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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Hi, I'm Madhu. Wanderer. Travel blogger. Story teller. Bitten late and hard by the travel bug, I am on a mission to make up for lost time.

76 thoughts on “Pondicherry – An Ersatz French Weekend

  1. 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.

  2. 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

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

  5. 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.

  6. 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 🙂

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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

  10. 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.

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