Southeast India’s French Connection

We left northern India for the south not knowing what to expect. What we noticed in our first two southern stops is that the cities are more cosmopolitan and cleaner than what we saw in the north and the food is a bit spicier.

One of the cleanest cities we’ve been to in a long time, Visakhapatnam, called Vizag by locals, was a pleasant surprise. There is little to no garbage on the streets, boulevards are lined with beautiful flowers and greenery and new modern buildings are being built to replace old worn down ones. Vizag is located on the coast and takes advantage of its position. The main beach, Ramakrishna, is a 2 km long stretch of white sand with large, black rocks along the water’s edge. The rough water from the Bay of Bengal makes a display as it crashes hard against these rocks. As with the beaches in the north, we saw a lot of Indian tourists playing on the beach and in the water, fully clothed. It still looks very odd to us westerners to see people on the beach in jeans and saris.

We drove along the coast north of Vizag to visit four ancient Buddhist sites. Konda means hill in English, so each of these sites were on the tops of small hills. Bavikonda and Thotlakonda were Buddhist monasteries from the 3rd century BC to 3rd century AD. Most of the stupas and buildings at Bavikonda are now just ruins so it was a bit of a disappointment. Thotlakonda, however, has a few massive, stupas quite different from what we’ve at other sites. Here the stupas are made from brick and are tall, almost round structures. Apparently, these sites were used by missionaries who took Buddhist teachings south in the Bay of Bengal to Sri Lanka.

Lingalakonda and Bojjannakonda were Buddhist sites from the 3rd – 9th century AD on two adjacent hills. At Lingalakonda we found dozens of large boulders which were carved into stupas. The stupas were scattered along the top of the hill. Two of them are at least 20m high. On the next hill, Bojjannakonda has large sculptures of Buddha carved in to the rock on the side of the cliff. There were also two interesting cave shrines carved deep into to the rock. The walls of one cave are filled with ancient Buddha carvings. On top of the hill were more boulder stupas. The top of the hill has a large brick stupa that takes up most of the hill top, but is mostly in ruin.

At all these sites we were asked by at least 100 Indian tourists to be in their pictures. The term ‘selfie’ has become part of the Indian languages. We didn’t see any other westerners at these sites, so that’s probably why we were such an interest to them.

While in Vizag we were able to meet with our friend, Usha, whom we met on the Great Lakes Trek in Kashmir earlier this year. She lives in Vizag and took us to see a few sites. There’s a beautiful park on Kailasagiri Hill above town. It’s a lovely park with botanical gardens and walking paths. From the park there are great views of the city and the coastline. In the middle of the park are two large statues of Shiva and Parvati. We also stopped at a 19th century Ross Hill Church that has a nice spot on a cliff above the city.

That evening we enjoyed a delicious home-cooked Indian meal with Usha and her husband. Usha made so many different, delicious dishes, but our favourites were curried potatoes & plantains, gourds in a rich, spicy gravy and paneer (cheese) in a spicy masala sauce. It was a nice treat to spend an evening with friends.

On the coast in southern in India is the French colonial city of Puducherry (formerly Pondicherry) which was under French rule until the mid-1950s. Evan today, the French Quarter has a more European feel than Indian. There are colonial heritage buildings with large pillars, freshly painted walls and small terraces. We saw quite a few but the most impressive buildings in the French Quarter are the Governor’s residence, Raj Nivas, and the Puducherry Train Station. To add to the European feel, the area has narrow, tree-lined streets that are kept quite clean and are mostly free of street cows. As well, there are many boutique hotels, cafes and restaurants serving European and Indian cuisine. We really enjoyed relaxing with good coffee and French pastries at the many cafes.

Stray away from this area, however, and Puducherry starts to look like most other Indian cities we’ve seen with ramshackle buildings, less than modern technology and busy traffic.

The French Quarter is located on the coast of the Bay of Bengal where the water is very rough, and constantly crashes against the rocky shore. It’s not a suntanning beach because of the rocks, but there is a long boardwalk along the shore with a constant breeze making it a nice place to walk. In the evening the street is closed to traffic, so it is a very popular place for tourists to walk and enjoy the ocean view.

Bharathi Park is a large park in the French Quarter which has many walking paths and big trees providing shade. There are a few old statues and ruins scattered throughout the park. We met an interesting Indian writer/poet in the park who taught us a little about Hinduism. He showed us an ancient stone Hindu column and explained the meanings of the carvings. Some of the carvings portray a Hindu legend which he says describes evolution. The carvings begin with a god first represented as a fish, then reincarnated as a half-man/half-fish, then half-bird/half-man (Garuda) and then as a man. We had never put all of these images together before to have this interpretation.

There are also carvings that depict each of the main Hindu gods alongside one of their reincarnated forms. For example, the picture below shows the God Rama riding on the shoulders of his reincarnate Hanuman, the monkey God. Before meeting him, we didn’t understand the connection between the different manifestations of each god and the Hindu beliefs in reincarnation. This man’s explanations helped us to better understand and appreciate some of the Hindu legends and beliefs.

There are quite a few French colonial churches in Puducherry. They are large, ornate buildings with high towers and a commanding presence. We were there in early December and the churches were already preparing for Christmas. On the street near one of the churches were several businesses selling Christmas decorations, including dancing Santas. It didn’t feel like the Christmas season though with the hot, humid temperatures in Puducherry.

Near the French Quarter is the important Hindu temple Sri Manakula Vinayager Temple, dedicated to the elephant-headed Lord Ganesh. There were dozens of paintings of Ganesh in different postures on the walls inside the temple. The highlight though was the real elephant at the entrance who grants blessings. Lakshmi the elephant takes your donation in her trunk, gives it to her trainer and then pats your head with her snout as a blessing. Of course, we both had to be blessed by Lakshmi!

After a week resting, drinking espresso and eating croissants in Puducherry, it’s time for our next adventure.

Coming Next: Fascinating Architecture in Hyderabad

For extra pics from this trip go to Gallery/Delhi & Eastern India. For extra pictures from other blogs go to Gallery at

To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.

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