- Ajaz Shaikh
Chennai & Pondicherry Backpacking Trip
India has a vast coastline on both East & West and I am from Mumbai, so have seen the west coast only, so it's time for the eastern coast. To date only seen the sunset on the seashore but it's time to see the rising sun and witness the different shades of the cultural diversity of India.
The union territory of Puducherry (formerly Pondicherry; generally known as ‘Pondy’) was under French rule until 1954. Some people here still speak French (and English with French accents). Hotels, restaurants and ‘lifestyle’ shops sell a seductive vision of the French-subcontinental aesthetic, enhanced by Gallic creative types and Indian artists and designers. The internationally famous Sri Aurobindo Ashram and its offshoot just north of town, Auroville, draw large numbers of spiritually minded visitors. Thus Pondy’s vibe: less faded colonial-era villa, more bohemian-chic and new age meets old-world hang-out.
Day One: Reach Chennai
Without any further wasting time, since Chennai is just a detour for us. So let start exploring this beautiful city known as Madraspatnam, which was later shortened to Madras and is currently known as Chennai.
Besant Nagar Beach, Chennai
Besant Nagar Beach is otherwise known as Elliot’s beach. The beach is named after the chief magistrate and superintendent of police Edward Elliot. This beach is located in Besant Nagar and this beach is said to be the endpoint of the Marina Beach shore. This calm beach is quite clean and you can peacefully spend time here.
Besant Nagar beach is also fondly called Bessy beach by the locals. The neighbourhood is an affluent one and it mostly consists of individual houses and bungalows. Besant Nagar beach is the second most visited beach in Chennai after Marina beach. So, basically, I had to choose between Marina Beach and Besant Nagar Beach.
Madras War Cemetery, Chennai
The Madras War Cemetery, right in the heart of the city of Chennai, is a recognition of the glory as well as horrors of the war our ancestors have fought to make this world a more peaceful place. In short, it houses the last remains of around 855 martyrs who laid down their precious lives at the battlefronts in the devastating Second World War and also a Memorial stone for 1000 more who died fighting in the Great War before that.
In 1952, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Indian Government together established this cemetery to commemorate those who died to save our lives. Among the tombstones, there are three non-World War martyrs and a small memorial for a sea merchant as well. It must be remembered that the headstones are not only of soldiers who fought but of doctors, nurses and other support staff as well.
Top class maintenance by the authorities has kept the cemetery in great shape. Even though it has its roots in a sad and bloody past, the cemetery lawn feels like a serene and peaceful place for the dead to rest. It hosts the Armistice Day homage every year on November 11 with wreath offerings and Guard of Honours. Anybody interested in war-time history or who wants to pay their respect to the martyrs should visit the Madras War Cemetery. It is not only a remembrance but a tangible proof of the cost of war.
St. Thomas Mount National Shrine, Chennai
Situated on a little slope, St Thomas Church in the Guindy suburb of Chennai; inside the range of Chennai International Airport, is a standout amongst the most consecrated and in addition ravishing places of worship in the city.
The St. Thomas Mount hilltop offers a 360-degree panoramic view of Chennai city. To the right from the Banyan tree, one can see the Kathipaara junction road crossing and from the entrance of the gate, one can see the awesome view of the Chennai airport too.
As indicated by enthusiasts, this is where St. Thomas, who was a supporter of Lord Jesus lived and furthermore accomplished affliction around 2,000 years back. Notwithstanding the religious significance, this place is likewise known for its rich excellence. From the ridge, you can appreciate dumbfounding perspectives of the adjacent district. On a visit to this devout place, you can encounter the holiness and commitment that exists here. What’s more, the lavish and magnetic magnificence of the congregation and its environment will most likely keep you charmed every through; see from the peak are extremely honourable and is an absolute necessity for everybody.
Lunch @ Dindigul Thalappakatti
Dindigul Thalappakatti is popular for South Indian Style Chicken and Mutton Biryani and in recent years they are spreading their branch’s globally. Their biryani is different, they make it with Seeraga Samba Rice and secret homemade grounded spices which is different from the Muslim style or Basmati riced Dum Biryani.
The first time tasting their biryani, so different, felt like a home-cooked taste, entirely different from other biryani, perfectly spiced, had around 4 soft well-cooked chicken, it comes with 3 sides dishes, onion raita, dalcha, and sauce like spicy gravy.
After such a well-spent day and filled stomach, let's start a road trip to Pondicherry.
