Pondicherry – An Ersatz French Weekend

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.

Le Villa - Pondicherry
The charmingly distressed exterior of La Villa, Pondicherry

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.

École française d'Extrême-Orient, Pondicherry
A rickshaw parked opposite the École française d’Extrême-Orient, one of the buildings owned and maintained by the French Government.
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A B&B in a restored mansion on Rue Romain Rolland

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.

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The Hotel de l’Orient – another INTACH project
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This one awaits rescue.

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.

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One pf the restored facades on Vysial street.
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Internal courtyard of Maison Perumal, a hotel on Vysial street

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.
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Restoration plans for the first lighthouse on the Coramandel coast remain on the shelf while the central customs department and local authorities debate possession rights.

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.

Joan of Arc - Pondicherry
Joan of Arc stands guard in the garden facing the pink Church of Notre Dame des Anges. (Shot through the locked gate)
Elephant at the Manakula Vinayagar temple, Pondicherry
Lakshmi, the adorable temple elephant blesses devotees and excited tourists in exchange for a few coins and treats at Manakula Vinayagar temple, steps from the French quarter. It was heartening to note that she wasn’t chained.

*Indian National Trust for Art And Cultural Heritage

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

76 thoughts on “Pondicherry – An Ersatz French Weekend

  1. I was concerned when I first began reading your post, Madhu. I’m so glad you and your husband are on the mend and back wandering!

  2. Lovely as always. Sad to know you are losing so much of your heritage, especially after seeing these pictures. I think living in such a young nation but having traveled to nations with such a rich history I an always in awe of the history and grateful when it is preserved as a reminder.

    Glad to know you are both doing better. Hope you continue to improve and feel better.

  3. Thanks for the lovely tour, Madhu. I’ve never heard of Pondicherry before. The restoration work is lovely, and I’m sure that in time, they’ll get around to restoring all of it to its former glory. I’m sorry that both R and yourself have had health problems and worries, and am happy to read that you’re both feeling much better now. xx

  4. Loved my trip to Pondicherry a few years back courtesy of R but I do remember the aluminum painted room at a local resort unnerved me greatly (didn’t help loosing a day to extreme sickness the previous day)! Wish I had HD video camera back then to record all the beautiful colors.

    1. Ha, I remember your cutting short your visit to that ‘resort’! Pondicherry has a whole lot more accommodation options now. You must plan another visit Paul. Thanks again for stopping by. Have a great day!

  5. A beautiful post, Madhu. It sounded like such a well-deserved break after dealing with those health issues. I know that both you and R are resilient people, and am sure that you will continue travelling the world for years to come! Pondicherry is one of our stops on our jaunt through Tamil Nadu later this year… I’m glad to see some of its French heritage still intact.

  6. Thanks for this lovely glimpse of Pondy. When we were living in Tiruvannamalai we did a quick day trip there with friends. We didn’t have much time so didn’t get to Auroville, but did get to explore the French quarter a little – so charming and so unlike the rest of tamilnadu.
    Alison

  7. Reminds me of our visit to Auroville several years back. Remember picking up lots to red seeds and cycling down the scenic paths there! We couldn’t go inside the Mathri Mandir, either.

    Good to know everything is okay on the health front. Please take care of yourself.

  8. Hi Madhu, glad to hear that all is well now with you and R. I had read a Nat Geo article on Pondicherry 10 years ago, and the pictures had won me over enough to add in my travel bucket list for the longest time. Sad to hear that the heritage buildings have not been maintained really well but your photos have captured them exceptionally well that I am still hoping that I make my way there some day 🙂 Do take care, dear, God Bless.

  9. I’m happy to hear that you and R are doing okay now! What a beautiful town Pondicherry seems, but I can never make my mind up about colonial influences wherever they are. A great place to wander with your camera though and the elephant is wonderful, hope it’s treats are healthy ones. Good to see you Madhu 🙂

  10. Looks lovely! I have lived in Bangalore on-and-off for 10 years and have still not made it to Pondicherry, but your post has inspired me to move it to the top of my list. Hope you are fully recovered from your health issues, and looking forward to more posts soon!

    1. Ha, I live next door and it took me over a decade to return! 🙂 Thank you for reading and for your good wishes Veen.

  11. I love Pondicherry, although not really at this time of year 😉 But hey, at least you probably had less tourists. Everything is very special there: the colors, the French influence (of course I had to say that), the rythm.. The café by the Gandhiji status is sooo good! I am very happy to read that your husband’s health is good, many blessings to both of you and again thanks for the little trip back to South India…

    1. Of course you had to say that! 😀 And yes, it was lovely to have fewer tourists and even have the hotel almost to ourselves. The cafe was a disappointment though. Thank you very much for your good wishes Estelea. Let me know if you ever decide to visit this part of the country again.

