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A Taste of France

28th Sep 2009 7:00 am

India’s French Riviera - the Union Territory of Pondicherry, lies only 150km from Chennai

India’s French Riviera - the Union Territory of Pondicherry, lies only 150km from Chennai. The former French colony was initially a trading point of Greeks and Romans. Although the French departed almost half a century ago, the flavour of France still lingers on through the imposing architecture, street names and the tastebud-tickling cuisine served in the many restaurants.

Pondicherry still feels like a piece of France and is tucked away along the eastern coast of India washed by the Bay of Bengal. ‘Pondi’, as it is affectionately called, is usually full of Europeans who work and live at Auroville, the experimental township 12 kilometres away. Pondicherry is more than just a place, it is like a state of mind with its beautiful boulevards, peaceful promenades and majestic mansions draped with colourful bougainvillaea.

Allow yourself at least a couple of days to enjoy this quaint town to the hilt. Of course, it’s likely that you will find yourself staying longer than you planned to soak in the spirit of Pondi. Another must-visit destination en route to Pondicherry is the temple town of Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram). Popularly known as ‘Mahabs’, it is renowned for its Shore Temple and the five Rathas (chariots), with the architectural ingenuity and talent immortalised in stone. Beautiful, smooth roads connect Chennai to Pondicherry with Mamallapuram midway and the short distances make this a trip one that can be done over a long weekend.


Though the weather is pleasant, May to July are swelteringly hot. The rains bring a welcome respite and the winters are divinely pleasant. Light clothing will do all year round except during the winter where you might feel the need for light woollens. Another thing you need to pack for Pondicherry is a good appetite, especially if you're fond of Continental and French cuisine. The restaurants pamper you with exotic dishes and don't be surprised if you chance upon the aroma of onion soup wafting out of a French window.

The best way to see Pondi is on foot or on hired bicycles. Early morning walks are recommended as the afternoons can get very hot. Also, ensure you carry sun block and a sun cap. If you plan to halt over at Mamallapuram, do remember to carry along mosquito repellent. Also, plenty of photo film and a polarising filter, as the sun can be very harsh.

The Drive

Getting out of Chennai is a bit of a chore but the drive is simply superb. The East Coast Road (ECR) is known as the scenic beachway and runs along the sea, saltpans and rice fields. Though the road is a two-laner, it is neatly divided by 'cats-eyes' throughout and accurate signboards tell about the corners and crossings. The smooth, undamaged tarred surface tempts you to up the speed but some of the corners are tight and if you go into them at high speed there is very little you can do about changing your direction until you exit the corner. The traffic is generally well behaved and no one overtakes around the corners but you never know.
The road has emergency telephones at every two kilometres. In the event you have a breakdown or need assistance, all you have to do is open the phone box, pick up the receiver and talk to the operator. There are also a number of amusement and theme parks along the route which make for an enjoyable stop for lunch or tea.

In Pondicherry
Pondicherry is laid out into the east side and the west side by a now-covered canal. The east used to be the European side and the west Indian. As a result, the east side has more of a French influence.

Pick up the excellent map of Pondicherry available in most hotels before you begin exploring the town. The map contains a load of information and a detailed city map showing different restaurants and places of interest.

Pondicherry is very environment conscious and plastic bags are certainly frowned upon through they aren't banned (yet!). People are also very laidback, and expect them to take their own time in everything, especially in serving food in restaurants. Mind you, the superb food will make up for any delay.

Everyone in Pondicherry retires early and by 10pm the streets are pretty empty. Though it is safe to wander along Marine Drive after dark, do take precautions and avoid walking about alone.

The temple town of Mamallapuram is either called Mahabs by the fashion conscious or by its old name - Mahabalipuram. This old capital of the Pallava kings of Kanchipuram still amazes and enchants and tells the world about the glorious culture and talent of India in the centuries gone by. Most of the temples and carvings that stand tall and almost intact today were completed between the fifth and eighth century AD. Stone carving is a way of life for many in this town and the art continues even today. There are sculpture shops aplenty around the town and the sound of chisel on stone is a common background audio in Mahabs.


The Shore Temple

One of the most photographed temples in South India, the Shore Temple has a simple romanticism about it that has not lost its appeal even though it has been ravaged by wind and frothy sea for over 12 centuries now. It represents the final phase of Pallava art and was completed in the reign of Narasihma Varman. The tour guides around the temple are pretty well versed in the stories about the carvings and the legends surrounding the temple. They speak English rather well but not quite so for Hindi. The temple is floodlit every night and is a pleasure to behold and photograph. Carry a tripod though.

