Puducherry (formerly known as Pondicherry) has a strangely surreal feel to it.
It’s not as if India is short of places with a colonial past. Just about every hill station in the country, from Nainital to Ooty, has its clutch of old stone churches, its Mall Road and its little shops selling jams and marmalades. Many also have old cottages with fireplaces, shady verandas and spooky stories of Raj-era ghosts. That, however, is where it invariably ends. The colonial past is just that: the past.
Francophile: The War Memorial dedicated to French soldiers of World War I.
Puducherry is a different kettle of fish altogether, somewhere between a hearty bouillabaisse and a spicy, coconut-scented meen kuzhambu. The town divides up neatly into the Tamil quarter and the French quarter, the latter so Gallic it’s an unashamedly Antipodean version of a sun-drenched seaside town somewhere in southern France. And the French air of Puducherry isn’t restricted to a few old colonial churches—although there are plenty of those—or some shops selling French wines. No, it goes much deeper than that.
On our first morning in Puducherry, we wake up to a breakfast of strong coffee, buttery brioches and mouth-watering croissants. The stewards have soft accents and roll their “rs” much better than most of us manage after three years of studying French. And the Puducherry map we’re graciously given by the manager is a deluge of French names: Rue Dumas, Rue Mahe de Labourdonnais, Rue de la Marine, Rue Suffren, even a memorable Orleanpet.
A day’s wandering through the streets of the French quarter, and we experience a distinct sense of déjà vu. The pale yellow and ochre houses, with their white trim and wrought iron window grills, look familiar. The Cluny Embroidery Centre on Rue Romain Rolland has a façade that curves delicately above a wooden gate with an antique knocker. The street names—neat white letters stencilled on deep blue metal rectangles—are nailed precisely at eye level on each street corner.
Surely we’ve seen all of this before? In Paris, perhaps? The quiet streets, the bicycles outside the houses, the flowering trees along the pavements: All of it is straight out of the Mediterranean.
Kaps Ko: Eglise de Notre Dame des Anges is a replica of the cathedral at Lourdes, France.
But we turn a corner and, suddenly, we aren’t sure any more. Goubert Market, which sounds deliciously Gallic on the map, turns out to be firmly Tamil in flavour. It’s a covered market teeming with people who sell everything from fish and dried shrimp to coconuts, huge bunches of bananas, and vegetables that we don’t even attempt to identify.
Outside Goubert Market, a policeman is busy directing traffic. And unlike other police constables all across India, he’s not wearing a beret or a Gandhi topi. His uniform cap is a kepi, bright red and with a black peak. The last time I saw a policeman wearing a kepi, he was a Parisian gendarme.
Opposite the French consulate on Rue de la Marine, a coconut seller plies a brisk trade, handing out tender green coconuts to thirsty people like us. Further along, on Rue Dumas, a rickshaw puller, bright calico lungi tucked up about his knees, sits on his haunches eating his lunch. His rickshaw, standing in the narrow lane beside him, is like any other you would see in this country: shiny red seat, spindle-thin wheels, and vividly painted flowers on the aluminium backrest. Among the flowers, like on thousands of other rickshaws all across India, are painted the names of those whom the rickshaw puller holds dear. His daughters, perhaps, since they are all female names. And what names: Bernadette is one I still remember.
In a city where rickshaw pullers are related to women called Bernadette, we’re not really surprised when we notice an old family photograph at the hotel where we’re staying. The Hotel de L’Orient was once a villa owned by the Sinnas, a family of merchants. Opposite the hotel’s reception counter is a quaint black and white photograph of the family, dating from the early 1900s. It’s a classic photograph: women draped in demure saris, moustachioed men wearing huge turbans. Very Indian—until we notice the names written below. There’s an Edouard here, a Thérèse there, and other names straight out of 19th century France.
