You get humidity free for a dose of heritage here at the port city of Pondicherry since our recent trip to the Mangalore beaches in peak summer had somewhat emboldened us and we decided it was time for a little colonial hangover. I looked up some colonial homes for our stay and even hoped to see a blue eyed French ghost but all that we sought was already taken, nonetheless we were further encouraged to visit this place knowing that there were many others like us who dared the summer heat at Pondi, yes this is how the locals refer to Puducherry or Pondicherry the Union Territory that still houses many colonial homes along the serene beaches of this heritage city that once flourished as a port city trading pearls, beads, textiles and silk from the times of the Romans, Pallavas, Cholas, Vijayanagara kings to the Portuguese, Dutch and finally the French who set up their establishments here in 1674 that was later usurped by the British in 1761.
Bengaluru to Pondicherry is a 6 hours’ drive covering 378kms,, we started at 7.30am and took the Vellore- Kanchipuram-Vannavasi-Pondi route, driving on NH-46 was like driving on Route 66 and our Tata Manza felt like a Lightning Macqueen!
We relied heavily on GPS for all our maps as most sign boards in Tamil Nadu are very sweet like this.
We drove through Vellore, the city of churches, I saw dozens of churches here in a stretch of just 5km which spoke of the rampant conversion activities going on here. Vellore is home to one of the first missionary hospitals called Christian Medical College which is the forefront for all evangelical activities that was set up by the Scudders family who were sent to India in the 18th century as medical missionaries, today they successfully call this evangelical home as the ‘Home of the healing god’.
If only our people understood that behind all that spiritual salesmanship lies an unquenched greed for power and a deceitful ploy to keep us subservient to the west who employ religion as a tool for divisive soul hunting, pitting us against each other where communal hegemony is disguised as charitable work.
At 9 we stopped for breakfast at Adyaar Ananda Bhavan the only vegetarian respite on this stretch, we touched Kanchipuram around 12.20 noon, the Kamakshi temple closes at 12.30pm hence missed it, by 2pm we were at Pondicherry heading straight to Hotel Surguru, a popular vegetarian hotel that showed lot of good reviews, true to its reviews the food at Surguru was indeed good and thence we decided to check in here as most hotels at the French Quarters where we intended to stay were already taken and the ones left didn’t have a restaurant within, so experimenting in a place where good Vegetarian hotels are a thing of rarity was not a good idea after all. Surguru was a decent 3 star hotel with centralized A/C, WiFi connections costing Rs.2500 inclusive of an extra bed, even the veranda had a bed so all four of us slept comfortably.
In the evening we went around the Promenade Road which was just 2kms from our hotel. True to its name the Promenade road is a vehicle free boulevard at the southeast end along the rocky shores of the Promenade Beach which turns into a people’s fair in the evenings where the young and the old laze around on the benches and the boulders sipping on a soda or simply munching on a popcorn musing amidst the many old French bungalows now converted into hotels in the backdrop of breezy waves.
This vicinity is called French Quarters where the secretariat, the embassy and other old official buildings are located keeping alive the French architecture. Even the cops here wear red flat hats.
Pondicherry was divided into two sections __ the Ville Blanche which means White Town __ today referred as French Quarters and secondly the Ville Noire which means Black Town which is the Indian Quarter but the interesting hypocrisy is if you search in Google for the most racist country, India tops all the lists as the most racist country!!
The French buildings are painted in an exuberant yellow while the other British and Indian styled homes are in grey and white.
with 8 tall pillars that were probably pillaged from some unknown temple that are resurrected here by the shores surrounding the Mahatma, the sloping marble blocks that hold and encircle the statue serve as a slide to the local children who have no clue why this man stands here!
Facing these oblivious children and Gandhi is the statue of Nehru that is again encircled by a few more artistic temple pillars. The diary of Ananda Ranga Pillai a Dubash(translator/interpreter) during the French administration mentions in his diary that Jeanne Dupleix the wife of Joseph Francois Dupliex, the backseat driving force the real high command was the one instrumental in dooming the destruction of many temples and responsible for religious persecution of the locals,
It was getting dark now although we wanted to explore some French cuisines, the IPL fever drew us back to our humble hotel and we settled for a North Indian meal for the night.
Next day by 9 am we set off for the Chunnambur Boat House which is a 10minutes drive from city, Chunnambar, located along the Cuddalore main road is a 8km drive from Pondicherry.
At the Chunnambar backwaters we took a motor boat to the Paradise Beach, it is a pleasant 15minutes drive, the ride costs Rs.200/adult and you can stay here till 5pm. The dancing reflections of the coconut trees in the pristine waters and the distant view of the white shores engulfing the backwaters gleaming like sugar crystals under the sun was a treat to the eyes.
We reached the island beach where the picturesque sight of the Chunnambar River on one side and the Bay of Bengal on the other was simply hypnotising. This place is less crowded and ideal for fun with family.
Although I find the Vagator and Calungute beaches of Goa more scenic and happening this place has its own charm.
Of course playing in Arabian Sea is more fun than Bay of Bengal as the shores have a predictable gradient but one advantage here at Bay Of Bengal is that the sun sets behind you and hence you are not blinded while you play in water but it is just that your back might look like a burnt tandoori roti at the end of the day.
