Discover the seaside town Puducherry, as you walk down its French boulevards, sample its delicious fusion cuisine and steal a moment of peace at the unassuming yet inherently beautiful Sri Aurobindo Ashram, says Trisha D’Souza
A diamond on the eastern coast of India, Puducherry, in Tamil Nadu, is arguably one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. Throughout the year, this quaint town, located by the Bay of Bengal, is abuzz with tourists, both local and international. Offering a mix of old-world charm, a legacy of its history as a French colony, and newage bohemia, inspired by contemporary artists and thinkers who have made this Union Territory their home, Puducherry has something to offer every visitor.
Puducherry, erstwhile Pondicherry, and fondly known as Pondy, sits on the very top of South India’s best weekend getaways list. While its beaches are an obvious attraction, there’s a lot to be said about the rest of Puducherry. Before you start your grand Pondy tour, however, stop at one of the many bike-renting service centres on Mission Street, and pick up the mode of exploration for the next few days. Exhilaration is guaranteed!
Helmet on, ride first to Hotel Surguru for an ethnic and delicious South Indian breakfast. Located at Heritage Town, this establishment is a favourite among locals and tourists alike, with its modestlypriced and wide-ranging menu. It fills up fast, especially on the weekends, but lightening-quick service and sufficient seating ensure one is never left waiting for too long. Don’t forget to order their soft idlis (steamed fluffy rice cakes), familystyle dosa (savoury pancake) roasted in ghee (clarified butter) and vada (fried lentil dumpling) served with piping hot sambar (lentil stew).
The next stop on the itinerary is the French quarter, easily recognisable by its bright yellow-and-white buildings, and wide roads. Back in the day, this area was occupied predominantly by the French, and therefore, is also known as White Town. Today, most of the homes have been converted into heritage homestays and hotels, souvenir shops and restaurants. This neighbourhood is best explored on foot, so park your bike at the promenade and walk down the European-style streets, past antique arches lined with pretty bougainvillea bushes, and just enjoy the unobtrusive quiet. The long walk and humidity are sure to leave you famished. While there are several options here, all serving true-blue French cuisine, Le Club is highly recommended. On Dumas Street, Le Club is a moderately-priced eatery located within an old French villa. Seating is under the much-needed shade of a thatched roof, allowing guests a respite from the heat. Try their coq au vin (chicken casserole with wine sauce) and noix de coco (coconut crepes) accompanied with a yummy strawberry colada.
Another classic choice is Le Dupleix, a luxury heritage property that takes pride of place for its well-appointed rooms and excellent dining options. Sit in the shade of a mango tree at the Courtyard Restaurant here, and let the professionals treat you to the culinary delights of France. While Puducherry is most commonly associated with Indian freedom fighter, philosopher and spiritual guru Sri Aurobindo, his teachings and his ashram (spiritual retreat), there are also a number of churches and temples scattered across the city, tending to the diverse religious communities that call it home. As the afternoon wears on, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is the next stop. Constructed by French missionariesduring the 1700s on South Boulevard near the railway station, this lovely church is a stellar example of Gothic architecture. Its stained glass windows tell stories from Jesus Christ’s life.
Ride back to White Town and visit the Arulmigu Manakula Vinayagar Temple to meet Lakshmi, the resident elephant who, upon receiving offerings of grass or fruit, will gently place her trunk on your head as a blessing. This Ganesha temple is said to be more than 500 years old. Local legend says that under the rule of the French, the idol of the God was thrown into the sea several times in order to remove the temple but every time, the idol reappeared in its previous position in mint condition!
The temple is located close to Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Founded in 1926, it was where Sri Aurobindo lived, and so did Mother Mirra. As twilight approaches and the weather turns, wind down at the ashram, the most famous landmark of Puducherry. Run and maintained voluntarily by devotees, the ashram is a sanctuary of amity and harmony, with colourful flowers and plants dotting the simplistic yet astoundingly beautiful campus. At the centre lies the samadhi, a white marble shrine where Sri Aurobindo and Mother Mirra were laid to rest. The utter silence and fragrance of incense that permeate the ashram make you feel as though time has frozen. Visitors are allowed to sit and meditate for as long as they like, or even browse through the literature on Sri Aurobindo that is available here. However, cell phones are strictly not allowed and talking is discouraged.
Conclude your day at one of the many restro-bars of Puducherry. Villa Shanti, Rendezvous, The Storyteller’s Bar, Hopper’s Bar and Kitchen offer excellent French, Indian, Italian and Continental cuisine, or a quirky mix thereof. Make room for dessert at Gelateria Montecatini Terme (GMT) on Goubert Avenue, an ice cream parlour known for its rich ice creams and sundaes. Indulge in Lover’s Chocolate (chocolate ice cream with almonds and cherries), Chilli Chocolate, Irish Cream, and an assortment of other flavours. Grab a cup or cone of your preferred flavour and take a leisurely stroll down the promenade, and let the fun yet incredibly transcendent spirit of Pondy embrace you.
The author is an avid traveller and the views expressed in this article are her own