Memories of Pondicherry (Part 1)
Warning: Long post ahead! More of a photo-story and a personal account than a travelogue, full of digressions, and there is a second part, too. Kindly grin and bear.
I have been to Pondicherry (now known as Puducherry) twice till now. The first time, it was a trip with my sister way back in 2007, and the second time was with a bigger gang - my parents, sis and her hubby, my aunt and cousin in 2011. Somehow, I have more memories of the first trip, although I had to emotionally blackmail my husband in the second trip to let me travel without him in our first year of marriage.
I think the first trip is special as that was the time both sis and I were ‘free birds’ and we travelled without any chaperone looking over us. I loved travelling with her as I could bully her into doing everything that I wanted to. She was the ideal companion, willing to go along with me without any complaints or questions. How I miss those days!
The Pondy trip was actually our back-up plan; our original plan was to visit Kerala. I had almost fixed on our Kerala itinerary but for reasons which I can’t remember now, that had to be dumped. So, Pondy came up and this was our brief program:
Day 1: Mumbai to Chennai (by air), Chennai to Pondy (by bus)
Day 2: Pondy sightseeing
Day 3: Pondy sightseeing to be continued
Day 4: Return to Chennai via Mahabalipuram (by cab), Chennai to Mumbai (by air)
It was a long weekend, October 2nd falling in between. I barely managed to get a room in a guest house after calling up at least 25 hotels. It seemed as if people from entire South India were going to congregate in Pondy.
(On our subsequent visit, we simply took an overnight bus from Bangalore to Pondicherry. Not as eventful as our previous trip.)
That Freaky Morning - We woke up at 3.30 am on the scheduled date (in 2007) and reached Mumbai airport to catch the first flight to Chennai. The airport had been recently renovated and we were admiring its facilities when we were informed that our flight had been delayed due to heavy fog. In all my 6 long years in Mumbai, that was only day when I came across such dense fog in the city, that too in sunny October. It was like a freak act of nature. We could not see anything as a thick blanket of fog had covered the entire area. It now reminds me of the movie ‘The Mist’.
All the flights were postponed by around 3-4 hours and gradually the airport departure lounge began to fill up with people. There were no chairs to sit on. Finally, people resorted to spreading the complementary newspapers on the floor and resting their aching behinds. It was a picture straight out of any railway station in India, rather than the newly renovated Mumbai airport.
The airport scene in Mumbai
Sleeping Beauty - Finally, the fog cleared and we boarded the flight. My sis promptly dozed off even before the flight could take off and opened her eyes only when we reached Chennai. We went to Chennai bus terminus from the airport and had lunch there before boarding the bus to Pondy via East Coast Road. I don’t know what had come over my sis but she went off to sleep again, resting her head on the shoulders of a huge man seating beside her. I was too excited to sleep and enjoyed the beauty of the coastline running parallel to the road all alone.
Dusk over salt pan lands on ECR
I would check on my sis from time to time and it was amusing to see that even the huge man had slept, resting his head on her shoulders. Suddenly, the bus came to an abrupt stop and that person fell headlong upon a lady who was sitting on the floor of the bus. He had to face the ire of the entire bus and then onwards he remained awake and slinked to a narrow sitting space, away from my sis.
Dark Night - It took around 5 hours to reach Pondy and it was quite late by the time we alighted from the bus. Auto drivers surrounded us and we took one to our guesthouse. It was located in another part of Pondy altogether, quite far away from the fabled French and Dutch quarters. But it was too dark and we didn’t realize how far we were from the actual town. It’s surprising to see how the city is divided into two separate personalities – one leaning towards the French legacy and the other predominantly Tamilian. In our later visit in 2011, we stayed in a very nice hotel named Abirami Residency on Anna Salai, which was a convenient midtown establishment.
Love at first sight - The next morning, we decided to go to the tourism office and take the tourist bus for sightseeing as none of us could ride a bicycle. We had been advised to see the town on cycles as they were rented out quite cheap. We reached the tourism office on the beach road (Goubert Avenue) and were informed by a young chap that the bus had already left for the day. We were quite distraught and I asked him for an alternative. The guy took a liking towards my sis and all the while that we were there I was asking him questions and he was replying to my sis! He arranged an auto for us, fixed the fare and directed him to show us the sights. Then he asked for our phone number and said that he could meet us in the evening by the beach-side if we were free. I was smart enough not to part with our phone numbers and told him that we would give him a call. Of course, we never made that call.
Sightseeing - I think we were lucky to have missed the tourist bus because it was much more comfortable in the auto and we could take our time in seeing the sights. In our second trip, we had hired a Tata Sumo arranged by our hotel as we were a larger group. We went to the following places, spread over two days and two trips:
Sri Aurobindo Ashram
Manakula Vinayagar Temple
Sri Varadaraja Perumal Temple
Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus
Pondicherry Botanical Gardens
Chunnambar Boat House
Bharati Government Park
Auroville – On entering the ‘global village’ as envisaged by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, we had to watch a video on the Matri Mandir before we were issued passes. One had to walk around 1 km (not sure) of clay road to reach a point from where you could gaze at the beautiful golden Matri Mandir and then walk back. I have two particular memories ensconced in my mind from the two trips:
Trip 1: We were accosted by a big group of white shirt-white lungi wearing men on our way to the Matri Mandir. “Madam, one photo with us, please,” they called out. We were quite taken aback but didn’t know how to say no. So, somewhere in this world, there is a photo taken of us with a group of hefty looking men.
Trip 2: My cousin Mainoo ba and her million poses for photographs along the way. I have proof of that, you know, in the form of considerable space occupied in my computer’s hard drive.
Entrance to Auroville
Shops at Auroville
Inside Auroville Visitor's Centre
A replica of the Matri Mandir
The inside view
The tree of life. The antics of people do not show that respect though.
A quiet corner
The Matri Mandir
Sri Aurobindo Ashram – Honestly, sis and I had landed up at the Ashram, which is the final resting place of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, primarily in the hope of having lunch at its canteen. The Ashram itself was quite an unassuming block, a far cry from the flamboyant Auroville, and was tucked away quietly in one of the several French named streets. We looked around furtively for any sign of food but got unnerved by the sight of people meditating and finally left the premises.
Sri Aurobindo Ashram
Manakula Vinayagar Temple – This is the temple where you get blessed by the temple elephant. Somehow, I felt extremely sad for the elephant that stood for hours and hours in one spot and blessed the people. I didn’t go there on my second trip. My parents did, though, and mom reported to me that she saw the poor fellow being fed water and food. Oh, well.
Before the post starts to drag, let me leave you with some images of Pondy and then I shall meet you once more in the second part. I will continue with the rest of our sightseeing in Pondy as well as mention the places for food and shopping. Stay tuned!
Update: Part 2 here
Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus
Inside the church
A sculpted pillar at the Bharti Government Park
The White House at Bharti Government Park
Gate of the Governor's Residence