Puri to Pondicherry

An Indian Journal | Puri to Pondicherry

A pragmatic warning at the Sun Temple in Konark | December 2010


Odisha State

I can’t really say much about Odisha. Wikipedia tells me the state formerly known as Orissa to the south of West Bengal and Jharkhand has 485 kilometres of coastline along the Bay of Bengal, is the 8th largest state by area, the 11th largest by population, and has the third largest population of Scheduled Tribes in India. The only place there where we have stayed a little was Puri. We have made a daytrip to Konark some 35 kilometres away where a famous temple dedicated to the Hindu Sun God Surya stands. Apart from that we have spent one night in the capital Bhubaneswar before leaving by train again for Andhra Pradesh and the port city of Visakhapatnam.

Bhubaneshwar White Cabbage

The stay around the railway station in Bhubaneswar stays in my mind because there I devoured a strange but delicious white cabbage masala with an almost pancake-like flatbread, both of which were deviations from everything else I ate in that department no matter north or south. We stayed in a basic room somewhere near the railway station, drank a cold beer in the evening on the rooftop of a hotel at the plaza and I enjoyed an adventurous ride on the backseat of a Hero Honda motorcycle. Can’t remember exactly why, most probably to check out a room offered to us after the hotel we planned to stay was booked out.

Puri and Konark | Dec. 18 to 22

Puri is an odd and telling example for a progressive confluence of the old and the new in India. Being home to the ancient Shree Jagannath Temple, it is considered a holy place. Up to 80% of Puris economy is linked to tourists visiting it. And many visitors from the emerging middle classes combine their religious pilgrimage with a stay at the beach.

Bibione Ballgame

In fact what the seafront of Puri reminded me most of were the bathing resorts at the upper Adriatic I went with my family when I was a kid. But I guess the overwhelming majority of Indians has more existential things to spend their time on. Making a living for example.

No living off the Sea

And so while the middle classes mimic western pastime behavior, on the very same beach fishermen like for centuries go out to the Bay of Bengal in small wooden boats and try to bring in enough catch to support their families. That of course is easier said than done because nowadays big industrial trawlers skim off most of the fish off shore. The local fishermen bring in their nets and find them empty except for jellyfish and some scraps, while the accountants and software engineers and marketing managers close in and gawk. So it goes …

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Andhra Pradesh State

Andhra Pradesh in the south-eastern coastal region of India sports the second longest coastline after Gujarat, measuring 974 km. It is the seventh-largest state by area (162,975 km2) and tenth-most populous with 49,4 million inhabitants.

In 1953 Andhra State was the first state to be formed on a linguistic basis, covering the Telugu speaking northern regions of Madras. Under the States Reorganisation Act of 1956 the Telugu-speaking regions of Hyderabad were added and Andhra Pradesh in its current borders was established.

The region is famous for once being a centre of Buddhist learning, and for its large diamonds produced at Kollur Mine, a series of gravel-clay pits at the south bank of river Krishna. Today Andhra counts as the rice bowl of India.

Visakhapatnam | Dec 22 to 26

The Seafox in the foreground has clearly seen better times | Vizag, December 2010

Vizag, as the metropolis is also known as, is the executive capital and largest city of Andhra Pradesh. It is home to the oldest shipyard in India and the only natural harbour on the east coast. Consequently it is also home to the Indian Navy’s Eastern Command and India’s second largest port by volume of cargo handled.

We arrived in Vizag by train late in the afternoon. As we had made no arrangements for accommodation, we booked a fairly run-down room near the railway station for the first night. The next morning we went to the seaside and strolled along the coastline in search for a proper room. After a while we found a nice guest house near a police officer’s residential estate and booked a room there.

A Christmas Tale

Coincidence would have it that it was operated by an Indian Christian who was sure it had to be divine providence that one day before Christmas two Christians (as he assumed … and we stopped short of destroying his delight by telling him that we both had left the church long ago) would drop in at his place. Since white Caucasian (again, as he thought) Christians are rarely to be seen in that part of the east coast, it goes without saying that we enjoyed VIP-treatment as long as we stayed and were invited to the owners’ private Christmas celebrations.

Old Monk Bout

I however had to decline that gracious invitation because I was ill on that evening and the following day. The day before Christmas we went for dinner in an upscale restaurant and ate a Tandoori Chicken after which I drank two Cuba Libres mixed with Indian Old Monk rum. I never was much of a drinker but none the less the king of hangover. But the order of magnitude of what struck me on Christmas Eve was impressive. I thought my head would explode, felt sick like hell and even got some fever. At the time I wondered if that was a coincidence or if there was any causal relationship with the Old Monk, not yet knowing that there would be a confirmatory second act in Mamallapuram.

The Hunt For Kursura

As a passionate multiple reader of Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October I was delighted to find the INS Kursura on display at the beach as a museum-submarine. Being a variant of the Soviet FOXTROT-class of boats, it was built in Leningrad, commissioned in Riga and consequently served in the Indian Navy from 1970 to 2001.

Dry Fish

A very memorable part of our stay was the day we’ve spent strolling around the vast fishing harbour of Visakhapatnam. There we saw scores of fish laid out like carpets to dry under the sun, and observed the proceedings and the comings and goings of folk and ship until hunger drove us back in the late afternoon.

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Vijayawada | Dec 27 to 29

Pilgrims on their way to celebrations at Sri Durga
Malleswara Swamy Varla Devastanam | December 2010

Vijayawada is the third largest city in Andhra Pradesh, situated on the north bank of the river Krishna, surrounded by the hills of the eastern ghats. It is notable as a pilgrimage destination with one of the most visited and famous holy sites of Andhra Pradesh and India, hosting the Kanka Durga Temple and the Malleswara Swamy shrine. Apart from that Vijay is home to the Prakasam Barrage, an impressive structure built by the East India Company between 1852 and 1855 that spans 1223.5 metres over the Krishna River.