This completely unexpected mix of India and France is what really makes Puducherry so appealing. The churches, for instance (all with mile-long French names) are a lively hybrid of architectural styles. The Eglise de Sacre Coeur de Jesus, a somewhat startlingly vivid combination of white, deep green and scarlet, contains stained-glass windows depicting much-loved French saints, including Joan of Arc. The terracotta tiles framing each window, however, are straight out of a South Indian brick kiln—and the Madonna near the altar wearsa sari.
The Eglise de Notre Dame des Anges, a replica of the cathedral at Lourdes, is not quite so obvious a mélange of East and West. The pale lemon and peach exterior hides a sober interior covered in off-white plaster, worked into elegant floral patterns. The same plaster is used in the framed depictions of the Stations of the Cross, a series hung all around the church—and labelled only in French. The church, we learn, is more commonly known to the local Tamils as Kaps Kovil–the Church of the Capuchins, since the Capuchin monks were the original builders of this church.
A minute’s walk from Kaps Kovil, and we reach the seafront, a stretch of grey sand and black rocks. A circular white building labelled Douane (the French word for Customs) dominates the promenade, the Indian tricolour fluttering jauntily above it. Alongside is a low white lighthouse, and a short distance further, at the corner of Rue Mahe de Labourdonnais, is the World War I Memorial. Stark white columns flank the poignant life-size figure of a soldier, clad in a greatcoat and leaning on his rifle. The words above—Aux combattants des Indes Françaises morts pour la patrie (For the soldiers of French India, who died for their fatherland), 1914-1918—are only in French. No English.
Which is perhaps the most telling statement there can be about Puducherry. Unabashedly French, though with more than a hint of native colour.
How to get there:
There is no airport in Puducherry. The local railway station merits only two trains a day. The best option is to fly or take a train to the nearest major metro, Chennai, which is linked to Puducherry by a wide, well-maintained 170km stretch of road. From Chennai, hire a taxi for about Rs1,500 (one way) to get to Puducherry. From Bangalore, it is six and a half hours away by road, via Kolar, Kanchipuram and Sadras.
Where to stay:
The French quarter is the place to stay in Puducherry, and it has its fair share of hotels. Many of them are colonial villas converted into heritage properties such as the Villa Helena (http://www.hotelstamilnadu.com/villahelena/facilities.htm; Rue Suffren; Rs1,500 per night for a double-bed room) and Le Dupleix (http://www.ledupleix.com/about.html; Rue de la Caserne; Rs3,475 per night for a double-bed room, Tel:
0413-2226999). We stayed at the delightful Hotel de L’Orient, a Neemrana Group property on Rue Romain Rolland. The 16 rooms at de L’Orient (http://www.neemranahotels.com/pondi/index.html.htm, Tel: 0413-2343067, 2343068) are named after historic southern cities: Masulipatam, Seringapatnam, Nellore, and so on, all decorated with a restrained mix of French and South Indian styles. Tariffs start at Rs2,000 per night; meals are extra.
Where to eat:
Puducherry is not as full of interesting restaurants as one would like, but a few are worth sampling. The Alliance Française runs Le Club (38, Rue Dumas; Tel: 0413-339745), which serves good French cuisine—including favourites such as Coq au vin and Le chateaubriand béarnaise. The Rendezvous (30, Rue Suffren; Tel: 0413-2339132) is less authentic, but offers a huge selection ranging from fish and chips to Indian and Chinese food. For Pondicherry Creole, the best bet is Carte Blanche, the restaurant at the Hotel de L’Orient—even the ‘kachumber’ salad here has a glorious hint of something very like Dijon mustard.
What to do:
Must-see sights include the many churches of Puducherry; the Eglise de Sacre Coeur de Jesus and the Eglise de Notre Dame de la Conception Immaculee are among the most important. Other than that, you can pay a visit to the Aurobindo Ashram, Auroville, the World War I Memorial, and the charming Goubert Market, of course. Le Jardin Botanique (the Botanical Garden) has some interesting fossilized wood, but not much else to recommend it.
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