After we tied the knot in early 2015, my wife and I didn’t have the luxury of too many days off from work, which shelved any plans for a long holiday for some time. Given we had a fairly low-key wedding ceremony compared to the customary grand Indian weddings, I had to make up for it with a couple of getaways in the next few months. A week after our wedding, I decided to surprise my wife with a short three-day weekend trip. A few hours’ drive from one of India’s metropolis Chennai, is the union territory of Puducherry. Known as “Pondicherry” until the year 2006, when it was rechristened to “Puducherry”, the coastal colony is also fondly referred to as “Pondy” by most locals and travelers alike.
En route Pondicherry
We took an early morning flight from the city of Mumbai and landed in Chennai around 10 o’clock in the morning. My wife had no idea where we were headed to and she was happily playing along being a sport, not trying to probe or find out either. Even at the Mumbai airport, she waited at a distance while I went to collect boarding passes for our flight to Chennai. Though the pilot’s announcement got her a bit curious about why would I be taking her to a place like Chennai that wasn’t much of a holiday destination, and neither did we have any friends or relatives who resided there. Once we landed in Chennai, I asked her to wait with the bags while I went and booked a private cab from the government run, prepaid taxi booth at the airport. They promise to get you to Pondicherry in about three and a half hours, covering a distance of approximately 170 kilometers, all along the scenic east coast of the state of Tamil Nadu. As we settled in the back seat of the comfortable white sedan, the driver asked me for the payment receipt and clarified the destination in his colloquial Tamil accent, “Pondicherry aa?” Most people still address it with its centuries old name Pondicherry, and not the decade old Puducherry. Instead of nodding in confirmation to the driver, I looked towards my wife and noticed her looking back at me with a smile. The suspense had finally broken for her and she knew we were headed to the charming colony of Pondicherry that was once ruled by the French.
Journey through the east coast of Tamil Nadu
It was well past noon on our way to Pondy, and in spite of it not being the peak summer season yet, the weather was fairly warm for the month of February. The high humidity of the coastal region didn’t help either. But the locals knew exactly what was needed in that weather, and we stopped by at one of the many small stalls that came along the way selling fresh coconut water. The southern region of India, especially Tamil Nadu, is known for its coconut trees and has a high consumption of coconut water through the year; it feels nothing less than ecstasy in the hot and humid weather the region experiences most part of the year. As we drove a little further, women dressed in traditional Indian saris were selling large cut pieces of watermelon which they confidently claimed were as sweet as sugar. All three of us, including the driver, had our bellies full with the blissful coconut water, so decided to skip the juicy looking watermelon.
The local feel
We reached the hotel around lunch time, and since we had just a little over two days, we decided to explore the local market and restaurants rather than staying back at the hotel for a meal. After a quick shower, we stepped out in comfortable summer-friendly outfits, caps, and sunglasses to endure the warm afternoon temperature. We were glad that we carried our camera for the trip as it seemed like quite a picturesque place with plenty of opportunities for some great photographs.
Along the way, we discovered a small villa which was converted into an Italian restaurant and decided to have a quick lunch. As we stepped in, we realized that it was not just a restaurant, but also a shop on the inside selling local artifacts, collectibles, souvenirs, books, candles and more. It didn’t seem like anyone was designated to man the store, which in a way demonstrated the simplicity and authenticity of the people and the place that Pondicherry was.
The peaceful lanes leading up to the famous Rocky beach, were a mix of colonial buildings, small shops selling items for daily needs, beautiful churches, plant nurseries and souvenir stores. The weather became pleasant by the time it was evening and the beach-side promenade started to fill up with more and more people, which seemed like a mix of tourists and local residents.
It was also business time for plenty of shops, eateries, local photographers, book shops, and cycle auto rickshaws. Cycle auto rickshaws are still widely used in various smaller towns in India. The rear half of a bicycle is converted into a seating space for 3-4 persons, supported by two wheels at the bottom and a collapsible roof at the top. It is quite a demanding task for the rider to ferry passengers all day.
Pleasant evenings with delightful cuisines
Night time at Pondicherry is one of the most serene and quiet places one can spend at, and the wisest thing to do is pick one from the many restaurants that have an open seating space facing the beach. The soothing sound of water striking against the rocks at the shore sends a calming and reassuring feel like none other. For seafood lovers, it is nothing short of paradise; and for vegetarians like us, there isn’t any dearth of options either with plenty of choices on our plates including French, Italian, Indian, Thai and Chinese cuisines.
The spiritual side of Pondy
Our next day at this culturally strong destination filled with heritage buildings, monuments, and statues, was reserved for a visit to the renowned Sri Aurobindo Ashram. The Ashram which welcomes many tourists and spiritual guidance seekers has specific visiting hours in the mornings and afternoons. It is equally crowded irrespective of the time you visit, with people walking in in hoards. Like many other religious and spiritual places, it becomes difficult to spend a lot of time as there are always others queuing up after you.
Later that evening we were in for an art and cultural treat in the form of a massive exhibition that takes places once a year. Exhibitors from across the country come to Pondy and showcase their creations that include paintings, sculptures, figurines of idols, scriptures and more. It is difficult to put a price on the talent which was there on display. We heard stories of artists traveling hundreds of miles with their creative masterpieces to be part of the exhibition that stretched at least about a kilometer along the beautiful streets of Pondy. We couldn’t help but pick up 3-4 paintings that were relatively easy for us to carry back home.
Final verdict: a visit to Pondicherry, simply put, is a humbling experience!
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