In 1674, the French purchased a small fishing village from the Sultan of Bijapur. It was part of the French East India Company’s plan to set up trading posts on India’s east coast and later, spearhead their effort to colonize parts of the country. The French attempt at colonization paled in comparison to the systematic take over of India by the British, but that fishing village turned into a port town, remained largely under French control even when British rule was at its peak.
When India gained independence, the French decreed that its territories would decide whether they wanted to stay under French control or cede to India. In 1954, this seaside town became part of India – but that was on paper. It was not until 1962 that it actually merged with the Indian union. That sleepy-fishing-village-turned-port-town was Pondicherry and even now, it is more French than Indian.
Puducherry, as it’s officially known, or Pondy as it’s affectionately called by the locals, is that curious mix of French heritage and Tamil existence, of baguettes and curry, of pastel walls and thatched roofs. It is a uniquely spiced slice of France served up on a banana leaf.
The town of Pondicherry is divided into two quarters by a wide canal that runs through it. The French quarter – Ville Blanche or White Town – lies towards the sea and the Tamil quarter – Ville Noire or Black Town – is further inland. The French quarter is quaintly colonial with a distinctly European look while the Tamil quarter is quintessentially South Indian.
It is in the French quarter that you see yellow, peach, and white stucco villas with high walls and imposing old doors. There’s bougainvillea aplenty and the clean straight streets, white columns and pastel walls, the blue sea in the distance and the surprisingly silent atmosphere makes you feel like you’ve been teleported to Côte d’Azur. The French carefully laid out the city in the form of a grid, which is still evident in the French quarter. The Tamil quarter grew more organically, though it is not without its own share of French charm. Remnants of its European heritage can be seen in the architecture in the French quarter. There are mansions from the late 19th century with high ceilings, large courtyards and high walls. The Promenade – Pondy’s sea-facing boulevard – was planned by the French and even though it now has a strip of artificial sand instead of a beach, the South of France vibe is unmistakable.
Tourists – both French and local – flock to the French quarter not only for sightseeing or the architecture, but for the Gallic charm that pervades everything from the hotels to the eateries in the area. Stepping into a hotel like Palais de Mahe is like being back in the colonial times. A beautifully restored mansion with high, wood-beamed ceilings, wide verandahs and ochre walls, this is one of the best boutique hotels in the French Quarter. If the tariff seems discouraging, we suggest you visit it just to absorb the feel of the place. You could even grab a bite at their rooftop restaurant with a panoramic view of the ocean. Another colonial villa, originally built for the Mayor of Pondicherry, has also been restored to serve as a heritage hotel. Le Dupleix in the French quarter is where the well-heeled tourists stay and it boasts Pondicherry’s first hotel bar. Another hotel, the De l’Orient, is actually an administrative building from the 1760s and we bet that their four poster beds and white pillared verandahs will still make the colonial officials feel at home.
The architecture and the buildings are not only what the French left behind. Their influence can be seen in the cuisine of present-day Puducherry too – a cuisine that some have termed as ‘Puducherry Creole’. This influence has resulted in a Franco-Tamil cuisine with thick sauce-like curries which are not as spiced as our normal South Indian curries are. The French didn’t like cardamom in their food, so the cuisine only uses that in desserts. And what’s more, these curries are often served up with fresh, chunky baguettes to dip and swipe. Seafood, but naturally, is the star of this cuisine. In India, it is only in Pondy that you will find baby octopus dressed up with delicate French sauces on the menu. All along the Promenade, you’ll find restaurants serving everything from pakoras to bouillabaisse.
In Pondicherry, you’ll be spoilt for choice. You could pick up croissants from Baker Street or indulge in their Quiche Lorraine. You could have crêpes for breakfast at Crêpe in Touch or Calamars Frites and Steak Tartare for dinner at Satsanga. And if you want to go all out fancy and sample the fusion cuisine at its finest, you could have a candlelit dinner at Le Dupleix.
