As they say in collegespeak, everybody needs to ‘chillax’ at times. Try Pondicherry for minimal sightseeing, varied food and a laidback ambience.
Officially, this former French enclave is known as Puducherry, but to everybody else, it’s just Pondi, a gem on the Coromandel Coast, reached by road from Chennai or Bangalore.
Pondicherry is neatly carved into three sections. The classically elegant, chic French Quarter abuts the sea. To the east is the nastily nicknamed ‘Black Town’ – busy, crowded and colourful as only the locals can make it. Auroville, the famous international township named after the spiritual leader Shri Aurobindo, lies 10 km north of Pondicherry.
To get around Pondi, use your own two feet; if they complain, hop onto a cycle rickshaw. Heritage structures line Goubert Avenue, the handsome beach road – there’s the French Consulate and the enormous Raj Niwas (Government House), a gracious blend of Indian and French architectural styles. Come evening, the promenade is filled with locals and visitors, enjoying warm, salt-laden breezes and freshly roasted verkadalai – peanuts anywhere else in the world! The Children’s Park has a statue of Francois Dupleix, Governor of Pondicherry (1742-1754).
Under colonial rule, the roads in the French Quarter were constructed in a north-south and east-west grid. A street here is still a ‘Rue’. Stroll down the smooth Rue Romain Rolland or Rue Suffren and you could be in the Mediterranean. High, white boundary walls are graced with profusely flowering bougainvillea; many heritage buildings are now hotels and antique shops, maintained in mint condition. Saint Joseph de Cluny, a heritage home now donated to the church, houses a workshop for exquisite embroidery. The Alliance Française on Rue Suffren is a good hangout to watch films on Sundays. Get permission to visit Lycée Français if you’re a history buff, for a look at coins and rare snapshots of colonial history.
Pondicherry’s sacred spaces speak volumes of its multicultural ethos. On South Boulevard is the gloriously Gothic L’ Église Sacre Coeur de Jesus, with ancient stained glass panels depicting the life of Jesus Christ. The Kanniga Parameswari Temple on M.G. Road has stained glass windows, arched walls and angels on its façade – a happy union of Indian and French traditions. Drive by the white, towering beauty of The Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception (1791) on Mission Street and the 300-year-old Meeran Mosque. Visit the equally old Manakula Vinayaga Temple – Lakshmi, the resident elephant will ‘bless’ you with her trunk in exchange for a banana.
Auroville, the City of Dawn was conceived of by The Mother, who inherited Shri Aurobindo’s spiritual legacy, as a settlement where people from varied nations would live in harmony. Set against red earth and lush forest, its heartbeat is the Matri Mandir, an enormous golden sphere at whose centre is a great crystal. Eclectic boutiques, a bookshop and a café with international cuisine draw a steady stream of visitors.
Take swimwear along to Auroville Beach nearby, for a dip into shallow waters. At Chunnambar backwater, a.k.a. Plage Paradiso, a sea cruise is recommended – with luck, you might spot frolicking dolphins.
Finally – food! Splash out for a French meal at Le Club on Dumas Street. Delve into a Gujarati thali at Shri Jalaram Lunch Home or enjoy a hefty masala dosa in the bustling Tamil quarter. And oh yes, there’s no sales tax on liquor – Salut!