East Coast Road: Roadtrip from Chennai to Pondicherry
Chennai to Pondicherry road trip is an all-time favourite amongst tourists and locals. The picturesque East Coast Road (ECR) along the coastline is the most popular route when driving from Chennai to Pondicherry. The distance is approximately 160km and you can cover the trip comfortably in 3.5 hours. Get amazing views of the water and sun reflected in it, as you drive along this route. An added advantage is that you pass famous sights like Alambara Fort, Mahabalipuram, Mudaliarkuppam, and Kalpakkam, a nuclear facility. Don't worry we will explore Mahabalipuram on our way back to Chennai from Pondicherry.
Day Two: Good Morning “Pondy”
Pondicherry is not just a typical holiday destination, it's much more than that, let start day two by exploring Pondicherry fondly call us "Pondy".
Morning Walk at Promenade Beach, Pondicherry
A popular beach adorning the coastline of the city of Pondicherry, this long 1.2 kilometres is a haven for travellers and beach enthusiasts. Starting from the War Memorial and ending at the Dupleix Park on Goubert Avenue, the beach is also a favourite haunt for locals for the morning and evening walks besides being an all-time favourite picnic destination. As you explore the beach, you will find a statue of Mahatma Gandhi which is followed by a sea-facing restaurant to enjoy some local culinary delights.
For those who want to enjoy the warm moments and pick up some souvenirs, there are small tea, snacks and souvenir shops from where you can pick a memory or enjoy some peanuts while taking in the cool breeze of the sea. The sunrise and sunset views from the beach are especially beautiful and so does the view of the moon shimmering on the sea waters. Some of the popular nearby attractions which the travellers can also visit while visiting Promenade beach are War Memorial, Chief Secretariat, The Promenade, Le Café and Dupleix Park.
Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry
Sri Aurobindo Ashram may be located in a couple of non-descript looking buildings but is one of the most sublime places in Pondicherry. As soon as one enters, the most beautiful stillness descends on the being. The place is ideal for lighting incense sticks and being immersed in quiet meditation. It has an area exclusively dedicated to the writings of Sri Aurobindo. The Ashram has programs where young (and established) poets can read out their works. A section of the ashram also sells soaps, candles etc manufactured by the residents.
Note: They have strictly no mobiles phones or capturing pictures policy inside the premises, so I don’t have pictures to visualize this place, but it's a must-see place in Pondicherry.
Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Pondicherry
One of the most sacred and religious places of Pondicherry, the Church of Sacred Heart of Jesus is situated 2.5 km away from the Pondicherry Bus Station on the south boulevard of the town. One of the 21 Basilicas in India and the only one in Pondicherry, this church was set up by the French missionaries in 1908 which was given the status of the Basilica in 2011. One of the most beautiful Catholic Churches of Pondicherry, the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus beautifully showcases Gothic architecture. Biblical words can be seen engraved on the entrance in Latin along with the images of Jesus and Mother Mary on the door at the entrance.
The lives of Christ along with the saints of the Catholic Church have been captured in the stained glass panels of the edifice. The centenary celebrations were held in the church during 2008-2009, and it was during this time that postal envelopes along with a unique postal stamp were released. The church is the first-ever basilica in Pondicherry, the 6th one in Tamil Nadu, the 20th in India, and the 50th one in Asia. Thousands of people flock to the Sacred Heart Basilica to attain peace. This beautiful church is a must-visit if you are planning a trip to Pondicherry for it is going to seclude you and take you to a world of tranquillity away from the fast-moving life of the city in a mode of complete relaxation
Pondicherry: A Corner Of India That Is Forever France
White Town a part of the city is historically preserved by the name of heritage town French Quarter, which has a history of being acquired and colonised by the French East India Company to set up a trading centre. Pondicherry had been passed on to multiple colonial powers of Dutch, Portuguese, English, but predominantly French. Even now there’s a huge French influence in Pondicherry. When Pondicherry was handed over to India, the residents were given an option to maintain their French passports. The residents (Indians and non-Indians originally) in Pondicherry are French citizens, the streets have retained their French names, the residents speak French, there are restaurants and cafes serving French food with menus in the French language, the villas in French architectural styles prevail.
Lunch @ Surguru Spot
Soul-satisfying food, the South Indian Thali meal is to die for. Quick service and good food at dirt cheap prices. A must-try eatery in White Town. The food is so nicely made, like a much tastier version of home food. The place is clean and hygienic which is the first thing you look for.
