A rendezvous with the Franco-Tamil Culture in Pondicherry

05th May 2016 – 08th May 2016, Mumbai to Chennai – Pondicherry
Temperature in May: 30-35 degrees
Travel options: Closest airport is Chennai (Although it can be reached via Bangalore, Cochin, Coimbatore & Tiruchirapalli)

Hotel stay at: Palais De Mahe, Busy Street, Pondicherry

 

The town of Pondicherry:
Romantic arched windows and quintessential french rounded front doors, exuding French formality. Yellow walls left un-glazed to allow moss to grow and fanciful wrought-iron balconies, serve as the crowing glory. This little town of Pondicherry is a mix of Franco-Tamil architecture.

On the way to Pondicherry, at a distance of 57 km from Chennai, lies the Shore temple of Mahabalipuram. It is rightly called the Shore temple because it overlooks the shore of the Bay of Bengal. In the center of the large courtyard stands this temple which is a world heritage monument. It consists of 2 structural shrines – Kshatriya Simhesvara (east) and the Rajasimhesvara (west) collectively known as the Shore temple built by the Palava king Narasimha Varman II. The reclining structure of Vishnu in between the structures is carved out of bedrock. Many minor carvings lie scattered over the place, witness to the virality of the Palava art & religious patronage. Unfortunately inspite of efforts by the archeological survey of India, the temple is affected by the salt laden winds & rough sea. For people staying in Chennai, this place is a pleasant drive along the east coast road.

The dream of Auroville is envisioning an ideal society. For this purpose the Auroville is created by a group of like minded people, who have moved away from the norms of conventional social economic systems and have entered into a more “giving” space where personal needs and desires are secondary to the collective good. In the town of Auroville lies the Matramandir or the Mother’s Shrine. A huge Banyan tree considered to be over a 100 years lies in the geographical centre of the town. The structure is surrounded by 12 gardens each of which have been given a name by the Mother. Under the shaping influence of the Mother & Shri Aurobindo’s dual philosophies, Auroville emerges. The simplest though & the smallest action can create a ripple effect for a major change. When it is though, felt, seen & spread with love, a beautiful world emerges. There is a bus service that takes you from the main gate close to the Matramandir, which can be reached by a small walk.

Elephants have always been part of many Hindu temples. On my recent visit to one of the temples in Pondicherry, I was a witness to a unique ritual. At the entrance of the Vinayagar Ganpati Temple in Pondicherry stands Lakshmi. This magnificent creature, a female elephant attract tourists, and is completely at ease with humans around her. You give her a coin or a bundle of grass, she raises her trunk, taps your head & gives you a blessing. The deities regard her as the living embodiment of Ganesh, a heavy responsibility i must say. So affectionate that she often cuddles her caretaker. Even an animal, if you show genuine affection, gradually develops love & trust. Something we humans need to cultivate.

A walking tour around the quaint city was the highlight of my trip. Along with Mr. Ashok from INTACH, we ventured on the streets, passing through Rue (french name for street) like Bussy, Charles De Gaulle, Laporte, Surcouf, Suffren, Romain Rolland and more, most of them names of French heroes. Mr. Ashok mentioned that his team of 15 members have been working on restoration & preservation of the heritage buildings in Pondicherry. The streets, the walls and even the mode of transport – Rikshaws are painted in Yellow. The town is separated in two sections by a canal – The Tamil & the French side. Each side exhibits a unique culture.
A walk on the promenade leaves you with a sense of happiness. Very few cities in the country provide for ample spaces to walk, without any traffic movement. The promenade is one such place where locals can walk around without the usual honking of cars and the pollution & smog created by vehicular traffic. The area is cordoned off at 5.00 pm until midnight for vehicles, ensuring that the city meets at this place in evenings. There is a statue of Mahatma Gandhi at the center of the promenade and a quaint cafe called Le Cafe offering evening snacks.

A few kilometers away from the French town is a new Lighthouse. Make sure to climb up to the top for a fantastic view of the city and the seashore. The entry is restricted, make sure you check the timings for the same.

A well known beach secluded from the city is the Paradise Beach. It can be reached by boat service from the Chunnambar Boat House club. It is an island beach, but can be reached by a not so easy access from one side. The beach is commercialized and plenty of locals visit it in the evening making it crowded. There is a life guard for safety incase you like to take a dip and 2-3 shops selling food if you’re hungry. The ride to the beach is smooth and the last ferry leaves around 5.00, be sure to catch it.

Pondicherry is famous for it’s churches each with it’s unique & beautiful architecture. Some of the beautiful churches include – Our lady of Angels Church, Sacred heart of Jesus Basilica, Immaculate Conception Cathedral  and more.

A haven for numismatists is the Pondicherry Museum. It records evidence of diverse influences in the Union Territory from early Romans, to Cholas, Dutch, English and French presence. A visit there  can throw light on various time periods in history. The museum has Chola sculptures from Karaikal, Roman coins, jewellery and artefacts excavated at Arikamedu, furniture, marble busts and objects from French aristocratic households in colonial period. A coin museum and transport gallery are other attractions.

What to Eat and Where to Eat:
Food at the Palais De Mahe is a treat
La Cafe at the beach is famous for evening snacks
Try the french pastries available at Baker Street, Maison Rose, Café des Arts.
Well Cafe an absolute favorite lunch hangout, in the forest zone of Auroville.
Try the French crêpe (Thin Pancakes, served either as a dessert or as a savoury dish) available at Artika Café, Café des Arts, Villa Shanti, LB2 Lounge, The Promenade, Café de flore, New Banana Café, The Indian Kaffe Express.
Crème Caramel / Crème Brûlée; custard dessert – Available at La Plancha, Maison Rose, The Promenade, Villa Shanti, Satsanga, Le Club.
Cheese Platter / Cheese Fondue, Available at La Plancha, La Maison Rose, The Promenade Hotel, Café de flore.
Croissant – Available at Baker Street, Café des Arts, Artika Café, Hidesign Café, The Promenade, Le Dupleix, Hot Breads.
The Lighthouse Rooftop grill on the top floor of the Promenade Hotel serves great food with live music and a great view of the old lighthouse.
Try the Gelato at the GRT store on the Promenade

French Cuisine to try:
– The French onion soup (Can be veg & Non veg)
– Ratatouille, French vegetable dish; typically served as a side dish, accompanied by pasta, rice or bread
– Grilled fish
– French baguettes with different fillings
– Lamb goulash
– Quiche (Have the Mini quiche / tarts) – Available Baker Street, New Banana Café, Café de flore, Hot Breads.
– Coq au vin is a classic French chicken casserole (chicken braised with wine, lardons, mushrooms and wine & garlic

My trip to Pondy paused life from the daily flow , allowing for some much-needed introspection.

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