Pondicherry (Puducherry) or Pondi for short is the regional capital of the Indian Union Territory of Pondicherry District. As I was coming from Mamallapurnam I took the 60km coastal road that snaked through some of the most beautiful Tamil landscapes from coconut and betel nut plantations to paddi and maize. The only thing to break the unrelenting verdancy were the stooped sari clad figures tending the fields. Dotted all over the landscape, baskets on their heads or at their feet. From a distance they looked like rainbow coloured garden gnomes. Interesting that there are no men to be seen doing the hard graft. Many of these estates employ casual ‘coolie’ labourers on a daily basis, a workforce usually made up of women and children. There was something about the scene that was so quintessentially India. The kind of vista they photograph and turn into picture postcards.
Three hours later and the idealist agricultural landscape had been replaced by a familiar Indian urban sprawl. Pondi, founded in 1673, is a former French colony and was held by the French from its inception to 1954. The city has two distinct parts. The French Quarter, is still home to the French consulate and spans 1.5km of coast. It is characterised by European style buildings, good roads, proper drainage and a collection of amazing French/European fusion restaurants. The Indian part of the City, too vast to call it a quarter is, well, an Indian City. Organised beautiful chaos. The highlight has to be the market that sells everything from live chickens to fabrics.
Although accommodation will cost you a fair bit more than other places in India there is plenty to do here to make it worth the investment. Check out the museum of Pondicherry, the Botanical Gardens, the numerous parks, markets and seafront. Be warned unlike Mamallapurnam there is no golden sandy beach. Instead there is a man-made wall of black granite boulders that will smash you to pieces if you dare to go swimming. Still nice to sit on the rocks and stare out to sea and watch the sunrise.
(Pondi beach, courtesy of someone I stole it from)
Pondicherry is also home to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Sri Aurobindo was an Indian nationalist, philosopher, yogi and guru to thousands. An influential leader in the fight against British colonial rule and after independence he became a spiritual reformer developing a practice called Integral Yoga’ and along with his spiritual collaborator, Mirra Alfassa (The Mother), he founded the Shri Aurobindo Ashram in 1926.
If you write far enough in advance you are able to stay within the ashram complex however don’t expect instant replies. I was accepted but only received the message 4 weeks after I had left. If you are unable to stay in the ashram you are still welcome to visit. Tours (and I use this term loosely) are conducted throughout the day. You are ushered quickly round a designated route to the shrine of Sri Aurobindo, where you are allowed to stay for some moments in meditation or reflection before moving on. Officially one of the weirdest places I have visited in India. Maybe I don’t like being herded but as with all these different things it’s up to you to make your mind up.
One thing to mention about Pondi is booze. If you are a big fan of the ‘grapes of wrath’ then this is your place. Relaxed licencing, tax free and the historic Gaulic influence mean this is the place to get boozed up without the added danger of being poisoned.
Pondi is a great place to kick back for a couple of days. There is a vibrant arts scene to check out if you spend a little longer and have the time to tap into those networks. For many it is just a stepping stone to Sri Auribino and The Mothers spiritual community in Auroville. A 20 minute ride outside Pondi. This is where I headed and I will write about it shortly.