green grass field with trees under blue sky

Pondicherry, the French Riviera of the East

Guest blog by my mother, Sumita Guha.

Pondicherry (now known as Puducherry) was at one time the largest French colony in India. It still retains traces of French architecture and cuisine, which makes it a very interesting destination within India. 

Interesting architectural styles in Pondicherry (Photo by Anagh Sharma on Unsplash)

Getting in & around

Pondicherry is easy to get to via train from most major cities in India. There are daily passenger trains connecting it to the nearest major city of Chennai. Along with that, there are weekly direct trains to Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore. If you want to fly, major airlines fly to Chennai and it is just a 3 hour car ride to the city from the Chennai airport.

We planned our trip with a couple of our close friends, and ended up taking a train to Pondicherry. Even though it takes longer, it is much more fun travelling together in a group. With delicious food, card games and spirited conversation to keep us busy, the two night train journey went by in a blink. Truly, the journey is as exciting as the final destination!

The French Quarter, Pondicherry (Photo by Kaushik Murali on Unsplash)

Pondicherry railway station is a small but neat place. But beware if your train arrives early in the morning as ours did, it will be a bit of a wait till you get a cab/uber. Uber/Ola is a better choice though, but bear in mind you might have to walk a bit outside the station to reach your pick up point. For travel within town, Uber/Ola cabs are your best bet.

Things to do

Pondicherry is famous mainly for Sri Aurobindo Ashram and MatriMandir. We had breakfast at a Udupi restaurant SurGuru and reached Aurobindo ashram after enjoying a very refreshing cup of tea at Chai Point. There was a long queue in front of the ashram. On enquiring we found it was a special day. Sri Aurobindo had attained enlightenment on this day. We were lucky as we could visit inside Sri Aurobindo’s house, as it’s open to the public on only special days. In the latter half we visited Paradise beach. There too we were lucky as the bookings for boat ride to the beach closes at 5pm and we reached just a few minutes before to catch the last boat. Talk about being lucky twice! We enjoyed a lovely sunset at Paradise beach.

paradise beach 2
The serene sunset at Paradise beach

The Matri Mandir founded by Mother is about 12 km from the ashram. One has to obtain passes beforehand to visit this place. Unfortunately we came to know all bookings were full for the days we were in town. Still we made a final try and reached the place by 8.30 in the morning on our last full day in Pondicherry. The volunteers told us, reluctantly, that they would put us on the waiting list. We would need another stroke of luck to get to visit the Matri Mandir. With our fingers crossed we waited and were lucky to finally enter! We visited the Geodesic  Dome  that has meditation chambers and a huge hall for meditation. The structure is specially designed and unique. It has discs that reflect sunlight and inside the meditation hall is a beautiful crystal with sun’s rays falling on it. It’s one of the highlights of Pondicherry and worth visiting. Make sure you don’t make the same mistake we did, and book once you have your plans fixed!

The imposing yet calming Matri Mandir in Auroville (Image by Peter Anta from Pixabay)

We also visited the art and craft centers that make handmade paper, incense and many other handicrafts. The scented pouches to be put in cupboards make a great souvenir and are nice for gifting.

Around Pondicherry

If you have time, the drive from Pondicherry to Chennai is a beautiful one along the sea and worth doing at least one way. We sadly didn’t manage to do that, so it is on our agenda for our next trip. We did however visit the Shore temple at Mahaballipuram. It is around a 2 hour drive, and well worth the time. Apart from the temple, do check out Krishna’s Butterball, a gigantic granite boulder resting on a short incline which makes for an interesting photo stop!

shore temple
Shore temple, Mahabalipuram (Photo by Ragu Clicks on Unsplash)

Where to stay & eat!

For our first night, we stayed in an AirBnb called the Wildflower. If you’re new to AirBnb, please book using this link to get $50/75SGD or equivalent off on your first booking! The AirBnb was a cosy place with the perfect blend of things to relax, like books, cosy easy chairs and a nice sitting room and kitchen. Highly recommended!

ashram 2
Sunsets over the vast ocean never disappoint

Our accommodation for the rest of the trip was one of the highlights! We stayed at the Ashram Hotel (The Retreat) from where we could see the beautiful sunset and also stroll along the sea shore. Vehicles are not allowed during morning and evening so one can enjoy the uninterrupted stroll. The serenity of the place is boundless. One can just sit on the balcony and enjoy the sunset over the endless ocean day after day.

ashram hotel
Enjoy beautiful sunsets from the comfort of your hotel!

Another highlight of Pondicherry is the variety of cuisines available in many restaurants and cafes in town. The place being a former French colony has a huge variety of eateries, from the simple to the exotic. We would highly recommend the Baker Street bakery on Bussy street. We also enjoyed the food and ambience at a beach facing cafe called Le Cafe. On the last day in town, we dined at Villa Shanti that had exquisite cuisine and great service and ambience. 

Mouth-watering display at Baker Street!

Final thoughts

All in all, Pondicherry is a unique destination in India. It has unique architecture and food, with the French influence clearly visible. And the nearby town of Auroville with the Matri Mandir is excellent if you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of life and just meditate. If not, then just pick a nice hotel facing the sea, and enjoy the beautiful views as the day goes by!

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