      1. Will do 😉 to me it was the first real French coffee I d had in a long time, I might have overrated it 😉 all the very best

        1. Estelea, Just popped over to your blog from Lex’s and left a comment, but it might be stuck in your spam folder. Would you release it please? Happens every time I return after a long absence!

  12. I hope all is well on the health front with your family ~ take care. As for the post, this is a wonderful read Madhu. There is something about restored building that still hold onto the past and pieces of history people always find fascinated and for the reasons you point out in your writing. Wonderful photos and wish you all well.

    1. Thank you very much Randall. These faithfully restored buildings will hopefully encourage more people to follow along.

  13. As always outstanding your new post, Madhu, are there any pictures of the compound of Sri Aurobindo? I wish Pondicherry would be close to the route of my first trip to India, maybe another time. Wish you great health and happiness

    1. Thank you Cornelia. I am afraid I do not have any photos of the outside of the ashram. The building does not have any distinctive features from the outside and resembles a typical French quarter residence. You could try browsing their official site if you want to know more. Here’s the link: http://www.sriaurobindoashram.org/index.php

  14. You have the same problem with Goa. I had my first hand operated rickshaw ride in Pondi on an audit trip. Your observations on Laos were right on though I’m informed things are better than my last visit to northern Laos in the Golden Triangle at which time we met with Communist Officials in connection with development activities in that area. Met some people who’d gone through intense brain washing after the Communists took over. They were very careful with what they said but certainly not convinced Communism was the utopia promised.

    1. I agree Ian. But the snails pace of functioning in a humongous democracy like ours can be frustrating 🙂

  15. I thought that something was not in order… but I did not know of your health problems, I am so sorry and I am happy that everything can be solved. You’re right Madhu, health is the most important thing…
    I apologize if I allow myself to be outrageous… I know, I know, it’s class to have fans made with the feathers of peacocks… or admire elephants in captivity as a tourist attraction… but if I think about the suffering of these animals, I can only feel compassion for human selfishness and foolishness. And, most of all, you should not publicize these things 😦 please forgive me if I am very sincere and frank.
    Take care ❤ claudine

    1. I do not condone keeping elephants in captivity either Claudine. Nor does anyone of my ilk consider it fashionable to own peacock feather fans. These are deep rooted cultural traditions and have nothing to do with ‘class’. Elephants in India were/are used much like horses were/are in the West or camels in the middle East. Most (I hope) are orphaned elephant calves rescued from the wild and tamed. (We do not have horses in the South).

      Their association with temples goes back a long way. I would not be able to write about many temples in South India without referring to their elephants, and believe me, they aren’t tourist attractions. So however much we might wish the tradition away, it is going to be around until the general population begins to care more about animal rights over traditions.

  16. Relieved to read that all is well and that you both are fine – health issues are always scary, no matter. Wonderful to read about Pondicherry, beautiful city that I loved learning about through your post. Seems like the perfect place to unwind from the stresses.

    1. Thanks Mary. yes it is a lovely laid back place to unwind, although much nicer later in the year 🙂

  17. Your blog and the lovely pictures made me even more determined to visit Pondi – something ice deferred for far too long.

    1. Let’s do it together when you are in India next! But make sure you don’t turn up here in summer! 🙂

  18. I’m so glad health news is good, although ‘less scary” isn’t perfect. “Distressed” is an interesting and appropriate word for the building in your first photo. I’m warmed by the yellow and white colour schemes, and the graciousness of the lighthouse; and the internal courtyard soothes my soul. Thank you for another satisfying post.

    1. ‘Less scary’ because it is a condition that isn’t going to go away. But I have been told it is probably something I was born with and since I have survived a fairly active lifestyle thus far, I should forget about it! 🙂 Thank YOU for reading Meg, and for your ever encouraging and thoughtful comments.

  19. I am so glad to hear that all is fine with you Madhu. Thanks for a very interesting post. Your captures are stunning as always and I love those colorful buildings with the great architecture. I am also glad to see that beautiful elephant and that she wasn’t chained. She is adorable! 😀

    1. Isn’t she adorable? It was good to see she wasn’t chained, and she seemed well fed and playful, but I did wonder what would happen if she ever ran amok in the crowded temple. Animals invariably bear the brunt of such situations. Thank you for your visit and lovely comment Sonel. Pleasure to see your Gravatar pop up in my notifications 🙂

      1. Totally and a good thing I wasn’t there. I would have taken her home. LOL!

        When they are raised like that, they don’t scare easily and are very docile and yes, unfortunately it is so. People tame them and then kill them if they hurt anyone. So unnecessary.

