After enjoying our twinkling night-time scenes and a bellyful of temples in Mysore we headed East across Karnataka and entered our third Indian state of this trip. Tamil Nadu’s capital Chennai was our first port of call on our way to Pondicherry.
We had decided that the city did not offer us much in the form of entertainment or excitement so we used it as a staging post to our intended destination. In the end the decision was good as it allowed to spend more time in Pondicherry than we had planned.
We had another pleasant journey on Indian Train in 2 AC class to get to the East coast and it passed by without any problems. The train timing was perfect so by the time we boarded the train it was time to go to bed and we both woke up about ten minutes outside Chennai the next day.
Chennai in a Day
We did have a quick look at things to see and do in Chennai but none of them appealed, or we had already had our fill of them on our journey so far. So we simply made use of the hotel restaurant and ate some more south Indian food. We then found a local hotel with a Bar and had a few drinks in there and ended up sharing someone’s birthday cake, of course after joining in with the happy birthday song and having our picture taken with the birthday boy (his request not ours).
On our way home we fancied a tipple of Honeybee Indian liquor that we got the taste for on our previous trips to Goa, so went and found the local liquor hatch (to call it a shop would be paying to too much respect) down a side street. We asked for a bottle and were told it was 500Rp we did our usual trick of watching others buy stuff first so we knew this was ridiculous. He refused to lower the price though until I suggested discussing this differential pricing with the policeman at the end of the road. Suddenly it was available to us at the local price.
Chennai to Pondicherry
There are plenty of buses plying the route between these two destinations, the trip is about three and half hours and you simply arrive at the MBT Bus terminal, pick your bus (AC, express etc) get on, find somewhere to stash your rucksack and wait for the conductor to come and collect the fare during the first part of the journey. The journey cost us 180 Rp each (US $3) for the 170 Km trip including AC on a half empty bus which allowed us two seats each.
Pondicherry is now known as Puducherry officially, though most locals just call it Pondy. Pondicherry old town is quite small by Indian standards and the main tourist areas are enclosed within a 2Km by 1Km rectangle of streets laid out by the French during their rule. The French influence is everywhere from the street signs, bakeries and coffee shops. Even the police here still wear the familiar French, Kepi, flat topped hats.
You can also get a drop of good French wine too, but it was beyond our flashpacking budget. So we stuck with the local beers and spirits in the numerous local bars that also operate as liquor stores here.
Step a few streets away from the seafront through and you are firmly back in India especially as you walk further up Nehru Street towards the Grand Bazaar and along Mahatma Gandhi Road. These streets are filled with fabric stores and clothes shops to delight any shopaholic among you.
For us Pondicherry turned into a bit of a pampering paradise for a few days. This started with the hotel we chose. It was a budget hotel (Ram International) situated in Anna Salai (or Ouest Boulevard if you want the French name) with basic but comfortable rooms. What made this place though was the restaurant, the food here was just incredible, cheap and our first pure veg eatery.
Over the course of six days here we worked our way through the menu with the help of the friendly waiters who gave us their recommendations of what to try. We had the set Thali each day for lunch for the princely sum of 85 Rp. Each day the little pots of flavour that accompany your roti, pappad (pappadums for us English) and rice were different, so you never tired of them.
We sampled some other treats such as cashew pakora (cashew nuts in a spicy batter with a wicked chilli dipping sauce), mushroom uthappam which was a pancake dish filled with veg and mushrooms with a sambal curry on the side. Perhaps our favourite single dish was Chennai (or Chole) bathura (or batura) sorry things are spelt a number of ways here. This was a cinnamon flavoured chick pea curry with some melt in the mouth curd laced puffed Indian bread. It was so good we only ate once anywhere else in a rather lovely Italian restaurant run by an authentic Italian chef who moved to Auroville (see later) thirty years ago. He made his own pasta in the kitchen and it was a real treat to have some European food.
Smooth face clean teeth
We continued our pampering with a haircut and a cut throat shave before heading off to see the dentists. Now I have (had) a mouth full of metal from years at the hands of the NHS dentists back at home and my teeth were of a banana colouring. After an initial clean and polish we agreed upon a treatment pack of six white fillings to replace metal ones and a laser tooth whitening treatment to see if I could move from banana colour to something approaching white. Three visits and four hours in the chair I had a much brighter smile and less metal in my mouth . All for the price of a couple of fillings back home.
Sightseeing in Pondicherry
There are a few monuments and sights to see in Pondicherry but we had some of the best times simply wandering along the promenade or around the main shopping bazaars. The beach is not a sunbathers special – it consists of a pile of rocks on the sea front and a small patch of beach further south which is occupied by the various food and trinket vendors.
With the exception of the promenade the pavements are not pedestrian friendly around town so you end up doing what the locals do and wander the roads avoiding the rickshaws, cows and cars as best you can.
If you want to see the best sights that you can’t easily reach by walking around town you can visit the tourist information office on the main promenade by the war memorial and book on the half day tour. This will allow you to visit one of the most interesting places around Pondicherry, Auroville.
Auroville is a curious place, founded by ‘Mother’ (also known as Mirra Alfassa) in the late 1960’s to create a township that:-
“belongs to nobody in particular, but humanity in general”
This was a coming together of people from 124 nations who each donated a handful of soil from their home country to mark the inauguration. On the inauguration site now lies the human unity project’s architectural showpiece in the form of the Matri Mandir (Temple of Mother).
The community is still going strong after 44 years, even if the mother isn’t, she died in 1973 and her body lies in the Samadhi Ashram in Pondicherry.
The visit here is interesting and the place certainly has a peace and restfulness about it. The inhabitants still maintain the international mix of its origins and it works at providing an environmentally friendly environment for its residents and for others by promoting a range of sustainable research programmes.
Panjavadi Hindu Temple – this is located close to Auroville and can be combined with a trip there, it features a gigantic idol of Anjaneya standing at 32 feet high.
Sights within the City
Aayi Manapam Park Monument– the Bharathi park has at its centre a monument built in the Greco Roman style. The paths, lawns and seating areas offer a place to wander and relax away from the noise of the bazaar.
Manakkula Vinayakar Temple – this temple has stood in Pondicherry for over 500 years and despite attempts by the French and Jesuits to demolish it, it remains a central feature of the city. It also has a temple elephant who for the price of a few rupee coins or a bit of food will bless you with its trunk.
Sacred Heart Church – a Gothic church on the edge of the old town which features some impressive stained glass and an church interior.
Cathedral of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception – another Greek Roman show-piece left by the French, decorated in pretty peach tones, its on Mission Street in the centre of the Old French quarter.
Eglilse de Notre dame – sits on the seafront and resembles the more famous cathedral in France, built in 1791 by the occupying French.
Customs Building – Douane or Customs House sits on the seafront and is a splendid bit of deco-esque architecture dotted in the French quarter, although it was actually built in the late 19th century.
French War Memorial – one piece of unmistakable Deco however is the war memorial that occupies a place opposite the Gandhi statue. It was built to remember those lost in the First World War.
Mahatma Gandhi statue – The statue sits proudly in the centre of the promenade and is a magnet for all who visit the city.
The sights in Pondicherry can easily be seen in a day, but to really get a flavour of this unique place you need to spend a few days here to understand its history and the pace of life here. It’s a great destination in India if you have spent the last few days in one of the manic cities. If you do want to do a spot of real beach relaxation, the beach near to Auroville was recommended to us, although we were far too relaxed to be bothered to get there.