Every time I think about Pondicherry, the visuals that come to my mind are of the sea and yellow and white buildings representing classic French architecture. A reminder of it being a French colony in the past. I was excited at the thought of spending a weekend in the city with my parents. We drove down around 300 km from Bangalore. Starred in the afternoon and reached late night.
We had gone there in the month of October and during the day the weather was extremely warm (read: HOT). A quick online search on things to see in Pondicherry and the map indicated that most of the places where near each other. Thankfully, our hotel Ginger was also situated comfortably close to these places. You can read my wheelchair accessibility review of the hotel here.
We drove down to the Beach Road after having breakfast at our hotel on the first day. It was a beautiful sight to drive along the sea, seeing waves of the bright blue sea crashing against the rocky shore. There is a long promenade as well, probably a better option for an early morning or late evening stroll. I did not get down at the promenade because it had a couple of steps, it was afternoon and I was not in an accessible car (which meant getting in and out was quite a task) .
My folks did a quick stop to take pictures near two landmarks; the Mahatma Gandhi statue and the French War Memorial located almost opposite to each other on different sides of the street. We also got to know that the Beach Road is closed for vehicles after 6 PM. Pedestrians can enjoy the complete stretch by themselves. Le Café, a highly rated restaurant on travel sites, is also located on Beach Road. I would have loved to have lunch at this sea view restaurant, but it had a couple of steps and looked deserted in the afternoon. So we skipped and wandered on.
This is where the vision of bright yellow buildings with white outlines comes to life. Some buildings are homes, some government offices, some have been converted into hotels and cafés and so on. You will find a lot of people exploring the French quarter area of Pondicherry either by foot or on bicycles. It is also popular for heritage walks.
Old architecture and accessibility to not go hand in hand! So, going inside most of the cafés and hotels is challenging. However, there are a few accessible ones which I came across and you can read about them in this blog. We just drove through this area after checking out the promenade beach and before stopping at the Pondicherry Museum.
Established in 1983, the Pondicherry museum houses sculptures from Pallava, Chola and Vijaynagara temples. They have Buddha images from Kirmampakkam (near Pondicherry), bronzes from the Chola, and arms and weapons from Vijaynagara and Nayaka periods. The museum is open on all days, except Mondays. There is a display of sculptures in the area just outside the museum building. Since photography is not permitted inside the museum, the sculpture section is a popular selfie spot.
In terms of accessibility, a wheelchair user cannot go through the entire museum spread across different floors because there are no elevators. The museum building is very old and has narrow steps. I got down from the car and went inside the museum campus, where most of the sculptures are located. There was a step at the entrance of the museum building, which my wheelchair was able to go over with some help from the guard. In the ground floor, there are multiple rooms with displays and each room had a small threshold at the door. It was not exactly a smooth ride, but manageable.
Sri Aurobindo Ashram
Pondicherry is known to attract seekers of spirituality. To give you some history: Sri Aurobindo came to Pondicherry in 1910 in order to devote himself entirely to his inner spiritual life and work. During his forty years in Pondicherry he evolved a new method of spiritual practice, which he called the Integral Yoga. Its aim is a spiritual realisation that not only liberates man’s consciousness but also transforms his nature. In 1926, with the help of his spiritual collaborator, the Mother, he founded the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. The Ashram campus is closely surrounded by the market and the old city of Pondicherry.
As you can see in the picture above, the ashram is accessible and has a ramp for easy movement of the wheelchair. Once inside the ashram, you’re not allowed to take your phone or take pictures. Visitors also have to remove their shoes before entering, I was exempted since I was in a wheelchair. The first thing I saw was a courtyard which had a samadhi of Sri Aurobindo and Mother. It was beautifully decorated with a neat pattern of flowers. Some people were sitting around it in silence and some were meditating. On the left are a photo gallery and a library where you can purchase books. There was a threshold to get inside the library door, and my dad managed to maneuver the wheelchair by himself. And that was pretty much it. Nothing much to see inside the ashram. It was a quick visit.
Auroville is one of the most recommended places to visit in Pondicherry. The township was founded by The Mother in 1968 and draws its inspiration from the vision and work of the renowned Indian seer and spiritual visionary, Sri Aurobindo. According to their extremely detailed and informative website, Auroville aims to be a universal township where people from around the world can come and live together in a sustainable manner. Your one-stop shop to know everything about the place is the Visitors’ Centre which gives you access to a library, videos, information about the township, accommodations, café’s, gift shop and so on.
On our second day in Pondicherry, we had breakfast in the hotel and head to Auroville. The sun was on our head by the time we reached the township and as mentioned earlier it was a very hot day. We realised that the regular entrance, leading to the visitor centre, was not accessible in a wheelchair. The pathway was blocked with some rocks. I sat in the taxi as my father looked around for alternatives. One of the representatives informed us that there are very few places which can be visited in a wheelchair because of architectonic barriers throughout the township.
A sight not to miss at Auroville is the Matrimandir – a place for silent meditation. It is a dome-shaped structure made up of Golden discs and is the most iconic representation of the township. However, Matrimandir is the most inaccessible place inside Auroville. They have just made an accessible toilet at the entrance, but going to the Inner Chamber for meditation is extremely challenging. Regular visitors can book a slot in advance, for free, and practice meditation. My experience of Matrimandir was limited to checking it out from the viewing point. Our car was allowed to enter the Auroville campus from a separate gate which had a direct pathway to this viewing point. The pathway was long and smooth for my wheelchair to go along easily.
Midway, we came across a huge Banyan tree and in classic style, its roots had made their way into the soil to give rise to more outshoots of the Banyan tree. The shade offered by this tree was a heavenly respite on the hot today. My parents were tired after walking all the distance to the viewing gallery and it was nearing lunchtime, so we decided to go back to our hotel in Pondicherry and grab some rest in the afternoon.
Chinna Veerampattinam Beach
In the evening, we followed our drivers lead to check out a beach. Driving through the city of Pondicherry, then through a small village with narrow lanes (going pass some big resorts on the way), we reached Veerampattinam Beach. It was completely inaccessible, absolutely no point in even getting down from the car and sitting on the wheelchair to enjoy the evening sea breeze. The beach was crowded with cars and people because of the weekend. I sat in the car looking at the mesmerising waves.
The only exciting part of this location was the access road- it felt like a complete adventure because we drove our car through a very narrow bridge and reached a site which had a good looking plantation of Coconut trees in the backdrop of the vast ocean.
Most of the touristy sites in Pondicherry were a disappointment when it came to accessibility. When I came back, most of my colleagues in Bangalore told me that one goes to Pondicherry primarily to relax in a nice resort, soak in the culture at Auroville or walk around the white town and dine in the various cafés.
Except for relaxing in a resort (which is not my usual type), I have bookmarked Scuba-diving with Temple Adventures for next time in the city. They describe themselves as a 5 Star PADI IDC Center, and I am aware that they have dived with people with paraplegia and quadriplegia. Maybe I’ll visit the botanical garden, but maybe not because most of the recent reviews on TripAdvisor are negative saying that it is not well maintained.