“Bonjour!” chirps the dusky-skinned woman draped in a technicolour saree, as the Royal Enfield she is riding side saddle on whizzes past my trishaw during the morning rush-hour. The fragrance of jasmine, courtesy of a garland threaded through the young woman’s hair, momentarily perfumes the air. I spot baguettes peeking out of a brown paper bag cradled in her arms, but the motorcycle zips quickly out of earshot and I’m unable to return her greeting or ask her if the crusty loaves are for breakfast.
Around the corner, girls on their way to school – their hair in plaits – wave from the back seat of an auto rickshaw (three-wheeler), while on the sidewalk, an elderly woman expertly balancing a basketful of produce on her head, rewards my greeting of “kalai vanakkam” (Tamil for good morning) with a flash of crimson-tinted teeth, stained from a lifetime of chewing paan, the betel leaf and areca nut combo known for its stimulant effects.
I shut my eyes for a brief second to take in the sights, sounds and scents, but the trishaw man interrupts my reverie. “Welcome to Pondy!” he hollers above the morning chaos as we weave through all manner of vehicles – bullock carts included! Thus begins my introduction to Pondicherry, the former French outpost and trading port located in South India, about 160km from the city of Chennai.
PONDICHERRY OR PUDUCHERRY
The trishaw pulls up in front of Maison Perumal, the former residence of a Tamil family of Chettiar (merchants) extraction. The over-a-century-old mansion situated in Pondy’s Tamil Quarter, my home for the night, is a sensitively-restored heritage property.
In the mansion’s cool courtyard, a distinct architectural feature of Tamil homes, I savour a cup of masala chai (spiced tea) as I begin my journey into the city’s storied past, armed with a book on Pondicherry’s history.
It seems that by the early 1600s, buoyed by the prospect of the lucrative spice trade, Portugal, England, Holland and Denmark, had all sent expeditions to India. In search of riches, the French soon followed suit and established Compagnie des Indes Orientales in 1664.
A decade later, the Compagnie des Indes Orientales secured a South Indian trading post – the coastal port town of Puducheri, which means ‘new settlement’ in Tamil, a site once occupied by the Danes but abandoned during a period of unrest in the mid-17th century.
Calling the town Pondicherry, a corruption of Puducheri, the French quickly got down to business, competing with the British East India Company and Dutch Veerenigde Ooste Indische Compagnie for a slice of the trade pie. But they were beleaguered with challenges. Sieges by the Dutch and British resulted in the town changing hands several times, and in 1761, the town, while under French rule, was razed to the ground by the British. Four years later, control of Pondicherry was wrested back by the French, who reconstructed the town in a formal grid pattern. The British, however, were far from finished with Pondicherry – a series of power struggles between the two nations ensued for several decades into the new century before Pondicherry once again became French territory in 1815.
Pondicherry gained its independence from France in 1954, and eight years later, the Union Territory of Pondicherry, consisting of the former French enclaves of Pondicherry and Karaikal (bound by the state of Tamil Nadu), Yanam (Andhra Pradesh) and Mahé (Kerala) was formed. The Union Territory was named after the largest of the four settlements, and is still administered by a Lieutenant Governor.
Though habitually referred to as Pondicherry or Pondy by the locals, both the Union Territory and city have been officially known as Puducherry since 2006, in a nod to its pre-colonial history.
CULTURE THROUGH CUISINE
Interacting with locals is the best way to learn about a city, and so, the next morning, I sign up for a cooking lesson at the nearby Sita Cultural Centre (www.pondicherry-arts.com), which offers classes and workshops on South Indian culture and arts.
At Sita, I meet my bubbly cooking instructor, Manisha Ray, who takes me to the Goubert Market to procure the ingredients for our meal. In the seafood section, the day’s catch is scaled, gutted and filleted by a coterie of women, working on raised concrete platforms.
Ray selects the choicest specimens and hands them to the women, who deftly prepare the fish while trading gossip. We then embark on a quick tour of the market, stopping to purchase coconuts (the grated flesh of which is later blitzed with water to make coconut milk), banana leaves, cakes of dried and compressed tamarind, aromatic spices, and fresh vegetables.
Back at Sita, under Ray’s watchful eyes, I peel, chop and grate ingredients, while learning the finer points of the cuisine of Pondicherry, which though predominantly Tamil in flavour, has French nuances. Ray teaches me how to prepare Tamil-style meen kozhambu, a rich fish curry redolent with spices, a tangy brinjal curry flavoured with tamarind, prawns in a spicy gravy, as well as a delicious French-inspired beetroot salad with a vinegar-y dressing.
