Pondicherry an unusual blend of occident and orient is referred by various exotic epithets like, the ‘Quintessence of French Culture’, India’s ‘Little France’ and the ‘French Riviera of the East’ etc. The picturesque town set on the Coromandel Coast was a part of French empire for about 281 years. The unique Union Territory of Pondicherry comprises of four scattered coastal enclaves Pondicherry (Now called as Puducheri) and Karaikal in Tamil Nadu, Yanam in Andhra Pradesh and Mahe in Kerala on the West coast. Pondicherry still retains a distinct French flavour which is very well reflected in the grand colonial mansions, beautiful boulevards and placid promenades, spellings on sign boards and buildings, names of roads and public places etc. It has also been greatly influenced by Sri Aurobindo, the great seer, prophet and poet of 20thcentury. Today, it is a pot-pourri of different cultures and about 55 languages are spoken here. Its endearing ambience beckons you to imbibe India’s great spiritual and cultural heritage as well as relish the mesmerising natural beauty. Pondicherry is also a treasure trove for shoppers.
Pondicherry’s ancient history dates back to the Vedic era; the Romans traded here 2 millennia ago, and the Portuguese arrived in 1521. Dutch and Danish traders followed, but it was the French—who purchased the town in the late 17th century, only relinquishing their hold in 1954—who left the most enduring legacy. Now a Union Territory, with its own local government, this seaside colony retains its French élan, tempered by South Indian warmth, making it one of India’s most relaxing destinations. Besides hanging out in your antiques-filled colonial hotel or sauntering around the oceanfront French Quarter (where you’ll see old men in thick-rimmed spectacles under the apparent illusion that they’re in a Parisian arrondissement), you can visit Auroville, an interesting experiment in alternative living, also optimistically known as the City of Dawn; or you can join the New Age travelers here to visit the ashram of Sri Aurobindo. Ashramic allure and Aurovillian aura aside, Pondy (as it is affectionately called) is the type of charming seaside town where you arrive for a quick overnighter and end up staying; like Goa, it has a number of expats to prove it. And, yes, it’s far friendlier than Bordeaux.
WHAT TO SEE & DO
Pondicherry’s tree-lined French Quarter is one of India’s most prepossessing neighborhoods, and a real contrast to the area across the “Grand Canal” aqueduct that the French used to refer to as “black town”—a more typically Tamil neighborhood, with tiny shops lining crowded streets. If you want to unwind, stick to the French Quarter (or “white town”), with its wide boulevards, uncluttered roads, bilingual signs, stately government buildings, and gorgeous residential villas. Besides taking a few strolls, the only other attractions—and really, this is one place you will feel entirely guilt-free simply lazing on your hotel terrace for the duration of your stay—are Aurobindo Ashram, and a trip to Auroville, the City of Dawn. While wandering the Quarter, you may want to take a look at the Sacred Heart of Jesus (Eglise de Sacre Coeur de Jésus), an 18th-century neo-Gothic Catholic church on South Boulevard. The facade of the Church of Immaculate Conception (Mission St.) has an air of pageantry enhanced by colorful banners (it’s also interesting to note that many Christian devotees remove their shoes before entering). Dedicated to Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, Sri Manakula Vinayagar Temple is off a side street so popular that it’s cordoned off during the early-evening hours; a temple elephant marks the entrance. For a quick glimpse of local historic memorabilia and collectibles, visit the Pondicherry Museum (49 Rue St. Louis; & 0413/233-6203; Tues–Sun 9:45am–5:15pm), housed in a 17th-century colonial mansion once occupied by the French administrator. The museum features a collection of carriages and carts, stone sculptures, and a formidable bronze gallery. Along the same road, which runs along the northern end of a square known as Government Place, is Raj Nivas, the late- 18th-century mansion occupied by Pondicherry’s lieutenant governor. At twilight, head for Goubert Salai (Beach Rd.). The most interesting sights along the promenade (aside from the locals enjoying themselves) include the colonial Hôtel de Ville (now the Municipal Offices building) and the 4m (12-ft.) statue of Gandhi standing at the pier. Cultural events, art exhibitions, and film screenings are conducted regularly by Pondicherry’s Alliance Française (& 0413/233-8146; fax 0413/ 233-4351; firstname.lastname@example.org; Mon–Fri 8:30am–12:30pm and 2:30–6pm; temporary 3-month membership Rs 150/$3.40); contact this active organization for information regarding specific events.
SCIENCE FICTION IN THE CITY OF DAWN
The Auroville project began in 1964, conceived by Sri Aurobindo’s French-born disciple,
Mirra Alfassa—“The Mother” (see “Looking for a Higher Level of Consciousness?”
above). She spoke of a place on earth that could not be claimed or owned by
any nation, one where all humanity could live freely and in peace—a city that would
ultimately become a living embodiment of human unity. Largely designed by French
architect Roger Anger, Auroville drew a motley global group, and was inaugurated in
1968 when soils from around the world were symbolically placed in an urn along with
the Auroville Charter.