        You’re very welcome Madhul. Always a pleasure too. 😀 ♥

  20. I learn so much from your posts … you are helping me add places to my travel wish list! I was just in a very hot climate (Middle East), which was totally bearable because it was so dry. I can’t imagine the high temperatures combined with India’s humidity! Finally, your photos are great; several drew me right into the scenes.

    1. Oh the heat was awful! Not sure if its true, but I learnt from a friend that the last time it was this hot in the region in July was in 1915 or so! The middle East in July must be pretty bad even without the humidity! We went in September and it was still hot. Thank you for your compliments Lex, much appreciated 🙂

    1. Hope you get to visit sometime soon Mallee. I plan to return to Auroville with friends later in the year.

  21. Although hot and humid, a nice respite from doctors . I do hope all is well. This is an area we would like to see …next trip. The heat and humidity in Varanasi last year while there was intense and I thought I was use to it. It has been beastly here. Well wishes to you and R.

    1. All almost well now, thank you Lynne. Just a few more follow up tests, and we should be all set for our Basque trip mid August. The drive to Pondicherry was indeed a much needed respite. I have been hearing of the heat wave across Europe, but hadn’t realised it was bad in your area as well. Stay cool and hydrated 🙂

  22. Except for a small part of pondicherry, the place is an extension of Tamil Nadu. French quarter surely maintains a distinct identity though, but how long is a different question altogether! One doesn’t get much of French influence in Pondicherry.

    1. The tragedy is that even Tamil heritage isn’t preserved. We are turning into a homogeneous concrete jungle.

      1. Madhu..when it comes to the heritage, my observation is that attitude of people across the nation is somewhat similar….we are losing heritage because people don’t care! I see so many old heritage houses/havelis which have been badly maintained or renovated in a manner that destroys its essence! This phenomena is more so in the building which are still dwelling units. Out here in Jaipur, you can find so many examples of heritage being destroyed….all because of personal gains or lack of awareness!

  23. “intense immersions into our destinations” is exaclty what i felt after reading the article 🙂 very informative write-up!

    1. Fingers crossed Bente! 🙂 It should be achievable if Governments pitch in with the maintenance of facades at least.

    1. Thanks Ilargia. It is a lovely place that could so easily be lovelier.

      PS: I am headed your way in mid August. Shall email you my dates. Would be great to catch up if possible.

  24. Most fascinating , Madhu…but sad to see so little of the heritage remaining. I most definitely don’t envy you that heat and humidity! Glad to hear everything is alright with you both, Madhu xx

    1. Thank you Sue. The heat was awful and unusual for July. It is just as bad in Chennai, but we don’t walk around as much here.

    1. It used to be twice as charming then Cardinal, although I don’t remember it seeming so spiffy. Hope you get to return to India someday.

  25. Nice Madhu… Can you also throw some light on the cost factor if one is travelling SOLO on budget ?

    1. Thank you Shaunak. I don’t have the figures off hand since I do not usually travel solo. And ‘budget’ is relative. Maison Tamoule – a Neemrana property – in the Tamil quarter for eg. starts at around Rs.2500 for a basic (and tiny duplex) double. (I asked at the reception, but you might want to crosscheck) I am certain you will find decent B&Bs in both areas in the same range. Eating should be cheaper than in most big Indian cities, especially if you are vegetarian and stick to standard chains.

      PS: The ashram guest houses are a good bet if you are on a budget, but they strictly prohibit meat and alcohol.

      1. Thank you… I usually travel on budget, stay at dormitories or hostels and travel by public transport. So yeah… this info from you is also helpful. 🙂

  26. SO relieved to hear that everything is alright, Madhu! 🙂 When you wrote ‘for Christine’ and we chatted about enjoying life you must have still been worrying about this. Sending you an extra hug! If you were on one of their committees I think preservation might take an upward turn 🙂 Lovely post, as ever.

    1. It is such a relief Jo. Friends were quick to rush in with comforting examples of relatives with similar conditions who had lived past their nineties, but they didn’t quite get that it wasn’t dying I was worried about as much as the curtailment of life as I know it 😉 Pondicherry was a lovely break despite the heat. I wish our authorities would wake up to the potential of conserving traditions and architecture. I fear that there will be nothing but ugly concrete structures left by the time they do.

  27. This place is remarkable and is in my travel list this year for sure and hopefully soon.
    Thanks for sharing another great story.

    1. It is, but best to go much later in the year. Last weekend was unbearably hot and humid. Chennai was equally bad, but we aren’t tempted to get out of our AC cocoons here;-)

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