Later, we savour this feast with our hands, using eco-friendly banana leaves as plates. For dessert, Ray whips up biscuit pudding, a sweet made by layering coffee-soaked biscuits with a vanilla and cocoa powder-infused butter cream. Served cold, the creamy pudding is the perfect antidote to a curry lunch, and a hot and humid Pondicherry afternoon.
A TALE OF TWO TOWNS
Besides presiding over cooking classes, Ray also leads bicycle excursions through the streets of Pondicherry. Eager for exploration, I join the Wake Up Pondy Tour, a five-km trail, which traverses the city.
Bright and early the next day, I make my way back to Sita, ready for our cycling adventure. Straddling a vintage bicycle, I follow Ray to the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a grand Gothic structure built in 1907, and improved upon in the following decades. Inside the Roman Catholic church, the morning light filters through stained glass panels, casting multi-coloured shadows on the walls.
Next, we head to the city’s Muslim Quarter, which encompasses several streets – Cazy, Moullah and Chanda Sahib. In a city of almost a million people, Muslims make up about three per cent of the population. Here, among mosques and madrasah (Islamic schools), are homes decorated with ornate filigreed balconies.
Pondicherry is divided into two distinct sections – the French and Indian ‘towns’, separated by a canal. Today, what remains of the canal appears to be more of a large drain, and the delineation is more visible in the architectural styles of the buildings.
Soon, the narrow lanes of the Muslim Quarter give way to wide boulevards lined with pastel-coloured bungalows, which feature arched windows and louvred shutters. Here, bougainvillea in bright hues of pink and magenta cascade over the high perimeter walls of buildings, and the French flag flies atop the former ‘company’ buildings along Rue de la Compagnie, a nod to a not too distant past.
The Notre Dame des Anges, Our Lady of Angels church, a stunning Greco-Roman masterpiece designed in 1855 by architect Louis Guerre, looks out to the Bay of Bengal. It is said that Napoleon III, paid a visit to the church during his reign as Emperor (1852 to 70) of the Second French Empire. The church, once run by Capuchin monks and only accessible to the French, is now open to all, with masses in French, Tamil and English.
In a garden in front of the church, a marble statue of Saint Joan of Arc takes pride of place, watching as silver haired gentlemen try to outdo one another at pétanque, a game in which the goal is to toss steel balls as close as possible to a wooden ball dubbed the cochonnet.
Ray leads us around another bend, and we pass the Manakula Vinayagar Hindu temple dedicated to Ganesh, the Elephant God. Soon, an elegant pale grey building comes into sight. Ray explains that it is the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, a spiritual centre founded in 1926 by Indian nationalist, philosopher, poet and yogi Sri Aurobindo, and his spiritual collaborator, Mirra Alfassa, a Frenchwoman referred to as the Mother. Followers of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo visit the site to meditate and pay their respects to their gurus, who are entombed here.
Next, we head to the fishermen’s village of Kiruchikuppam, a charming community of fisher folk who have lived off the sea for generations. Passersby can purchase fish from the wives of fishermen, who scale and gut the catch of the day in front of their hovels.
We make our way back to the city centre, this time, pedalling along Pondicherry’s seafront promenade, where trains once delivered goods to waiting ships. Skirting the lush gardens of the Jardin de Botanique de Pondicherry, we return to the Tamil part of town, passing crowds of workers gathered around roadside tea stalls for their morning cup of chai.
Famished from our foray, we park our bicycles in front of Sita, and are just in time for a hearty breakfast of fluffy idli (rice and black lentil cakes) and sambar (lentil curry).
HEART OF HERITAGE
Situated in the heart of the Tamil district, Sita is a stone’s throw from the heritage homes built in the Tamil style. Worlds apart from their French counterparts, buildings here are fronted by thalvaram (verandas with lean-to roofs), which provide shelter for pedestrians. The thinnai or entryway of such homes is lined with stone benches for visitors to rest before entering the premises through elaborately carved wooden doors.
Eager to uncover the architectural heritage of this French-Indian enclave, I head to the INTACH Heritage Centre (www.intachpondicherry.org), which operates from a restored building in Pondy’s Tamil Quarter. INTACH, the Indian National Trust of Art and Cultural Heritage, is a non-profit organisation at the forefront of heritage conservation efforts in India.
