The French Riviera of the East, as it is fondly called by travelers who fall in love with this pretty Indian union territory. Pondicherry is a city quite like none other in India. A former French colony, Pondicherry is charming in every sense of the word.
A beautiful promenade that overlooks the majestic Arabian sea, home to an experimental township unlike anywhere else and an extremely rich yet unique history. Pondicherry’s serenity attracts everyone, the regular traveler, the spiritual seeker and those who want a break from their hectic day to day lives.
Pondi or now officially called Puducherry, has an extremely strong French influence. An influence so strong that for a second you may be forgiven for thinking you aren’t in India anymore but in a coastal town along the Riviera. Quaint cafes, narrow lanes, pristine beaches and heritage buildings will transport you to a different time and a different world.
History and Culture of Pondicherry
If there was one place you could identify Pondicherry with, it would have to be France. Never under the British rule, Pondicherry was always an integral part of a much smaller French, things stayed that way up until the point where after India attained independence from all its colonist rulers, Pondicherry was absorbed into the Union of India and given the special status of a Union territory to preserve and promote its unique identity and heritage.
One of the most interesting things about Pondicherry is that almost all of its has been recorded after the advent of European colonists. In this case the Dutch, they were followed by the Portuguese, the British and then the French who would come to be the most closely associated with Pondicherry forever after. The French established the French East India Company in Pondicherry in the 17th century, and even though they had to surrender Pondicherry to the Brits a few times after, somehow Pondicherry would always eventually land back in the control of the French.
The interesting and relatively recent history of this beautiful coastal town can be seen through its heritage buildings, the French War memorial, a site that honors the fallen French soldiers in World War I, The French and Tamil quarters, where the two major communities lived and the world renowned community centric township, The Auroville Ashram.
Pondicherry has an extremely distinct culture, it’s managed to take the best of its Tamilian roots, infused it with its French influence managed to create a special identity that resonates with both India and France. While the French character is quite prominent, Pondicherry remains a place that is Indian at heart. Indian festivals are celebrated with fervour. With people from all over the world living in Pondicherry. Pondicherry is a great example of a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and an extremely cosmopolitan society.
Apart from all Indian festivals that are celebrated. People of Pondicherry also celebrate the Mascarade (Mask Festival) in France and its one big party on the streets of Pondicherry. The Hindu festival of Masi Magan is also widely celebrated and on Bastille Day, which is the national day of France, you can see the French memorial site lit up.
The food has an extremely strong Tamil influence with Rice and Sambhar being staple for the large Tamilian population of the city. There’s plenty of non-vegetarian options too, especially with Pondicherry being home to many finishing communities. Owing to a strong French influence, it’s not hard to find a cafe that serves a Baguette, Brioche or a Pastrie in Pondicherry.
How to get to Pondicherry
By Air – Pondicherry has an airport, however, the frequency of flights into Pondicherry is abysmal. You may still find a flight from Bangalore or Hyderabad. Practically your best bet to fly into Pondicherry is via Chennai. Fly into Chennai and drive to Pondicherry which is about 3 hours away making it a very viable option.
By Rail – Just like it’s airport, Pondicherry also has a railway station, Puducherry Junction. However it’s not very well connected with long-distance trains and train journeys that originate outside of Tamil Nadu. The closest major station to Pondicherry is the Villapuram Junction, it’s extremely well connected to most major railway stations and is about an hour away from Pondicherry.
By Road – Pondicherry is well connected by road to most major cities and touristic destinations in Tamil Nadu, Getting a bus or hiring a cab from places like Chennai, Thanjavur, Madurai, Trichy, Coimbatore and even Bangalore is definitely a good idea.
Best time to travel to Pondicherry
The best time to visit is definitely in the winter months from October to March, the weather is pleasant and makes exploration and beach days a lot more fun. Pondicherry does get some rainfall from October to December but those days are far and few in between! You must try attending the Mascarade festival if you visit in March.
The months from April to June are hot and ideally best skipped. The monsoon months from July to September may play spoilsport to your outdoor plans or days where you want to visit the beach, but the monsoons don’t hit Pondicherry as heavily as they do on the western coast of the country.
Getting around Pondicherry
Neighborhoods like the French Quarter and the Tamil Quarter are best explored on foot. If you have a bike, navigating around the town gets much simpler. It also enables you to visit some of the smaller fishing villages around the coast. Having a bike or a car also makes exploring Aurovilla a lot easier and a lot more fun.
The public transport in Pondicherry is quote poor and while you can book an Ola cab on your phone in Pondi. Renting a bike / car remains the best mode of exploration.
Breaking stereotypes about Pondicherry
French is a common language of communication in Pondicherry. Statistically 20% of the population in Pondicherry knows French to an extent. However, the language is not commonly spoken at all. Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu and English are the official languages of Pondicherry and learning French is equivalent to learning Sanskrit. It’s a prestigious language to learn, however, it has little use for in the day to day life of Pondicherry.
Go check out
French Memorial Site – A memorial built to honor all the French soldiers who lost their lives in the first world war is a frequent site among tourists to this day. It’s well lit up and decorated on Bastile day and makes for a beautiful sight.
Auroville Ashram – Auroville is a one of its kind experimental township, which focuses on community living. The Ashram is administered by the Indian government and operates completely independently. The whole purpose of Auroville is to promote Human unity and for people to live in peace and progress together regardless of their nationality, race or gender.
What makes Auroville special is it has its own economy which is different from the traditional way of doing things. Every resident has an account linked to the central account and through guest houses and sale of stationery items like handmade paper and incense sticks. Auroville is a self sustaining global community.
The Promenade – The promenade in Pondy is just that a beautiful promenade overlooking the sea. The French Riviera of the east tag comes from the promenade and the beautiful heritage buildings that are a symbol of the stunning French architecture. Chill in one of the quintessentially French cafes that offer amazing views of the sea or go for a swim while the sun is still out. The promenade is arguably the best spot in Pondicherry to unwing.