Mon dieu, you really haven’t been to Puducherry yet? Here’s how you can make the most out of your trip when you do get there. No need to thank us. De rien.
The French National Day is celebrated on July 14 to mark the storming of the bastille (where political prisoners were imprisoned) on this date in 1789, the first step in the French Revolution and the path to liberation. This special occasion is a good time to revisit Puducherry (earlier known as Pondicherry), where the French colonial presence for many centuries has left an indelible mark and incredible influence on its culture and architecture.
From 1674 when the French East India Company set up a trading centre here, until 1954, when a plebiscite returned the territory to India, Puducherry has been largely imbued with the French way of life (with a few years in between with Dutch and British colonial powers gaining supremacy here).
A slice of France
As was typical of all colonial powers, a distinct divide was maintained between the native population and the powers that be. Even though the Tamil population here also speaks fluent French and you’ll be surprised when the humble coconut vendor on the street sounds almost posh Parisian! A canal still divides Puducherry today and it’s very clear where the erstwhile Native Town ends and White Town begins.
Called by the more politically correct and sweeter sounding French Quarter, it features the perfectly laid out colonial buildings, perpendicular streets and the wide Avenue Goubert along the seaside promenade with the pier, lighthouse and some wonderful statues and memorials. A simple stroll through these lanes is our favourite thing to do while in Puducherry. Try to resist taking those picture-perfect shots against the bougainvillea-covered brightly coloured homes for the ‘gram! Picturesque names that roll off the tongue – Rue Labourdonnais, Rue Baslieu, Rue Dumas – will give you a whiff of Paris. There aren’t streetside cafes like you’d find in France, but you can stop by one of the many bakeries for fresh bread and good coffee.
Insider tip: Renting a bike or opting for a cycle rickshaw ride are other ways to explore this area.
If you’re crazy about stationery even in the digital age like we are, you’ll bring home reams of handmade paper from Puducherry. We just love that all the shops adhere to a high standard of quality and design. Notebooks that incorporate pressed flowers and leaves, letter paper in gorgeous hues from vegetable dyes, the sheer variety is phenomenal. And for those who don’t put pen to paper anymore, the handmade paper is put to good use in the form of pretty paper lanterns, lamps, and all kinds of decorative objects that will add oomph to your home.
Insider tip: Visit the handmade paper factory to see how the paper is made and to buy in bulk for a fraction of the price you’d pay at the fancy stores.
The Sri Aurobindo Ashram, which was founded in 1926 by the progressive thinker, nationalist and creator of Integral Yoga Sri Aurobindo and run with the help of his spiritual collaborator, the Mother, has had people visiting from across the world.
The Ashram is a vibrant place where you can work as an offering to the divine in one or another of its numerous departments. While inner transformation is the ultimate goal, there are no obligatory practices, rituals, compulsory meditations or systematic instructions in Yoga here, just the freedom to determine the course and pace of your spiritual discipline according to the path that best suits your own nature. The Visitors Centre and impressive meditation dome called the Matrimandir that have re-opened on July 9, are in Auroville, a township with the purpose of promoting global unity founded by The Mother in 1968, just 14 km away from Puducherry.
Insider tip: Stay at the Ashram’s Park Guesthouse. Its brilliant location at one end of the Promenade gives you untrammelled views of the Bay of Bengal, while its serene garden, calming seafront café and spartan rooms with names like Joy, Freedom, Love, etc offer a dose of delightful spirituality in the most unencumbered way.
While we love everything about the French quarter, visiting the home of Ananda Rangapillai in the ‘native town’ is an enriching experience. This Tamil merchant, who worked for the French East India Company under the famous French Governor Joseph Francois Dupleix, wrote diligently in his journals about life in colonial Puducherry between 1736 and 1761, which later became a useful resource about and record of the period. His house, built in 1735, is well preserved even today and you’ll get to see some aspects of the beautiful traditional architecture of the region blended with European styles.
Insider tip: Only the ground floor, with its distinctive Chettinad-style wooden pillars is open to visitors. But impress one of the Rangapillai descendants who live there and you might just get a chance to also be whisked upstairs to see the rooms that overlook the open-to-sky central courtyard.
What was the preserve of placid pensioners on our first visit to this place 15 years ago, has now become quite the rage with Puducherry youngsters now. We watched a bunch of them playing Petanque with a lot of well-articulated passion in one of the public parks off the Beach Road, just as we had seen people play with the metal balls called Boules in the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris a few years back. The game originated in Provence but was apparently brought to India by returning Puducherry citizens conscripted into the French Army during the World Wars.
Insider tip: Don’t just barge in and expect to be allowed to join the game. Watch, understand the rules, and wait until a game is over before you request a go. Politely.