The coastal guard kept warning people to stay behind the danger line as he narrated to us how this whole island was submerged under water during the 2004 Tsunami and relived the horror of losing his dear son to the dreadful dance of the waves.
It was time to take a break from the terrible heat and we hurried for some tender coconut water which costed Rs.50 here in this town of coconut extravaganza, this is what is called ‘make hay while the sun shines”. We played for some 2hours here and then headed for a shower only to find the taps dry, fortunately there was a well and we had to “fetch a pail of water” for some desi showers!! By the time we reached our boat we were almost dry even when we walked beneath the hay thatched shelters.
I had read about some archaeological excavations at Arikamedu which was close to this area, we switched on the GPS and were soon driving on narrow isolated lanes.
Arikamedu is an archaeological site that dates back to the 2nd century BC. Beads, coins and other artifacts depicting Roman symbols were recovered here which suggests the Indo-Roman trading connections then.
The Arikamedu site looked haunted, after walking some 500meters in that dense mango groove we found some really deserted brick built structures in a deplorable condition which once was a trading hub in the Iron age,
If you are not an archaeology or history enthusiast then this place is not for you. Since this place is isolated it is a safe haven for antisocial activity so make sure you visit in bigger groups.
By now we were starving and turning squint, there was no sight of any decent hotel nearby so we humbled ourselves to some Bananas and Biscuits to cover a few more places. Actually vegetarians are the real Banana and Biscuit Republics as we are heavily dependent on this frugal fruit.
By 4pm we were at the Ousterri Lake, the Ousteri or the Osadu is an important wetland in Asia which is a man made fresh water lake that hosts many migratory birds and local birds across the year. We took the 20 minutes motor boat ride that gives a closer glimpse of the rich avifauna present here. Right opposite to the Ousteri Lake is a small eat out called SeaGull Lake View restaurant, we had some Samosas, Veg Noodles and Cassatas this place was a lifesaver for us.
After this we were recharged again and went back to the Ousteri Lake for some pedal boating and spent time around the robust aviators at leisure.
We headed back to our hotel and crashed, this was the end of day 1. Next day morning the two of us escaped for a stroll yet again on the Promenade street that was much more calm in the early hours.
The smooth cemented road is a walkers’ den where many fitness enthusiasts jog while a few others practice yoga/pranayama on the boulders of the beach at sunrise time. I sat there looking at the seamless waves splinter into droplets of silver every time they crashed tirelessly on the rocks beneath my feet.
By 8.30am we were back at our hotel tearing into the soft idlis, just then we noticed a mini army of uniformed men escorting a dhoti clad man who had come here all the way to parcel off some veggie food, I later learnt that it was Narayanasamy our ex union minister from the UPA.
We then visited Auroville, a spiritual town set up in 1968 by the followers of Sri Aurobindo to realize human unity, it is home to some 50,000 residents from across the globe who live here practicing meditation and yoga living the essence of community living.
It is no tourist spot and takes at least an hour walking up to the Matri Mandir, so if you are not serious about seeking spirituality you could skip this place as they will allow you inside to see the spiritual glass globe only after 2days after your first visit that too with an appointment. Next we spent some time at the Serenity Beach in the scorching afternoon sun as kids wouldn’t agree to go back without taking a dip.
In the evening we visited the Sacred Hearts Church which is 100years old I wanted to visit the Ananda Ranga Pillai house, it is one of the few buildings to survive the British invasion in 1761, the GPS was of no use here, the locals here on the Ananda Ranga Pillai Road pitiably had no clue who he was or where his home _ the museum was, I clearly missed this museum as the road was too narrow with lot of vehicles and filth but I almost died of curiosity and ended up reading his diaries in which he gives a picture of the social circumstances that prevailed then, he mentions how brutally the Hindu homes were looted not even sparing rice, how the Bramins were driven out of Pondicherry, about the highhandedness of Ms.Dupleix and how the Vedapuri Ishwaran temple was desecrated and demolished by the governess along with Father COEURDOUX, the superior of St. Paul’s church who had come with a hammer and had kicked the inner shrine with his foot and had ordered the Coffrees to remove the doors and the Christians to break the Vaahanams .
Today in place of the Swayambu linga that was destroyed lies the Immaculate Church which is also called as the Samba Kovil by locals. So much of heritage isn’t ? No matter how hard they criticized idolatry today Pondicherry is haunted with political idolatry, every circle, every street every nook and corner is occupied by statues of politicians, poets, proselytizers in marble, granite, bronze, silver and gold.
In the evening we went to Bakers street which is not a street but a popular pizza joint, the kids had fun, later we went around on the Roman Rolland Street, Caserene street and visited some Colonial homes that are now converted into antique artifacts shops.
The broad teak pillars were used as decorative and supportive columns in ancient homes, the rosewood chest, the 15feet tall teak wood doors, 19feet high ceilings, the huge bimbam clock, the rich brocade cushions, Tanjavur paintings in gold, the large wooden Narasimha carving, the regal looking settees all this was certainly an overwhelming experience to imagine the grandeur they lived in.
It was time to get back home and I walked past the pompous patio pondering over the panache with which these people lived here in this port city of Pondi.