Paradise Beach, Pondicherry
Enjoy a break from the colonial landmarks and historic attractions of Pondicherry and relax on the virgin sands of Paradise Beach. This serene and private beach sits at the tip of a peninsula where the Bay of Bengal and Chunnambar River converge. Officially called Chunnambar Beach, Paradise Beach was given its popular name by the local residents who delight in escaping to a quiet haven close to the city centre.
Access to the beach is via a short boat ride from the northern shores of the Chunnambar River. Sit on the boat’s upper deck and watch as the white-sand, palm-lined sandbank comes into view. Step off the boat, go walking along the seashore and paddle in the warm water. The views are delightful along the river and out across the Bay of Bengal, so make sure to pack your camera. Bring your bathing suit and enjoy a swim on the ocean side of the beach.
Ganesha Temple - Arulmigu Manakula Vinayagar Devasthanam
An important itinerary of the Pondicherry pilgrimage is a visit to the Manakula Vinayagar Temple. The ancient temple was constructed three centuries ago and still stands in all its magnificent glory.
In Tamil ‘Manal’ means and and 'Kulam’ means pond near the sea, earlier which was full of sand around the pond. So the people called the god Manal Kulathu Vinayagar which translates as 'God near the pond of sand’.
The temple is dedicated to the worship of Lord Ganesha. The monumental interiors of the temple are decorated with forty incarnations and forms of Lord Ganesha, carved on the stone walls of the temple. The golden spire forms the superstructure of the temple and is the steeple that crowns the place of worship. Within the premises of the temple lies the shrine devoted to Lord Murugan.
The architecture in which the temple structure is stylized is typical of the Deccan era and bears similarity with temples of other states of South India. The temple was in existence before the French came and settled in Pondicherry i.e. before 1666.
Large numbers of devotees gather here to offer their prayers to the reigning deity and to seek the blessings of Lord Ganesha. The devotees are entertained by the temple elephant Lakshmi who gathers coins from the tourists and showers blessings through her trunk. The stone carvings and the golden shrine create a blissful aura around the temple making it a true abode of the temple deity, Lord Ganesha.
After a holy visit to Ganesh Temple, you can take a walk around Botanical Garden or you can also do shopping before you hit for dinner and unwind yourself.
Wood-Fired Pizza @ Cafe Xtasi
This is in the White Town and has two other outlets in the town. They serve the most famous wood-fired pizza in the town. The place has such has very little in the name of ambience, however, their pizzas are really good and freshly baked with loads of toppings. Their pizzas are huge and the staff is very sweet. There are ample options for veg as well as non-veg pizzas and several appetisers as well.
Day 3: Pondicherry & Mahabalipuram
Mahabalipuram or Mamallapuram is a small beach town and it's a popular weekend getaway for the people in Chennai and a great stopover for people travelling to or coming from Pondicherry. It is often called a Lost City - will get to that later.
Breakfast @ Auroville Bakery
No amount of appreciation is enough to justify the food, aroma and ambience that you get when you enter this bakery. On the way to Auroville, this bakery is a hidden gem. Fresh batches of hot croissants are baked and get sold out as soon as they come. Along with this, the banana cake, quiche, brownies and breakfast must not be missed! At any time, if you enter the bakery, there is a high possibility that you will be the only Indian in the entire café and this authenticity is seen in their fresh French baked goods! If you visit Pondicherry and miss out on this cafe, apologies but your trip is incomplete!
They have fancy French food that may not appeal to the taste buds of everyone, however, you can opt for plain croissant, tart and summertime tartine.
Auroville Matrimandir, Pondicherry
It is arranged at the focal point of Auroville started by The Mother of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. It is a structure of otherworldly noteworthiness for experts of Integral yoga. It is called the soul of the city and is arranged in an expansive open space called Peace. Matrimandir does not have a place with a specific religion or order. The Matrimandir, and its encompassing patio nurseries in the focal peace area, is available to general society by arrangement. The four primary columns that help the structure of Matrimandir, and convey the Inner Chamber, have been set at the four principle bearings of the compass. These four columns are emblematic of the four parts of the mother as depicted by Sri Aurobindo and are named after these four viewpoints.
Visitors should bear in mind that the Matrimandir is not a ‘tourist’ site; it is a place for individual silent concentration. A place that should be visited in an appropriate physical and mental state. Visits to Matrimandir are free of cost. Bookings for passes to Matrimandir cannot be done by agents, guides or tour operators. Passes for the Matrimandir Viewing Point can be obtained for free at Auroville’s Visitors’ Centre, after watching a short introductory video on the Matrimandir.
Lunch @ Mamallaa Heritage, Mahabalipuram
The Golden Palate - must try place for a vegetarian person travelling to Mahabalipuram. Wok To Dhaba - A pretty decent place to have non-veg food if you are visiting Mahabalipuram. Though the menu does not give you a lot of options.
