Over the past few years of my travelling days, I had barely explored South India beyond the obvious and in 2017 I set about correcting it. It was the last week of September and I arrived at Chennai airport at the stroke of noon. I wanted to head straight to Pondicherry from the airport itself. The searing humidity of Chennai wasn’t helping at all and I began sweating profusely after exiting the airport premises. Taxi drivers quoted 1200-1500 Rupees for Pondicherry while others suggested I go to the Metro Station (CMBT) and then to Koyambedu to catch a direct Volvo bus to Pondicherry.
I figured that more than comfort time is of the essence for me to reach Pondicherry and therefore just kept walking and didn’t respond to the taxi guys. In the process, I stumbled upon the easiest process of reaching Pondicherry from Chennai airport. Exit the airport, take a right – After walking approx. 500m take a left on the road, there will be a local railway station. Take a 10 rupee ticket to Perangulathur station that is 3-4 stops away from the boarding station. After exiting from the Perungalathur train station, once you get out cross the road – there should be a bus station visible. From here local (Tamil Nadu State Transport Corporation) SETC buses run regularly to Pondicherry via the ECR road and also the other route. I remember the bus ticket cost me only 85 Rupees.
Tip : In the local train, eat the local samsa (Samosa) Tamil Nadu style! The restaurant adjoining the bus station near Perangulathur serves tasty thali meals and I highly recommend it for people looking to move onward to Pondicherry.
I was supposed to travel with a partner but she dropped out at the last moment and that meant I had a heritage hotel booking all to myself. After reaching Pondicherry, I bargained with an auto and paid 40 Rupees to reach the hotel located in the White Town or the French Quarter.
I was pleasantly surprised at my first glimpse of Pondicherry and went walking just before sunset. There were many cafés serving fresh croissants and espresso coffee in this former French colony also called Puducherry or Pondi. Everyone seemed to be living a laid-back life making me feel that Pondicherry is the type of charming seaside town where one arrives for a weekend visit and ends up wishing they could stay for longer! Since most people have jobs and can rarely afford longer vacations apart from weekends and extended weekends, I thought about putting this brief guide of tourist attractions; with personal stories and anecdotes.
A Handy Guide of Places to Visit in Pondicherry
Short History of Pondicherry
The Portuguese arrived in Pondicherry in 1521, presumably with the purpose of trading in spices on the Coromandel Coast. After that the Dutch and Danish traders followed, but it was the French who purchased Pondicherry in the late 17th century. They ruled it for more than 200 years until Pondicherry was assimilated into India in 1954 as a Union Territory. The French were enamoured with the seaside feel of Pondicherry and constructed many buildings across this small town still retains its French élan. Pondicherry was established in 1674 by François Martin, who was the first director of the French East India company. Other French colonies in India include Mahe in Kerala, Yanam in Andhra Pradesh and Karaikal in Tamil Nadu.
Sri Aurobindo Ashram
Sri Aurobindo Ashram was established in 1926 by the Bengali philosopher Aurobindo Ghosh. He was also a freedom fighter in Bengal and was given shelter here after it became unwise to live close to the British in Calcutta. The ashram is a tranquil place lined with pretty plants and gorgeous doors, but photography is not allowed. Visitors are asked to maintain silence while taking the ashram tour as there are many devotees spending time in mediation.
Sri Aurobindo Ashram attracts thousands of devotees from India and around the world. It is located on Rue de la Marine very close to the French Quarter area and is a short walk away from the Manakula Vinayagar Temple. The Sri Aurobindo Ashram serves as the headquarters of the Sri Aurobindo Society. The samadhi of Sri Aurobindo and ‘The Mother’ is located here and it can be seen where devotees pay their respects with their hands folded in deep prayers. Inside the main building, there’s a very pretty Western-style room with accessories (presumably where Sri Aurobindo Ghosh lived). The adjacent bookshop in the ashram sells a range of books, while the building opposite to the ashram hosts frequent cultural programmes during the tourist season.
