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An ancient town shrouded in history and mythology

By Mohammad Khan

My first encounter with idyllic Pondicherry occurred when I heard about the city through my brother who was traveling across India on an adventure travel. He described Pondicherry as a unique blend of Old World French charm, mixed with the cacophony of bustling South India and the spirituality of the yogic philosophy of ashram life. He also said that perhaps there was no other Indian city that was as singular as Pondicherry for its beauty and outdoor activities.   

When I began my travels across India, I found that each village or city, regardless of what part of India it was or the language spoken, has a customary link between them all: disparate chaos. If driving in Dubai is considered hectic, you have another thing coming in India, permanent gridlock traffic, horns blaring without reason, hordes of people everywhere and the occasional cows thrown in for good measure. My senses were in overdrive 24/7 and I needed a break.

Pondicherry is tucked away on the Southeastern seaboard of India. It is an ancient town shrouded in history and mythology – best for those on adventure holidays. As part of an erstwhile French settlement from 1675 until 1954, the annals of history associate Pondicherry town with the legendary ancient Indian savant Agastya.

By 1850, the British had secured their grip on India. They allowed the retreating French to remain in four small pockets of South Indian territory. Pondicherry was pocket central. The British were content to let this Gallic anomaly survive until it, too, gained its full independence in 1963.

The tiny and inconspicuous villages that constitute the present Pondicherry witnessed a drastic change of fate when it suddenly burgeoned in a bustling hub of trade and commerce as well as a center of academic excellence where droves of erudite luminaries would flock to quench their intellectual appetite.

When I got there, I was pleasantly surprised.  The town is in close proximity to the sun-kissed beaches where the exotic combination of white sands and emerald green sea is a major draw, especially for those on adventure holidays with all its irresistible outdoor activities.

People were riding bicycles, strolling along the tree-lined promenade, or enjoying sitting in the shade having a break.  I was further astonished when the Tamilians I spoke with spoke English with a French accent. It gave me an opportunity to converse in my rustic French. It truly amazed me; I was conversing French in India with Indians who never traveled outside the town let alone India!

The architecture is reminiscent of the French rule with European mansions, lush gardens and elegant walkways and chic police stations. Even the police uniform is akin to the French gendarmes.
I felt as though I was walking along Côte d'Azur even though the Bay of Bengal was only a stone’s throw away. Pondicherry certainly lives up to its title of "The Riviera of the East," a haven of French style and refinement separated from burgeoning India. It is no wonder that it was chosen as the setting for Yann Martel’s novel, The Life of Pi and forever immortalized by Ang Lee.

The French laid out their streets in a formal grid pattern. It is perhaps the only place in India where directions are given by street names and not by landmarks. To one side is the French quarter, Ville Blanche bordered by a promenade and beach with streets announced by their Parisian-style plaques, restored boutique hotels and chic cafes.

As I walked around the streets of Ville Blanche I realized they were as tranquil and shaded as my brother has said they would be. From the cathedral of Notre Dame des Anges, angelic voices are indeed drifting on the sea breezes. The smooth limestone interior, all duck-egg-blue walls and bright tangerine pillars, made using eggshells in the plaster is a lovely concoction of South Indian gaiety with European loftiness. The church was originally built in 1707, destroyed in 1761 and rebuilt in 1855.  I spent an hour exploring the architecture and vicinity and imagined what the town must have been like 300 years ago.

Bisected by a canal is the Tamil quarter, Ville Noire, which grew up in a slightly different fashion to its chic neighbor – smaller homes dotted with fine mansions built by wealthy traders. This half of town is raucous; women in multi-colored saris can be spotted haggling with street vendors, incessant motorcycle traffic,  packed local buses taking people to Auroville – all in all, noisily, head-pounding, fantastically fun and full of life for the quintessential adventure travel.

But the spiritual heart of Pondi is the ashram of the eponymous mystic Sri Aurobindo, one of India's greatest revolutionaries who had played a monumental role during India's tumultuous struggle for freedom. You see the ashram's distinctive light-grey buildings all around town: schools, libraries, shops and restaurants. The main building is a silent, contemplative grove, where Aurobindo and his enigmatic follower, The Mother are laid to rest.
In 2006, Pondicherry became Puducherry – having reverted to its pre-colonial Tamil name. It was no longer an anomaly. This was indeed a growing India. Pondi – as its long-term residents like to call it – is already swollen.

Pondicherry, like many other Indian cities, is booming with the economic miracle in India. There are dozens of beautifully preserved houses and streets, especially in the French quarter. Unfortunately, the beautiful colonial buildings of "white town" and the classic Tamil villas of "black town" are not protected. Several hundred listed heritage buildings have been lost in the past decade, according to the conservation body Intach, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage.

Pondi is not the same as it used to be during the French rule but it remains a wonderful and unique place to visit. Some things have changed for the better in 10 years. There are some wonderful 19th century restored villa hotels, an eclectic range of French and Indian restaurants; chic and quirky boutiques have popped up.

Walking back along the promenade, I saw a sign which read, "If you litter, Pondicherry will not be the same". This I thought was rather remarkable and I soon learned that Pondicherians are proud of their city and have a great civic sense unlike inhabitants from other Indian cities.

The Pondicherry tourism department uses the slogan "Give time a break" for their advertisement campaign, if you want to step back in time, forget about the future and enjoy the present, there is no place like Pondicherry.

(Photos by Mohammad Khan)