Pancha Rathas, Mahabalipuram (5 Rathas that belong to 5 Pandavas)
The Five Rathas or Panch Rathas are five monolithic temple structures built by the Pallavas in the early 7th century AD. Situated in a common complex to the west of the Shore temple in Mahabalipuram, the Pancha Rathas display exquisite carvings carved out from a single large boulder.
They are named after the Pandavas Yudhisthira, Arjuna, Bhima, Nakul, Sahadeva and their wife Draupadi. However, as the names might suggest, the temples are not related to the Pandavas of Mahabharata fame but, unfinished masterpieces of the Pallava dynasty.
The construction of the Rathas is believed to have been started by King Mahendravarman I of the Pallava dynasty. It was continued by his son Narasimhavarman I in the early 7th century AD. The temple was however left incomplete after Narasimhavarman I’s death.
Krishna’s Butterball, Mahabalipuram
Forever (hopefully) perched on a steep rock slope in the historic town of Mahabalipuram, India, the massive round boulder known as Krishna’s Butter Ball refuses to give in to gravity or the shoves of tourists.
The giant boulder appears to be frozen in its roll down the hill it sits on, and no one is quite sure why. The huge boulder is likely a glacial erratic that got stranded in a serendipitous position on the hill, but local legend has another version of the story. According to Hindu mythology, when the great god Krishna was just a baby, he was fond of stealing butter. Following this tradition, the big orange stone has been likened to a giant dollop of purloined butter that the god dropped.
The actual name of the stone is “Vaan Irai Kal,” which translates to “Sky God’s Stone,” and according to one source, the more playful name was given to the rock by a local tour guide. However it got its sort of silly name, it stuck.
Reinforcing the stone’s strangely balanced position, the slippery stone slope is used by local children as a slide. Today Krishna’s Butter Ball is a popular tourist attraction. Visitors to the site love to try to get behind the stone and try to push it down the hill. So far no human power has been able to budge the buttery boulder.
Shore Temple & Beach, Mahabalipuram
The Shore Temple is the icon of the ancient monuments of Mahabalipuram. The temple gets its name from its location on the Coromandel shore overseeing the Bay of Bengal. The sculptural excellence symbolizes the heights of Pallava architecture. The Dravidian style of architecture dates back to the 7-8th century. It was built under the rule of King Narsimha Varma. The visual delight of the finest architecture, the sculptures and intricate and full of vivacity. The granite rock cut carvings are proof of the sheer brilliance of the artisans who have created this magnificent structure. The structural designs can be only called ‘poetry in stone. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984.
Erected on a 50 feet square platform, the temple is a pyramidal structure rising to the heights of 60 feet. The characteristic specimen of Dravidian temple architecture. It is believed that there was seven pagodas or temple on the shores of Mahabalipuram. All but one (Shore Temple) is what is remains now and the rest are submerged in the sea.
The Shore Temple has three shrines, devoted to Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu. The main temple is a five-storeyed structure sculpted out of granite dedicated to Lord Shiva. The pyramidal structure is 60 feet (18 m) high and sits on a 50 feet (15 m) square platform. In the Garbha Griha, sanctum sanctorum, a Shivalinga is worshipped. At the rear end, there are two shrines facing each other. One shrine is dedicated to Ksatriyasimnesvara and the other to Lord Vishnu. In the shrine, Lord Vishnu is seen reclining on the ‘Seshanag’, which is a symbol of consciousness in Hinduism. Shore Temple is no more a temple worshipped. The structure of the temple is awe-inspiring, it was erected basically as a work of art.
Dinner @ The Great Kabab’s Factory, Chennai
This is probably Chennai’s best fine dining restaurant, you are served one of the best kebabs and North Indian delicacies in a table d’hote fashion, 6 non-veg Kebabs unlimited assortments of Indian bread and biryani was on the menu having galouti Kebab, grilled prawn & Gulab jamun I was flabbergasted. The restaurant has an amazing ambience and is totally worth every penny of yours.
If you are looking for a place to travel where you can chill, sit by the beach, listen to the song of the birds, the rhythm of the waves and eat loads of good foods, Pondicherry is just perfect! The food of Pondicherry is purely a love child of French and Tamil Culture. You can kickstart your day with possibly the best croissant in India and have the crispiest dosa for lunch followed by amazing wood-fired pizza for dinner. All in one town
Three days are sufficient to explore the places in Pondicherry and Mahabalipuram. But if you've got more time in hand, then consider exploring these places around Pondicherry.