Sri Manakula Vinayagar Temple
Sri Manakula Vinayagar Temple is one of Pondicherry’s most popular tourist attraction. The temple is located at a walking distance away from Sri Aurobindo Ashram. The temple is dedicated to Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god. The exterior of the temple is huge and stunning with statues of various gods and goddesses lining the walls. Once you enter inside, the grandeur of the splendid friezes on the walls is immaculate with chiseled carvings. The Manakula Vinayagar temple has been in existence before the French occupation of Pondicherry; thereby making it one of the oldest buildings in Pondicherry.
The temple elephant, Lakshmi is the star attraction of the Manakula Vinayagar Temple. Eager devotees can get a tap on the top of the head with Lakshmi’s trunk; in exchange of a coin, dexterously picked up from the palm of the devotee, and immediately handed over to the mahout. It’s a fascinating ritual to observe and the best time for experiencing this is during the afternoon hours when there are lesser crowds at the temple. The fact that she’s outdoors makes it easy to click photographs.
The Pondicherry Museum has a great collection of local historic memorabilia and collectibles, and is housed in a 17th-century colonial mansion that was once occupied by a French administrator. Among other things, the museum features a collection of stone sculptures, a bronze gallery, different carriages. There are also artefacts from nearby excavations around Arikamedu (an erstwhile seaport) that show that Romans traded in this region as early as the 1st century BC.
The Pondicherry Government Museum is located on Ranga Pillai Street, opposite Government Place. The archeological collection includes Neolithic remains from Arikamedu, a few stone sculptures from 6th to 8th century and Buddhist stone sculptures from 10th Century, and paintings. Also on display is some French furniture and artefacts from local houses that must have been used during the French occupation.
I had no idea about Pondicherry Museum and was lucky to stumble upon it on a turn on the rented scooty, and the timing was just right too as it was already evening and the museum would have shut down in some time.
French Quarter or White Town Heritage Walk
Many Indian tourists come to Pondicherry mostly to explore the ‘French’ architecture. The charming French Quarter, the area around the beachfront has wide boulevards, road names starting with rue, bilingual signs, colourful doors and windows on prettily-designed buildings, and gorgeous colonial villas. In the White Town area, even the policemen continue to wear the military style caps, known as kepis from De Gaulle’s time.
Once you cross the canal and enter the east side towards White Town close to the sea, the streets look cleaner and emptier with a European hangover. The broad boulevards of the tranquil French Quarter are best explored on a walk. I’ve written a separate post on the same. India’s French Colony : Pondicherry, A Photo Story
It is possible to undertake Heritage Walks of French Quarter and Tamil Quarter with INTACH. Although I didn’t personally do the walk with them, I’ve been recommended this by well travelled people.
Statue of Joseph François Dupleix
Joseph François Dupleix became governor of Pondicherry in the mid 18th Century. It is said that he was keen on establishing French supremacy in this area and was a brilliant planner. The entire White Town area (Or French Quarter) has been planned by him with the street grid encircled by a boulevard and divided by a canal. His memorial statue is on Goubert Avenue just opposite of the GMT ice-cream parlour on the promenade in Pondicherry.
Raj Niwas, Official residence of François Dupleix : Along the same road, which runs along the northern end of a square known as Government Place, is the gleaming white Raj Niwas, which was the late-18th-century mansion occupied by Pondicherry’s governor, François Dupleix. It is a blend of French and Indian architecture and is now inhabited by the present lieutenant governor of Pondicherry.
The Botanical Gardens are located close to the Railway Station and were established by the French in 1826. Entrance is free, and it is indeed a lovely place to come for a quiet walk and aimless wandering if the tourists at other structures have been too much noise for you! In the Botanical Gardens, the French planted 900 species of trees to experiment and see how they would do in Indian conditions.
