An idea about vacationing in Puducherry usually conjures up an image of a quaint little beach town where life is slow and spirituality pervades the very air in the minds of people. Yet I could not have been more wrong in my expectations of the place.
Pondicherry or Puducherry is a small coastal town in Tamil Nadu on the eastern coastline of India. The French East India Company built a township in Pondicherry in 1674 and established their headquarters there. The town remained under French control till 1954 when it was absorbed by the Indian Union along with the rest of French held territories. Puducherry now remains a Union Territory under the Government of India.
It is a very busy tourist spot with swarms of two wheelers ruling the roads with their lawless riding and huge hotels and unkempt pathways. My family and I recently spent four-days vacationing in Puducherry, and as a rather frequent and passionate traveller I can safely say that this trip will not feature in a list of my favourite holiday destinations.
I will start with some well deserved praise. I had arranged for transportation online. There is an inter-city taxi service called Drop Taxi that provides transportation in different parts of South India. Their USP is that they charge for only one-way trips whereas most travel agents usually calculate the charges of a round trip even when the customer requires a one way journey. The bookings can easily be made online on their website. Their customer service is fantastic; I have never seen prompter replies to emails.
I had booked a car for our onward journey to Pondicherry a month ago, while the return journey was booked merely 24 hours in advance. In both cases the service provided was impeccable; we got the car we requested and the drivers were experienced and well behaved. Do check out Drop Taxi for your travelling needs if you are travelling south.
We reached Puducherry – or Pondi as people there fondly call it – at around 10 pm. We had prior bookings in Shenbaga Hotel and Convention Centre and checked in there. The entrance and the portico gave me a distinctly Trump tower-esque feel, I’m not too sure why! This hotel is slightly on the more expensive side, and there are a number of reasons why I remain dissatisfied with my stay there.
For a hotel with such rates we faced too many minor issues. Right from a small fracas over the availability of smoking rooms which I had specifically mentioned as a necessity during booking – and let me tell you Pondicherry as a whole is a smoker’s nightmare; the no-smoking signs are everywhere! – to slow room service that needed repeated reminders for each request to the AC breaking down and the card key to the room not working, the irritants were numerous.
And the worst part? A family friend who had come over to visit us from Tirupati had booked a room in the same hotel from a different website, a room qualitatively almost identical to ours, at nearly half the rate! Talk about daylight robbery. The rooftop swimming pool and the deck chairs are fantastic though, and the view from atop is beautiful. My father and I spent two lovely evenings reading and chatting and dozing up there.
Overall though, I would definitely not recommend the place to anyone travelling there. There are loads of other hotels in Puducherry, both ones around the same rate and much less expensive ones; read up reviews online and book only after thorough comparison of rates.
The beaches at Puducherry have faced extreme coastal erosion. In fact, the once lovely Promenade Beach has now disappeared almost completely, with a seawall of granite boulders having been constructed and regularly reinforced in an attempt to slow down the erosion. It is only in short stretches like the Serenity Beach tucked away in a quiet corner further down the city, or the famous Paradise Beach which is like an island that you have to visit in steamers that depart from the Paradise Park that you can romp around and frolic in the waves.
We visited the Aurobindo Ashram and the Auroville, two of the biggest attractions of the place. I am one of little faith when it comes to deification of men, and it was no exception in this case. Neither place held any attraction for me. Of course, I must admit that the drive to Auroville which is outside the main city was pleasant, as was the kilometre long walk through the forests to the Matrimandir.
The Matrimandir is supposed to be a place for quiet contemplation, yet paradoxically you need to make bookings for your contemplative moments four days in advance! I managed to pick up some interesting trinkets from the souvenir shops in the complex, though most items have cut throat prices there.
A simple cotton dress for Rs 6500, I kid you not! I could not help feeling even more cheated as a Bengali; if it were not for Aurobindo Ghosh, the militant nationalist turned spiritual philosopher from Bengal, where would Puducherry’s fame be today? Bengalis should be given special discounts for this very reason!
Indeed, everything in Puducherry is overly expensive. A one kilometre auto ride from the beach front to our hotel cost us Rs 100. The autos are the major modes of transportation within the city for tourists, and they tend to ask for obscene sums. The good news is, if you are an expert at bargaining, chances are you will be able to bring down the rate by several notches.
Motorcycles and bicycles are available for rent at daily rates, so young tourists may find it much easier on the pocket to hire one for their travels. Puducherry boasts of many famous cafes and restaurants that offer mouth watering preparations from many cuisines. Le Café on the beach front is particularly famous for its breakfast spread, though I would advice that one should keep away from the cheesecake they serve; definitely not worth the price.
We had wood fired baked pizza at a quirky place called Italicize, visit it if you can. They make you wait for your dish, but the owner’s friendly manner and the absolutely delicious taste makes up for the delay. Also step into a couple of the ordinary restaurants or roadside stalls; the thalis and the dosas there are delicious, not to mention dirt cheap.
Youngsters will be delighted to hear that since Puducherry is a Union territory, there are tax benefits which make liquor significantly cheaper here than in many other parts of the country!
There aren’t too many places to see in and around Puducherry. The internet will show you a whole list of places and monuments of course, but not all of them are worth the visit. There are a few churches, a couple of statues – one of Mahatma Gandhi and one of Dupleix on the Promenade – a memorial monument called Aayi Mandapam inside the Bharati Park, which is just a pretty little park for lazying about and stretching your legs.
There is the Museum, a very small one housed in an old French house, the Botanical Garden, which again is essentially for a walk amongst trees, and a plethora of temples that we systematically avoided because as a rule we find southern temples too aesthetically displeasing.
What gives character to a place are the quirks and idiosyncrasies that you notice there, and Puducherry has its fair share of those. The buses there have regulation horns that sound like the foghorn of ships, while the autos have rickshaw horns! South India is known for its filter coffee, yet there is a disappointing lack of roadside coffee stalls by the roads.
The people are nice and friendly, but it is practically impossible to make out what they say to you because most people do not speak more than a smattering of English, and with an abysmal accent at that. You have to make do with a lot of head nodding and sign language in your attempts to communicate. And here I have to mention, many elderly gentlemen channel the lungi fashion with great aplomb, their enviable moustaches and Aviator sunglasses adding to statement!
While returning to Chennai for our flight back home we took the East Coast Road and made a quick detour to Mahabalipuram. The Shore Temple, The five rathas and the carving of Arjuna’s Penance are the attractions there. The sea was a brilliant shade of turquoise and we could see a great many people bathing here, so give that a try if you have more time in hand.
As a parting verdict, I would suggest vacationing in Puducherry only if you are spiritually inclined. In that case the trip might be fruitful. If you must go to the ocean, find other places in South India. Kerala might be a better option from what I see and read about it, as will a trip to Vishakhapatnam. If you ask me though, I am clearly a mountain lover. Real treasure lies way up north, and nothing comes close to the grandeur of the Himalayas to make for a fulfilling vacation.