Pondicherry is connected to Chennai by State Highway 49, known more popularly as the East Coast Road or ECR. The ECR starts at Thiruvanmiyur in Chennai and is a part of the Chennai City roads till Uthandi. Though it’s a scenic drive, and the road is in excellent condition, it’s a two-lane carriageway and that restricts your speed. Be careful of motorcyclists and buses coming the wrong way on blind curves. You’ll find enough petrol pumps and restaurants along the way, so no problems on that front. Keep your camera out since you will want to stop and take pictures at places where the water comes up to the edge of the road.
Pondicherry is referred to as ‘The French Riviera of the East’ or La Côte d’Azur de l’Est in French. The town is divided into two sections: the French Quarter (Ville Blanche or ‘White town’) and the Indian quarter (Ville Noire or ‘Black Town’).
The French controlled Pondicherry for over 280 years, and this influence is evident even today — right-angled street intersections, a boulevard that encircles the main part of town, the colonial architecture, a promenade along the beach, streets that retain their names and the bright-red kepi worn by the police. And French continues to be among the official languages of this Union Territory. But the closest you get to a ‘French’ experience is the French food at restaurants of the Hotel de l’Orient on Rue Romain Rolland or Le Club at Rue Dumas.
Ditch your car if you really want to explore Pondicherry and hire a bicycle or scooter instead. There are some shops on Mission Street that rent them.
The Promenade is the best place to begin exploring. Remember though that the 1.5-km long Goubert Avenue or Beach Road is closed to vehicular traffic from 6pm every evening to 7.30 the next morning. You can enjoy the fresh sea breeze without having to breathe in toxic fumes from exhausts, or trying to dodge speeding cars. What an excellent idea!
A walk on the promenade will take you through many of Pondicherry’s sights like the French War Memorial that is illuminated on Bastille Day, July 14.
From the Beach Road, you can see a church on the parallel street, Rue Dumas. That’s the Eglise de Notre Dame des Anges or The Church of Our Lady of Angels. It is modelled on the Basilica at Lourdes in southern France. This church is notable for its masonry. It uses limestone mixed with the white of eggs to create a texture identical to that of white marble. The imposing façade presents paired doric columns below and ionic above. In front of the church is a statue of Our Lady with the infant Jesus in her arms.
At the centre of the Ville Blanche is the Government, or Bharati Park. It is surrounded by some of the most important government buildings, like the Lt. Governor’s Palace, the Legislative Assembly, Government Hospital, Ashram Dining Room, the Cercle de Pondichéry private club and the old Hotel Qualité. At the centre of the park is a monument called Aayi Mandapam. This arch was built, in the Greco-Roman style, by the French during the reign of the French Emperor Napoleon III.
The other name associated with Pondicherry is Sri Aurobindo — a nationalist, freedom fighter, poet, philosopher, yogi and guru. Pondicherry was his spiritual home. He, along with his spiritual collaborator Mirra Alfassa, known as The Mother, defined the landscape of this French colony. So do visit the Sri Aurobindo Ashram on Rue de la Marine. Remember, it is not a tourist spot but a sanctum of meditation, so please maintain the decorum of the place.
The other place that is intrinsically linked to Pondicherry is Auroville. Let’s clarify three things. First, Auroville is 10km north of Pondicherry. Second, while the Ashram is a place where people come to consecrate their lives to ‘integral yoga’, Auroville is an experiment in human unity. And third, Auroville does not want to list itself as a tourist place and hence does not devote much time and energy in welcoming tourists.
Auroville was founded as a project of the Sri Aurobindo Society in 1968 by The Mother. Today, about 2,160 people from 45 nations live here.
The geographical and spiritual centre of Auroville is the Matrimandir, a golden globe set amidst a manicured garden. Interestingly, the Matrimandir is not a temple in the conventional sense of the word. It is neither a place of worship, nor is it associated with any religion. It is a shrine to the Universal Mother and the Soul of Auroville. Access to Matrimandir is limited, but you can see it from the viewing point. For that, pick up your free passes from the visitor centre anytime between 9.30am and 4pm, and make the 1km walk to the viewing point. It’s closed on Sunday afternoons. If you want access to Matrimandir, you have to apply for the pass a day or two ahead. Go through auroville.org for details.
Mahabalipuram, or Mamallapuram, less than 50km from Chennai, is a great place to spend a day on your way to Pondicherry. The whole place is like an open-air museum. And it leaves you with the question: What’s the difference between architecture and sculpture? Nowhere is it more apparent than at the Panch Rathas, or Five Chariots. These shrines were carved during the reign of King Mamalla in the 7th century. The rathas are named after Draupadi and the five Pandava brothers. Each temple is a monolith carved from an outcropping of rock. So here’s a building sculpted out of stone!
These shrines mark an important landmark in South Indian temple architecture. The Panch Rathas mark the transition from the earlier wooden temples to the later monuments in stone. The architectural elements seen here appear repeatedly, and with little variation, over the next 1,000 years of temple building in South India.
Another prime attraction of Mahabalipuram is the Shore Temple, named so because it overlooks the shore of the Bay of Bengal. This is a structural temple rather than a rock-cut one like the other monuments here, built with blocks of granite. This 8th-century temple has three shrines — two dedicated to Shiva and one to Vishnu. The outer enclosure with Nandis is said to be from a later period.
Legend has it that six other temples once stood with it and were swallowed up by the sea. The tsunami in December 2004, which desilted large parts of the coastline, revealed a line of rocks 500 metres from the Shore Temple. Moreover, recent explorations off the coast of Mahabalipuram by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the Navy have revealed submerged structures and artifacts. In fact, there is evidence of large structures on the seabed up to 1km out to sea. The current opinion is that these temples were destroyed by a tsunami in the 13th century, which devastated the entire length of India’s east coast.
One of the not-to-be-missed places in Mahabalipuram is Arjuna’s Penance. This is a massive open-air bas-relief monolith, and it dates back to the 7th century. This 43-feet tall monolith was carved on the face of two huge adjoining boulders, somewhere around the mid-7th century. A natural cleft between the two rocks divides the monolith into two separate halves. This cleft is believed to represent the descent of the Ganges river to earth. The monolith is also known by the name of ‘The Descent of Ganga’.
The amazing skill of the sculptors can be seen in the liveliness and naturalism of the sculpted figures. There are more than 100 figures of gods and flying celestial creatures, birds and animals, along with human beings and saints.
If you are travelling from Chennai, three to four days is just about perfect for Mahabalipuram and Pondicherry. So check your calendar and get your car serviced.