The main entrance to Aurobindo Ashram
An old colonial building near the Aurobindo Ashram
Our Lady Of Assumption Church, built in 1851
The old French customs house
Pondy by the sea
A statue of Gandhiji besides the seaside promenade
The seaside promenade at night
A grand building on the main seaside promenade
Manakula Vinayagar Temple
There are cities which awe us, inspire us, and charm us with the flavour of an unhurried, bygone era. One of these places, which happens to draw a considerable number of visitors every year, is Pondicherry, which I happened to visit recently. Situated on the eastern coast of India, Pondicherry is a former French colony, where the aura of the colonial era has not yet subsided from the atmosphere. At the same time, being an Indian city, it exudes a hybrid character which is true of many such colonial places. But the distinctive aspect of Pondicherry is that, in true egalitarian fashion, the spirit of the former colonizers “lives on.” Whether it is in the red “Topis” of the Policemen, the grand buildings, the cosmopolitan atmosphere or the delicious assortment of French delicacies, Pondicherry still retains a quaint colonial touch.
Pondicherry is about 160 km from Chennai ,via the scenic East Coast Road. Taxis, cabs and buses can be taken from Chennai, and the journey, with verdant greenery, the Eastern coast and backwaters on the way, is a very enjoyable one.
Pondicherry is affectionately known as Pondy, and has been officially known by the alternative name Puducherry since 2006. The recorded history of the city starts from the time when the French acquired it in 1674 and held control, with occasional interruption from the British and Dutch, until 1954 , when it was incorporated into the Indian Union along with the rest of French India.
The city is divided into the French quarters and the Indian quarters, divided by a North- South running canal, though real distinctions between the two areas have diminished considerably. However, the French quarters are cleaner and much more organized that the Indian quarters. The city has four main thoroughfares- Nehru (JN) St and Lal Bahadur Shastri St (better known as Rue Bussy) are the main east–west streets; Mahatma Gandhi (MG) Rd and Mission St (Cathedral St) are the chief north–south thoroughfares.
The crowning attraction of the city of the city is undoubtedly the Aurobindo Ashram. The Ashram, founded by the iconic Indian revolutionary-turned spiritualist, Rishi Aurobindo, was built in 1926 and attracts people from all over the world. Rishi Aurobindo, whose story of transformation from freedom fighter to spiritual leader is dramatic in itself, expounded the concept of Integral Yoga. The central theme of his vision was the evolution of human life into a life divine. He believed in a spiritual realisation that not only liberated man but also transformed his nature, enabling a divine life on earth. The Ashram was built with the help of his spiritual collaborator, Mirra Alfassa (“The Mother” ), a French lady who had come to India at the end of World War I with her husband, but stayed back at the Ashram as the Divine force assisting Rishi Aurobindo .
( Aurobindo Ashram website: http://www.sriaurobindoashram.org/visitors/index.php)
The evening meditation at the Ashram from 7 pm to 7.45 pm transports one into a different world. The atmosphere of silence, with incense sticks burning, and devotees paying obeisance to the Samadhi of Rishi Aurobindo and the Mother, is serene. Throughout the day, one can find devotees sitting and simply praying or meditating, in silence. Regardless of whether one believes in the doctrine of Sri Aurobindo, the group meditation session is not to be missed.
We were also lucky to arrive on the day when Aurobindo’s living quarters were opened to the public (this is done twice a year). One could observe from the belongings and the furniture of his room that though undoubtedly he was a proponent of spirituality, he lived in considerable opulence.
The Ashram runs several guesthouses, such as the Park Guest House, Cottage Guest House, New Sweet Home and New Guest House. Of these, the Park Guest House is situated by the sea, offers a serene view of the shoreline , and is highly recommended.
(Details of guest houses: http://www.sriaurobindoashram.org/visitors/guesthouse/ghlist.php )
If you are looking for spirits of a different nature, then too, Pondicherry is for you. Alcohol is cheap here, free of the prohibitive taxes in neighbouring Tamil Nadu. However, this does cause a problem on weekends, since hordes of unruly people drive into town, whose sole purpose is to drink and “live it up.” The city also boasts of really good quality continental cuisine, in particular “French” food such as steak, cakes, croissants and breads.
Some of the other attractions of Pondicherry are the serene seafront, which is packed with people in the mornings and evenings, The Church of Our Lady of Angels, The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, the Manakula Vinayagar Temple , and the French war memorial . Auroville (City of Dawn), is another of the prominent attractions, which is an “experimental” township, conceptualized by the Mother, located 8 km north-west of Pondicherry. It 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. It is populated mainly by expats, and is worth a visit for the novelty factor.
The city was also the venue of the celebrated movie. ” Life of Pi” , and thus has found its way into popular culture.
Pondy takes you into a different world. If you are looking at a relaxed getaway and soaking yourself in the atmosphere of spirituality, the romance of a bygone era, and the solace of serenity, then this place, with the waves lapping gently across its seafront and its mixture of quaint colonial era houses and streets named in the French fashion (Rue Dupuy, Rue Roman Rolland for example), is definitely the place to be in. The tagline of Pondicherry Tourism says it all, “Give time a break.”
Distance from Chennai: 160 km by road (roughly 3 hrs)
Means of reaching: Road: Bus/Taxi/ Private car. Vehicles are available from Chennai airport and Chennai Central railway station. The Tamil Nadu State Transport Corporation operates Volvo air-conditioned services from Chennai to Pondicherry (http://www.tnstc.in). Pondicherry is connected by train to several places including Delhi and Mangalore.
Languages spoken: Tamil, French, English, Telugu
Best time to visit: Winter (October to February)
Prominent places to visit: Aurobindo Ashram, Auroville, ,Rue de Grande, Promenade Beach, Children’s Park & Dupleix Statue, Gandhi statue, Nehru Statue, Le Café, French War Memorial, 19th Century Light House, Bharathi Park, Governors Palace, French War Memorial, Romain Rolland Library, Legislative Assembly, Pondicherry Museum and the French Institute of Pondicherry at Saint-Louis Street.
Website of Puducherry Tourism: http://tourism.pondicherry.gov.in
Chennai- Pondicherry map: