THE UNIQUE HISTORY OF PONDICHERRY
Most of us are probably aware of Pondicherry’s French colonial past. However, the region holds within itself rich history that can be dated back to about two thousand years. Around 180 BCE onwards, the sandy beaches 4 km South of present-day Pondicherry town was a bustling trading city on the Eastern Coast of India. Now, known as Arikamedu which means “a rubble of ruins” in the local Tamil Language. Arikamedu from the 2nd century CE up until the 13th Century CE was one of the largest trading ports in the Eastern Coast of India, with a thriving Roman trade – remnants of which are well preserved in the Pondicherry City Museum in the form of Coins, Roman vases and Pottery.
Over the years, the rich fertile coastal lands adjoining the present-day Union Territory of Pondicherry has been ruled by several dynasties which include the Cholas, Pandyas, Pallavas, and the region even served as the southernmost bastion of the Maratha Empire. It was however the French colonial rule that left the most notable reflection on Pondicherry’s architectural layout, textures, and cityscape. The colonial history of Pondicherry town is very hard to miss as one walks across Promenade Beach. There is a statue of Francois Dupleix – the Governor-General of French India contemporary to Robert Clive. Just a couple of minutes of walk away there is also the statue of Joan of Arc.
The French first set foot in Pondicherry in the year 1670. At the time it was just a tiny fishing village, completely unaware of the glorious past the region had witnessed a couple of thousand years ago up until the beginning of the Medieval age. Although the region was the epicentre of a constant tussle between many colonial powers from the Portuguese, Dutch and Danes – it was the French who held Pondicherry for the greater part of the Colonial Era. As a matter of fact, all the previously French-occupied territories in the Indian subcontinent are referred as Pondicherry. Hence, there is a part of the present Union Territory of Pondicherry in the Western Coast of India as well, known as Mahe.
This article is specifically about the Union Territory of Pondicherry located on the Eastern Coast of India adjoining the Bay of Bengal. This was where the French were headquartered in India, and by the time the French left and the region was handed over to Independent India in 1954 – a huge part of the French culture and lifestyle was left behind.
PONDICHERRY- THE PRESENT-DAY PHENOMENON
The town still carries a nostalgic vibe, and many of the colonial buildings from the old part of the town known as White Town have been left undisturbed over the years. For instance, the old Port Office of the French Colonial rulers is now an elegant boutique French Café located right in the middle of Promenade Beach hugging the Sea.
Today, the Union Territory of Pondicherry is not only a world-renowned tourist destination but the region is vital for India in terms of economic output as well. The Union Territory of Pondicherry has some of the largest hatcheries in India, and it is one of the largest Shrimp producing regions in the country. The adjoining shallow Sea also holds some of the richest diversity of seafood, and hence, commercial fishing is a big thing too. The Union Territory of Pondicherry is also home to Pondicherry Central University and Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research (JIPMER). Thus, the cafes and bars in and around the town get filled with a significant number of the student crowd.
After spending a couple of serene and laidback years in Pondicherry, here I disclose to you some of the –
MUST-VISIT PLACES IN AND AROUND PONDICHERRY
Take a Ride Around White Town
The best way to explore the town of Pondicherry is by renting a moppet, scooter or bike. The town has more than a dozen vendors that offer rides of all kinds on a daily basis starting from rates as low as 300-400 rupees (excluding the petrol prices), depending on the quality of the ride availed.
Although the city of Pondicherry has expanded significantly since the early colonial days, a bike ride in the streets of White Town never fails to give the true authentic feel of the old colonial past characterized by mammoth Pre-colonial French architectural buildings. The neighbourhood of White Town in general has a distinct yellow, white and blue hue to it.
It is also in White Town where one would find Sri Aurobindo’s Ashram – A spiritual community that grew out of a small group of disciples who gathered around Sri Aurobindo after his retirement from politics in one of the corners of White Town. Today, the Foundation has thousands of disciples spread throughout the nation. A two-minute walk from Sri Aurobindo’s Ashram towards the Sea leads to the Promenade Rock Beach – A great place to spend one’s mornings and evenings. There are plenty of beachfront cafes and restaurants to explore here as well. A must visit is the Le Café which was once the Port Administrative Office of the French Colonial rulers.
Chunnambar Boat House & Paradise Beach
The Chunnambar Boat House is a quiet little boathouse located 8 km South of the Pondicherry town along the Cuddalore highway. Located on the estuary of the Chunnambar river, the place is a great way to explore the backwaters of South India.
A paid boat ride from the Chunnambar Boat House would take you to a joint government and privately owned beach known as Paradise Beach. The Beach is located on a recently formed island separated by a Lagoon, in the process of becoming a full-fledged island, and being completely cut-off from the Indian landmass. The unique thing about Paradise Beach is that the entire Beach is a white sand beach – something which is very rare on the Eastern Coast of India. And, if lucky, one could even spot Dolphins here.
The Blessings of ECR highway
The entire stretch of the ECR highway from Chennai to Pondicherry is filled with places such as Mahabalipuram, Alamparai Fort, and the experimental town of the future – Auroville, located on the Villupuram District of Tamil Nadu just 4Kms away from Pondicherry Town. Both Mahabalipuram and Auroville requires more than a day to explore completely. Besides, the two- and half-hour journey from Chennai to Pondicherry along the East Coast Road is in itself an enjoyable ride with the highway running parallel to the sea for the most part of the way.
Also read Kodaiakanal Travel guide by the author.