The entrance to the temple cost Rs 5 and is free on Fridays. This ticket also enables you to gain entry into the five rathas (chariots) of Arjuna, Bhima, Dharmaraja, Nakula-Sahadeva - the five princes of the epic Mahabharata.

Penance of Arjuna
This splendid relief (shown above) is carved on the face of two huge rocks with a fissure in between. It depicts fables from the Pancharatna books as well as animals, deities and other semi-divine creatures as well. The carvings tell of various stories from the Mahabharata and are sharp and incredible even today. Arjuna's Penance is the world's largest bas relief (96 feet long and 43 feet high) and easily the pride of Mamallapuram. Try to visit the site early in the morning when there aren't any touts or many tourists around.

The Five Rathas
These five superbly sculptured chariots are carved from solid rock and are a must-see feature of any tour. There is also a massive carved Nandi behind the second ratha which is supposed to be the Arjuna ratha. The other four rathas are the Draupadi ratha, the Nakul-Sahadeva Ratha, the Bhima Ratha and the Dharmaraja Ratha. Till 200 years ago these magnificent pieces of craftsmanship remained buried under the sand. The British excavated them and pictures in the museum document the process. There are other places to visit too, like the ancient lighthouse, the Tirumurti Cave temple and the beach.

In Pondicherry
This laidback town has its share of temples (350 of them), beaches and grand old churches and buildings. The road that runs along the sea, Goubert Salai, is Pondi's favourite promenade. Besides this there are numerous cafés and quaint restaurants where the flavour of France is reflected in more than the food.

Government Place
This French provincial-style square has a fountain in the centre among tree-dappled paths. The sculptures that ornament the gardens around the palace are interesting.

Raj Nivas
The official home of the lieutenant governor of the Territory of Pondicherry. Built in the late 18th century, it was originally the home of Joseph Francis Dupleix, who became the governor general of Pondicherry.

Botanical Garden
The government has been giving it some attention, so it is now in as good a state as it can get. Built in 1826, the garden has rare and exotic plants and an aquarium.

Aurobindo Ashram and Auroville
Sri Aurobindo's soothing ashram is today a mini-township and provides guest accommodation. The City of Dawn or Auroville is located 10km north of Pondicherry and is an amazing experiment in community living.

The Dune

Near Pondicherry University
Pondicherry - 605014

Rates: Rs. 5500 - 18300
Includes: Double Room + Breakfast

The Dune is located near Pondicherry University, East Coast Road, Pudhukuppam. The hotel is 135 kms away from Chennai Airport. The nearest railheads are Puducherry Railway Station, which is 14 kms away, Vilipuram Railway Station, 60 kms away and Chennai Railway Station, 135 kms away. It also provides sightseeing packages to the tourists.

Kailash Beach Resort

Sudalai Street- Poornankuppam
Pondicherry - 605007

Rates: Rs. 3500 - 4500
Includes: Double Room + Breakfast

Kailash Beach Resort is located in Cuddalore Road, Purnankuppam village, Ariankuppam Commune. The resort is 160 kms away from Chennai Airport. The nearest railhead is Pondicherry Railway Station, which is 12 kms away.

The Promenade

23, Goubert Avenue
Pondicherry - 605001

Rates: Rs. 5700 - 10500
Includes: Double Room + Breakfast

The Promenade is located on the Beach Road, opposite to Gandhi Statue. The hotel is 160 kms away from Chennai Airport. The nearest railhead is Puducherry Railway Station, which is 2 kms away.

St James Beach Resort

Chinna Kakpet
Opposite Pondicherry Engineering College
Pondicherry - 605014

Rates: Rs. 2000 - 3300
Includes: Double Room + Breakfast

Set on Paradise point, 9 km from Pondicherry city and 4km from Auroville Ashram, this resort covers a land area of over 5 acres and has 15 rooms. As a tourist, one can also visit the Aurobindo Ashram, Museum, Park Monument, French Consulate, French Institute & Shopping area. Towards the south of the resort is the Chunnambar Boat House (15 km), Pitchavaram Sundarbans (85 km), and Chidambaram Temple Town (80 km).Towards the North there is Mahabalipuram (88 km) and towards the west is the Gingee Fort (60 km).

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