There's a carnival atmosphere on Pondicherry's main beach as locals mingle with pilgrims and tourists from across India, along with a scattering of foreigners. On the sand, couples - girls dressed in bright saris, boys in loose short-sleeved shirts and jeans - huddle, chatting and snacking on barbecued corn cobs. Far out to sea the lights of container ships can be seen gliding through the darkness of the Bay of Bengal. For travellers wary of India's frantic pace towards modernisation, the seaside town of Pondicherry, located 160km south of Chennai, in southern India, is a welcome reprieve. The farmers' market, crammed with local produce, is bustling every morning, and as the day's heat abates the beachfront becomes a parade of gossipping, photo-taking, humanity. But Pondicherry generally draws visitors seeking a simpler India; one without the traffic and relentless, heaving crowds of India's mega-cities. Located in its own municipality, 'Pondi' is an administrative union that straddles the states of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. A former French enclave that hugs the country's eastern coast, modern day Pondicherry is a city of thinkers, with technical colleges, universities and spiritual institutions dotting its outskirts, making it a truly unique Indian destination. The terrace of the boutique Promenade Hotel, which overlooks the shoreline, is packed with affluent Indian families and a handful of sunburnt French tourists drinking gin and tonics. On the beachfront, one entrepreneurial teen sells UFO-like discs covered in battery-powered lights. He throws one high into the air out towards the water, and the evening's warm thermals make it float and dance before descending, boomerang-like, back to his little stand, to the shrieking delight of the children watching. Nearby a statue of Ghandi, framed in an ivory white shrine and surrounded by seven tall pillars, watches over the revellers. The southern coast bore the brunt of India's tsunami damage, with more than 500 people killed in the Union of Pondicherry, 30,000 left homeless, and more than 7,000 dead in neighbouring Tamil Nadu. A vendor selling sweet gulab jamun dough balls says that for months after the tsunami the wives of missing fishermen would sit on the beach for hours, staring out to sea. A small plastic tassel tied to his stand depicting Varuna, the Hindu lord of the sea riding a bright green sea creature, flaps in the warm air. Pondi has moved on and among the few reminders of the threat tsunamis pose are the hastily built pillbox-shaped shelters that dot the coast and estuaries on the drive from Chennai, the words 'Tsunami shelter' written in English, Tamil and Hindi, on their sides. The next morning the beach is silent and surprisingly clean - there's little evidence of the nightly procession down its main promenade. A group of elderly men wearing brightly-coloured swimming caps have risen early and are waist deep in the sea. Pondi's wide streets are still shaded by an abundance of African mahoganies, and the city's European influence is most notable in the French half of town, known as the Ville Blanche, with its bakeries, whitewashed houses and architecture more reminiscent of leafy Parisian suburbs than an Indian city. The former mansion of the city's Dubash (Indian representative of the French governor) Ananda Ranga Pillai, built in 1738, is now a museum dedicated to the era of French rule. It's an imposing structure of white stone, wreathed in bougainvillea vines and behind grand gates. It is one of several examples of French influence on the city's architecture. Others include the Eglise de Notre Dame des Anges, a white marble cathedral, the yellow colonial homes along the Rue Dumas and the French Consulate. The Indian half, Ville Noire, offers a more authentic experience, its streets crammed with tiny homes and bustling coffee shacks. The fusion of these two vastly different cultures, with four official languages (French, English, Tamil and Malayalam) and the added spiritual element that was to come later, nurtured an open mindedness that makes Pondicherry a popular winter retreat for scholars and expats. In the Sri Aurobindo's ashram, one of the city's most important attractions, time seems to stand still. A former revolutionary, poet, guru and politician, English-educated Aurobindo first spoke out against Britain's occupation in India and quickly rose through the ranks of the independence movement to become a national hero. He moved to Pondicherry in 1910 to escape arrest by the British and to explore yoga, which he started practising in 1905. Here Aurobindo developed a new method of spiritual practice called integral yoga and, in 1926, founded the ashram, a community of like-thinking disciples, with his 'spiritual collaborator' French-born Mirra Alfassa, known as the Mother. Visitors to the ashram, Aurobindo and Alfassa's resting place, walk silently and with reverence along cobbled paths, while pilgrims, many of whom have travelled vast distances, sit meditating around the polished white marble tombs of its founders, who were said to be inseparable. At a local coffee shop, my guide, Nilofur, an Aurobindo disciple from Mumbai, and I jostle for space with local Tamil men, dressed in spotlessly white, short-sleeved shirts, all with similar moustaches. Talk centres on job connections, petrol prices and an upcoming festival, as they pour the coffee, which comes from a massive, steaming pot with condensed milk added, from one tiny aluminium cup to another until it cools. While Pondicherry has long been a seaside favourite - the French call it La C?te d'Azur de l'Est (the French Riviera of the east) - many foreigners venture south to learn Aurobindo's teachings at the ashram or to stay in Auroville, a settlement created by Alfassa in 1968, 8km from Pondicherry. Auroville was founded on utopian ideals and is manned by a united nations of spiritually in-tune expats, bolstered by local manpower. The city, which is endorsed by Unesco, was created to be a 'place on Earth which no nation could claim as its own, where all human beings of goodwill, who have a sincere aspiration, could live freely as citizens of the world and obey one single authority, that of the supreme truth', according to Alfassa. In the early afternoon, Auroville is bustling with tourists and residents. A modern gallery exhibiting the various works of the community would look more at home on Hollywood Road than in the middle of more than 800 hectares of barren and unforgiving wilderness. Auroville houses farms and a botanical garden, 900 homes in 100 sub-settlements, natural waste-water treatment plants, restaurants where labour credits can be exchanged for meals, and school and businesses - all of it solar powered. The settlement also runs extensive outreach programmes that focus on environmental awareness, employment and training. We walk past fields of solar panels, occasionally giving way to tanned Europeans riding electric scooters - they ignore us and I get a sense this could be closer to the television show Survivor than the flowery pamphlets in the welcome gallery would have us believe. Residents don't own their homes and newcomers must survive a year-long probationary period and then be 'accepted' by a sub-settlement. However, if you want a taste of the Auroville life, you can pay between 150 rupees (HK$22) and 1,000 rupees per person, per night to stay in a guest lodge. Just when I'm about to scold myself for my cynicism, we discover the Maitri Mandir, a six-storey golden meditation sphere, gleaming across manicured lotus-shaped lawns, with a 70cm crystal sphere at its centre. Designed by Alfassa as 'a symbol of the divine's answer to man's inspiration for perfection', it's certainly the most other-worldly sight in Auroville and worth a visit just to see. Getting there: Cathay Pacific (cathaypacific.com) flies from Hong Kong directly to Chennai. There are bus and train links to Pondicherry, which take about 2 1/2 hours.