Pondicherry: India's Southern Territory

A brief stint in the Union Territory of Pondicherry in Southern India.
Pondicherry is one of the places I'd always wanted to visit in India. Mainly because of the name. I have a real thing about names and Pondicherry makes a lovely mouthful. It is also known as Puducheri nowadays and that sounds pretty good too.

I went to Pondicherry via Chennai. By train. Don't do it, people. Go by bus. The bus takes four hours maximum. You get on it in Chennai and you get off at Pondicherry. Besides the bus passes through Mahabalipuram and if you have the time you can get off for an hour or two and take a look at the famous beach temples. Going by train requires first catching the local from Park Station (at a five minutes walking distance from Chennai Central) and spending two hours on it to Tambaram. At Tambaram you cross the overhead bridge to Platform 3/4 and wait for the train to Villipuram. This journey takes about four hours. From Villipuram you take another train to Pondicherry - finally! - this is another two or three hours. I had an amusing time, but it was a long-drawn out experience.

This first time, since I was on my way to Killai to volunteer with the Tsunami Relief Work, I was in Pondicherry for just a day. I stayed in Ram's International Inn. This was near the railway station and I was rather tired from the journey, without a prior reservation anywhere, and this was a place I'd read about on the net. They gave me a room alright, but it seems they cater mainly to foreign tourists and have a slight problem with catering to the same degree to the domestic ones. The receptionist suggested I might 'prefer' having my meals elsewhere, because they only served 'continental food' and he was 'sure' I wouldn't like that and would much rather have the 'regional' - elsewhere, of course. Fortunately this isn't a prevalent mentality all over Pondicherry, or I suppose we would have the French still in the ruling seat - enjoying a Continental Breakfast. Anyway, people, the regional cuisine is nothing to turn your nose up at. Enjoy that - elsewhere - unless you are absolutely desperate.

The second time, on the way back from Killai, I stayed in Hotel Sabthagiri. This is right across from the Pondicherry Bus Station and is recommended in the Government Tourism Brochure that you can get from the Tourism booth at the station. The rates are reasonable - Rs. 375 to the Rs. 600 of Ram's Inn and minus the unsolicited advice. The room was fine enough, but I'm afraid - truly - that I can't say the same about the bed - it gave a whole literal meaning to 'Good night, and don't let the bed-bugs bite'. It wasn't a question of 'letting' - they didn't ask for permission.

There is a restaurant attached to the hotel and here I refueled the blood supply with some fine uncontinental eating - aside from the ubiquitous Dosas, many regional things I had never heard of before - Kaldosai Karakuzhabu, Madhumal Juice (this sounded terribly romantic, but turned out to be Pomegranate juice), Iddiyappam, Pongal, etc.

I decided to go to Beach Road, also known as Goubert Avenue, and take the Heritage Walk mapped in the Tourism Brochure. The rikshaw-wallahs outside the hotel said, Rs. 30 up to Beach Road, because, sister, that's a loooong way off. Don't fall for it. It isn't. You can walk in twenty minutes from the bus station to Beach Road - it's a straight route, you won't even get lost. And if it tires you out, you can always recoup sitting on the rocks near the land-mark Gandhi Statue and watching the waves crash ashore - I highly recommend that past-time.

I really liked the promenade, it's wonderfully long-stretching and across the road the sidewalk is lined with buildings in old French-style architecture, many of them with bright bougainvillea draped over the walls. Here you will find the PTDC office, the Alliance Francaise, and the French War Memorial.

The Gandhi Statue is surrounded by some beautiful medieval pillars and across the street, almost directly in front from it, is a statue of Jawaharlal Nehru. They are both in walking poses and if somehow got off their pedestals would meet in the middle of the curving road.

At the other end of the promenade from the Gandhi Statue stands the statue of the French Colonial, Joseph Francois Dupleix. Several women were laying out their washing to dry under his watchful gaze.

Close to Dupleix's Statue is the wonderfully landscaped and maintained Park Guest House, an off-shoot of the Aurobindo Ashram and very reasonable at Rs. 300. You also get the sea and the beautiful walks around in bargain. Unfortunately they don't stint on the advise - not the snobby variety mentioned above, but, even worse, of the spiritual, moralistic bend. I always think deciding this should be everyone's personal affliction, which is why I have a problem with organized religions. Anyway, the man fixed me with a steely look and said we don't condone smoking cigarettes, taking drugs, drinking alcohol, and inviting strangers into the room. You're kidding, I said, those are the very distractions I came all the way over for. We came to the mutual conclusion that Ashram living wasn't for me after all.

I spent the rest of the day following the Heritage Walk. The French Quarter is beautifully maintained and the architecture is just so tremendous you could get a crick in your neck staring around at it all. There's the lovely Bharathi Park in the middle of it, which is another good place to relax. The Raj Bhavan, the UCO Bank, the Cercle de Pondicherry, the Museum, the Romain Rolland Library, and an assorted other interesting places lie on the fringes of this park. The Tamil Quarter falls short comparatively and many of the wonderful old houses here are being converted into modern monstrosities. On Eswaran Koil Street though, I found a lovely, old style guest house called Surya Swastik (Phone - 0413 - 2343092 and 413 - 2345526). Starting rates from Rs. 100 and good atmosphere.

It was a lively time in Pondicherry during my visit with Pongal, a religious festival, and the Pondicherry Shopping Festival going on in full swing. I bought two pieces of pottery at the Casablanca Department Store, some books, and wasn't tempted by some remarkably ugly souvenirs of coconut fibers and sea-shells.

As night fell and all the lights came on, I walked back to the French Quarter and found a Pizza Hut. I had a Pizza (naturally) and a large drink, which despite being called Blue Hawaii came in cerulean green - a concoction of Rum, coconut milk, and something else. I hardly ever order alcohol, but I guess I was feeling a bit inspired today. I think the Pizza Hut was on Rue Bussy. I'm having a bit of trouble remembering.
By Sonal Panse
Published: 2/24/2005
Bouquets and Brickbats | What Others Said