Sri Durga Malleswara Swamy Varla Devasthanam

When we visited Vijay there was much hustle and bustle all over town with red clothed Durga pilgrims arriving from all directions and converging on Kanka Durga Temple on a hill on the north bank of Krishna River near Prakasam Barrage. Many of the pilgrims had a very special look to them as tradition requires – at least we were told – that they carry their luggage in cloth rolls on their heads exclusively. Apart from that the pilgrimage is typically required to be made on bare foot. Of course for all but the most principled pilgrims that meant that they walked to the temple from the railway station or the bus stand. But we none the less saw some executive types getting out of taxis a couple of hundred metres away from the temple complex to dust their feet and clothes for the right looks and walk in the last couple of steps.


In the mundane department I ripped open one leg of my beloved olive green trekking pants when we exited a motor rickshaw after returning from an afternoon trip to Bhavani Island in the midst of the Krishna River. Luckily the next tailor is never far away in India and my pants were nearly as quickly fixed as they were ripped open.

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Tamil Nadu State

Tamil Nadu is the 10th largest Indian state by area (130.058 km2) and the 6th largest in terms of population with its 72 Million inhabitants. It is the southernmost state, sharing a maritime border with Sri Lanka, as well as one of the most urbanized and industrialized ones. Its economy is the second largest of the Indian states. The region was ruled by several empires and harbours history and culture in abundance.

We’ve made a short stopover in Chennai – one of India’s four big metropolises besides Mumbai, Delhi, and Kolkata – and visited Mamallapuram, Rameswaram, and Madurai. Pondicherry, although an enclave within Tamil Nadu, is an autonomous Union Territory.

Mamallapuram | Dec 30, 2010 to Jan 2, 2011

Hill Park | December 2010

Mamallapuram is one of relatively few destinations on the east coast with heavy western tourist traffic. Sporting sandy beaches, an important archaeological site, ancient temples, and a designation as an UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985, it is a magnet for national and international tourists, and for day-trippers from the near metropolis of Chennai alike.

Us Them and the other ones

The Indian tourists often radiated a somewhat childlike charm to me since tourism for leisure was then still something out of the ordinary for the majority of Indians. The mostly older cultural tourists did no harm whatsoever and often were good for a lovely chat. What I found hard to handle were the young, batik clad hippie reenactors that roamed the shopping and hospitality mile behind the beaches in leather sandals and visibly yearned for an India that not even back in the day when the Beatles descended on Rishikesh existed.


As in all top notch tourist destinations, enterprising Indians had developed a kind of a theme park around this audiences, selling »Indian« clothing and sandals most Indians would not wear, food they would seldom eat, and tons of kitsch in every possible variety. Today I would dive into this theatre, striving to fit into the photographic sandals of Martin Parr. Then I was so tuned onto a culturally authentic Indian experience that I could barely muster any photographic interest for that biotope.

And Beyond

To my relieve we discovered that Indo-Disneyland ended abruptly some parallel-lanes behind the beach. Beyond that demarcation line things were as we came to love it. No cocktails, no salad bars, no continental breakfast, no pottery, no batik, and no hand crafted leather sandals. Just flip flops, Hero Hondas, and cheap and delicious street food.

Old Monk Bout Revisited

Although we did not celebrate on New Year’s Eve and went to bed long before midnight, we had a drink in the afternoon in one of the rooftop restaurants on Hippie Lane beyond the beach. I had gotten a little cocky again after my Old Monk situation in Vizag the week before and thought it was a formidable idea to proof that I was about to get ill anyway there by have myself a Cuba Libre made of Old Monk again. Needless to say that of course I was back in sick desperation alley the very next day. It was my last spirit in India and the last time ever since that I drank that particular booze.

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Union Territory of Pondicherry | Jan 2 to 6

Women walking the windy waterfront | January 2011

Pondicherry was a rather unique destination on our Indian journey since the town and its surrounding territory were French rather than British colonial possessions. The French East India Company set up a trading post at Pondicherry in 1674, starting several centuries of (interrupted) French rule. The British captured the town in 1761 but returned it in 1763 at the conclusion of the Seven Years War. In 1793 they captured it again amid the Wars of the French Revolution and returned it in 1814 consequently.

Au Revoir la France

In 1954 it was the turn of the Indians when several resolutions passed in the municipalities of Pondicherry demanded an immediate merger with India. In the same year the former French Indian territories de facto passed from French to Indian governance. Due to the need to alter the French as well as the Indian constitutions, it took another eight years until 1962, when the territories transferred de jure.

Bonjour Pondicherry

Despite our arrival in Pondi was roughly another 48 years later, the town had a distinct French flavour to it. It showed in the architectural style of the old town and the French monuments and memorial sites. And because cliché apparently sometimes overturns reality, baguettes and croissants were very present in shop windows, behind counters, and in the shopping bags of Pondicherrys residents.

Hazy Light, Baguettes & Croissants
Reading „The Armies of the Raj“ on the balcony of our guest house in Pondicherry | January 2011 | Photo S.M.

We lodged in a very charming guest house situated in an old French colonial town house opposite a small Hindu temple. The weather was often rainy during our stay with rather strong winds. When it did not rain it stayed mostly in a hazy mood that made a nice soft light for photography. We took it easy and spent the days reading on our balcony, strolling around the old town and the promenade, and enjoying the big variety of French inspired pastries on offer.

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