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INDIA | Friday, 12 August 2016 | Views [727]

At the great Gandhi's feet

At the great Gandhi's feet

It's only about 110kms to Puducherry (formerly known as Pondicherry) but as most of the road from Tiruvannamalai is not highway, it takes around three hours. From the main Chennai road, the toll national highway is a pleasure. I muse whether NH66 could be India's answer to Route 66, but find there is nothing to suggest it could earn a similar iconic status.

Puducherry, formerly known as Pondicherry, was a French colony in days gone by and still receives substantial funding from the French government, particularly for education. I'm not going to profess any sort of understanding of Indian politics, but being part of one of seven Union territories which are controlled by central government, rather than one of the 28 states, along with an impressive tourist website, our hopes were quite high. I'm not sure what we expected to find, but the ex colonial charm seems more like a once well-laid garden that has been left to fend for itself so that it becomes consumed by nature and returned to its untamed state, with only a few landmarks remaining. Street names retain their curious charm of being both in French and Tamil.
The longer-than-anticipated drive means we have just under five hours here. We start at the temple, although the long queues in the intense midday heat make the decision not to go inside an easy one. The hawkers and beggars are an indication of its tourist status, and as we head towards the famous 1.5km Promenade Beach, it's French that the few foreigners are speaking. Hopes of paddling in the Bay of Bengal are thwarted by the rocky embankment built to keep people out of the sea, or perhaps to keep the sea from encroaching onto pristine sands that line the promenade. The best we can hope for is a little spray as waves intermittently pound in protest of their confinement.
A huge statue sheltering Gandhi stands close to Le Cafe, situated (famously) on the edge of the beach, although the wall and iron railings that enclose it, mean ones feet are not quite 'practically in the sand' as been suggested. However, the drinks are tasty and cold and mostly there's a breeze too. As the reviews suggest, the food is passable, just. It's a good place to relax and look out to sea.
We stop at the Tourist Office to pick up a map and find ourselves chatting to the man there. He is impressed by the flower garlands we are wearing in our hair which Malar made for us. These are measured in muura, which is roughly 1.5 feet long, but usually measured on the lower arm. A woman selling these can expect to earn 10 rupees per muura so if you want a bargain, look for a lady with long arms!
We decide to visit the churches as this route will show us a fair section of the town. We  follow the promenade south towards the port and train station hoping to find traces of this elusive colonialism. Some buildings, particularly their colour, are reminiscent of a  Mediterranean heritage, but as you navigate your pedestrian safety between the stench of under (or alongside) pavement sewerage or the mayhem on the edge of the road, any delusion is short-lived. This is definitely India! I ponder the thoughts of the French tourists.
The Notre Dame des Anges, the imposing Sacred Heart Church, followed by the Immaculate Conception Cathedral along with schools attached, quaint little hotels and official French offices that almost disappear amongst neighbouring buildings all make for wonderful photo opportunities, in a scene that paints a picture of concession and practicality more than of quaint charm. It's difficult to sum up possibly because they don't necessarily make easy bedfellows.
Bharathi Park is a pleasant green spot close to our final stop which is a small workshop where women are making handicrafts from paper that are then sold in the shop next door. Out of all our purchases, it is the carrier bag which draws most interest when we get back to Ashok Tree. The Hindu Times has been reworked to produce a slightly glossy, reusable bag, that not only holds your souvenirs, but reminds you of events making recent news. Genius! There are beaches for swimming and the famous social experiment known as Auroville but we have run out of time. Perhaps another time, if I happen to be passing.
The trip back is equally long, although now due to pedestrian traffic. It's Saturday night and the towns en-route are crowded with families loitering or shopping in the brightly lit shops, or browsing carts laden with anything from flower garlands, or fruits, to shiny pots and pans. It is noisy here, as is everywhere we've seen that is not reserved for worship or meditation! We had hoped to get back before sunset, but it has been dark for quite some time before we drive through the gates of the retreat to the ever-warm welcome. In darkness, as in daylight, the view from the car is always considerably less stressful from the side window!

Tags: ashok tree, bay of bengal, churches, colonialism, french, pondicherry, pondy, puducherry, tamil


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