Pondicherry – A French Lesson

At 23, I quit my second job and went to Gangtok. Nobody knew about my whereabouts for one month after I left my job. Sikkim happened eight years ago but I couldn’t find another place that was as beautiful and as organized as Sikkim.

Until I landed in Pondicherry in December 2015. It took me eight long years to find another place urban setup as calm as Gangtok.

Initially, the plan was to travel from Dhanushkodi to Talaimannar in Srilanka, which is believed to be the other end of ram setu constructed by Sri Ram, as described in the epic Ramayana. On Indian side, the farthest one can go is Dhanushkodi, which is a small uninhabited village almost in the middle of the ocean.

However, direct flights to Colombo were too expensive and that put an end to our Srilankan dreams. A cheap replica of Srilankan dreams was fabricated which turned out to be a great success. The first stop was Chennai, which would serve as our gateway to the old French town of Pondicherry…

Pondicherry Beach Paradise

Pondicherry Beach Paradise

Pondicherry – A French Lesson

A sleepy little town that has not yet given up on its habit of still enjoys it’s siesta that the French gifted to them in 1674. A well planned town, most of which is facing the turquoise blue Bay of Bengal.

One half of the town appears to be a forgotten French colony which is trying real hard to stay that way. The other half of the town resembles Manali, (minus the mountains and probably minus the hash as well). Hippies roaming around in half pants, riding their two wheelers ‘without helmet’ and some of them trying to maintain a safe distance from dark skinned Indians.

Unsurprisingly, both these parts are clearly influenced by the life of Guru Aurbindo. Aurbindo Ashram is the spiritual nucleus of this little town with its influence reaching  as far as Auroville, a small village located at the outskirts of Pondicherry. Guru Aurbindo and Mata Mirra nurtured a spiritual mission in 1926 that soon engulfed entire Pondicherry.

The beach road is closed for all vehicles by 1700 hours. Pondicherry has unique little tea shops all along the beach road. Once the beach is closed, these tea shops come to life and magic starts unfolding on the streets of Pondicherry.

It is a dream land. There’s no hurry. People prefer to walk and talk. There are little tea shops at every corner, where people gather and laugh over a hot steaming cup of filter coffee like good old days. Then there are joggers and old Luna Mopeds. A jogger overtakes a drowsy Luna and some kids try to emulate the same. It’s a fun world out there. A high tide splashes salty droplets of ocean water on your face and it feels like coming out of a dream.

Then there is Auroville. A rural setup at the outskirts of Pondicherry where people have learned to coexist with animals and plants. Auroville doesn’t belong to human beings alone. Every tiny creature has its own independent space in Auroville. There are peacocks and mopeds cruising in their respective lanes. A stray cow maybe crossing the road while a motorist calmly waits for road clearance.

Our primary interest was to visit Auroville Earth Institute (AEI) where vernacular traditions of raw earth construction are blended with modern stabilized earth technology to construct eco-friendly buildings. Recommended by our host at Villa Bayoud, AEI reminded me of mud-houses of Himachal and it was a pleasant experience interacting with the villagers working at the site.

Auroville has its fair share of controversy over the years but then which popular destination isn’t controversial?

At AEI, they have a room dedicated for soil samples collected from across the world. A colorful screen made of soil samples from almost every inhabited place on earth.

Pondicherry Jetty

Pondicherry Jetty

Pondicherry - A Dream Land

Pondicherry – A Dream Land

Auroville Soil Collection

Auroville Soil Collection

Auroville Earth Institute

Auroville Earth Institute

Mahabalipuram – The Shore Temple

Mahabalipuram is barely a two hour drive from Pondicherry. The roads are wide and smooth, the landscape exotic. One can travel by bus or rent a bike. Renting a bike in Pondicherry is as easy as finding a corrupt politician in the parliament. The rental guys ask for a meager advance and a photocopy of a valid driving license. Just don’t tell them that you will be riding all the way to Mahabalipuram because that may lead to epileptic seizures.

Located at the edge of tides, the shore temple of Mahabalipuram is a marvel of indigenous architecture. A world heritage site notified by UNESCO, this temple was constructed in the 7th Century and is arguably one of the oldest Hindu Temples in South India.  A spectacular statue of Sri Vishnu is established at the central shrine. The figure of Vishnu is found in segments which are to be looked through various doors.

In 2002, National Institute of Ocean conducted an underwater study and established the fact that there existed more than one temple by the sea shore. Stone masonry, lion sculpture, and remains of walls were found underwater; all of which belonged to the Pallava Era. These underwater studies corroborated the local claims. A research paper by Dr. S. A.V. Elanchezian discusses the architectural aspects of Mahabalipuram Temple, which can be of great help to engineering and history students.

 The Shore Temple, Mahabalipuram

Mahabalipuram, The Shore Temple

Mahabalipuram, The Shore Temple

Stay and Travel

Our journey started from Chennai where from Pondicherry is just a matter of 4 hours (180 km) in a bus. There are VOLVO as well as ordinary buses but all of them take the same time. If you don’t want to spend more than what you should, AC buses from SETC Bus Stand will take you to Pondicherry in Rs. 190 /- only.

One can either get down at Mahabalipuram (98 km from Chennai), which would be a sensible thing to do because from Pondicherry one has to come back the same way. There are ample stay options at Mahabalipuram and you can choose according to weight in your pocket.

In Pondicherry, try staying close to the St. Martin Street which is going to be an expensive exercise but worth every penny because of it’s proximity to the ocean.

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