Pondicherry is paradise for shoppers: Not only because of the cosmopolitan and hugely creative effect Auroville has had on the retail market, but just about everything is within walking distance (and there are plenty of eager rickshaws if not), and the goods on offer are often better value than what is charged in Delhi and Mumbai, where much of the Auroville and ashram goods are destined.
First stop has to be Mission Street to spend at least an hour at Auroville's best outlet, Kalki (132 Mission St.; tel. 0413/233-9166), where you browse for super nonleather footwear, hand-painted silk clothing, perfumed candles, incense, oils, ceramics, jewelry, and handmade paper items to the accompaniment of artsy, esoteric music. It's not that cheap, but the atmosphere and selection is fantastic. If there's anything you want that's not in your size, you can arrange to have it made and couriered to your next destination. Across the road is Casablanca (165 Mission St.; tel. 0413/222-6495 or 0413/233-6495), one of South India's funkiest department stores (owned by the glam couple who created Le Dupleix and The Promenade), with top international brands spread over three floors. If you love linen, head straight upstairs and peruse the gorgeous Gecko stock (firstname.lastname@example.org). There's also plenty of homewear stuff. Casablanca is also a great place to pick out a stylish new leather handbag, belt, briefcase, wallet or suitcase from the Hidesign selection on offer, or you can pop around the corner to its seconds outlet in Nehru Street -- Hidesign is sold all over the world (last count 2,000 outlets) but never cheaper than here, where leather goods that appear flawless are sold at up to 50% of the original asking price.
Also an easy stroll from Casablanca is the Titanic Factory Outlet (33 Aambalathadayar Madam St.; parallel to Nehru St.; tel. 0413/234-2075), for international brands (Guess, Ralph Lauren, Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, Timberland, and the like) that have for some spurious reason been rejected or are simply surplus, and now sold at unbelievable prices -- a great place to dig for clothing bargains, but give yourself plenty of time (and be wary of how the excitement of cheap individual purchases can result in a cumulatively large bill!). Also on Mission Street, next to the Church of Immaculate Conception, Focus bookstore (tel. 0413/234-5513) has hundreds of books on Indian culture and religion, owned and run by the ashram. Heading north down Mission street you will find the new outlet of Diva, a new fashion outlet that sells outrageously cheap pretty jewelry as well as modern clothing for Indian women -- a Chennai institution, Diva is a great place to pick up some dirt-cheap items that are clearly not Western, and may transform your look (tel. 0413/222-7468; www.divastyle.in). Nearby, at 44 Aurobindo Street is Home Trotter Stores, a great little homewear store (tel. 0413/222-1600).
Backtracking to Nehru Street, the tiny Boutique Auroshree (18 Jawaharlal Nehru St.; tel. 0413/222-2117) sells clothes and handicrafts from all over India; it has a small selection of silver jewelry, paintings, and handcrafted bronze, brass, and sandalwood items. In the same street La Boutique d'Auroville (36 J.N. St.; tel. 0413/262-2150) is after Kalki and Csablanca a must-do stop, with plenty more goods from Auroville, including lovely pottery and handmade paper to original garments, and unbelievably well-priced leather items. Deeper into the French quarter, Curio Centre (40 Roman Rolland St.; tel. 0413/222-5676) has a serious selection of objets d'art as well as indigenous and colonial antique furniture. Next door is Art Colony (32 Romain Rolland St.; tel. 0413/233-2395), with mostly antiques (as well as some reproduction furniture), wood carvings, and handicrafts. If you're interested in art, specifically paintings, don't miss Cottonwood (Rue Nidarajapayer, next door to Touchwood, a great cafe with Internet service), which showcases the work of top local artists -- with luck you'll leave with a canvas signed by Dhanasegar or Stridher. Also on this part of town is Kasha-Ki-Aasha (23 Rue Surcouf; www.kasha-ki-aasha.com); aside from the clothing downstairs, there's a cafe upstairs, a good place to snack and stop for tea (though service is atrocious).
Finally, if you're looking for a shopping experience to fill your camera (rather than just suitcases), head down M.G. Road on Sunday to peruse the market that springs up from 8am to 10pm, with more than 100 stalls creating a carnival atmosphere. Packed with people and stalls, this is exuberant local life at its best and pure Tamil Pondi. Equally so the fish market, held daily (5am-2pm) on M.G. Road: It's pure mayhem (and rather smelly; take a hanky if you have a sensitive nose), but it's the real deal, and a far cry from the land of chichi boutiques.
Carting the Shopping Back Home -- For many people, India is the number-one place to shop, and Pondicherry is quite possibly our favorite village-style town to do so; problem is, you'll soon run out of luggage space, and the last thing you want is to be weighed down. Here's the plan: Head down to the nearest domestic counter (there are dozens, virtually on every street; try Best Cargo on 71 Aurobindo St.) and courier your shopping to your final destination. It costs no more than around Rs 50 to Rs 60 per kilo and takes around 3 days -- worth it given the inflated prices you pay for goods in Mumbai and Delhi.
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.