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Destination Guide – Pondicherry

Brief History:

The legacy of France’s colonization efforts in Indiaremains in four non-contiguous pocket-sized territories spread around south India. They are Pondicherry(now called Puducherry), Karaikal, Yanam and Mahe. Of these Pondicherryis the largest and it lies on the eastern coast of Tamil Nadu (Bay of Bengal), a few hours south of Chennai. Pondicherry, now a Union Territory of India, was under the French bastion for about 281 years - right through the period of English colonial rule in India. The secluded towns became havens of French heritage, and to this day continue to be centers for dissemination of the French language and culture beyond France’s shores. While there always was a strong local Tamil population the town of Pondicherry was able to keep segregated its French lineage by developing a ‘French Quarter’ (also called Ville Blanche or White Town) with grand buildings and boulevards, much in the French style of city construction based on a geometric grid of intersecting avenues lined with trees and public works of art. In 1954 Pondicherrywas transferred to the Indian Union but both Indian and non-Indian residents of the city were presented with the option of remaining French. A French Consulate was established to look after the interests of its French citizens. A legion hall called Le Foyer du Soldat was also constructed in memory of the soldiers who died in the French Wars inIndia.

Geography and Weather:

Pondicherrylies on the eastern coast ofIndiaand has a hot and humid climate. The summer season runs from March through July with temperatures soaring to over 40°C (average daily temperature is around 35°C to 38°C). The winter season is short – from December through February - with the daily day-time temperature around 30° C; the nights are pleasant, even cool at times. The monsoon season is spectacular on this part of the coast with torrential downpours and fantastic cumulo-nimbus cloud formations. This season runs from end-July through to October, and though it brings relief from the scorching heat it adds a fair degree of humidity to the weather.

There is small beach near town which is a bit rocky and accessible during low tide, but there is another beach to the north which is a typical tropical paradise. This is cyclone country and visitors should keep a watch on the weather when going near the beaches.

Air/Rail/Road Connectivity:

The nearest airports are Chennai (135 kms), Trichy (220 kms), andBangalore(320 kms). Chennai and Bangalore have international connections to cities worldwide.

The nearest rail junction is at Villupuram which is very well connected toMadurai, Trichy, Chennai, and other important towns in Tamil Nadu.  However, train travel toPondicherryis not very popular and people use the roadways primarily.

Pondicherrycan be accessed by road from important towns in the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. There are private and government run buses which run frequently, and taxis on hire are very common. There are buses from Chennai every 15 minutes which take about 2-2.5 hours through the East Coast Road (ECR) which runs along the spectacular coastline. Inside the city the best mode of travel is cycling, though autorickshaws are also available.

Safety and Etiquette:

Pondicherry town is very safe and there is a vibrant nightlife in the French Quarter. In the other sections of town the atmosphere can be slightly more conservative, but the cosmopolitan town which is home to people who speak 55 different languages has incorporated most cultures within its fold. All manner of dressing can be seen, but the sordid heat demands summer clothing during most times of the year. Remember to carry light woollens for night-time comfort or during heavy spells of rain.

French is the de jure official language ofPondicherry by the Article XXVIII of the Treaty of Cession, 1956, which essentially states that “The French language shall remain the official language of the Establishments so long as the elected representatives of the people shall not decide otherwise.” The government obviously uses Tamil for its administrative purposes, but English is the lingua franca, especially for foreigners and Indian tourists who do not speak Tamil.

The ‘Experimental’ town of Auroville

Besides the French past what attracts visitors to the area is the presence of the town of Auroville(City of Dawn). It is an "experimental" township near Pondicherryand was founded by Mirra Alfassa (revered as ‘The Mother’) in 1968, as a project of the Sri Aurobindo Society. Sri Aurobindo was one ofIndia’s greatest intellectuals and a spiritual guru who believed that ‘man is a transitional being’ and all people should live together in harmony and peace. The purpose of the town is captured in this quotation by Mirra Alfassa "Auroville is meant to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity." Although originally intended as a home for about 50000 people the actual population today is only around 2200.

Hotspots and Activities:

Pondicherryhas a lot offer. Besides the French Quarter, the Indian part of town has many temples, important public buildings and markets that are alluring. There is also the spiritual pull of Auroville which is a mind-opening concept and ‘must visit’ for one and all. Then there is the coast which boasts of tropical beaches with the promise of moonlight dinner cruises on the inky-blue waters of theBay of Bengal. Shopping, especially for leather, textiles, pottery, and aromatic goods, (Pondicherry leather and textile products are world famous) is another attraction. The best way to seePondicherryis by walking and there are three different ‘guided walks’ that one can choose from:

Ashram Walk: It covers the northern section of French Pondicherry and takes you past many buildings of French lineage.

French Heritage Walk: This walks familiarizes you with the grid-patterned city that the French built. The buildings in the French section have ornate gateways and arches, garden courtyards (with bougainvillea blossoms), and are painted in hues of lime and peach!

Tamil Quarter Walk: Some of the buildings are contiguous tile-roofed buildings in the Tamilian fashion while other buildings have a more ‘Franco-Tamil’ identity with the addition of ‘gallic’ influences.

Must Sees:

The Aurobindo Ashram: This was the epicentre of spiritual renaissance in the early 1900s. It is a becalming place where one must observe silence and pay homage to the grave of ‘The Mother’. The environs are lovely for walking about: it also has an Art House and a Bookshop.

Auroville: The town is only about 12 kms fromPondicherryand is perhaps the most visited tourist destination inPondicherry. This planned settlement is quite large and one can walk about the various sections. There are great bakeries, shops selling curios and handmade paper, cafeterias, and massage parlours in the area. A visit to the Matrimandir (a golden metallic sphere) which is an architectural masterpiece, and place of spiritual sublimation, is perhaps mandatory for most visitors. The Verite Learning Centre is also quite informative.

The Pondicherry Museum: This is a multipurpose museum built in 1983 on Rue Romain Rolland. It houses a wide variety of inscribed potteries, shell cutleries, mirrors, terracotta figurines, French period furniture, porcelain paintings and temple sculptures. There are also Tanjore paintings, bronzes of the Chola and Vijaynagar Empires, Kalamkari, and host of other artefacts.

Plage Paradiso (Paradise Beach): This is a tropical paradise that awaits you at Chunnamar, about 8 kms from town. Many tourists set up small tents on the beach.  One can also stay overnight at the ‘tree house’ on the backwater banks. Nearby is a natural dolphin habitat and short cruise can take you there amongst the cavorting dolphins!
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