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A Traveler's Guide to Pondicherry - Architecture, Beaches, and Ashrams

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East meets West in picturesque Pondicherry (also known as Puducherry) and its 2 distinct cultural identities are separated by a canal that snakes through the city. On 1 side, you experience the enduring charm of Pondy's former status as a French settlement by the sea. On the other, Pondicherry is a bustling Indian town with lively festivals and rituals.

The French Quarter

 

From 1674, barring a few, brief snatches in history, Pondicherry remained a French stronghold. By the time it was incorporated with India in 1954, the French had left a lasting mark. Just beyond the azure sea, you step onto cobblestone streets of sunny-yellow buildings covered with cascading bougainvillea. Monuments from the French era such as the French Consulate and the Governor's Residence still endure, along with graceful cathedrals and lush gardens. As you wander through the area, tempting aromas waft from artisan bakeries and quaint European-style restaurants. Neighboring them, fashionable boutiques sell fabrics and artifacts showcasing Pondicherry’s heritage.

 

  • French Consulate, 2 Marine Street, Pondicherry 605001; Tel: +91 413 2231000; Website: French Consulate

Architecture and heritage

 

While Pondicherry is a modern Indian city in many ways, it’s also unmistakably romantic about it’s past. On Promenade Beach, Pondy's popular seafront, you can gaze up at towering statues of Joseph François Dupleix (former French governor-general in India) and Mahatma Gandhi. The French War Memorial pays tribute to the heroes of World War I, while a recent memorial salutes the soldiers of the Kargil War. Churches from the colonial era, Puducherry Museum, and preservation efforts by organizations like INTACH Pondicherry, help to reconstruct the city's fascinating history.

 

  • Puducherry Museum, Romain Rolland Street, Pondicherry 605001; Tel: +91 413 2336203; Website: Puducherry Museum
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  • INTACH Pondicherry, 62 Rue Aurobindo Street, Pondicherry 605001; Tel: +91 413 2225 991; Website: INTACH Pondicherry

 

Sri Aurobindo Ashram and Auroville

 

Pondicherry’s reputation as a tranquil place for a retreat is cemented by the presence of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and its township offshoot, Auroville. In 1926, Sri Aurobindo and his spiritual collaborator, known as "The Mother," started the Ashram. Here, he preached integral yoga, a psychological practice that aims to elevate consciousness and help participants achieve divinity. Queue up outside to catch a glimpse of Sri Aurobindo’s life and times. A few miles beyond the city, you can visit Auroville's gleaming, golden orb. This is the façade for Matrimandir - a spiritual sanctuary for the practitioners of integral yoga.

 

  • Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Marine Street, Pondicherry 605002; Tel: +91 413 2233649; Website: Sri Aurobindo Ashram
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  • Auroville, Auroville, Viluppuram 60510, Tamil Nadu; Tel: +91 413 2623424; Website: Auroville

 

Beaches and backwaters

 

Pondicherry’s beaches add to its laid-back feel. Take a long stroll down Promenade Beach which borders the city, and look out for architectural highlights including the War Memorial, Dupleix Park, and Gandhi Memorial. You can paddle in the calm waters at Auro Beach after a spiritual breather at the experimental town of Auroville. Paradise Beach, which can be reached by motorboat from the Chunnambar backwaters, has clear-blue water and soft sand.

 

 

Gardens and Parks

 

Sitting pretty in the center of the French Quarter is Bharathi Park. The area around its iconic Aayi Mandapam monument, erected to mark the start of water supply to the city, makes a peaceful spot for a picnic. Another pleasant green space in the city is the Botanical Gardens, which was laid out by the French in 1826. Walk past white statues of 2 bulls going head-to-head to discover exotic flora from around the world. Fountains, a Japanese Rock display, and a powder-blue miniature train are other highlights.