The next destination on my Indian tour was Pondicherry, which was the French colony in India. To get there, I had to fly into Chennai, the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu, and take a bus onward to Pondicherry, so I decided to spend a day in Chennai as well. Even the most supportive travel guides say there is not much to see in Chennai, so one day was enough.
Chennai is most known for having the longest beach in Asia (and second longest in the world); it runs for 13 kilometres and is around 400 metres wide, separating the city from the Bay of Bengal. The driver told me that, as we were there on a Wednesday, the beach wasn't very crowded; it's much busier at weekends.
Any water near an urban centre in India is likely polluted, so I limited my seafaring to my feet.
Chennai is pretty much a sprawl of typical urban India (Anyone who's been there will know what I mean - kind of how American cities outside downtowns are all very similar, India has a very uniform urbanity.), but this new government building is breaking that mould.
Tucked inside a city-centre shopping complex is "Snow World". India, South of the Himalayas, is a very hot country, Indians will pay to go into a room chilled to -6° and play in "real" snow, ride on a sleigh, and go down ice slides. At £2, it's a lot cheaper than a trip to Switzerland for a Winter experience.
Pondicherry, affectionately known as "Pondy", was about three hours away by bus. The outskirts of the city are (again) typical urban India, but the core of the city, the old French colony, is distinctive. It doesn't feel particularly French, other than the street signs in French as well as Tamil, but it is ordered, clean and colourful. The fact that I can tell you street signs are in two languages is itself an oddity in India; in most cities, there are few if any street signs, in any language.
The city is seaside and has a promenade along the length of the original colony. Quite remarkably, it is blocked off to most traffic, so it is a viable public space rather than a congested thoroughfare. The core, encircled by an oval-shaped ring road, is very walkable, and there are hotels, restaurants, bars and other standard tourist fare throughout. The pace of the city is noticeably leisurely, and its streets are remarkably free of traffic, a first for me in an Indian city. The city is quite popular with the bohemian set, possibly owing to its proximity to Auroville, an experimental town of sorts which "...is meant to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity." You see a lot of tie-dye and oversize cotton trousers in Pondy.
Typical Pondy street.
The buildings are often painted in vibrant colours, giving the city a bit of a Carribean feel.
Multilingual street sign on another flashy building.
The original French colony was bisected by a canal. Originally, only the French were allowed to live on the Eastern side, between the canal and the beach. Indians lived West of the canal. Since independence in 1963*, the canal has had a hard time of things and is now more a sewer/drainage ditch.
*I was surprised to learn that not all of India became independent when it ceded from Britain in 1947. French India maintained its interests for another sixteen years. They don't cover that in "Gandhi".
The small beach and promenade, a storm rolling in behind.
And the storm arrives!
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