Back in the early 2000s, I was at a clinic, waiting to see the doctor. On a side table next to where I was sitting was a pile of newspapers and old magazines. Most of these old magazines are often beauty/fashion or health-related, but on that day, a Condé Nast Traveler magazine was lying there and what looked like a fairly recent edition. I picked up the magazine, flipped through its pages of beautiful travel pictures, and stopped at the Cover Story which was about a former French colony in India called Pondicherry.
This was eons ago, therefore I don’t remember much what was written in that article, but the pictures made a lasting impression in my memory. Pictures of French colonial mansions in shades of yellow and white, the beach, and a delectable-looking photo of fish curry, stayed with me, for as long as I could remember. I also found the name ‘Pondicherry’ rather unique – I thought, at that time, the name didn’t sound Indian to me. Another thing that struck me was that Pondicherry was a former French colony. I had always known that India was a British colony for 300 years, save for Goa which belonged to the Portuguese until 1961. But the French in the sub-continent? How unusual, I thought.
Related Post: Churches of Old Goa & Panjim
A couple of years after that doctor’s visit, I had a conversation with R.Roy who was the boss of my immediate supervisor. Roy was originally from Chennai, India, who worked in Singapore at that time and had made a visit to Kuala Lumpur to meet us, his Malaysian team. While having coffee with him, he asked if I’ve been to India, to which I replied that my first visit was to the Golden Triangle area in 2003. I had mentioned as well that I would love to make another visit to India, and would like to visit Pondicherry. Roy gave me a quizzical look. I shrugged my shoulders and went on to say, “Oh, I don’t know. I saw an article about it and have been intrigued by it ever since”.
Little did I expect to find myself in Pondicherry – ten years after that conversation.
Pondicherry lies on the coast of Tamil Nadu, about 2.5 hours’ drive from Chennai. It came under the French rule in the mid-18th century and was returned to India in 1954. Pondicherry, often referred to simply as Pondy, (later officially renamed as Puducherry) is not a state within India, but classified as a Union Territory for administrative purposes. As the beach town is surrounded by the state of Tamil Nadu, it shares most of its Tamilian culture and language.
Related Post: Peacock Trail with Storytrails in Mylapore, Chennai
The Pondicherry outer district is just like any typical town of Tamil Nadu, but once you get to the older part of Pondicherry – the French Quarter and the seafront – the atmosphere is noticeably more Gallic. The French Quarter is also where most hotel accommodation and the tourist sights are located, so this is where you will be spending most of your time.
In the French Quarter, you will see quiet, clean streets lined with Mediterranean-style houses and bougainvillea-draped colonial houses, many of which have been converted to hotels, restaurants, cafes, bakeries and museums. These colonial-style houses with their shuttered windows and pastel-hued facades, wouldn’t look out of place in a similar beach town along the French coast.
Street lamps are kept 19th-century style. The roads in the French Quarter are a neat grid of intersecting streets with Rues and Boulevards, where vehicles are practically non-existent here. The atmosphere within these leafy streets is very quiet and peaceful especially in the afternoon. however, do remember that you are still in India, therefore you would still hear the occasional beep beep of the auto-rickshaw!
The language spoken here is a blend of Tamil and French. Even the Pondicherry policemen wear the Charles de Gaulle képi cap – you can’t get any more French than that!
Pondicherry is a great destination as a break in between your travels in Tamil Nadu. Travelling in Tamil Nadu tends to centre around temples, so to avoid temple-fatigue, it’s advisable to break the journey and spend 2-3 days in Pondicherry.
Also, in my opinion, you don’t need to hire a tour guide and driver during your stay in Pondicherry. The beach town is easily explored on foot, and in fact, you would experience more of its languid pace and Indo-French influence just by walking around, enjoying a lovely dinner of delicious steak and good wine, or chilling out with a cuppa in one of their cafes with leafy courtyards.
That said, if you’d like some insights about the beach town especially from a local, then please sign up for a walking tour. I LOVE walking tours, and I did sign up for one when I was in Pondicherry (sadly, that company no longer exists). A walking tour is fun and engaging, as the local will walk with you and share interesting anecdotes about the town’s history, culture, people and lifestyle of both Tamil and French quarters. Furthermore, the guide will show you places in town which were used as backdrop for the early sequences of Ang Lee’s film, Life of Pi.
Here are some of the interesting sights in Pondicherry, and they are easily covered during your short break in this beach town:
Our Lady of Angels Church (Eglise Notre-Dame des Anges)
Pondicherry has many richly ornamental Catholic Churches, but the one located right in the French quarter with its frontage looking out over the Bay of Bengal is the pink-washed Our Lady of Angels Church. The church was run by the Capuchin priests in the mid-19th century, and is now the only church in Pondicherry that offers masses in French, Tamil and English.
Between the church and the sea is a little garden in the middle of which stands a statue of Joan of Arc.
Arulmigu Manakula Vinayagar Temple
Arulmigu Manakula Vinayagar Temple is a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Ganesha and is said to have been established before the 15th century. The temple is a popular pilgrimage site, and inside the temple are various forms of Ganesha, rows of sculptures of other gods and stone carvings, and a huge golden chariot.
But the temple draws people – locals and tourists – mainly for Lakshmi the elephant. For a small sum of money and food, Lakshmi blesses devotees with her trunk. During my visit to Pondicherry, there was considerable controversy about this temple and the elephant, whereby the Animal Welfare Board of India had notified the Department of Forests and Wildlife that Lakshmi the elephant was not properly cared for, which resulted in her poor health especially around her feet, and there were reports of ‘illegal ownership’ by the temple trust.
The good news is, Lakshmi was taken to an elephant rejuvenation camp in Coimbatore in early 2018, but there are no updates at this stage, if she would return to the temple.
