Pondicherry, a French Riviera of the East

A story of my exploration of the French legacy in India

12 AUGUST 2017,
Our Lady of Angels Church
Our Lady of Angels Church

A visit to Pondicherry was always on my bucket list since the time I had moved to Bangalore about 4 years back. I had heard a lot of stories about Pondicherry since my childhood and more so after moving to Bangalore which had created a sense of fascination in me about it. France is one of the fascinating countries in the world known for its sophistication, tranquility, art and culture. Therefore, anything having a French connection has to be equally fascinating.

Pondicherry is capital of union territory of Puducherry and has a rich history like many other cities in India. Over a period of time, the city had been part of the kingdom of Pallavas, Cholas, Pandyas, Sultan of Bijapur and later French East India Company which controlled it from 1674 onwards. During the era post 1674, it moved between British and French ownership couple of times. When the British gained control of the whole of India in the late 1950s, they allowed the French to retain their settlements in the country. Pondicherry, Mahe, Yanam, Karaikal and Chandernagor remained part of French India until 1954 when it merged with Union of India along with rest of French Indian territories though the formal transfer of territory agreement between France and India was signed in 1962.

Another interesting fact about Pondicherry is that it is one such unique union territory or state in India which comprises 4 different geographical units spread across including one of western coast of India and the remaining three on eastern coast surrounded by Tamil Nadu state. None of these 4 geographic units share a common border with each other.

Though I traveled a lot during last four years but somehow could not plan to make a trip there due to myriad number of reasons. Finally in last March, I planned a family trip and decided that I will drive down as it will give me some flexibility to play around with pit-stops on the way and take detours as and when I would need. There are plenty of such opportunities on the way if you are an explorer sort of person and don’t follow the map strictly. As against my normal weekend trips, this time I included Monday & Tuesday as well in the plan which would allow me to go at a leisure pace.

The overall plan for the trip was:

Saturday Starting early morning from Bangalore and reaching Pondicherry by evening
Sunday Local sight-seeing in and around Pondicherry
Monday Starting in the morning, stopover @ Mahabalipuram, Reaching Chennai by evening
Tuesday Starting early morning, quick stop at Rajiv Gandhi Memorial at Sriperumbudur & reaching Bangalore by evening

There are couple of routes one can follow to reach Pondicherry from Bangalore. The shortest route is the one through Krishnagiri and Thiruvannamalai. This route takes about 320 kilometers. The other routes include those taking a right turn either from Vellore or Ranipet or Kancheepuram apart from few more on the road which goes to Chennai. Last one from Kancheepuram takes about 400 kilometers but is advised by many as the road is much better though its two-lane road on most of the stretch after Kancheepuram. I was advised by my local friends not to take the route from Thiruvannamalai as roads are not in a good condition after Krishnagiri.

As planned, we hit the road early Saturday morning and by 12.30pm we were at Kancheepuram. It was once capital of Early Cholas and is also referred as "Banaras of South". The city is regarded as one of the seven holiest cities in India. We took a quick stop-over of about 15-20 minutes in front of the Ekambareswarar Temple to visit and clicked some pictures in front of the magnificent gate post which we started as we wanted to reach Pondicherry well before the sun-set. It is very important if you are traveling to any town for the first time with family. We reached by 5.30 and did not find any difficulty locating the guest house. Though we did not stop at Kancheepuram longer but I will suggest if your time schedule permits, you can take a break of about 2 hours there and visit the main seven temples though the city has 108 Shiva temples.

After settling down for couple of hours, we headed towards Beach Road. This part of the town is also referred to as French Riviera of the east. On one side there is Bay of Bengal while the other side of road has French colony which is known for its French style quarters and villas. If someone wants to have the flavor of France, this is the perfect place to have it. By the time we reached Beach Road, it was already dark but the road was crowded.

We could notice many families sitting on the side wall on the beach as well as under the Gandhi Mandapa. The whole place was well-lit so that one can enjoy the evening walk. It seemed as if the whole town had descended on this place and the place was humming. The section of the Beach road around was vehicle free which provided sufficient space to people to enjoy the leisurely walk as well as the ocean winds. The whole atmosphere was festive and one could see people from all age groups out on the road even though it was slightly late in the night. I must add that there were proper security arrangements with police personnel patrolling the area to avoid any unwanted incidents.

The walk indeed was enjoyable as a cool breeze from Bay of Bengal was blowing and the ambiance had given the place an oriental touch. There are couple of coffee shops which are open twenty four by seven. In case, you like to have a late night coffee while in town, you can head towards this place and be rest assured to get a very good coffee with a nice sitting place to enjoy it. After strolling on the beach road for about 2 hours, we came back though did not want to come back.

Before retiring for the day, we made a list of places to be covered at Pondicherry on Day 2 and divided them into 2 parts:

The first part included Beach Road, Gandhi Statute, Arulmigu Manakula Vinayagar (Ganapathy) Temple, Seaside Promenade, French War Memorial, Sri Aurobindo Ashram and the Church of Our Lady of Angels, while on the second part we had Auroville, Paradise Beach, French quarters, Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Cuddalore Temple, Silver Beach and Chidambaram Temple. I will talk about these as well as about the Hollywood trail in my following article.