Travel had taken a backseat in our lives with the past several weeks being consumed by hospital visits and doctors appointments. Thankfully R is fully recovered from a minor surgical procedure, and a condition I was diagnosed with turned out to be less scary than it initially sounded, but they made for some awfully stressful moments.
A final all clear from our doctors prompted an impulsive visit last weekend to Pondicherry (rechristened Puducherry) some three hours South by road from Chennai. We had developed a penchant for Paris since our last visit many years ago, and anticipated better appreciation of the city’s French antecedents.
As you all know, our travels – even short weekend breaks – are usually intense immersions into our destinations and cannot be termed vacations by any stretch. This weekend, we were determined to disconnect and de-stress. Having chosen the worst time of the year for the visit aided our decision somewhat, although habits die hard and we could only bear being cooped up in our room – albeit a beautiful one at the hip La Villa – for so long.
And so we bravely stepped out into one of the muggiest evenings of the season to meet Ashok Panda, the co -convener of INTACH* Pondicherry, for an hour long walking tour of the remnants of traditional architecture in the French quarter of the city. Equally saddened and relieved that there was barely a square kilometer of preserved heritage left to explore.
We were reminded that it was prime minister Nehru’s decision to award ‘Union Territory’ status to Pondicherry in 1954, and to grant permission to the French government to own and maintain properties within the territory in recognition of France’s amicable surrender of its colony to independent India, that helped save its identity from being swamped by neighbouring Tamilnadu (then Madras). Nearly six decades later, that distinct cultural identity appears irreversibly eroded.
As we stroll around the well laid streets of ‘White Town’ we cannot help comparing it to Luang Prabang – a UNESCO World Heritage town – and we rue lost possibilities. Unlike their communist counterparts in Laos who have no vote banks to worry about, the authorities in democratic Pondicherry have been slow to institute legislation and punitive measures against the destruction of heritage property. And legislation, Ashok informs us, is a pre-condition for consideration by UNESCO.
Meanwhile INTACH has helped resurrect several heritage buildings and continues to raise awareness and fight the indiscriminate demolition of old structures.
The short stretch of Vysial street in the Tamil quarter is practically a museum for some of the the last remaining traditional Tamil merchant houses. Twenty facades have been restored by the EC funded Asia Urbs under its Model Street Restoration Scheme. The nicest ones have been turned into atmospheric hotels, and most will let you wander in for a quick look if you ask nicely.
Paying respects to Sri Aurobindo and the ‘Mother‘ at their ashram is de rigueur when you are in ‘Pondi’, as is a hop across to Auroville: an universal commune created by the latter. At the heart of the township is a gigantic geodesic golden globe known as the Matri Mandir (Temple of the mother). The impromptu nature of our visit excluded entry into its inner ‘concentration’ chamber that requires prior reservation at the visitor’s centre.
The beach promenade in town, is closed to traffic between 6pm – 7am and is a great place for people watching if you aren’t too allergic to crowds. Le Cafe, the old port office turned coffee house, despite the VMF (Les Vieilles Maisons Francaises) plaque at the entrance and its prime location (right on top of the pier made famous by Pi in Ang Lee’s epic drama) screams ‘government run’ and was a huge let down in ambience as well as the fare on offer.
Our food highlights included wonderful home style Chettinad fish curry and rice at Appachi, and two deliciously creative continental dinners in the lovely courtyard of our boutique hotel. Lunch at their sister concern Villa Shanti did not live up to our expectations and neither did the service or first courses at Le Maison Rose nearby.
We cut short our meal there and returned to Le Villa for mains and an exceptional dark chocolate dessert topped with lemon sorbet (no photos!). The cardamom pannacotta with espresso gellee that accompanied dinner the night before came very close. And their coffee was as good as any I have had in France. But the breads across the board, and the cloying humidity in the air, were decidedly un-French.
*Indian National Trust for Art And Cultural Heritage