Inside, the walls around the mutram (colonnaded courtyard) are lined with framed maps of Pondicherry, and before-and-after pictures of restored buildings. Ashok Panda, the co-convenor of the Pondicherry branch fills me in on renewal efforts in the city centre, which involve restoring buildings, as well as revitalising the beachfront and improving infrastructure.
“First of all, we need regulations to protect these heritage buildings. If the buildings are protected by law, people will not be able to tear them down or construct illegals structures.”
Working to foster awareness of Pondicherry’s unique architecture, INTACT liaises with the local government, and provides consultation to building proprietors keen on preserving the city’s built heritage. So far, Panda’s team has mapped out 550 heritage properties in the city, which have architectural and historical merit.
“Pondicherry’s cross-cultural history has resulted in its unique Franco-Tamil architecture and streetscapes. We want to preserve the charm of Pondicherry and obtain heritage status for the city, much like Asian models such as George Town in Malaysia, and Luang Prabang in Laos,” he enthused.
I ask Panda if Oscar winning director Ang Lee’s film adaptation of the book by Yann Martel Life of Pi, has helped renew interest in Pondicherry. The film, which featured Pondicherry in its first quarter, was released in 2012 to critical acclaim. Since then, the colonial buildings, promenade and streetscapes of the city have featured prominently in local films and music videos.
“Of course, the film helped put Pondicherry back on the map. There are film crews here almost every day. However, there’s still much to be done in terms of preservation, which is not only related to buildings. In fact, conservation includes improving the urban environment by creating pedestrian-only precincts, managing solid waste and providing pollution-free transport,” he said.
As I leave Panda’s office, I reflect on his words. Pondicherry has been kind to me. I have cycled her streets, visited her temples, and even sailed the nearby backwaters. While geographically in South India, Pondicherry is a picturesque melange of East meets West, and its precious heritage should be preserved for generations to come.
“Come back in two years and Pondicherry will be different,” are Panda’s parting words to me. Working tirelessly behind the scenes to preserve Pondy’s built heritage and charming character, Panda, as well other enthusiastic conservationists hope to restore this corner of former French India to its past glory. Change is imminent, and I hope that it will be for the better.
MAISON PERUMAL, TAMIL QUARTER The former living and working quarters of a wealthy Chettiar merchant family, Maison Perumal is an atmospheric boutique hotel, which provides guests the luxuries they expect from a modern hotel including free Wi-Fi, a bar, as well as a kitchen serving up gourmet Tamil cuisine. The owners, CGH Earth, worked with INTACH on the building’s restoration, and maintained the original architectural features of the home such as its colonnaded verandas, red oxide floors and spacious courtyards.
PALAIS DE MAHE, FRENCH QUARTER Footsteps away from Pondicherry’s seafront Promenade, Palais De Mahe is a new construction built in the style of the colonial French villas. With its high arches and lofty ceilings, the charming hotel provides respite from hot Pondicherry afternoons. The hotel boasts a lap pool, 18 luxury suites decorated with objet d’art and dark wood funishings, as well luxurious bathrooms with rainshowers. Nurse a tropical cocktail and sample fusion fare on the third floor terrace of Mahe de Malabar, the property’s exceptional eatery. www.cghearth.com
AUROVILLE Located 12km north of Pondicherry in the state of Tamil Nadu, the visionary township of Auroville was established in 1968 as a place to realise human unity. The soul of the township is the other-worldy Matrimandir, a golden sphere that symbolises the birth of a new consciousness. Auroville is not a tourist attraction, but a living, working community. Casual visitors can only venture as far as the Visitor’s Centre, while those who are genuinely interested in the Auroville way of life may experience a homestay. www.auroville.org
MAHABALIPURAM Founded by the kings of the Pallava Dynasty (275 to 897AD), UNESCO-listed Mahabalipuram (also known as Mamallapuram) is a cluster of monuments carved out of rock along South India’s Coromandel coast, 60km from Chennai. Dating back to the 7th and 8th centuries AD, the monuments are famed for their intricate carvings, notably the rock-cut rathas (chariots), mandapas (cave-like sanctuaries), and enormous bas reliefs such as the Descent of the Ganges, inspired by the ancient Sanskrit epic, The Mahabharata.
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BESPOKE JOURNEYS This tour was designed for travel 3Sixty° by Black Swan Journeys, a travel expert that offers customised experiential journeys catering to discerning travellers, believing each holiday should be a unique experience. Black Swan Journeys curates intimate trips that offer a unique perspective on local culture. www.blackswanjourneys.com