If peace and a break is the most sought after, then Pondicherry is surely one of the choicest holiday destinations in South India. The town offers a unique experience with its mix of modern heritage and spiritual culture. With a predominantly historical background, Pondicherry takes one centuries back in time.
Culture Arts and Crafts
Pondicherry’s culture, arts and crafts reflect its traditional Tamil heritage, French influences, a fusion of the two, as well as connections with nearby Auroville. Bharatnatyam and Carnatic music are as prominent as modern performing arts. Customary Tamil festivals such as Masimagam are celebrated with fanfare just as Bastille Day is. The city holds several music, dance and theatre festivals every year, in addition to regular performances. Film screenings and festivals are also gaining popularity. Painting, photography and sculpture exhibitions take place at galleries and other venues. Some boutiques, cafes and restaurants showcase the works of local artists, such as drawings or pictures of scenes from local life.
An amazing diversity of crafts thrive here – ceramic pottery and terracotta, handmade paper, perfumed candles and incense, papier-mache crafts, crochet garments and accessories, doll-making, stone carving, hammock-weaving, Tanjore paintings, bamboo crafts and metal works are some of the prominent ones. Craftspeople showcase their ingenuity with locally abundant materials with Kora grass weaving, coconut shell carving, wood carving, palm stem painting and palm leaf weaving. Pondicherry is also well-known for the availability and restoration of antique furniture in both classical and colonial styles.
Visitors can choose their mementoes from Pondicherry’s many specialities – ceramic tableware and ornaments, terracotta toys and trinkets, incense and scented candles, handmade paper lampshades and stationery, Buddha and Ganesh figures carved out of stone, brass statues and lamps, colourful hammocks, crocheted hats and dream catchers, papier-mache vases and idols, handmade dolls, bamboo knick-knacks, and of course, antique furniture and curios.
Articles crafted from locally abundant plants are a great option for souvenir collectors as well; options range from stylish Kora grass bags, coconut shell bowls and figurines, palm stem paintings, eco-friendly palm leaf baskets and trays, to wooden toys and puzzles.
Bargain-savvy shoppers will enjoy picking up cheap export surplus clothing, duty-free steel articles and custom-made footwear in the bustling markets of the city. Auroville boutiques present a contrasting experience, with their selective merchandise and calm ambience.
A trip to Goubert Market and the Sunday market will give the traveller an authentic bazaar experience and a peek at local life. And at the end of a tiring day of shopping, one can always relax with an inexpensive drink!
Few things demonstrate Pondicherry’s rich historical heritage and diverse contemporary culture the way its cuisine does. Traditional Tamil cuisine is very popular and many eateries serve snack items like idlis and dosas, full thalis and special dishes. French and Continental cuisine is not far behind, with a host of restaurants specialising in authentic and fusion dishes. Inventiveness is the keyword and travellers are sure to encounter unique dishes not to be found anywhere else.
Cuisine from the neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala exert their influences, and numerous restaurants offer Chettinad, Udupi and Hyderabadi specialities. Food aficionados can enjoy Italian, Arabian, Chinese and Vietnamese food here. Dishes from Punjabi as well as North-eastern cuisine make an appearance in several menus. The experiences range from luxurious fine dining to quick street food, with the ambience as varied as the cost.
At Le Cafe on Goubert Avenue, travellers can enjoy a snack right by the sea, any time of the day. The experience is unmatched by anything else in the city.
The Puducherry Tourism Department has been conducting an annual food festival, generally in July, to celebrate and showcase the diversity of the cuisines available in the city for the last 5 years. It is an excellent opportunity to sample a vast majority of the food experience on offer.
Sports and Adventure Sports
Pondicherry offers tourists a host of recreational sports to partake of. The best known of these is the Chunnambar Water Sports Complex. On offer are pedal boats, kayaks, speed boat rides and the newly introduced banana rides. It is an ideal destination for all kinds of thrill seekers.
Horse riding is yet another way to get the adrenaline flowing for first timers as well as more committed riders. Very few places in the country offer you the chance to ride a thorough-bred or an Arabian stallion.
Water babies can also kick back with surfing, bodyboarding, scuba diving and free diving, at the various beaches adjoining the town. Conditions are ideal for surfers of all skill-levels and the prices are unbeatable. Divers can explore marine life underwater and see stunning corals, fishes and sea plants. Lucky ones may spot turtles and whale sharks too.
