A walk down the French Colony of Pondicherry and Auroville
In my previous post I made an ideal 3-day Pondicherry itinerary for you. For those who only have one day in Pondicherry, I’d suggest exploring the French colony of Pondicherry and Auroville. I had mentioned in my previous post that the remnants of the French colony of Pondicherry can only be seen in 10% of the total area of the union territory. The architecture, the subtle colors, Gothic influence in the churches, cute cafes, tree-lined streets, and wide-walkways lends a unique charm to this area of Pondicherry. You can also find French influence in the design and culture of Auroville, the Global experimental city. So let me take you on a virtual walking tour as we explore the French quarters of Pondicherry and the city of Auroville.
Enter Auroville – Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls
Once again, like a true Bengali, I couldn’t help myself from quoting Tagore. After all, the vision of Auroville has an uncanny resemblance to what Rabindranath Tagore saw when he thought of “Freedom”. We start our day at Pondicherry with Auroville- an experimental city based on the vision of Rishi Aurobindo Ghosh and Mirra Alfassa, fondly remembered as the Mother. The residents of this city have no religion, no nationality, no race that divides humanity. We are enthralled by the clean and green city devoid of the honking and pollution outside. First, we enter the theatre where we are introduced to the concept of Auroville and the Matrimandir. We also get an insight into the life and works of Rishi Aurobindo.
Rishi Aurobindo’s life-story is stranger than fiction. A brilliant scholar born to a rich Bengali family, educated in English, he went to England for studies at the age of 5. He returned to India and joined civil services at the age of 21. While working on this role he started taking interest in the politics of Indian independence. He soon joined the national movement by Bal Gangadhar Tilak and was imprisoned by the British. During his prison years, he was visited by Swami Vivekananda which greatly influenced his thoughts. He studied and wrote during his prison years and converted completely from politics to spirituality. Mirra Alfasa, the Mother was a French by birth who joined him in his spiritual endeavor and helped spread yoga and the vision of Auroville.
We walk up to the Matrimandir while reveling at the nature and works of art all around. We end our trip to Auroville with a brunch at one of the cafes. Relishing the locally produced organic food is one of the best things to do in Auroville. After this, we go through the exhibit shop, buy some books and garments, before we set off for a tour of the White Town of Pondicherry.
Vysial Street, Heritage town
From Auroville, you can drive to Vysial Street and park your car carefully. We stayed near the Heritage town so our car remained at our hotel itself. From here begins our walking tour of the French town of Pondicherry. Also known as the heritage street of Pondicherry, it is lined with beautiful colonial-era buildings. Most of these are residential buildings that have now been refurbished into boutique hotels. You can also indulge in street-shopping here, rent a bike or hire one of those colorful rickshaws for commute. We choose to walk in the beautiful roads. The generous canopies shield us from the harsh sun as we walk towards the white town.
Our next stop is Aurobindo Ashram. This Ashram is dedicated to Rishi Aurbindo and is currently home to a community of 2000 members. The Ashram is open to visitors from 4:30 pm to 6:30 pm, and there is no entry fee. We keep our shoes outside and enter the premises. A peaceful calm exists in the confines of these walls.
Immaculate Conception Cathedral
After this, we continue to walk on the beautiful tree-lined streets of Paris.. oops Pondicherry. We passed by the Police museum but didn’t have time to enter. That’s reserved for another time. We enter the gorgeous white cathedral adorned with golden bars. The Immaculate conception cathedral located on the MG Road is a 300-year-old shrine is built in the Portuguese style of architecture and is the residence of the Bishop. The frescoes inside are as beautiful as the design outside.
The Raj Bhavan is not a place where you can just buy tickets to and enter. It is the residence of the governor, a magnanimous white palace located in the white town. You can, however, visit rajnivas.py.gov.in and register for a visit inside the premises. It stands right opposite to the historic Bharathi Park.
