Ta-da! After a three and a half hour drive, we reached 'India's little France', Puducherry. What should have taken about three hours from Chennai took nearly five since we succumbed to the temptation of stopping over at the Covelong Beach. Having a simple yet luxurious lunch of fish fingers, fries and tartar sauce with shrimps and chicken satay at the beach - Vivanta by Taj at the Fisherman's Cove was difficult to resist.
About 40-km from Chennai Airport, Fisherman's Cove is built on the ramparts of an old Dutch fort, with ambience and food that make this a must-visit for those driving down from Chennai to Puducherry. Seven kilometers away from the beach resort is the famous Crocodile Bank. Since we are not avid reptile lovers, we gave it a skip, but were fascinated nonetheless by the sheer abundance of the 'collection'. The Bank is home to several species of Indian and African crocodiles. Nearly five thousand species are kept in their natural surroundings in open pools. These can be viewed from a safe distance. The farm has been established with the aim to protect and conserve endangered reptiles such as crocodiles and alligators.
The moment you touch Puducherry, driving into the coastal town and seeing the vast expanse of land and water, you realise this is no cookie-cutter beach destination. Also, there is a certain depth and character to the place that envelopes you immediately. You suddenly feel quietened. Your heart beat becomes a bit even and you become more of an observer in the larger scheme of things rather than a harried participant. So, whether you are quaint, impulsive or an easy going traveller, this place has you "hooked" in a je ne sais quoi (something that cannot be described or expressed) sort of a way.
The town is divided into two sections - the French quarters and the Indian quarters. As expected, there is a strong French presence, with streets retaining French names and many locals still speaking French instead of English or Tamil. The entire area of the Aurobindo Ashram compound which was our destination has a dominant French effect. The buildings are in typical colonial style with long compounds and large French windows.
Living in the Ashram
We had arranged our stay at one of the Ashram's guest houses. The Ashram offers accommodation for ashram visitors only and not for general public. Since these guest houses are not commercial in nature, there are no TV, phones or other amenities of such nature that you may find in any hotel. The tariffs for the rooms are between Rs 200 - 500 a day. Daily conducted tours are on offer to give you greater insight into what it is to live in the Ashram. Bookings can be made online, but as mentioned above, accommodation is not open for general public or tourist. Its for ashram visitors only.
Although as a temporary Ashram inmate, you are allowed to do your own thing, there is a sense of responsibility you feel as soon as you become an Ashramite, in that not to in any way ruin the peace and tranquility of the place and to try and just merge with the surroundings.
We checked in around 5pm and were told that dinner was scheduled for 7pm. We were free to eat out, provided we got back by 10pm, which is when the gates were closed. Plenty of multicuisine restaurants dot the area outside the Ashram and alongside the beaches serve fresh sea food, apart from a vegetarian menu. We decided to venture out.
Our first stop was the "the boat house". Situated at Chunnambar backwaters 7 - 8 kms from Puducherry, it offered the option of stay at a tree-house and to experience select water sports. Located near the mouth of the backwaters, this beach is also known as Plage Paradiso and is ideal for sun bathing, provided one turned up early noon. Highly recommended is a short, pleasant cruise into the sea where dolphin sightings are common. This option was closed for us since we had gotten late coming. But we were happy with the sight of sparkling pristine sand and clean water.
After a gentle stroll we settled down for dinner at the Seagull Restaurant with a view of the backwaters. Watching the sun go down while having an early greasy Chinese dinner, was mesmerizing, though an odd combination. Out of the beaches at Puducherry, Chunnambar, Paradise and Auroville beaches are famous. And we just experienced one.
Heading back to the Ashram, we realised we had an hour before the gates officially closed, so we embarked on the 'Ashram Walk', which is about a kilometer stretch alongside the ashram. Chancing upon some of the town's best kept heritage properties, including Raj Nivas, the Governer's House and the French Institute which functions as an establishment for higher studies and research projects in South and South-East Asia, we could feel the strong French influence. French style bakeries and tiny cafes with colourful awnings looked inviting too.
Residents of the Ashram could be seen taking their post dinner strolls and you could not help noticing the rather pleasant Indo-French fusion - in their dressing and even demeanour as some of them folded hands to do 'namaste' or simply nodded as a kind of welcome gesture. A lot of the women were wearing cotton sarees and kurtis while the men were in kurta pyjamas, mostly white. Paper dosa kiosks were doing brisk business and the dosas seemed unusually long. We made a mental note to check them out next morning.
History comes alive
We were all packed and ready to take on our second day by 7am, embarking on a conducted tour for Arikamendu, an archeological site near Puducherry. It is a small fishing town. The town is best known for its stone beads. Signs of it being an ancient trading port were evident with treasure trails of Romans and Cholas. We were told that to know more about Arikamedu and its ancient culture we could visit the Pondicherry Museum where pottery, beads, shell bangles, ear studs etc are preserved.
Scant archeological remains can be seen with perpendicular walls and an ancient Mission House. Till we reached there, we didn't realise that there is nothing much to see. Some of the excavated trenches have been filled up, but as you take in the sights, you feel comforted by the many coconut and Mango trees in the lush and thick foliage that make up the sylvan surroundings that are more natural than man made. Arikamendu is charming and quaint, but if you do end up not having it on your itinerary, you would not have missed anything spectacular.
By the time we got back to Auroville it was 11.30 am. Once in the compound, a tourist may be a little taken aback. By traditional imagination, there is no ashram here. This place is quite different than Sri Aurobindo Ashram, where we had spent our night. This is more a place for meditation. The charter of Auroville reads - "Auroville belongs to nobody in particular..." and you do get that expansive sort of a feeling. Known also as the City of Dawn, the main attraction of Auroville town is Matrimandir and the area around it is called the Peace Zone. Not surprisingly peace is a tangible commodity here amply felt both within and outside the mandir compound.
It was time to get back to the Ashram, pack our bags and head out to Chennai airport. While we had not shopped, since it was not a priority for us, we did take back some peace and quiet which would last us at least till we reached Delhi.
Best time to visit:
Most tourist websites claim January to March as the best time but we preferred monsoons since the beaches have a fresh rain washed virginal look which is basically November to January. Locals say even August to October is good to visit.
What to wear:
The city has a tropical climate making cottons the preferred fabric. In the Ashram