As a visitor to Pondicherry, if you expect to bring back the same old souvenirs that you’d find in any other town in South India, you couldn’t be more wrong. Shopping in this quaint town is a delight. From locally made handicrafts to hand-printed silk, from period furniture to incense sticks, from vegan soaps to art curios – you’ll find it all at Pondicherry. Most of the boutiques, art galleries and curio shops are located in and around Mission Street. Here is where you’ll the trendy, high end departmental store, Casablanca, and the niche store, Kalki, which stocks silks, handicrafts and other products by regional artists. Hop on over to the colorful Goubert market for a truly immersive local experience or visit the nuns at Cluny Convent who have an embroidery store in a heritage building and lay your hands on some vintage French cross-stitch pieces. For antiques from South India and some delightful colonial furniture, head on over to Geethanjali on Rue Bussy. Apart from the high-end antique stores, you will also find some vintage furniture and décor at the bazaar on the East coast road.
Pondicherry is famous for its pottery. One visit to the Golden Bridge Pottery studio or to Mandala and you’ll know why. In a town where old world charm meets new-age bohemian vibe, many expats – mostly French – have settled in and set up their crafts business. Pottery is just one of their interests and it fits right into the relaxed feel of Pondy. That is not to say that the locals don’t produce pottery. There are many studios and shops that attest to this art being indigenous too.
No trip to Pondicherry is complete without a glimpse of Auroville, the utopian township, which thrives on the concept of inclusivity. This experimental community lies 10kms from Pondicherry and is one of the sources of the town’s cultural melting pot. One can volunteer at Auroville or visit it to experience the ideal, earthy lifestyle. From organic farms to local handicrafts, Auroville produces the area’s best. And of course, not being immune to Pondicherry’s French influence, it also produces the finest cheese. At La Ferme Cheese, the milk is sourced from the farms in and around Auroville, and natural cheese is made under supervision of experts from Europe.
While we’re on the subject of cheese, Mango Hill deserves a special mention. This beautiful heritage hotel was established by a French family and making cheese is one of the things it excels at. Cheese & Co makes one of the finest cheeses in the area and here you can witness first-hand the French expertise that they use in the production. They also offer a cheese-making workshop if you’re so inclined.
Pondicherry is proudly part-French and even the French recognize and appreciate this. They left this little haven behind, but no, they haven’t forgotten it. The town sees an influx of French tourists every year and most of the expats settles in the area are French in origin. Recently, with participation from both the French and the Indian governments, a cultural and human exchange program called Bonjour India was initiated. It’s not only a collaborative artistic and cultural effort, but it is encouraging the revival of quintessentially French customs. One such custom… well, sport rather, is sailing. In January 2018, the first sailing regatta was organized in Pondicherry, with locals and international sailors participating in the event. With more editions of the event on the way, this is going to be one huge tourist attraction in the area.
The streets in Pondicherry have French names. A lot of locals speak English with a French accent. A lot of the boutiques, cafes and hotels are owned or run by French expats. You turn a corner and you’ll come across some remnant of Pondicherry’s French heritage. Even the menus of some restaurants are written in French. The local kids play a sport called petanque – a French game played with a metal ball. Wine, bread and cheese are the staples at many a table. Even the policemen wear a boxy French-style cap called ‘kepi’. This pervasive Gallic theme to a city set on the coast in South India makes for a unique and inimitable experience.
Spending time in Pondicherry is like taking a long, relaxing nap where your dreams are delightfully pleasant. It’s an escape, yet an experience; a slow-paced journey, with a clear vein of excitement. The ambience, the smiling locals, the language and the culture – all make you believe that you’ve come to a place that’s been forgotten by the rest of India. Some visitors do actually believe that they didn’t need to experiment with Auroville – that the elusive utopian haven that they sought was right here, in Pondy.
Where: Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu
Getting there: Fly to Chennai and drive down the coast, it’s a 3.5 hour drive. There are also trains from Mumbai and Bangalore to Pondicherry.
When: The best time to visit Pondicherry is in the winter. It gets humid before and after the monsoon and the summers are really hot.
More information: http://www.pondytourism.in/about-us.php
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