Bharathi Park or the government park is a green oasis in the Frech town of Pondicherry. The park’s unique charm captivated us the moment we entered. The Aayi Mandapam, a pristine white monument stands at the center of the park. From here four lanes divide the Park in almost equal parts speckled with sculptures new and old. Right outside the exit, there is a bustling market of local food and souvenirs.
Open Time: 10 am to 5 pm
Mahatma Gandhi Statue
The Mahatma Gandhi statue across the rock beach is one of the icons of Pondicherry. Surrounded by ornate obelisks stands the statue of one of the greatest men in world history, also revered as the father of the nation. Opposite to the Gandhi statue stands the statue of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India. From here begins our walk along the Bay of Bengal which is lined with the best photo spots of Pondicherry.
Pondicherry Old Lighthouse
From here you can see the old lighthouse of Pondicherry which was constructed by the French in the nineteenth century. Though the lighthouse is not functional it is a significant point for many cultural activities throughout the year.
We have been walking constantly so far. It’s time to sit on the rocky beach and enjoy the sea breeze while providing the much-needed rest to our aching calves. It’s disheartening to see plastics littered over this beautiful place. It’s not really dirty but it’s an eyesore in an area that is so clean and beautiful. We sit there for a while watching the boats and the birds floating in the canvas of nature.
Le Cafe at Promenade
Le Cafe is an important landmark for many reasons. The graffiti on its walls attract many posers in the age of Instagram. It’s also open all day and all night serving French delicacies. While the beaches here are closed to public at 11 pm, you can still enjoy the sea breeze at this cute cafe. We walk past the cafe enjoying the vibes of the promenade.
French War Memorial
The French War memorial is the most iconic structure at the promenade, after the Mahatma Gandhi statue. It is dedicated to the soldiers of French India who died in the first world war. Pondicherry sent 800 recruits for the war and saw 75 deaths from this group. The soldiers and their sacrifice were immortalized through this memorial. Every year 14th July is observed as the Bastille Day the memorial is illuminated. French officials visit here and lay flowers to honor them on this day.
Open Time- 10 am to 5 pm
BR Ambedkar Memorial
There are many exhibitions that go on at the promenade all-year-round. We come across one such space exhibition. Unique collages made of recycled sacks, cans, and other wastes adorn the corners. Then we reach the BR Ambedkar Memorial. BR Ambedkar is the architect of the Indian Constitution who fought against the caste system and for the betterment of the downtrodden. It’s a small building with a fountain in front of BR Ambedkar’s statue.
Lady Des Angels, Notre Dame Church
Our penultimate stop in this walking tour is the Lady Des Angels Church, the fourth oldest church in Pondicherry. It was commissioned by Napolean III and built in Greco-Roman style. This beautiful pink church was originally white with two functional clocks on its pillars. Now the clocks are not functional but the church has been renovated to a great extent to make it look new. The highlight of this church is the statue of Joan of Arc outside the main chapel which faces the seaside promenade beachfront. We continue to walk towards the beachfront now.
It’s time for a little rest before we leave the seafront. The promenade beachfront is another rocky beach where you can sit for hours just enjoying the views. It’s time for the sunset already and there is no better place to experience it than here. We sit here for some time before we head to our last stop of the day.
Sacred Heart Basilica
Pondicherry is full of beautiful temples and churches. The churches are found mostly in the French town and here I have selected my favorite three on the walking tour. The Sacred Heart Basilica is a glorious monument on the south boulevard of Pondicherry. Established in 1902 in the Gothic style of architecture, this is the most ornate church I have seen in Pondicherry and probably the only one with this color combination. The bright red and white colors outside are complemented by stained glass inside depicting events from Jesus Christ’s life. None of these churches are as big or magnificent as the ones in Europe, or even in old Goa in India. But they have their own charm in their simplicity.
Here ends our walking tour. It was a long and exhausting one, but exhilarating at the same time. What do you think? Share with me in the comments section. Please don’t forget to share the post if you like it. Check out our post about the top places to visit in South India for more gems and travel tips.
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