The joy of Pondicherry is the fact that you can do it all on foot, experiencing the wonderful contrast between the French and Tamil quarter. Start by wandering through its tree-lined French Quarter, which developed around the beachfront and Bharathi Park, and is today one of India's most prepossessing neighborhoods, with wide boulevards, uncluttered roads, bilingual signs, stately government buildings, and gorgeous classical-influenced colonial villas. Then step into another world by crossing the "Grand Canal" aqueduct, into the area the French used to call "black town" -- typically Tamil, with tiny shops lining crowded streets, beeping motorbikes and rickshaws, and -- at night -- an almost carnival atmosphere. The architecture in the Tamil part is also charming, though less obviously so -- typical of the state, these are "talking streets": wall-to-wall intimate and designed for socializing, with interiors usually having several courtyards; the first floor, assuming there is one, tends to show more French colonial influences. Besides strolling the streets and enjoying the peacefulness of the French quarter or the bustling chaos of the Tamil part of town, you could spend a good few days browsing shops for some of the best bargains to be had in such a small town atmosphere, and taking the seaside promenade for evening strolls along with the locals and predominantly French tourists. The only other attractions (and really, this is one place you can feel entirely guilt-free doing nothing!) are the serene and powerful Aurobindo Ashram, and a trip to Auroville (the "City of Dawn"), the latter a must for anyone who remains a hippie at heart.
It's lovely just aimlessly wandering through the French Quarter, but you may want to make sure your walk takes you past the Sacred Heart of Jesus (Eglise de Sacre Coeur de Jésus), an 18th-century neo-Gothic Catholic church on South Boulevard, as well as the facade of the Church of Immaculate Conception (Mission St.) which has an air of pageantry enhanced by colorful banners (note also how many Christian devotees remove their shoes before entering). But for a real air of celebration head for Sri Manakula Vinayagar Temple, off a side street around the corner from the Ashram, and so popular that it's cordoned off during the early evening hours; It is dedicated to Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, and Lakshmi, the temple elephant, marks the entrance.
For a quick glimpse of local historic memorabilia and collectibles, visit the Pondicherry Museum (49 Rue St. Louis; tel. 0413/233-6203; Tues-Sun 10am-5pm), housed in a 17th-century colonial mansion once occupied by the French administrator. The museum features a collection of carriages and carts, stone sculptures, and a formidable bronze gallery, as well as finds from nearby excavations that show that Romans traded on this coast in the 1st century A.D. Along the same road, which runs along the northern end of a square known as Government Place, is Raj Nivas, the late-18th-century mansion occupied by Pondicherry's lieutenant governor.
At twilight, head for Goubert Salai (Beach Rd.). The most interesting sights along the promenade (aside from the locals enjoying themselves) include the colonial Hôtel de Ville (now the Municipal Offices building), the round Douane (Customs) House, and the 4m (13-ft.) statue of Gandhi standing at the pier. If you're here for a few nights, it's also worth looking into the cultural events, art exhibitions, and film screenings conducted regularly by Pondicherry's Alliance Française (tel. 0413/233-8146; fax 0413/233-4351; email@example.com; Mon-Fri 8:30am-12:30pm and 2:30-6pm.
Blessed by Lakshmi, the Elephant -- Temple elephants, usually beautifully "made-up" and jangling ankle bracelets, will dispense their blessings -- a tap on the top of the head with their trunk -- in exchange for a rupee, dexterously picked up from the flat palm of the devotee, and immediately handed over to the mahout. It's a charming ritual (and a real delight for kids), never better experienced than at Pondi's Sri Manakula Vinayagar Temple, where pretty Lakshmi bats her eyes and blesses the hundreds of devotees who throng around the temple daily. The fact that she's outdoors is a boon for photographers, and her handlers are also very relaxed, allowing anyone to take photographs of Lakshmi (though the crowds can make for a tricky shot).
The City of Dawn: Sixties Sci-Fi in the 21st Century
Conceived in 1964 by Sri Aurobindo's French-born disciple, Mirra Alfassa ("The Mother"), the experimental "universal town" of Auroville (literally "City of Dawn") was founded on a tract of land some 8km (5 miles) north of Pondi. It was based on Mirra's vision of a place that could not be claimed or owned by any nation or creed, where people who aspire to "a higher and truer life" could live freely and in peace, devoted to the practice and discovery of Divine Consciousness -- a city that would ultimately become a living embodiment of the essential human unity. Largely designed by French architect Roger Anger, Auroville drew a group of citizens from all corners of the globe and was inaugurated in 1968, when soils from around the world (128 nations and Indian states) were symbolically placed as a gesture of Universal Understanding in an urn along with the Auroville Charter. Today it is still home to a suitably diverse population, and understandably somewhat insular; some have been here from its inception, but many more continue to arrive over the years, making this the most interesting, globally representative community in India, and effectively its only privately owned "suburb," built almost entirely on the hippie principles typical of the '60s.
At its spiritual and physical heart is the huge futuristic spherical structure spanning 36m (118 ft.) in diameter and known as Matrimandir, or Mother's temple, a symbolic space devoted to the "divine creatrix." Covered in glistening gold discs fixed to the outer surface of the dome, it looks like a faux UFO from a 1960s sci-fi film set. The inner marble chamber houses 12 meditation "petals" (each concerning attitudes towards the Divine and humanity worth striving for, such as sincerity, humility, gratitude, courage, generosity, and peace). At the center is a huge man-made crystal (said to be the largest in the world) that reflects the sun's rays and produces a concentrated light to enhance meditation. Visitors wishing to enter the Matramandir must make an appointment after visiting the Garden and 2 days in advance (tel. 0413/2622268; call 2-4pm).
Radiating from the Matrimandir and its gardens, which also have an amphitheater (built with red Agra stone) where the occasional performance is held, the city is architecturally conceived along the lines of a galaxy, evolving organically within certain preset parameters. The original design planned accommodations for 50,000 residents; currently there are about 1,500 from 35 countries, all apparently committed to being "willing servitors of the Divine Consciousness." Every year new citizens are accepted into the City of Dawn, based on the needs of the existing population and following a stringent evaluation. Far more than a place for devotion and meditation, Auroville is an experiment in self-sufficient living that supposedly takes both nature and culture into account, with all members providing some service to the community. Certainly its architectural innovation and utopian idealism make this a place of interest for anyone with a penchant for the unusual, the ethereal, or the novel, but living here is no doubt a great deal more challenging since the mediating presence of The Mother is no longer there to smooth over the flaws of life among mere mortals. But it is the global residents of Auroville who give Pondicherry its unique flavor, with many running restaurants and retail outlets in the coastal town and beyond.
As a day visitor you will need to stop at the Tourist Information Centre (tel. 0413/262-2239; www.auroville.org), where you can pick up brochures, shop, snack, and watch a video presentation -- a prerequisite before moving on to visit the Matrimandir (Mon-Sat 9:30am-12:30pm and 2-4pm; Sun 9:30am-12:30pm) and surrounding gardens. It is a 10-minute walk to the Matrimandir; a shuttle vehicle is available (ask where to wait when you get your ticket). Note that the cafeteria kitchen prepares delicious, wholesome, extraordinarily cheap vegetarian fare -- time your visit for lunch. Given that the Auroville community is predominantly (and predictably) craftsmen and artists, the retail area adjacent to the cafeteria are also worth a look-in (Kalki particularly, though there is more for sale in their Pondicherry outlet on Mission St.). If you're interested in overnighting in Auroville, visit Guest Service, located upstairs at the Solar Kitchen building, or visit www.aurovilleguesthouses.org.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.