Pondicherry – a beautiful mix of history, cultures, and spirituality

There is so much to see and experience in Pondicherry, a small Indian city perching out over the Bay of Bengal on the East coast south of Chennai. With its broad French inspired Boulevards to stroll down, great eateries for amazing food and beautiful seaside Promenade a couple of days in Pondicherry can easily be a very full itinerary. I spent two days in Pondicherry and here are some of the highlights.

I explored the city entirely by foot, it is flat and easy to navigate in a logical and straightforward grid. The streets are well maintained and orderly and there is plenty of activity from morning until well into the night. I stayed at a hostel on MG (Mahatma Gandhi, there is one in every Indian city) Road and the location was brilliant for centralised access to the main points of interest I covered.

Pondicherry at night, MG Road Pondicherry at night, MG Road

French Quarter, Promenade and Bharathi Park

Pondicherry was under French colonial rule until relatively recently (mid-1950’s) and the legacy of this period has been kept in the French Quarter, with tree-lined streets, mustard-colored colonial villas, chic boutiques, and exclusive restaurants. The seaside promenade provides an excellent walking path for a gentle stroll taking in the sunset at the end of the day. As you take in the ocean out to the West you will pass several statues, including a 4m-high Gandhi Memorial that is fervently photographed by the loyal lovers of Gandhi that are anywhere you might choose to travel in India. If the refreshing sea breeze is not to your liking a block back in, away from the beachfront is Bharathi Park, a little green oasis where groups of teenage girls in their striking saris check their mobile phones and Uber Eats drivers hang out waiting for their next call up.

Pondicherry Beach on the Promenade
Pondicherry sunset from the Promenade
Pondicherry women in bright saris on the Promenade
The Promenade, sometimes called Rock Beach The Promenade, sometimes called Rock Beach

Sri Aurobindo Ashram

While in this part of the city take a walk a little further North and you will inevitably pass through the few blocks of the city where the buildings of Sri Aurobindo Ashram are located. Sri Aurobindo Ashram started in the 1920’s with only two dozen followers and now about 1600 active members make up this diverse community. There are buildings here for permanent residents and those committed to staying in the Ashram for a finite period. There is no public access to this part of the Ashram but visitors can access the outer area and view the Samadhi or Mausoleum. This is located in the central courtyard under a frangipani tree and many devout pay their respects by laying flowers on it every day. Visitors exit the Ashram via the bookstore which is an opportunity to pick up some amazing literature, amongst some of the most respected in the world of Indian Spiritual writing it is a testament to the breadth of writing by both Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, founders of Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Photography inside the Sri Aurobindo Ashram is not permitted and open times start at 8:00 am until 4:00 pm and closed between 12:00 noon and 2:00 pm.

Pondicherry Museum

Circling back around, your walking tour will take you past the Pondicherry Museum. The museum is located on Saint Louis Street and is open on all days except Mondays and national holidays between 10:00 am and 5:00 pm. It is small and not very well maintained, but this lends to its authenticity. There are statues and earthenwares, farming implements and tools and antique furniture with possibly some of the original dust on it. For a couple of rupees, this slightly shambolic collection of artifacts and antiques is nice for the novelty or possibly intriguing to anyone with more than a passing interest.

Pondicherry Museum

The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus

Heading South, across the city and through the wide tree-lined streets of White Town if you walk for about three kilometers towards South Boulevard near the Railway Station you will discover The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. This Gothic-style Roman Catholic Church is hard to miss with the dark red brick street frontage. Yet another contrast in the hybrid mix of architecture that makes up Pondicherry’s man-made landscape. A cool and quiet place to pray you can enter the Church and admire the stained glass windows while escaping the heat and cacophony of the streets.

Arulmigu Manakula Vinayagar Temple

As the streets of Pondicherry transition into nightfall and darkness the energy shifts gear slightly. The temperature drops a few degrees and with it conversely the energy lifts, just a little. The slouchy Indian pedestrian traffic still meanders but under the light of the moon faces are reflected in neon. And the broad Avenues close in some areas allowing vendors the right of way, dominating the bitumen under street lit corners.

One such area is the Arulmigu Manakula Vinayagar Temple. Made famous by its Elephant blessing the pilgrims and devout who come to make offerings and are rewarded with a pat on the head by an outstretched trunk. This is a temple best seen at night. The India that is synonymous with colour is translated in neons and fluorescent paint here. Offerings for Lord Ganesh the elephant Hindu deity can be purchased, along with other various souvenirs and trinkets and cotton candy and popcorn.

This ends a very full day foot itinerary or a leisurely two-day walking tour. Pondicherry is a beautiful small coastal city that is well worth a visit for a couple of days. It really is a wonder to see how this beachside town manages to honor the heady mix of history, cultures, and spirituality.

 

Check out the gallery of all of my favorite images from Pondicherry

Check out the video of my favorite memories from my two days in Pondicherry

 

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