Now, I don’t know what I was expecting… laughably perhaps, but a cross between New Orleans, Goa and somewhere in the south of France. Wishful imagination, no doubt, but really, I wanted to see meandering sand speckled streets along the sea, white and gray bungalows with bougainvillea-laden balconies, tree-shaded outdoor restaurants, quaint looking curio shops and access to the commune of the world ….
It could be a matter of perspective, but, honestly, I didn’t see any of that in Pondicherry, the famed Union Territory on the coast of the Bay of Bengal in southern India.
To be fair to myself, there was some basis to that imagination, even if exaggerated. I had heard so much about the French Quarter, about Aurobindo Ashram, about Auroville, and of course about the big blue sea.
Visiting Pondicherry’s French Quarter is akin to visiting a single monument or tourist attraction in any place; it’s not an entire town. It takes less time to check out this French Quarter than it takes to check out the Eiffel Tower from the street below.
For anyone who doesn’t understand the ‘French’ connection in Pondicherry, well, it all began with the French East India Company in the late 1600s when the occupiers ensured their quarters were separate from those of their Indian subjects. And thus came about the French Quarter or the more racially specific White Town, and the rest being of course the Indian/Tamil Quarter or Black Town (at least no one says that anymore).
The French occupiers formally left India in 1954, but successive Pondy administrations have managed to retain the colonial influence or the ‘White’ hangover if you will, over at least a few square blocks on the seaside.
To be fair to its claims, there are a number of those charming old French villas on clean, tree-lined streets, many of which have been converted to heritage hotels and fine restaurants. Those few blocks do look different from the rest of the country or just a street off of it for that matter.
The famous Aurobindo Ashram lies in that quarter, but again, keep your expectations low because visitors/tourists are allowed nothing more than to sit in quiet contemplation around the Samadhi of Aurobindo, rest everything in the building being ‘private’. If you aren’t really the contemplative type, you’ll come out thinking: “That’s it?” Well, that is about it.
I am not one to complain about communes. Especially if they profess an ideology of non-distinctive humanity. More power to them, I guess. But for the uninitiated tourist who has just heard about a modern city of alternative (spiritual?) lifestyle and lands up at Auroville, I’m afraid his/her curiosity is not likely to be fed well. What you get is a ‘free pass’ to walk really long stretches of wooded pathways to come up to a spot about half a mile away from where you can see a giant orb-shaped building covered in golden discs sitting in the midst of several acres of manicured lawns. That’s supposed to be Matri Mandir or the meditation center of Auroville, which one can enter only with prior booking.
Since looking at a giant orb-shaped building covered in golden discs sitting in the midst of manicured lawns from half a mile away is not my thing, I came out thinking: “That’s it?” Turns out, that’s about it, if you are not a commune member that is.
To be fair, this alternative city is indeed conducive to peace and a lot of quiet. It makes you want to listen to yourself.
And now about the big blue sea. Promenade Beach is the most prominent beach area, more so for the locals who make good use of the road alongside it for walking, as it is cordoned off to traffic in the mornings and evenings. But, although crowded, who doesn’t like happy (traffic free) streets, right?
Whether intended or unintended, the wide promenade with its parapet diminish the sandy beach to just about a width of 10-15 feet; and the wave erosion and force-resistant concrete tetrapods down below greatly discourage wetting your feet in the sea.
There are other full-fledged beaches – Paradise beach (an island beach which is accessed by boat on a river that joins the sea at that point); the Serenity beach, Rock Beach, Auro beach, etc., but unfortunately, walking the beach all by myself is not my thing. So, instead I reserved a table for one at the fanciest French villa restaurants in White Town and enjoyed my two-beers-potato wedges-white sauce penne pasta-crème brule-1500 rupee dinner, in the quiet company of my smart phone picture gallery. That, I can tell you, was my most satiating experience in Pondicherry.
So what’s left of this experience, you ask? All of the rest of Pondicherry, of course! What I described so far is just the best and only a fraction of the union territory. The real Pondi is a teeming, cacaphonic small south Indian town where you sense nothing other than the loud, incessant blaring of a few million horns from every single vehicle that’s out on the roads. Traffic rules are as vague and dispensable as in any part of India.
But this town is not without its own quirks.
So I was stuck in traffic one day. My driver pointed to a huge flower bedecked truck up ahead following a ‘festive’ procession with drums, others loud instruments, random street dancers, fire crackers, chants, etc. Turns out it was the funeral procession of one of the most dreaded gangsters in town who was apparently killed in a gang war (I’m not making this up).
So I was stuck in traffic again another day. Luckily I was on foot and somehow managed to move through the stalled traffic. Turns out, up ahead was the entrance to a famous temple in town and right at the entrance, in the middle of the road, were four men performing vahana puja (prayers for a new vehicle) of their new scooties!
So I see these huge bill boards all over town akin to movie hoardings, each with dozens of smiling/laughing faces on them with either a garlanded couple or a garlanded man in the foreground. Turns out they are hoardings sponsored by ‘friends’ of newly married couples or someone celebrating a birthday! Who says only politicians, movie stars and models adorn hoardings. You got money, you got a hoarding!
My takeaway from Pondicherry: To get close to your expected experience
- Stay only in a sea-facing French villa accommodation in White Town at whatever the cost
- Book in advance to better access Auroville’s offerings
- Visit the quieter beaches
- Get onto the streets only before 8 am and after 8 pm. That’s before the traffic wakes up and goes to sleep at those hours respectively.
- Go with friends
My two random acts: Walking into a free exhibition of photographs of the sadhus of Benares at an art gallery on the Promenade; and spending a half-hour in a discounted book fair full of fiction best sellers on a side street and not buying anything.
My moments of happy in three days: Going nuts in an agarbatti shop next to Aurobindo Ashram.
Wait, the best of all sights in Pondy: As I waited on the tarmac of the tiny Pondicherry airport to board my flight out, noticed a neat line of little kindergartners in uniform on a field trip with their teachers, to see the planes! Death by cute!