As we got down our bus from Bangalore to Pondicherry, the first thing to hit us was the sudden rise in temperature and humidity. Pondicherry is hot and sultry. It’s also bustling and a city full of charming surprises, like the beautiful French Quarters, the soothing and gorgeous Auroville, beautiful old churches and the stunning statues dotting the city, from that of Joan of Arc to those of Indian national leaders of yore like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister.
A Union Territory in southern India, Pondicherry (now officially called Puducherry) is a small place. And the best way to explore it is on foot or with a bicycle or “scooter”. But be sure to wear cool cottons, since you tend to sweat a lot. We were put up at the mid-range Ginger Hotel, a part of the prestigious Tata group. Every time we finished a tour outside, I looked forward to relaxing in the cool confines of our suite at the hotel.
Our first stop was Auroville, an “alternative” community situated outside the town. Auroville is an experimental township, made up of people who’ve come to stay here from all over the world. This township has the motto of living by Sri Aurobindo’s principles. Here, artists create art and the township is supported from the sale of these works of art, in addition to the support from the Government of India. The art ranges from creatively designed apparel and accessories to stunning kitchenware and jewelry.
The highlight of the township is the “Matrimandir”, a dazzling monument with a gorgeous golden metallic outer façade. The inside of the Matrimandir is off limits for tourists unless you’ve requested a visit inside, in advance. The monument has been hailed as architectural achievement, and is claimed to be built to enhance the meditational experience of the people who come to meditate there.
The next day, we headed to the French Quarters that run parallel to the Promenade beach. This portion of the city is filled with beautiful, old-style buildings characterized by high arched gates and courtyards, and painted in colorful hues ranging from yellow to peach. These buildings are the remnants of the French colonization of Pondicherry years ago. The churches here are beautiful too, peaceful and lovely.
The first beach we visited was the Promenade beach, which, as its name suggests, is great for taking a stroll as you admire the surroundings. The rocky beach has a charming French restaurant in a heritage building, “Le Café”, amidst the French War Memorial, statues of Mahatma Gandhi and the rocky stretch of the beach. Other beaches you can visit are the Serenity Beach, the Auroville beach near the township, and Paradise beach.
Shopping at Pondicherry
For me, an important part of exploring any new city or village is taking a look at the local wares! It’s not just the prospect of shopping (although I love that!), but I think it’s a great way to getting know a culture.
We took a walk down Mission Street one evening. Besides having a road-side, bustling flea market, the place has a mall called Casa Blanca that’s packed with exquisite wonders. The place is a veritable treasure trove of gorgeous glass vases, wood furniture, silk and cotton apparel and bed linen, souvenirs and more. The prices are a little high, but the wares are tempting and stunning.
The other place to check out is the Hidesign boutique here. If you like soft leather handbags, jackets, wallets or purses, this is the perfect place. There are multiple branches, although the main branch at Mission Street is the biggest, with a striking maroon façade.
The main shopping at Puducherry is actually an off-shoot of the Auroville community and the Aurobindo Ashram. Everywhere you turn, every shop you get into, stocks things with the label “Made in Auroville”. These items range from leather handbags and cotton bags to essence and massage oils, and eatables like jams and syrups.
Leather and handmade paper products are among the hottest selling items in Pondicherry. You can buy handbags and accessories in the softest leather as well as in rugged buffalo leather. Handmade paper products and recycled paper items are available in an amazing variety of gorgeous items ranging from letter pads to files and diaries.
Places to Stay
You can choose to stay in one of the Auroville guesthouses, near the beach, for low prices. But you have to contend with basic rooms and in some cases, no meal service. Then there are the mid-range hotels like Ginger and Mass. Luxury hotels include The Promenade and several heritage hotels.
Things to Remember:
- Bring your sunglasses, sun-block and umbrella.
- Pack your cottons!
- When you go shopping, bargain to get the best deals.
- Best Time to Visit: Avoid the Indian summer months. Any time between October to January is a good time to visit.