Churches of Pondicherry
Church of our Lady of the Angels
Also called Eglise De Notre Dame Des Anges, this church was built in the later half of the 19th Century. It was by sheer luck that I ended up at this sublime church while trying to search for Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Church of our Lady of the Angels is painted in mellow pink and cream colour and is located on Dumas Streeet. Among other interesting details about this church, the limestone interior was made using eggshells in the plaster.
I was surprised to see a Statue of Joan of Arc in the Church premises. This Church is also known as the Domas Church and it boasts of a rare oil painting of Our Lady of the Assumption, which was gifted by the French Emperor Napoleon III. It is also the only Church at present in India that has a Sunday Mass in all three languages; French, English and Tamil.
Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus
The Sacred Heart of Jesus Church is also known as Eglise de Sacre Coeur de Jesus. It is located close to the Railway Station and is constructed in the neo-Gothic style. It is a pretty building in distinct cream and dark brown colour and is a Catholic church.
Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception
Located on mission street, The Church of our Lady of Immaculate Conception was built in the late 18th Century. It is built in yellow and white colour and is pretty to look from the exterior.
Quiet Beach & Serenity Beach
Serenity beach is located at a 8 km distance from Pondicherry and can be reached via auto or by taking a rented scooter or motorcycle. There are a few beach resorts located near Serenity Beach but I personally thought it was filled with rubbish and do not recommend a visit. Quiet beach is also mostly the same and it may be difficult to spot even a bit of clean sand here. The sand is of muddy brown colour and the entrance road may be lined with tender coconut sellers eager to make a quick buck.
Aptly named, with its white sand – Paradise Beach on a cloudless day might resemble an island in Maldives! It is approximately 20 kms away from Pondicherry and the starting point is called Chunnambar. From there government boats take you to the island on which Paradise Beach is located. Price for to and fro boat ticket is 220/- Rupees. There are many eateries on Paradise Beach and I highly recommend a visit for tourists on a weekday. On weekends Paradise beach gets jam packed with local picnickers.
Yoga in Pondicherry
There are a few yoga ashrams and centres around Pondicherry and it is slowly becoming popular as a yoga destination in South India, courtesy of the laid-back vibe surrounding Auroville.
Festivals in Pondicherry
International Yoga Festival is held in January in Pondicherry when many yoga teachers from across India converge on Pondicherry and yoga classes are held.
Bastille Day on 14th July is celebrated with much French fanfare and customs.
How to reach Pondicherry from Chennai?
The distance from Chennai to Pondicherry is around 155 kms and generally takes around 3 hours to cover even via public transport. Tamil Nadu (SETC) transport buses are quick and ply on the scenic East Coast Road (ECR) and the alternate highway too. For Volvo buses, Koyambedu stop is said to be the best. If one is looking to travel to Pondicherry from Chennai airport, some Volvo buses also stop at Guindy. For travellers looking to find the fastest way to reach Pondicherry from Chennai airport, I have already detailed it in the start of this article.
For those looking to travel to Auroville, STS (Auroville transport) runs shared taxis from Chennai airport to Auroville. Travellers in groups may find it easier to rent a cab from Chennai to Pondicherry, as the price per person can be compared to the Volvo prices.
Stay – Neemrana de L’Orient
I stayed for a day in this palatial heritage property from the 1760s. It is a manor house located in the heart of the French Quarter and has a beautiful inner courtyard shaded by neem trees. I loved their masala chai and the breakfast spread; their restaurant is supposedly quite recommended for the ‘creole’ cuisine.
Where to eat in Pondicherry?
Apart from the cafés popular with tourists in the French Quarter area – which I thought were pretty average; recommended places to eat in Pondicherry are Satsanga Restaurant, Surguru Restaurant, Karaikal Chettinad just after you cross the canal from the French Quarter. If the funky lights don’t trouble you, then Café Xtasi is known to have some of the best wood fired pizzas in Pondicherry.
An alternative idea is Food Heaven : Cafés & Restaurants in Auroville