We spent three days in Pondicherry and Auroville, covering major things to do like Paradise and Serenity Beach, French Colony, Matrimandir, and Beach Road. This travel blog is a story of three friends on a journey of bonding and discovery.
All my life, I have lived in a city that speaks a hundred different tongues. As a resident of Mumbai city in the Marathi-speaking state of Maharashtra, I have occasionally wondered what it must feel like to be a native; to be able to converse with everyone from the bus conductor to the stranger on the street in the tongue that’s closest to your heart.
Granted, English is the language I am most proficient in. It is my language of choice when it comes to practically any kind of communication. Yet, my mother tongue Tamil asserts itself in my sleep-numbed thoughts and heart-to-heart conversations with family and self.
Never having spoken Tamil outside my home, I was very skeptical about being any different from my north-Indian friends when we embarked on our holiday to the Tamil-speaking territory of Pondicherry (a.k.a. Puducherry).
I couldn’t have been further off the mark. Right from the tiny by-lanes of Pondicherryto the organised highways of Chennai, I had to call upon the dustiest corners of my memory to dredge up the correct Tamil phrases and words. By the end of those five days, I was pleasantly disillusioned about my lack of proficiency in the language.
I also realised that the inhibitions that prevent us from conversing in languages we don’t have complete command over, disappear in the face of necessity. I am now confident that I can survive in the interiors of Maharashtra on my rudimentary knowledge of Marathi.
This story spans three different towns along the East Coast Road in Tamil Nadu and stars two of my best friends and one of their boyfriends, along with myself. Like most other tourists who take this route, we explored Pondicherry, Mamallapuram (erstwhile Mahabalipuram) and Chennai over the course of five days.
|Table of Contents
1. Pondicherry Travel Tips
2. Pondicherry’s French History
3. Beach Road
4. Serenity Homestay & Beach
5. Riding Around Pondicherry
6. Paradise Beach
7. A Scary Incident
9. Late Lunch at Koffee Bar
10. French Colony
Her pious face as she held up her Hebrew prayer book to the sun stayed with me when we walked around Heritage Town and rode down the highway to Paradise Beach.
Isabelle and her companion were planning to brave the heat of Rajasthan, drawn as they were by its famed beauty. We bid them goodbye, even as they partook of a strange repast of boiled eggs and potatoes.
In any travelling group, each member gradually assumes a particular role without really intending to. In our group of four too, we had a couple of leaders (me and my friend’s boyfriend), a planner and a follower. Since I usually take the backseat when in a group, being in charge was a pleasant surprise, though I didn’t really have a choice, as the only Tamilian in the group with an added knowledge of French language and ethos.
Getting to our homestay in Pondicherry from Chennai airport involved one cab ride, bus ride and rickshaw ride. This triad of Indian public transport was successfully completed on the whole, though we had a crazy time finding a bus at the chaotic Palantigattu bus stop. Koyambedu might have been the better option but we’ll never know.
Pondicherry’s French History
I have encountered several foreign tongues in my life. Yet, none of them have captured my heart as thoroughly as French. Something about the throaty ‘r’s and the mellifluous ‘eu’s, combined with the predominance of art and finesse in Parisian culture drew me to the language, the people and the country itself right since my school days.
I was understandably excited about visiting a land where French is one of the official languages. Pondicherry did not disappoint with its winding rues (French for roads), white-washed colonnades and charming French cafes. The city owes its French legacy to their colonialisation from 1674 to 1962.
While familiarity with the language is not imperative, it does help when choosing from the pain au chocolats and the poissons au vins! At Le Café on Beach Road, we breakfasted on croissants and coffee while waving at fishing boats in the distance and laughing with the sun warming our faces and our lemonades.
We posed against the walls emblazoned with the colours of the Bonjour India cultural festival that happens every year. We walked on Beach Road in the late evening and sat by the water with our legs dangling in the air and passing strollers casting their fleeting shadows on us.
I was strangely reminded of the Marine Drive promenade in Mumbai as here too, the crowds refused to budge until midnight.
The rest of Pondicherry is not exactly safe post eleven but the areas surrounding Beach Road and French Colony definitely are. Of the myriad thoughts that floated through my mind while we sat by the water, one makes me smile to this day. I was suddenly and beautifully aware of how happy I was, in the company of people who mattered, even if I didn’t utter a single word, content to listen to their pleased sighs and share in their blissful smiles.
Serenity Homestay & Beach
We stayed at a rustic homestay called Serenity which was a stone’s throw away from the tiny but beautiful Serenity Beach. One tired evening, we skipped across the long rocky crag to sit right by the sea and allowed the salty waves to nudge the weariness out of our spirits.
When dry and sun-scorched, the rocks are perfectly safe save a wobbly one or two. But in the late evening, awash by the high tide, they grow a tad slippery but that only added to my sense of adventure! And I found adventure aplenty in the course of the following days.
Every night, we vowed to be up before the crack of dawn and explore the beach in the mystical morning air. And I was always up but somehow, I never made it to the beach until the very last day in Puducherry when K and I sauntered down to the seaside and sat in companionable silence on one of the upturned fishing boats.
The toasty sun warmed our skin while we watched families, children, men and women stroll by, dressed in light cotton clothes and seemingly oblivious to the heat. Glossy coffee-coloured skins and lush black hair offset by light-hearted smiles and a peaceful co-existence with the sun, with no place for sunglasses or sunscreen – that’s the picture I have of native Tamilians in Pondicherry.
Riding Around Pondicherry
Drama waltzed into our sojourn in the form of two innocuous Activa scooters that we rented for the purpose of getting around Pondicherry. My friend K’s boyfriend J was a proficient rider while my friend W had learnt to ride a mere month ago. K and I rode pillion.
