Discover India’s French secret
The unique melting pot of Pondicherry on the south-east coast of India combines French colonial history with an Indian interest in all things spiritual.
It’s sunrise on the Promenade at Pondicherry and the fishing boats are chugging back to shore through a carpet of orange-tinted sea. Behind the statue of Gandhi opposite the old lighthouse a man meditates, cross-legged, straight-backed, on the rocks.
Pondicherry: the name alone has a certain whimsical charm. But the city’s original and current official name, predating the French colonial rule that ended in 1954, is Puducherry and is affectionately known as Pondy.
Although Pondy can hardly be mistaken for Provence or Normandy, the city’s hints of Gallic allure, especially in the Heritage Area, remain a prime attraction. There is nothing staged about the French names on the street signs, the Gendarme-style Kepis sported by the policemen, the elegant villa facades or the faint aroma of coffee and croissants wafting from the cafés. The faded colonial elegance is not endangered, but Pondy’s heart beats to a very Indian pulse.
Divided into French and Indian quarters – Ville Blanche and Ville Noire – Pondy is a compact town with a population of approximately 700,000. For India, the layout is a relatively logical one based on a grid of parallel streets running north to south and east to west. The temperatures rarely dip below the mid-20s Celsius, and the monsoon showers from July to September are refreshing rather than chilly.
A lot of Gaul
The salty air of the mile-long Promenade seems to define the city’s character. Tourists and locals gravitate to the seafront day and night, grateful for the breeze and the convivial throng. In spite of the numbers, there is a sense of space that’s rare in India.
“It feels like a small town, far from the madding crowd,” says Sindhuja Rai, who hails from Delhi and runs DisDis boutique with Icelandic designer Disa Gudmunds. “It’s easy to travel across town from one place to another.”
Their chic shop-cum-café is an example of Pondy’s unique Indo-European cosmopolitan blend. Another is Via Pondichéry at 22 Romain Rolland Street, a boutique and showroom for the creations of classical dancer-turned-designer Vasanty Manet. Sequined bags, stylish pashminas, bangles, and necklaces all place traditional Indian elements in a modern European, slightly hippy context.
On the porch of her 17th-century wooden-beamed house at the back of Via Pondichéry, Manet explains that her ancestors made the choice offered to them in the 1880s to take French citizenship along with a French name. “French and Tamil are my two first languages. I studied in France but my mother was a Tamil language teacher, very keen to keep us close to our roots through dance and music.”
Many overseas visitors are drawn to Pondicherry by spiritual rather than business ambitions. The town is the home of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram where devotees from around the world study the yoga and teachings of its eponymous founder.
Sri Aurobindo (1872–1950) lends his name to services, shops and products across the city, where the Sri Aurobindo Society holds conspicuous sway in city life. There are Auro travel agents, Auro Ayurveda medicine shops and Auro cafés.
About 14 kilometres to the north is Auroville. An enigmatic French woman, Mirra Alfassa, founded this experimental community in the late 1960s. Referred to with unerring reverence as The Mother, she was inspired by Sri Aurobindo’s teachings to nurture a society that aimed at spiritual oneness, undivided by religious allegiance.
At Auroville soul-searchers take up residence in guesthouses scattered among beautiful woodlands. Casual visitors are directed to the Visitor’s Centre and a mini-mall of clothing, incense, candles, and jewellery produced in the community. Outsiders are also welcome at several restaurants and cafés dotted around Auroville’s “suburbs.” First they must obtain tokens to take the short stroll to the viewing point facing the giant golden golf ball that is the Matrimandir – Temple of the Mother – and is the nucleus of Auroville’s gradually expanding spiritual city and a tribute to its founder.
Body, mind, soul
India’s diverse spiritual heritage remains in evidence in Pondy. Its religious mix was the setting for the early scenes of Yann Martel’s novel, The Life of Pi, and parts of the movie adaptation directed by Ang Lee were filmed here. Everywhere ritual mandalas decorate the shop-front pavements and, thanks to the French presence, the towers and baroque facades of Catholic churches decorate the skyline.
The true core of the city, its marketplace, remains totally Indian in character. A vendor creates an artistic spiralled pile of betel leaves, which are chewed to clean the mouth and valued as a mild stimulant. Another assembles a neat display of pomegranates, the topmost fruit dissembled to reveal the tempting, ripe-red insides. Heaps of herbs and columns of bananas vie with sacks of peanuts; baskets of tomatoes topple into crates of purple shallots.The smell of fish mingles with the hint of ginger, and all the conflicting colours are set to a soundtrack of yells and haggling.
In Pondicherry, as in Goa on the west coast with its Portuguese undertones, clear notes remain of a colonial past. But no one should be fooled into thinking this is some kind of European outpost. This is India, in all its chaotic, vivid glory.
Text and photos Tim Bird