The city’s French quarter as well as Auroville’s tree-lined roads and dirt-tracks can be explored on bicycle. More serious cyclists can join open groups that go on cycling trips several times a week. Trips may be local, focussed on improvised routes, hard exercise or road races.
If you’re ready to take it up a few notches, try rock climbing in the ravines near Auroville or abseiling/rappelling.
If you just want to look then try a spectator sport Pondicherry – style. Watch local players demonstrate their skill and concentration at pétanque, at the Joan of Arc statue. Popular in France and Spain, Pondicherry is the only place in India where this game is played.
Nature and Wildlife
October to February is the best season to watch migratory birds nesting in Pondicherry. Ample tree cover, availability of vegetation and insects for food makes the Auroville and Pondicherry University belt ideal nesting grounds for a host of species.
The Ousteri Wildlife Sanctuary is Pondicherry’s most significant wildlife haven. Over 160 species of birds, both aquatic and terrestrial, have been observed in the area, including the Darter, the Black-headed Ibis, the Spot-billed Pelican, the Eurasian Spoon Bill and the Painted Stork.
The seasonal Bahour Lake, a freshwater wetland, is also an important area for birds.
A variety of corals, fishes and crustaceans are just a few of the marine species found in the coastal waters of Pondicherry. Olive Ridley turtles, a Schedule I species, have nesting spots in several places along the coast, including the Karaikal region.
The Directorate of Forests and Wildlife runs artificial hatcheries to protect vulnerable eggs. In 2013, they were able to successfully release 500 hatchlings into the sea.
Aurobindo Ashram has played a significant role in the socio-economic-spiritual fabric of Puducherry since its establishment almost a century back Therefore it is not surprising that the Ashram and its various branches together occupy some of the best heritage properties in Puducherry. The Ashram Walk covers the northern section of French Puducherry, taking you through many grand buildings of French lineage, including the Raj Nivas, French Institute. Also included in the walk are some shops that sell products manufactured by the different Ashram ancillaries.
WALK ON FRENCH HERITAGE
The buildings in French section of Pondicherry are an enduring legacy of French history in India. It tells the story of a colonial adventure in a far away land, fighting many odds, overcoming a new and difficult terrain and the historic rivalry between the European powers of the time including the Danes, the Dutch and the British besides the French.
The French Heritage walk takes you through streets that are laid out in a well planned grid pattern. The buildings in the French section are easily recognizable by their ornate gateways arches, garden courtyards with multicoloured bougainvilleas and the buildings painted in pleasant hues of lime and peach. The grand French names through unpronounceable, adds a certain charm. Bon Voyage!!!
The buildings in the Tamil streets are characterized by rows of tiled roofed buildings almost joined together by continuous wall to wall constructions. While the older buildings more or less retain their ‘Tamilness’, the later constructions have acquired certain gallic features behind the Tamil facades. A synthesis of these two styles has resulted in a town that has a unique ‘Franco Tamil‘ architectural identity. Though unsympathetic modifications and extensions have ruined many wonderful samples of the native quarters, increasing awareness and work by certain non governmental agencies like the INTACH, have ensured restoration of some of the structures.
One of the best things about Pondicherry is the beaches. There are 4 main beaches: Promenade beach, Paradise beach, Auroville beach and Serenity beach. They are never too crowded and, compared to other beaches in India, the beaches in Pondicherry are pretty clean and well kept. And there is nothing quite as refreshing as sitting by a beautiful beach! Pondicherry offers you a variety of water sports including banana boat, jet ski, para sailing, scuba diving etc. You don’t need to go abroad to do something as surreal as scuba diving. You can have your breath taken away by going underwater in Pondicherry.
There are 32 churches in Pondicherry such as Church of Our Lady of Angels, Sacred Heart Church, Dupleix Church, Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Immaculate Conception Cathedral to take the name of few of the biggest and oldest ones. Their beauty lies in the French architecture and the solace they hold within. Irrespective of your religion, just a few minutes of silence and reflection within these churches can put your mind at peace.
Away from the hustle and bustle of big cities, Puducherry is a quiet little town on the southern coast of India. The unmistakable French connection, the tree lined boulevards, the quaint colonial heritage buildings, the spiritual sceneries, the endless stretches of unspoilt virgin beaches and backwaters and a surprising choice of restaurants serving a melange of cuisines provide a heady mix of experience that draws travellers from near and far to the city. It is the perfect place to come if you want to take the pace of life down a few notches.