Tranquebar - The land of the singing waves: Fondly called the little Danish town of India, is a 3 hours drive from Pondicherry and can be your perfect add-on destination.
Pichavaram: Close to Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu are the Mangroves forest of Pichavaram, which is one of the largest in the world. Backwater country boat rides take visitors into the dense forest for an unparallel experience.
Arikamedu: Ruins of the ancient era – Arikamedu, the only site to have confirmed Roman Empire connections in India. Arikamedu, the ancient Roman trade centre is 4 Kms. south of Pondicherry on the right bank of Ariyankuppam River.
Good To Know FAQ's
How To Reach Pondicherry From Mumbai?
Via Train From Mumbai: Sadly, Pondicherry (Stn Name: Puducherry) has limited direct connectivity through the railway. There is only one direct train from Mumbai to this town. To make the best of your time, plan it as a detour from Chennai, like how I did and Chennai has good connectivity from Mumbai. So here are some of the options for the people travelling from Mumbai.
Via Air From Mumbai: Pondicherry has an airport, but there is no direct flight from Mumbai to Pondicherry and if you opt for layover flights, that would be atleast 4 hours. So it is best to fly to Chennai from Mumbai. For the best price, you can book a Mumbai - Chennai Roundway ticket one month in advance for around Rs. 4500. To make the best out of the day try reaching Chennai by early morning.
From Chennai to Pondicherry (to & fro) – the PRTC AC bus is good, comfortable and economical. You may do bus booking in advance to get the perfect seat for the perfect view. Though there are buses for every half an hour, so no need to worry if you miss it by any chance.
The fastest and best way to reach Pondicherry is taking a direct flight from Mumbai to Chennai and driving one of the most scenic coastal roads in the country - East CoastRoad a.k.a ECR.
Where to Stay?
Many homestays are available as well as luxurious hotels. It depends on how much you would like to spend on it. One of the best options I found was the Sea Side Guest view.
The few popular backpacker hostels in Pondicherry are:
Best Time To Visit Pondicherry?
Although Pondicherry has a warm climate, October to February can be considered as the best time to visit Pondicherry. However, the town has different charms in different seasons.
Summer: Pondicherry is at its hottest during its summer months starting from March to June, with the highest temperature usually not going beyond 41°C. However, the crowds are less, making it a good time to enjoy a peaceful vacation in this little town.
Monsoon: The town receives heavy to light rainfall every year. For those who love to soak in the rain; this is the best time to let your hair down and experience the lush green landscape of Pondicherry. Also, it is a good time to visit the city during the month of August as Sri Aurobindo’s birthday celebrations are held when the city is at its vibrant best.
Best places in Pondy to indulge in some food and drinks extravaganza
Pondicherry is a foodies’ paradise! Pondy cuisine is the perfect blend of different cultures and customs, with a wide variety of delicacies. The few popular food joints and bars in Pondicherry are:
Baker Street: For authentic french delicacies. A popular upmarket French-style bakery that does delectable cakes, croissants and biscuits. The baguettes, brownies and quiches aren't bad either.
Farm Fresh: Situated in the town of Auroville, as the name suggests the food served by Farm Fresh is indeed fresh and is served farm to table.
Appachi Chettinad: Appachi Chettinad breaks with the stereotype of everything in Pondicherry being associated with the French. The thatched rooftop and the Tamilian styled entrance pillars give the feel of a local home, and the traditional mouthwatering Indian delicacies that are served add to this ambience.
Toxic: A rooftop bar that is wallet-friendly is an unusual combination, but in Toxic at the Hotel Atithi you can enjoy open-air drinking without having to worry about the cost it normally takes to indulge.
L’Aqua: L’Aqua is one of the most popular bars in Pondicherry among tourists, for the sole reason that it is situated on the town’s beautiful rocky beach. The fresh breeze and sound of waves create the perfect mood for relaxing and taking in the surroundings over a drink.
Bars and eateries in the town shut down by 11.00 pm. Given this fact, the nightlife in Pondicherry may not be as happening as it is in Goa, but you can certainly look forward to a good share of fun.
What to Pack?
Wear cotton clothes – it’s usually hot in Pondicherry! But if your doing it in the winter season, light woollens clothes should be sufficient, the temperature usually doesn't go below 17 degrees celsius here.
The Travel Blueprint Pro Tip
The best way to explore Pondicherry is to rent a vehicle/bike and roam around.
People: Pondicherry people are kind and cheerful. Always ready to help.