The catch line of the tourism ad was enticing indeed – ‘Give time a break’!
For harried souls like us, it was an invitation to eternal bliss. So as the kids ‘called it a day’ for their annual exams, we headed straight to Pondicherry, fondly called Pondy and now more authentically, Puducherry – take your pick!
The road journey from Chennai to Pondicherry stretching about 150 Kms. is simply excellent. Cruising along the ECR (East Coast Road) and playing hide & seek with the Bay of Bengal, almost after an hour of leaving Chennai we stopped short of Mamallapuram. Hotel Mamalla was a good choice for breakfast with piping hot masala dosa & idli served with the quintessential sambar. Thanks to Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the temples at Mamallapuram appear well cared for. Especially the environs of the Shore Temple known for its idol of Vishnu lying on the ground have been maintained well by ASI. The temple, now a UNESCO world heritage monument, was built in 9th
. Century AD by the rulers of Vijayanagar.
At a short distance from the Shore Temple are five temples known as the chariots of Pandavas. The chariots are intricately carved out
of sandstone with many figures of divinity and animals like bulls, horses & elephants. All such beautiful sculptures are badly eroded due to their proximity to the coast. The famous sculpture, ‘Arjuna’s Penance’, located at a short distance from the chariots is a giant bas-relief carved out of a face of the hillock. It is a huge panorama depicting large number of saints, nobilities, warriors & animals (elephants very well sculpted with right proportions) joining Arjuna in his penance. Interestingly, there are two interpretations of the bas-relief. One goes as Arjuna performed austerity to be blessed with the powerful weapon, ‘Pasupat’
by Lord Shiva prior to the war of Mahabharat at Kurukshetra. Another interpretation talks about Bhagiratha performing austerity to bring down Ganga on earth to wash away the sins of his kin. And the central cleft symbolizing the river flow at the top of the bas-relief suits the second theory. Next lies the typical tourist stopover at the ‘Butter Ball’ of Lord Krishna – a well-rounded boulder precariously perched on the ledge of the hillock.
We proceeded to Pondicherry along the palm fringed ECR winding through barren salt pits and tiny green hamlets. The air was getting hotter
creating mirage on the road. The Ambassador AC droned a bit but kept the interiors cool enough. We crossed the distance of 98 Kms. from Mamallapuram to Pondicherry in less than two hours. From its fringes, Pondicherry appears just like any other prosperous town of Tamil Nadu. As we drove into the French quarter, the city unfolded its rich past transporting us to the old colonial era.
Pondicherry, a Union Territory of India with its own legislative assembly comprises four totally disconnected districts namely, Pondicherry, Karaikal (150 Kms. from Pondy to its south on the eastern coast), Yanam (870 Kms. from Pondy to its North on the eastern coast) and Mahe (located 647 Kms. away from Pondy on the western coast). Starting as the trade outpost of French East India Company in 1673 AD, Pondicherry became the flagship of French settlement in India. Barring a few years of Dutch rule (1693-1699), the reins of Pondicherry changed hands between the French & British over the next 150 years. After 1857 as the British consolidated their control all over India, French India also took root encompassing the French settlements at Pondicherry, Karaikal, Yanam, Mahe and Chandernagore. After independence in 1947, Indian
Govt. was very keen to integrate the French settlements with the motherland. While Chandernagore was transferred to India in 1949, the de facto
transfer of Pondicherry, Karaikal, Mahe & Yanam took place in 1954. In July 1963, Union Territory of Pondicherry was formed with its four constituent districts.
Pondicherry town is divided into French quarter and Tamil quarter by a canal running north-south. The better planned French part has a vantage location facing the sea. This part also houses all the Govt. offices, museum, hospital and Aurobindo Ashram. The street names such as Rue Francois Martin
, Rue Bussy
, Rue Romain Roland
etc. have a vintage smell. Colonial villas & mansions abound in the French quarter. Many of them have been restored well and transformed into boutique hotels, guesthouses and restaurants. The houses with balustrades on the balcony, ornate grills and large wooden doors & windows can be a photographer’s delight.
We headed to Rendezvous
on Suffren Street for lunch. It is a heritage property located at a street crossing and the owners took care to preserve the period look by enriching the interiors with wooden horse-cart wheels, wooden pillars, large earthen ware vessels etc. The terrace restaurant with
a thatched roof was quite appealing. There was an AC dining option too in a room, which we carefully avoided. The food at Rendezvous was delectable; we enjoyed the sumptuous sizzlers (both the seafood & chicken options), oysters baked with cheese and the dessert, ‘death by chocolate’
lived up to its name! Such an indulgence with food called for a siesta, which was also prompted by the afternoon weather. The rest restored all our energy for an evening stroll along the promenade, Pondy’s rather tame affair with the sea.
For dinner, our choice was Le Club,
the open-air restaurant of the Hotel de Pondicherry on Rue Dumas. The culinary fair was passable but the place truly believed in the philosophy of a leisurely dinner! For a typically rushed Indian, it was an endless wait for the food. On a lighter vein, my son quipped, ‘24 hours service’, as claimed in the menu. Other diners, most of them foreigners, though seemed to enjoy the slow paced food.
Pondicherry does boast of good beaches. We drove down to Chunnambar water sports centre, located about 8 Kms. away from Pondicherry town on the way to Cuddalore. The river Chunnambar flows down
to the sea and near the estuary is Paradise Beach. The journey along the river by a motorboat was quite scenic with lush greenery on both sides. Watching the flocks of egrets heading home in the evening and silvery fishes jumping with joy, the boat brought us to the small jetty of Paradise Beach. The beach is pristine, very clean and so less crowded (there were only three families including us), may be due to not so easy accessibility. The sea here is gentle and the waves carry a whole of live shells, which immediately retract into the sand as the wave recedes.
No description of Pondicherry is complete without its churches. We first visited the Sacred Heart church situated on the south boulevard. It was undergoing a major renovation. The church built in Gothic architectural style has beautiful interiors with vaulted arches and many windows with colourful stained glass panels depicting noble men and scenes from Christ’s life. The idol of Joseph with baby Jesus in his arms exudes pure bliss. The second church we could visit was the Immaculate Conception Cathedral on Cathedral Street. It was first built in 1692 AD and took its present shape in
1791. The cathedral resembles the Goan churches in architecture. The semi-circular arches, ornate columns and chandeliers add old world charms to its interiors.
Today’s Pondicherry can surely be classified as the haven for the gourmet. Many interesting eating joints dot the French quarter. We located an Italian Pizzeria serving thin crust pizza baked in a log fired oven with all the trappings of authenticity! The dinner at Hotel de l’Orient merits a special mention. The hotel on Rue Romain Rolland is a heritage property, restored to the finest details by the famous Neemrana group of ‘non-hotel’ hotels. The 40-seater open-air restaurant with a live band performance appeared quite inviting. The restaurant, known for its Creole cuisines, turned us a trifle experimental. The crab soup and squid vindaloo followed by chocolate mousse & chocolate torte were lapped up by us in haste.
Pondicherry, once known as the French Riviera of the East
, hypnotized many traders, soldiers and scholars from the distant shores. The old French quarter of the city now remains a mute witness to its rather romantic past, while the vibrant India takes shape with its new economic paradigm. As our four-day sojourn in Pondy came to an
end, we struggled hard to recover from the time warp.
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