Renamed ‘Puducherry’ in 2006, this coastal union territory packs a punch in terms of an unreal experience. Something about ‘Puducherry’ could not conjure the same image as ‘Pondicherry’ for me, if you ask me the reason for it, I wouldn’t know. Interestingly, it seemed that the locals and the people in Tamil Nadu were also bitten by the same bug and they continue with ‘Pondy’ and ‘Pondicherry’, as if the change means nothing to them. But as Shakespeare pointed out, what’s in a name?
Travelers looking for peace and quiet would love Pondicherry. However, anybody expecting a Goa like party frenzy will be disappointed; this is a place to spend time with yourself and in many ways to find yourself again.
Unlike my usual trips, I decided to travel blind, where I did not research like I usually do and just randomly made a plan to go to Pondicherry; I guess I wanted to be surprised. Mind you, we were travelling there for the New Year and we hadn’t even made our hotel reservations (which is a dumb thing to do, but I wanted to do something I hadn’t done before). I was travelling with a friend so it wasn’t that foolish, but foolish nonetheless, knowing how crowded the place would be.
We took a bus to Pondi from Chennai. After the three and half hour bus drive, we reached Pondicherry, and that is when I started hyperventilating. The place was awash with tourists, and every place we went to had no rooms available. The thought uppermost in my mind was, would we never get a place to stay? After a three hour search we finally managed to book into a very comfortable budget hotel on the Captain Marius Xavier Street which was not very far from the main square.
After thanking our stars for coming to our rescue we quickly grabbed some food and set out to explore this fascinating melting pot of cultures.
The Extraordinary Architecture: A Feast for the eyes!
What stood out was the architectural divide! The French rule which ended in the early 60s had a profound effect on the architecture and the plan of the town; all the streets have retained their French names .
The largest square in the city, Government square, is surrounded by all the public buildings, which can easily be labeled as the heart of the town. Wherever we went, we crossed this square at least twice a day.
In the colonial times, the city was divided into the White town and the Black town, interestingly, this can be still perceived in the architecture. The White Town (popularly known as the French Colony), is by the sea side, all the buildings are inspired by French Architecture ( usually yellow or orange)
which makes the whole experience of walking around them remarkable, as soon as we move a little further, we can see the buildings that are Franco- Tamil and which mark the Tamil Quarter. It was fascinating to see the changing look of the buildings. Moving further was the Muslim Quarter characterized by mosques.
Even the churches have a Franco- Tamil feel to them
The Promenade beach overlooking the Bay of Bengal is the most crowded and the most frequently visited beaches in the city. Its promenade is long and is surrounded by the White town on the other side, the promenade houses the most important memorials and statues.
The other beach, the Serenity Beach was a typical fishing beach with fishing boats and fishermen et al, unlike its name; it’s not very serene and is usually crowded, so there is nothing which can pass for a quiet and private beach around the city.
The Auro Beach was also crowded with the local people and the fishermen were selling freshly cooked fish in small shacks. The locals explained that after the Tsunami raised the water level the beach here does not exist per se, a small strip of sand passes as the beach.
The highlight of my sojourn was a day trip to Arikamedu in Kakkayanthope, which is about 7 kms from the city. This was a Tamil fishing village which archaeologists claim had trading ties with Rome in the pre- historic times; it was an important centre in bead making. Riding through the quiet south Indian village of Kakkayanthope (on a Scooty) was an experience I will never forget. The site looked abandoned and deserted with not a single soul present, after about half an hour we spotted a local on a bike; we stopped him to ask a few questions. He enthusiastically informed us how the ancient Arikameduans used an underground tunnel to transport their goods to a nearby port which would then be sent to Rome. The tunnel in question was covered by a thick covering of trees and vegetation.
It was a surreal experience to stand at the very place, which despite being a quiet South Indian village had made a mark as an International Centre for bead making in as far back as 200 BC! I could envision the bygone era… feel it in my bones. Today, the village has fallen into obscurity and the main site has been taken over by the Archaeological Survey of India. The artifacts, coins and pottery excavated from the site are displayed in the Pondicherry museum and some have been sent to the museums in Italy.
A Temple Town?
Like all the cities in Southern India, even this one was full of temples and shrines. The most remarkable feature about the temples in South India is that they are ostentatious and flamboyant, in a good way. Most of temple domes depict a scene from the Ramayana on the outside whereas the temples in the north have all the depictions on the inside.
The Sri Aurobindo Ashram
No post about Pondicherry can be complete without the mention of the ‘Ashram’; the building is small and looks quite unassuming from the outside. But as soon as I went inside, I was struck with stillness, it seemed like time stood still and all my worries and inhibitions left me. The peace and serenity engulfed me as I sat there for about two hours. The energy in that place was poignant. Even now, while writing, I can feel Goosebumps on my arm just thinking about that place.
My next post will cover my gastronomic adventures and obviously Auroville!!!!