la vie

The French influence is evident in 
the coastal Indian city of Puducherry (formerly known as Pondicherry) — no wonder it’s called the Riviera 
of the East

By Balachander S

Published: Tue 1 Nov 2011, 11:22 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 3:08 AM

Think of a perfect weekend getaway from Chennai, and it is the Union Territory of Puducherry that strikes you instantly. A three-hour drive from the Tamil Nadu capital along the East Coast Road (ECR) takes you to Puducherry (earlier known as Pondicherry and colloquially as Pondy). The drive down the two-lane express highway, built along the coast of Bay of Bengal in the wee hours is something one should never miss out.

If you have the time, do not skip the famous temples and stone carvings of Mahabalipuram, the picturesque backwaters and cool sand of Alampara Fort, and the cool boathouse in Mudaliarkuppam. The breathtaking view of the scenic beach way and the places of interest along the way make the trip to the Pondy all the more exciting.

The other route that can be taken to reach Pondy is through the National Highway 45 (NH-45) famously called as the Grand Southern Trunk (GST) road.

Both the major roads from Chennai are toll roads and they take approximately the same time to reach Pondy.

As you enter the former French colony, known as the French Riviera of the East, you will be amazed to see the well-laid, wide and clean streets that still retain their colonial names. And voila, c’est Pondicherry!

Now, as I enter this serene city after 10 years, it was an emotional journey for me. Having lived here for a decade, I have very pleasant and unforgettable memories about the city. My dad was on a transferable job and we had an opportunity to move here from a district nearby.

Before we moved, some of our friends had discouraged the idea of living in Pondy as my sister and I were kids. In their opinion, with the place having plenty of liquor shops, it was unsafe for the public. More importantly, getting enrolled into good schools and finding a home would be a humungous task, our well-wishers said.

I still remember my first trip to the city, which was for my school admission. As I stepped down from the bus, I was overjoyed to see the mini tempos operating within city limits. I thoroughly enjoyed that ride, which took me to the school within minutes.

I was delighted to get admission at one of the top educational institutes in the city — Petit Seminaire Higher Secondary School.

Out of the school, I wanted to see some of the city’s popular attractions: the beach, the Aurobindo Ashram, the Manakula Vinayakar temple and parks nearby.

Walking towards the beach, through the rues and boulevards lined with Mediterranean-style houses and bakeries, was quite an experience. The city is a perfect mix of Indian and French culture, I thought.

Swarmed by the cool breeze, I realised that I was not far away from the beach. To my surprise, the rocky Puducherry beach was way different from the Marina Beach in Chennai. The beach is ideal for a long stroll to while away days and evenings, relishing the scenic view and breathing the cool air. Plenty of shops, hotels and restaurants, and statues make the beach all the more exciting.

As it was getting late, I was ready to get back home and all the more excited to be a part of this beautiful city. Once everything fell in place, we moved to Pondy and we stayed in a house located on one of the biggest streets I had ever seen.

Come weekend and it was time to explore the city. My family planned a visit to the Aurobindo Ashram and the nearby Manakula Vinayakar temple. The temple was in existence before 1666 and at that time, there was a pond on the western side of this temple. Due to its proximity to the sea, the pond (kulam in Tamil) was full of sand (manal in Tamil), hence it was called “Manakulam.”

Ever since Manakula Vinayagar survived a demolition attempt, hundreds throng the temple to seek the blessings of Lord Ganesha for their wishes to be granted.

Our next stop was at the Ashram, just a few steps away from the temple. Founded in 1926, the Sri Aurobindo Ashram grew under the Parisian “Mother” Mirra Alfassa’s guidance.

I was astounded by the silence this place was engulfed with. The array of flowers on the Samadhi of the Mother was impressive. Every flower seemed to have a story behind it and every day the arrangement varied.

The Ashram is just perfect for meditation and anyone seeking a peaceful moment in life must visit this place to experience it. My sister and I, being kids, could not concentrate on meditation for more than a few minutes, but dutifully accompanied our parents quietly.

After visiting the Ashram, we decided to head towards the majestic Park Monument — also known as Aayi Mandapam — built during the time of Napolean III. This monument is just a few metres walk from the Ashram and is situated in the centre of the picturesque Government Park, which draws huge numbers of tourists and visitors everyday. Located just across the park is the Governor’s bungalow, the state assembly and the general hospital. Immaculate Conception Cathedral and Sacred Heart Church are among the other tourist attractions here.

Our next stop was at the international township, Auroville, a universal township in the making to house up to 50,000 people from around the world. Founded, again, by the Mother Alfassa, the purpose of Auroville is to realise human unity in diversity.

Auroville is meant to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. This is another must-visit place if one plans a trip to Puducherry.

As kids, we cherished these trips and savoured every moment of our stay in Pondy. The Jawaharlal Nehru road at the heart of the city is one big stretch and a shopper’s paradise. Search for anything, and you will get it right here, from clothes to jewellery to ice creams and electronics. I loved the Anglo-French textiles for its pure cotton stuff and the mouth-watering kulfis from a shop named Lalu.

Pondy is the perfect place for anyone to settle down in the later stages of life and I would say without doubt that it is the poor man’s Goa. A well-planned city, neatly laid roads, wide and vibrant beaches, good and clean water and, above all, relatively low cost of living is what Pondy is all about.

Puducherry has retained its uniqueness, thanks to concerted efforts by successive state governments to preserve its flavour.

As years rolled by, my dad got a transfer to Chennai, and we left Pondy with a heavy heart. And now I set my foot back on this tranquil land, memories gush through.

Merçi beaucoup!


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