first come first serve policy. Economical, clean, no frills attached and beautifully located on the beach with manicured lawns and a great view of the sea, the ashram was a paradise. Here I saw some of the most dazzling sunrises and sunsets. If you are not spoiled for luxury and can do without room service then this is the real deal.

After settling in, I decided to explore the cobbled tree lined streets of Pondicherry, which still retained their original French names. The houses were all French colonial style villas – majestic walls, extended compounds, the famed French windows and balconies, the white and mustard coloured building facades. I was soaking the bygone French era beauty - French culture centre, Le Francaise, Statue of Dupleix, Eglise de Notre Dame des Anges, Park Monument (Aayi Mandapam), Governor’s House, Saint Joan of Arc Statue, Bakers street, French consulate and Secretariat among others. After a walking tour, it was time to listen to the hunger pangs at Adyar Anand Bhavan . I saw lot of activity around Gandhi memorial statue, his largest statue in Asia. Aarangetam, a dance recital, was keeping the visitors glued to the stage on the Promenade road. Alongside a modern art exhibition possessed the onlookers and a weekend market kept the regular families busy.

french streets

The French Quarters, Pondicherry

The Park Guest house closes by 10 pm and so after having snacks at Le café, which became my favourite halt during my trip, I called it a night. It was a full moon night. The sea, the moon, the waves were enacting a romantic musical. The cold breeze and the soothing sound of the sea waves didn’t make me miss an air conditioner. Lost in the beauty of the Spiritual den I didn’t realise when I slipped into dream world.

Day two – Taking a History and a Spiritual lesson

Sunrise

Sunrise View from my window, Park Guesthouse, Pondicherry

When the glorious sun rises, even the laziest souls wake up. I was no exception. Fitness enthusiasts starting their day with a suryanamshkar, fishermen embracing the sea with their colourful boats and morning walkers strolling around with their four legged best friends gave me company. After taking ample of Vitamin D and Vitamin SEA at Pondicherry Pier, I returned to the Guesthouse Cafeteria. The breakfast was a fixed simple ala-carte menu prepared and handled by a women only group. Thanks to insightful tips from the Front Office I planned my next two days itinerary. Today was dedicated to exploring the historical and spiritual side of the town.

First on the list was the Pondicherry Museum. The century-old Law Building, one-time residence of the French Administrator is now a rear window of the past. It’s a small Museum easily covered in an hour or so. After taking the history lesson it was time to explore Spirituality at Aurobindo Ashram. In the central courtyard of the main building lies the stone samadhies (tombs) of Sri Aurobindo and his French disciple and spiritual companion, the “Mother” (Mirra Alfassa). In the pin drop silent environments of the Ashram, you can either meditate or absorb the deafening silence or buy books from library. All Ashram buildings, workshops, Guesthouses are grey coloured highlighted with white.

Next on agenda was Auroville. After haggling with few Autowallahas, finally managed to get an auto for Rupees 175 (started with 400). Auroville means the city of Dawn and was meant to be a global melting pot where anyone from anywhere can come, stay and meditate. When it was inaugurated, representatives of 124 countries and 23 Indian States placed a handful of earth from their homeland. The place is still under construction. Over 2,000+ residents from across the world live in Auroville and engage into various community activities like organic farming, renewable energy, village development, and handicrafts.

A 10 minutes  introductory AV about Auroville followed by a 10 minutes of walk through the shaded pathway and you reach the Matri Mandir. To visit the Matrimandir meditation hall you have to take an appointment 2 days in advance for the meditation sessions. While coming back there is a shuttle service available. The refreshing drinks served at the food and drinks corner is what you’ll need after visiting Matrimandir. The boutique outlets sell a wide variety of good quality Auroville made products.

The Pathway to the Matrimandir

The Pathway to the Matrimandir, Auroville, Pondicherry

The Matrimandir, Auroville

The Matrimandir, Auroville, Pondicherry

Day three – Exploring the unexplored backwaters of Pichavaram

Pichavaram Mangrove Forests

Backwaters of Pichavaram Mangrove Forest, Tamil Nadu

Exploring the spiritual side of Pondicherry usually quells the hunger of many but my hunger for exploring the offbeat places took me to the most amazing place I discovered during this trip. A conversation with a Guesthouse staff sparked a desire to explore the unexplored backwaters of Pichavaram. I boarded a bus to Chidambaram, the temple town of Tamil Nadu, from New Bus Stand, Pondicherry and then after half an hour wait at the Chidambaram bus stand I took a local bus to Pichavaram. Pichavaram is 75 km from Pondicherry. On one side it has world’s second largest mangrove forest (after sundarban) and virgin Pichavarm beach on the other side. You can either hire a paddle boat or motorboat, operated by the Tamil Nadu tourism department, to take you through the mangrove forest daily from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m.