W was beyond nervous about riding in the congested streets of Pondicherry, with a pillion rider to boot. She quipped that it was a good thing I was light, else the chances of me being toppled over at a tricky turning might have rocketed!
Dependent as we were on J’s superior sense of direction, W and I had a merry time keeping him and K in sight while we navigated through trucks that had no regard for signals and pedestrians who seemed ready to risk their lives on precarious crossings!
The icing on the cake was when J’s scooter broke down in the middle of the highway at eight in the night. We had to call the man who had lent us the scooters (Ganesh) and explain our location without being entirely sure of where we were!
Finally, we roped in a helpful local who shot off landmarks in a jiffy and handed back the phone to J with a grin. Waiting on that godforsaken spot on the highway for over half an hour in the night with no means of transport was a nail-biting experience indeed.
W and I had an adventure of our own while returning from Paradise Beach, on that very same highway on the succeeding day. Paradise Beach is the best-known beach in Pondicherry. Yet, it was only sparsely crowded on a Sunday evening, which meant that we could explore the aquamarine sea with that much more abandon.
As I’m wont to do, I hunted for shells and souvenirs on the beach, my toes tightening their grip on the soft sand. The water rushed up to meet the rims of our shorts and we giggled in delight. K and J drifted off for a romantic walk along the sea while W and I waded in, wanting to flirt with the waves but not entirely make love to them. We weren’t in swimming trunks after all, and alas, I don’t swim too well.
We walked the entire length of Paradise Beach and eventually came upon Chenambar Lake, an alternative way of getting to the beach. The lakeside was peaceful and thicketed with palm trees, which formed a lovely canopy for a café which had unfortunately shut by the time we got there.
We were so famished that we might have imagined plates piled with lip-smacking food on the tables like desert travellers seeing wondrous mirages of water-filled oases!
A Scary Incident
It was quite late by the time we rode back from Paradise Beach in search of dinner fit for weary souls who had rode continuously from morning to night. Somewhere on the highway, W and I lost sight of K and J. To add to the stress, three men on a bike began hooting and whistling at us, their hands reaching out alarmingly.
Already a little unsteady on the scooter, we were quite panicked at the thought of pulling smart moves to shake those men off. They followed us until we entered the main city and left the highway behind. Then, mercifully they sped away and we were spared the effort of looking for a cop. That was however the only brush we had with eve-teasing in our entire trip.
If you’re a woman travelling alone, try not to venture on the highways beyond eight in the night, if you’re on a scooter or a bike.
Pondicherry is a magnet for spiritual seekers thanks to the experimental township of Auroville. This eco-friendly, self-sustaining community was founded in 1968 by Mirra Alfassa, who is referred to as ‘The Mother’ among Aurovillans. The township was a maze of institutes, museums, cultural centers and retreats and a complete exploration would have involved an entire trip devoted to Auroville.
We had but a single day and we decided to spend it in the discovery of Auroville’s most stunning architectural masterpiece – ‘The Matrimandir’. We walked through wilderness in that unyielding sun for what seemed like hours to get to this unreligious temple. What kept us going were the scores of other curious tourists plodding alongside us and the strategically located drinking water spots.
We sat in the shade of a gigantic banyan, sipping on the cool water like it was the very elixir of life, our tired faces covered with the sheen of perspiration. And then in the distance, we spotted this beautiful golden globe, blazing in the sun and casting its halo on the four surrounding pillars.
Known as the soul of Auroville, the Matrimandir was conceived by The Mother as ‘a symbol of the Divine’s answer to man’s inspiration for perfection’. Perfection in my opinion, is merely a play of perception. What is to say that something cannot be made still better? The possibilities are limitless and it is only our perception that dictates limits and makes the very idea of ‘perfection’ possible.
Yet, the Matrimandir in all its golden peace and splendour seemed to mesmerise us all, even as we gazed helplessly from afar. Going within requires a prior appointment and we did not have the time for that. But when I return, I hope to visit the meditation hall in its inner chamber which is told to contain the largest optically-perfect glass globe in the world.
Late Lunch at Koffee Bar
While returning from Auroville, we encountered a heartwarming act of kindness is our quest for a late lunch. At four in the evening, none of the restaurants were open but when they saw our hungry plight, one restaurant owner and his wife offered to rustle up some pasta for us!
Though greatly touched, we eventually ended up having sandwiches and divine banana shakes and ‘cold coffee extreme’ at Koffee Bar, manned by a single man and his mother. The speed with which he prepared our order made us suspicious about the taste but we were pleasantly proven wrong.
Running a café is common business in Auroville and they are all refreshingly informal. However, there are specific timings for meals and very few of them run round-the-clock.
But the most memorable part of Pondicherry for me was the ride along the lovely cobble-stoned streets of French Colony, a preferred haunt for Indian and French artists. Tiny little buildings in vibrant colours complimented the varied colouring of both locals and tourists strolling around leisurely.
Sitting pillion on the scooter, I filmed the pink houses, the glorious Notre Dame des Anges church, the evocative graffiti on the walls and the Café des Artistes portico, complete with enthused narration and laughter. Street names like Labourdonnais and Suffren had me smiling in delight and restaurant names like La Maison Rose even more so.
We hunted high and low for a restaurant K said she had read rave reviews about – La Tasserie. But alas, it seemed that it no longer existed or it had been renamed and we settled for the similar-sounding La Terrasse. In the mellow lighting, out differences over losing sight of each other on the highway seemed inconsequential and we succumbed to the delights of the palate.
From Pondicherry, we headed to Chennai, but not before we had a stopover in Mamallapuram. Make sure you read the other two travelogues in this three-part series:
- Reliving the Mahabharata at Mamallapuram’s Monuments
- One day in Chennai: How to Have a Fantastic Time
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