Immaculate lanes lined with trees and old villas on either side and the wafting aroma of freshly-baked breads; this is the charm of South India’s French Quarter, Puducherry
Words: Bindu Gopal Rao
Give time a break. The tourism department’s tagline for Puducherry could not be more apt. The only Union Territory located in South India, Pondicherry or Puducherry as it is now called, was once a French colonial settlement. Today, it is a small region that merges its French legacy with contemporary urban lifestyle seamlessly to create an alluring character that draws you to it again and again.
Home to probably the only international community living space Auroville, Puducherry in Tamil Nadu is certainly like no other. From the beachfront, seaside promenade that offers stunning views of the mustard-hued colonial villas to the chic boutiques and cafes, there is something enduringly charming about this beach town. So on your next visit, do make sure you experience the sights and sounds of the city in its entirety and bask in the glory of the old-world charm.
Puducherry is known the world-over for its abundance of tourist attractions; Aurobindo Ashram being one of them. The ashram and everything to do with its founder Sri Aurobindo, is what gives Puducherry its unique character. Built in 1926, this place is thronged by visitors, and not just spiritual seekers. Even while you are requested to maintain silence, the calmness of this place, the beautiful setting amidst nature and the plethora of flowers that cover the resting place of the saint will leave you feeling relaxed and serene. Located in the white town side of the French Quarter, the ashram must be on your to-visit list while you are in Pondy.
An important landmark here is the Manakula Vinayagar Temple, dedicated to the god of prosperity – Ganesha. The Manakula Vinayagar Temple is close to the Aurobindo Ashram and, in contrast, is a bustling hub of activity. Interestingly, this temple is said to have been in existence even before the French colonised Puducherry in 1666. The colourful temple is painted in bright shades and covers an area of 7,913 sq. ft. It has an outer facade, a temple tower, an 18 feet-tall, gold-plated tower, a front facade, a main temple and a Sanctum sanctorum. The main deity is decorated beautifully and all around it are different forms of the elephant-headed god. The star attraction here is an elephant at the entrance of the temple who is known to give blessings and attracts tourists from different parts of the globe.
Another major landmark here is Auroville. Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual collaborator, Mirra Alfassa, also known as the Mother, founded Auroville, meaning City of Dawn in 1968. Her aim was to create a town where people of all nationalities could live together in harmony akin to a utopian community. The Matrimandir structure, a key attraction here, is a futuristic-looking golden sphere. The place is calm and serene and is ideal for meditation. In fact, what was once a barren plateau has today become a thriving, lush green forest that also houses a shopping arcade and plenty of organic stores. The City of Dawn, as it is known, has accommodation options as well. Patrons can also get involved in various activities through volunteer work. Apart from being an abode for meditation and a zone to connect with self, Auroville is also a great place to stock up on souvenirs. One can shop for Pondy’s famed ceramic artefacts while taking a stroll around the shopping stalls in Auroville.
Puducherry is also home to a total of 32 churches including the Church of Our Lady of Angels, Sacred Heart Church, Dupleix Church and Immaculate Conception Cathedral among the bigger ones. The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus dates back to the early 20th century. Apart from the spiritual aspect, the French architecture in these churches is admirable. Puducherry has a history of being ruled by the French, the British and the Dutch and the Pondicherry museum houses various relics and artefacts that belong to these periods. The museum also houses sculptures and other archaeological findings from the Arikamedu Roman settlement, sculptures from Pallava, Chola and Vijaynagar times, French period furniture, bronze sculptures and old Tanjore paintings among others.
Quite a happening place, Puducherry is not just about sightseeing but is also a haven for travellers looking to connect with self. You can go volunteering at any of the NGOs or in Auroville or one can head to the many meditation retreats in and around Puducherry. You can opt for thrilling experiences with activities like surfing, scuba diving, bird watching, parasailing, etc.
This coastal town also has four beaches. At the centre of town is the Promenade Beach, which is a favourite with locals and tourists alike. In fact traffic, is banned during specific hours to allow locals to enjoy the sea. There is a walkway on one side and the other side is dotted with restaurants, shops and hotels.
Situated in close proximity to the Promenade Beach, The French War Memorial is a simple construction of four pillars built in memory of the French soldiers who lost their lives during World War I. A statue of Mahatma Gandhi is also close by and is surrounded by 8 monolithic granite pillars dating back to 17th century. The other beaches that are away from the city are the Paradise Beach, Auroville Beach and Serenity Beach that are well maintained.
All in all, Puducherry strikes an apt balance between the past and the present. In this union territory, the past plays an important role reflected in its architecture, food and culture while the modern amenities of the present give you a holiday with all the comforts. A famous destination, Puducherry’s claim to fame are its varied offerings for tourists coming from different walks of life.