Being a solo traveler, I had to wait and convince a group to explore the beach as well as the mangrove forest with me. Ours was the only boat, which decided to do both. It is a heaven for nature lovers, bird watchers or peace seekers. The emerald green water being kissed by the Mangroves is a sight to behold. The backwaters are just three feet deep but the water is murky and ideal for prawn fishing. Usually women do prawn fishing on the shores and men do normal fishing. On our behest and a tip of Five Hundred Rupees, our boatman took us inside the smaller narrow canals. They are so narrow that Motorboats can't go inside these canals. After spending close to four hours we were back. And I returned to Pondicherry with one more offbeat destination added to my list. En route to Pondicherry, the sun was setting on beautiful Pennair River.

Local women fishing prawns, Pichvaram

Pichavaram Mangrove Forest Caves

Pichavaram Mangrove Forest Caves

Virgin Pichavaram Beach

Virgin Pichavaram Beach

Day Four – Getting up-close to many facets of Pondicherry

aurobindo ashram

Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry

Last day I settled to do a PDTC packaged tour for two reasons – I was tired of traveling alone in the scorching heat and humidity of Pondicherry and secondly I wanted to tick off all the must see places. Our trip started with a visit to Handmade Paper Factory where we were shown how handmade paper is made, followed by a visit to Aurobindo Ashram and Manakula Vinayagar Temple, the 500-year-old temple of Lord Ganesha that survived the French invasion. Behind the ashram, there were Ashram run souvenir shops from where I bought few organic products. I cannot stop admonishing myself for buying a few of those. Our next stops were Auroville, Sacred heart Church renowned for its splendid Gothic architecture, Eglise de Notre Dame des Anges Church built by the French Missionaries in 1865, Panchvati Hanuman Temple which is fairly new construction in an ancient city, Chunambhar Boat Complex from where we took a boat to Paradise Beach. We had a lunch break at Surguru Pure Vegetarian Restaurant. The service is quick and a complete value for money restaurant.

Boat ride from Chunnambar Boathouse to Paradise Beach, Pondicherry

Pondicherry is quite hyped but I must say it lives up to that hype. It is a long weekend destination. November to February is the best time to visit it.

So this was my potpourri of myriad experiences. I am waiting to hear your Travel See Write stories.

TRAVEL TIPS:

  • For a hassle free stay, pre-book your accommodation in the French quarters
  • Explore the French quarters on foot or on cycle
  • Don’t miss the sunrise and sunset on the Pondicherry Promenade
  • Food tips: try authentic French Cuisine in the Bakers Street. Visit Le Café for the view. Promenade hotel for their food
  • Go boating and island hopping at Paradise Island
  • Visit Backwaters either in Pichavaram or Cuddalore
  • Meditate at Auroville Matromandir Meditation Hall
  • Shop for great quality organic products at Aurobindo Ashram & Auroville
  • Visit flee market for really unbelievable deals. Bargain hard
  • Go scuba diving with Temple Adventures over the weekend
  • Go with somebody. It does get lonely, sometimes