Sri Aurobindo Ashram
The Sri Aurobindo Ashram is an ashram which grew out of a small community of disciples led by the Bengali-philosopher-guru, Aurobindo Ghosh, with the help of his spiritual collaborator, “The Mother” in 1926. The Ashram located in the French quarter is mainly an inter-connected block of houses that surround a tree-shaded courtyard in which at the centre lies a white marble mausoleum where the bodies of Sri Aurobindo and “The Mother” are laid to rest.
Many visitors come to the Ashram to pay homage at the mausoleum, however, they are not allowed to stay at the Ashram. Should you wish to stay at the ashram, you may contact the Ashram Trust which manages affiliated hostels/guest houses in Pondicherry and other accommodation properties in Auroville.
The Sri Aurobindo Ashram attracts believers and curious tourists, as such, the mausoleum area can be crowded with people shuffling in and out trying to make space for one another. No loud conversations are allowed and mobile phones have to be kept on silent mode, so that people can come in to sit silently to pray or reflect.
Word of advice: Just like any other spiritual place in India, it’s always best to go first thing in the morning to avoid crowds and to have some moments of solitude and peace.
Ten kilometres north of Pondicherry is Auroville, a utopian, experimental international township. Auroville was established by Mirra Alfassa, a Parisian painter, musician and mystic better known as “The Mother”. In 1914, The Mother travelled to Pondicherry to meet Sri Aurobindo whom she knew as the one who would be guiding her spiritual development. The Mother left Pondicherry when the First World War broke out, and returned again to re-join Sri Aurobindo after the war ended.
Sri Aurobindo entrusted the Ashram to The Mother in 1926, and under her guidance, the Ashram expanded into a large spiritual community. In 1952, she established Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education, followed by Auroville in 1968.
The Mother visualised Auroville as “a new vision of power and promise for people choosing another way of life” or she called it “integral living”. Whichever faith you believe in – or none – Auroville is an interesting place to visit, at least to have a glimpse of this ‘experimental community’ and learn how they have lived and thrived for 50 years.
However, Auroville is not a tourist site, therefore, one has to respect and abide by their rules, even for day-trippers. Here are the rules…
Upon arrival at the Visitor Centre, you are required to watch a short film about the history of Auroville and the Matrimandir. Once you have watched the film, request for a viewing point pass to the Matrimandir. The staff will then direct you to a walking path that passes through the Park of Unity (10-15 mins’ walk) to the viewing point where you can see the Matrimandir from a distance. Shuttle mini-buses are available for those who do not wish to walk.
What’s the Matrimandir? Situated in the middle of the township is the Matrimandir – a huge dome covered by golden discs, surrounded by twelve petals. The surrounding gardens of the Matrimandir is the Peace Area while inside the dome is the meditation hall known as the Inner Chamber. Day-trippers are only allowed to see the Matrimandir from the viewing point.
If you wish to spend time inside the Inner Chamber, you need to obtain a pass from the Visitors’ Centre at least a day (or two) in advance, and in person. Your tour guide/travel agency cannot apply the pass on your behalf. When permission is granted, you will be asked to come the next day (or the day you have booked) to watch another short video. Then you will be taken to the Inner Chamber where you can meditate for 15 minutes.
Should you wish to spend time inside the Inner Chamber, remember to plan your trip to Pondicherry properly to allow a few days for the formalities. And for those who want to experience living among the Auroville community for a few days or a longer period of time, please check their website for further details: https://www.auroville.org/
Rock Beach, often referred to as the Promenade, is a beachfront facing the Bay of Bengal. The coastline of the beach starts from the War Memorial until the Dupleix Park at Goubert Avenue. As the name suggests, this beach is not suitable for swimming or taking dips in the sea due to jagged rocks and huge boulders along the shore.
As mentioned earlier, Pondicherry town is very quiet in the afternoon. The weather is also the hottest during this time, thus people stay indoors to cool off from the heat. The silence, occasionally interrupted by a few beeps of the auto-rickshaw, felt like a Mediterranean siesta time. By evening time, the town comes alive again – locals and tourists are out and about for walks, jogs or a stroll along the Promenade especially during sunset. No need to worry about throngs of people here – the lifestyle is pretty laid-back, locals don’t bother tourists, people just come here to enjoy the evening sea breeze and breathe fresh air.
Related Post: Mumbai Diaries – Marine Drive
I stayed in Pondicherry for three nights, and enjoyed my time on the Promenade every evening. The Promenade was also the place where I sat to reflect upon my 3-week sojourn in India; past travels around India for nearly a decade; travel-blogging, fantastic travel experiences in Asia, Middle East and some parts of Europe, and wonderful people that I had met along the way; my 18-year corporate career which I had quit earlier that year; and my future.
Sitting on those huge boulders at the beach, I made a decision to move forward with self-employment and to do what I love most. That decision also meant giving up financial security at least for a few years until things stabilise. It would be tough, but when I left the corporate sector, I knew it was the right thing to do for myself. There was no turning back, no matter what.
Related Post: Why I Took a Break From Blogging
My stay in Pondicherry coincided with the full moon, and those reflective moments at Rock Beach brought tears to my eyes. Not tears of fears and uncertainties, but of happiness and joy, as if I was releasing the past which was holding me back from embracing a new chapter in my life.
The next day I left Pondicherry and headed back to Chennai for a one-night stay before flying back to Malaysia. In all my previous travels, I had always dreaded to go home because that meant going to back to work at the office. But when I left Pondicherry, I was actually looking forward to come home – for the very first time – to start a new chapter in my life.
No, not a new chapter, but a new book altogether 🙂
For travels to India, Nepal, Sri Lanka & Bhutan, check out Crimson Asia for bespoke & experiential tours.