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Peaceful Pondy

From the deep surreal blue of Bay of Bengal to Indians whipping up tasty steak grille or gratin de legumes faster than tandoori chicken, the myriad facets of Pondicherry intrigue Preeti Kannan

My last visit to Pondicherry town the headquarters of the Union Territory of Pondicherry or Pondy in popular parlance was five years ago, a two and a half-hour drive along the East Coast Road for a quick half-day trip. What remained etched in my mind was the long, beautiful coastline, aesthetic edifices, clean streets bearing French names, cyclists and small, seaside cafes. Half a decade later, Pondicherry remains the same, with the exception of a few hoardings advertising new hotels in town. While the entire country is racing towards modernisation, time stands still in Pondicherry. That, precisely, makes the town enthralling and inviting.

Colours of sunset
Gandhi Memorial
One of the several churches dotting Pondy
Quaint old houses of Pondy
Building sporting French architecture
Auroville - Matra Mandir

Watching my bus cross the tollgate, I take the cue to prepare myself to enter the old laid back erstwhile French colony. The rickety bus I am travelling in goes through a maze of streets, blaring its horn with ferocity intended to jolt pedestrians and cyclists in its way. But, they go about their lives, unconcerned and oblivious to the impatient bus driver. The town does not look different from any other south Indian city, as people prepare to begin their day. Half an hour later, I alight at the main bus stand of Pondy, only to be accosted by auto drivers offering to take me on a ride.

When the French ruled Pondy, the town was divided into the white town, because of its French inhabitants and the black town, named after the Indians living there. The French left decades ago, but the distinction still remains, albeit with a slight difference. It is now called the French and the Tamil quarters. One glimpse at the white town and it still looks spanking new, with its striking; grid-like streets scrubbed and spotlessly clean. The only evidence to any life is the occasional whirring of a tourist car or a government jeep with an official on his way to a meeting. Caution: If you are late for an appointment, never use a traffic jam as an excuse, because chances are you will never find one.

All roads, rather rues, lead to the sea in white town and all of them look alike. Most of them are also, almost always, deserted and the entire city looks like it has packed up and gone on a vacation. Welcome to a regular, working weekday in a Pondicherrian's life. And this is probably why the tourism department calls its town "Peaceful Pondicherry", with the apt tagline - "Give time a break!"

Name boards, street names, notices outside schools, shops, menus in restaurants - the city's glorious past can be sensed and felt in every corner of the city. Locals wax eloquently in French, with an ease of a mother tongue, but of course with an accent and diction carried with élan only by a Tamilian. It is not confused, this city. It is just a character unique to this town and its people.

Another enduring facet is the warmth that its people exude. They are easily casual, informal and friendly and are ready to chat you up with details about the culture and the French connection they share. "You ask me any question and I have all the answers," my taxi driver insists in broken English, barely concealing his disappointment at my lack of enthusiasm in visiting the usual tourist hotspots. He explains to me that the prayers in the church on the beach road are in French and that Indian French nationals vote to decide the fate of politicians in France.

The greenery and the absence of pollution, including the architectural charm, are in startling contrasts to other cities, where concrete jungles and an insatiable appetite for development have defeated sanity. The city's compactness makes it easy to take a stroll around or it is possible to rent cycles and even motorbikes to tour the city. The best way to go sightseeing in Pondy is definitely on a bicycle and the even roads make for a pleasurable ride through the town.

Pondy, like most towns, has its share of beautiful sights compounded with its fascinating history. The churches, with its elegant, stained glass panels, depicting events from the life of Christ, are breathtaking and a must see. The old transport mechanisms, the bronze gallery with images of gods and goddesses, the assortment of temple lamps in the museum bring history back to life.

Yoga is a way of life at the famous Aurobindo Ashram's and this belief is captured in its true essence with people flocking to the place to lose themselves in meditation. The sound of silence echoes through the place and provides perfect solace to the restless mind. The Auroville (City of Dawn) also called the "International township for harmony" is everything it promises, with the `Mattri Mandi' - a meditation room having the largest single glass crystal in the world.

Fact File
Reaching There: Pondicherry is well connected by buses between Chennai, Bangalore, Trichy, Coimbatore, Thirupathy, Madurai, Kochi and Trivandrum. The nearest airport is however Chennai. It is also connected upto Villupuram, which is 36 kms from Pondy, by rail.

Best Time To Visit: Throughout the year, though October to March is the peak time for foreign visitors and summer vacation for Indians.

Accommodation: You can pick and choose between hotels depending on your budget between Hotel De L'Orient, Promenade, Dupleix, The Ananda Inn, Annamalai International and Mass Hotel. The Dune, a beach village, is one of the newest properties in town, albeit on the outskirts.

Package Tours: Pondicherry Travel and Tourism Development Corporation organises regular package and trekking tours.

Pondy is also a favourite haunt for shoppers looking to buy anything from fancy pottery to leather to hand made paper. If you are a handmade paper buff, then the Aurobindo Ashram's Paper Factory is an ideal place to stop by. Colourful photo frames, folders, bookmarks, writing pads and a host of things are available at a steal. Shop-hoppers can easily get hooked on to the wide range of boutiques Pondy has to offer and there's one in almost every street. Chic, classy tops, kurtas, semi-precious stones, perfumes, hand-made incense sticks, candles and anything else you name is available.

Chinese fishing nets
Shore Temple
Beach in Pondi
Old world charm of Lorient hotel

Over the last few years, many hotels, including boutique hotels, have mushroomed in the city and they are proving to be a major draw for Bangalorians, Chennaiites and even people from Madurai looking for an easy getaway. The town also boasts of business hotels catering to several corporate clientele from the automobile industry, pharma and IT sector. There are beachside cafes to tuck into and other places that offer authentic Vietnamese, exclusively French, Chinese and Indian dishes.

The East Coast Road connecting Chennai and Pondicherry is a smooth 170 kilometre ride for those wanting to spend a quite weekend doing nothing - except unwind. With liquor flowing free and cheap in the city, people often come down to sip a couple of beers and bite into the exotic cuisine.

Pondy is definitely incomplete without a stroll on the beach road either early morning or late evening. The town, with its colonial hangover, multi-cuisine and other sights, make it a fascinating place to visit. An urbanite used to the hustle-bustle and fast-paced life is prone to get restless, itching to get back to his hearth. The town also closes down between one and three p.m., when the town folk go for lunch and probably a siesta. All this only makes the peaceful town all the more enduring and fascinating. While change is the only constant in life, Pondicherry has managed to elude this phenomenon retaining its old-world charm. It will, in all probabilities, continue to do so.

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