At its spiritual and physical heart is the futuristic spherical structure known as Matrimandir
(Mon–Sat 10am–noon and 2–4pm; Sun 10am–noon), a place dedicated to
the universal mother—a symbolic space devoted to the “divine creatrix.” An ongoing
project, the structure is a flattened dome spanning 36m (115 ft.) in diameter, surrounded
by gardens, an amphitheater covered with red Agra stone, and meditation
rooms. As development continues, glistening gold discs are fixed to the outer surface
of the dome, enhancing the structure’s sci-fi image. The white marble chamber of the
dome houses the “Inner Room,” which contains a crystal that reflects the sun’s rays
and produces a concentrated light that is used for enhanced meditation. Visitors who
obtain passes can have a brief peek at this chamber between 4 and 5pm each day, and
it’s possible to stay for meditation until 6pm. Radiating from the Mandir and its gardens,
the city is architecturally conceived along the lines of a galaxy, evolving organically
within certain parameters. The original design planned accommodations for 50,000 residents but there currently are about 1,500, all committed to being “willing
servitors of the Divine Consciousness.” Auroville is far more than a place for devotional
meditation; it’s an experiment in self-sufficient living that takes both nature and
culture into account. Its architectural innovation and utopian idealism make this a
place of interest for anyone with a penchant for the unusual, the ethereal, or the novel.
Pondicherry Tour Information
Sri Aurobindo Ashram
The world renowned Ashram was founded in 1926, by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother (Mira Alfassa), a French painter-sculptor. It is indeed the best known landmarks of Pondicherry and attracts people from all over the world. The main Ashram building at the marine street has the flower-festooned samadhi’s (Memorials) of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, under the frangipani tree. Peaceful ambience pervades around the samadhi’s, as people come here and meditate.
Aayi Mandapam (Park Monument)
The magnificent white monument at the lush Govt. Park in the heart of city is the most recognisable monument of Pondicherry. It was built in 16th century in Greco – Roman architectural style during the reign of Napoleon III the emperor of France and commemorates a 16th century courtesan named Aayi.
French War Memorial
The memorial on the Goubert Avenue (Beach Road) was erected in the honour of the soliders who laid their lives during the First World War.
Statues of Francois Dupleix, the French Governor were commissioned in Pondicherry as well as in Franch in honour of this able administrator in 1870.
It was planned and laid out in 1826, by C.S. Perrotet and has a rich and varied collection of plant species. There is also an aquarium here.
The beautiful 1.5km long beach is graced by an impressive statue of Mahatma Gandhi, set amidst eight exquisitely carved pillars and wonderful War Memorial.
Church of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception
The magnificent building was built in 1791, at the site of a former church at Cathedral Street.
Bharathi Memorial Museum
Subramanya Bharathi, the Tamil Poet-patirot (1882-1921), popularly known as Bharathiyar came to the French ruled Pondicherry in 1908, as a fugitive from British India. His residence at No. 20, Eswaran Dharamaraja Koil Street has been converted into a museum and is a place of pilgrimage for the Tamilians.
The house of Kanakasubburatnam (1891-1960), another great Tamil revolutionary poet has also been converted into a museum.
Sri Manakula Vinayakar Temple
The famous 18th century shrine of Lord Ganesha is located just behind the Raj Bhava. The presiding deity is also referred as Vellakkaran (white man) Pillai (Ganesha).
Excavations have revealed that a port town flourished here about 2000 years ago. It had trade links with Rome and Greece as early as 2nd century BC and Roman settlements are said to have existed here.
Paradise Beach, Chunnambar (8km)
The picturesque beach lies near the mouth of the backwaters, along the Cuddalore Main Road. It is perfect place for a leisurely holiday and beach sports. The Pondicherry Tourism (PTTDC) runs Chunnambar Beach and Backwater Resort and provides facilities for boating, backwater boat tours, trekking, beach sports and picnics etc.
Alluring Auroville, the international utopian city was founded by Mother Mirra Alfassa, the chief disciple of Sri Aurobindo Ghose and was designed by the French architect Roger Anger. Sri Aurobindo and the Mother sought to achieve the ideal international commune and the city was convinced as an experiment in international living, where all the human beings, rising above their creeds, castes, politics and nationalities could live in peace and progressive harmony. It was inaugurated on February 28, 1968, when youths representing 128 nations and all states of Indian Union placed earth from their native places in a lotus shaped urn near the Matir Mandir, symbolising the creation of a city dedicated to human unity and international understanding.
This spiritual and physical centre of Auroville is a testimonial to Mother’s vision of unity and harmony of making. The remarkable monument in the form of a massive golden globe is a place for quiet reflection and concentration. It has a solid crystal, 70cm in diameter and manufactured by the Zeiss Company in Germany, which is believed to be the largest crystal in the world. The sun-rays are beamed into the crystal from a tracking mirror located in the roof.
Auroville Information & Research Centre (Airc)
It is also known as Visitor’s centre and offers information about Auroville and its various activities to the tourists.
The artist’s workshop set amidst scenic surroundings in built of local coconut fibre and ferroconcrete. It is engaged in pottery, sculpture, music and painting.
It has a futuristic auditorium, secretariat and a Boutique.
The beautiful has a Yoga Ashram.
Puducherry Distance Guide