PICTURE GALLERY

Fisherman at dawn, Pondicherry - Copy

Fisherman at dawn, Pondicherry

Dupleix Statue, Beach Road, Pondicherry - Copy

Dupleix Statue, Beach Road, Pondicherry

Friendship, Beach Road, Pondicherry - Copy

Morning Gupshup, Beach Road, Pondicherry

Selfie time

Morning Action, Beach Road, Pondicherry

at beach - Copy

suryanamashkar

Starting the day with Suryanamashkar, Beach Road, Pondicherry

sunrise

Majestic Sunrise Gif, Beach Road, Pondicherry

Park Guesthouse on Beach Road

Park Guesthouse on Beach Road

Park Guesthouse Restaurant - Copy

Signboard at Park Guesthouse Restaurant, Pondicherry

at ashram

Food for thought, Park Guesthouse, Pondicherry

French Riviera of the East, Pondicherry

French Riviera of the East, Pondicherry

colourful autos

The famous Yellow Autos, Pondicherry

Lunch at Le Cafe, Pondicherry

20 rs ildy

Roadside stall selling Idly dinner for Rupees Twenty

french streets at Night, Pondicherry - Copy

French streets at Night, Pondicherry

surguru thalli

A vegetarian Thali Lunch, Surguru, Tamilian Quarters, Pondicherry

museum

Pondicherry Museum

boathouse

Rate list, Boathouse, Pichavaram

Hanuman Temple, Pondicherry

crane at Pichavaram - Copy

crane at Pichavaram Forest Backwater - Copy

Happy Feet, Pichavaram Beach, Pondicherry - Copy

Kids at Auroville - Copy

Kids on a day trip to Auroville, Pondicherry - Copy

Kids on a day trip to Auroville - Copy

 

Lotus Flowers Cart for next day Temple suppy, Pondicherry - Copy


24 Comments

  • Shruti says:

    Loved this – very detailed. The ‘Pichavaram’ section was totally new to me ! The local fisher women is something that I had no clue existed in/near Pondicherry.

    • Thanks a lot Shruti for having the patience to go through the entire blog and liking it. For me too, Pichavaram was the highlight of the trip – Serendipity 🙂

      Do share your experience? What did you see? How was it?

  • Ranjani says:

    Woww.. very nicely written post..

  • The French part of the town is so beautiful. I had been there some 8 years ago. Nice post 🙂
    Suggestion: You might want to change the copy-font of the blog. It’s too thin, difficult to read easily. It’s a personal view though.

    • Thanks Antarik for your feedback. I did check the font on my phone as well as on other. Seemed OK to me. Maybe it’s the difference in phone settings. However, I’ll do look into it. Once again thanks a lot.

      Cheers!

  • Param says:

    We have just returned from Puducherry and agree with all that you write. However, hotels not giving rooms to single women is shocking. I thought that was a practice limited to Mumbai for renting out apartments!

    • Thanks for liking it. Tamilian Quarters are bit unwelcoming and it was there I faced problem. However, my experience in French Quarters was brilliant. Just that it was a long weekend so all hotels were booked.

  • Arun says:

    Beautiful pictures,

  • aditya says:

    i read ur first blog abot himachal and then another and now i will be reading more..nice writing and pictures.

  • Wilfred says:

    I live not to distant from Pondicherry, it’s a beautiful place to explore French architecture. Very sad to hear that you didn’t get a warm welcome. Hope you visit again..

    • Hi Wilfred,

      First of all many thanks for taking out time to read my article. Really appreciate the gesture.

      Well, the first day was bad but overall Pondicherry did impress me and I would definitely recommend it to others.

      However, I am more of an offbeat traveler so Pichavaram was a pleasant surprise for me. And yeah Auroville and French Quarters were really nice to visit too.

      Thanks once again for writing in.

      Have a great week ahead.

      Cheers!
      Archana

  • Viraj Mehta says:

    Hi
    Wonderful job on pictures and a big thank you such a great post! I never knew Pondicherry has too much into its lap for the travelers like me. With your guide, I think I’ll be able to plan my next month’s itinerary. I hope I’ll have the same fun as I just read into your blog.

    • Thanks a lot Viraj for such lovely words. Same here. But when you decide to wear your explorer hat then you discover things and places which tourists won’t see. Go there with an open mind and I am sure you’ll have a great time there.

      All the best for your next trip.

      Looking forward to your experience.

      Cheers!

  • maria says:

    what time of the year is the flee market open???where does it happen

  • shubhajit says:

    I must admit you write too much..probably you maintain a daily journal or so, also I confess, I read it whole coz there are so many information that I was fishing for. I like your writing, but I love these photographs..
    Ah! I am a solo traveler, mountain traveler to be precise and I don’t think I would feel lonely in this place..

    • Thanks Shubjajit for your candid views and appreciation. I was unsure if people would read so much information but what differentiates me from other writers is that I like to share as many personal experiences I can because it is for real experiences people are reading your content else there are enough Lonely Planet and other guides. And yes, I do keep a travel journal because otherwise I’ll forget the details by the time I start writing.

      I am too a solo traveler whose heart is in Himalayas. You’ll love the place if you go with minimum expectations and open mind 🙂

      Looking forward to hearing your travel tales.

      Cheers!
      Archana

  • pratima says:

    Hi wonderful post Wid amazing photography.

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