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As a Francophile and a frequent traveler to India, I have long been fascinated by the prospect of visiting the one remaining French enclave on the subcontinent – Pondicherry. Located in the state of Tamil Nadu on the southeast coast, this seaside city still counts French among the languages spoken and has most of its streets labeled as Rue… It even has a French quarter – La Ville Blanche – complete with Hôtel de Ville.
I had the opportunity to visit Pondi (as the natives call it) for three days after a grueling but successful week of business activities in nearby Chennai. I intended to use my brief time there as a retreat of sorts, as I needed to begin a couple of writing projects in a peaceful environment. But I also wanted to get a taste of the culture in this unique part of south India.
I stayed at Le Dupleix, a small, handsome hotel named after the most successful French governor of Pondicherry, Marquis Joseph François Dupleix. Under his rule, the French gained control over much of south India and the British found their circle of influence restricted to Madras (Chennai). Dupleix’s expansion of French control extended the district of Pondicherry (now called Puducherry, a derivative of the Tamil word meaning “new settlement”) to areas that are now part of the states of Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. Pondicherry town is only a small part of this district.
The hotel occupies what was once the governor’s mansion. This 18th century building has been completely restored using traditional methods of construction and finishing. As an example, the walls of the hotel were refinished with a traditional lime plaster called “Chettinad Egg Plaster” consisting of egg white, powdered sea shells and yogurt. Each layer of plaster was polished by hand! Exquisitely carved wood paneling from Dupleix’s home adorns the walls of the hotel. Each of its 14 rooms is designed differently. Mine was located on the corner of the top floor, with floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides that overlooked lush trees shading the surrounding homes and businesses. It was the perfect room for a writing retreat!
On the one day that I allowed myself for sightseeing, I spent four hours on a self-guided heritage walk. The map supplied by the Pondicherry tourism office provided routes for the French quarter and the Tamil quarter, which is roughly divided into Muslim, Christian and Hindi areas. While I didn’t attempt to visit every site listed on the map, I saw everything that I wanted to see. This included most of the French quarter, a Hindi temple, a mosque, the Grand Bazaar, and a couple of grand Catholic churches.
The French quarter is on the easternmost side of the city, bordered by the Bay of Bengal. The beach is long and narrow and not particularly beautiful. Still, if you love the sea, it serves its purpose. Along the road that parallels the beach (Goubert Avenue) are the tourist office, a statue of Gandhi, and a beachside café called Le Café. Many government administrative buildings are located along this road, including the Hôtel de Ville. With the exception of a few buildings at the southern end of the beach, most of the structures are not very interesting from an architectural standpoint.
Going westward, however, things change dramatically. One immediately notices the prominence of French colonial architecture along rue Dumas, one block away from the beach. Numerous villas sprawl behind high, brightly painted walls behind which foliage and flowers grow abundantly. The Eglise Notre Dame des Anges rises above the dwellings in the neighborhood, looking as pristine as the day it was built. Today’s edifice, constructed in 1855, is the fourth iteration of a church that was razed by the British in 1761. Masses are performed in French here. The entrance to the Hôtel de Ville lies on this street. Relative silence reigns, as signs forbidding the honking of horns (a ubiquitous practice for drivers in India) are posted throughout the French quarter.
While I didn’t hear much French spoken in the streets, people who greeted me during my walk said “bonjour” addressed me as “Madame”.
One feature of this section of the quartier that immediately captured my interest was the sidewalks and gutters. The broad sidewalks are built up to almost a foot above ground to accommodate drainage, a system that is lacking in other areas of India that I have visited. On many streets, the edge of the sidewalk is marked with alternating black and white rectangles; whether this is to alert pedestrians or drivers of the location of the edge of the sidewalk, I do not know. In this part of La Ville Blanche, however, they served to further emphasize the presence of the gutters for me. I noted that most people prefer to walk in the street, even though the sidewalks provided more shade. (It was amazingly hot at 8 AM, the time that I began my exploratory trek.)
On Rue Suffren near the western edge of the French quarter lies a villa that houses the Alliance Française. It was abuzz with predominantly “60-something” Francophones who were waiting for some event to take place, or perhaps to embark on a tour. A sign outside indicated that an art exposition at the Alliance had recently closed, so that could not account for the rapidly gathering crowd. I did not inquire about this, but did take a quick look around the premises. Within the villa, a large courtyard serves as common ground for a dining area and a library, among other things. A large, overhead fan hanging from an arcade bordering the courtyard provides a cool breeze to augment the effect of the trees that shade the courtyard.
Leaving the Alliance Française, I crossed the canal that separates the French quarter from the Tamil quarter. This area was formerly known as La Ville Noire, or Black Town. I immediately noted a change in the architecture of this area – the style is called “vernacular” and it is prevalent in Tamil Nadu.
In the Muslim area, a distinctly Islamic flavor is present in the façades of buildings and in the grillwork that covers windows and entryways. Amusingly, a grill in this area bore the image of not one, but four Eiffel Towers!
The streets in this area were not as well kept as in the French quarter and gutters were not as numerous. Women with large steel tubs filled with fruits and vegetables wended their way through the streets and cried out from time to time to announce what was available for sale. I observed a man with a large cart filled with produce doing the same. I stopped briefly at a mosque before making my way toward an immense structure in the distance. When I approached it, I found that it was the Sacred Heart Church – Pondicherry’s Gothic marvel. I was surprised and touched to see several persons in the church with heads bowed intently or praying aloud at the feet of a statue of a prostrate Jesus. It was a poignant reminder that several faiths co-exist in India.
The main thoroughfare of Pondicherry, Rue Mahatma Gandhi, runs through this part of town. Following this street from Sacred Heart several blocks northward, I came to the Grand Bazaar. Upon ducking into this dimly lit, enclosed marketplace, one has the impression of entering Ali Baba’s cave. This side of the market is devoted to produce. It was actually difficult for me to see the merchandise, though I wondered later if I simply had not given my eyes time enough to adjust to the relative darkness after having been in brilliant sunlight. Walking up a slight ramp, I came to a better lit area that was entirely devoted to seafood. Here, young cats dined on the odd bits of fish, shrimp heads and tails that were piled in several locations on the floor while women standing above them made their purchases. All the vendors in the bazaar were women.
One should not assume that everything in the French quarter is French colonial and that no Tamil culture is present there, or visa versa. A Hindi temple, complete with live elephant, and the world-renowned Sri Aurobindo Ashram (a spiritual and educational center) are located in the heart of the French quarter. “The Mother” (née Mirra Alfassa; 1878-1973), a Paris-born disciple of Sri Aurobindo, is responsible for having developed the center into what it is today. Though not as numerous as in the Tamil quarter, decorations made with rice flour on the ground in front of the entrance to a dwelling or business (called kolams) can be seen around La Ville Blanche. On the western side of the canal, I saw Catholic schools and convents in the Tamil quarter. In addition to the Sacred Heart church, the colossal Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is also located there. One of the great Christian churches in Pondicherry, the cathedral’s architecture was inspired by the Val-de-Grâce church in Paris.
As for dining, I was rather surprised to find only a few French restaurants listed in the visitor’s guide that the hotel supplied. I ate at one of them, a place called Rendezvous. Despite its name, both the menu and the food were disappointing. I knew that I couldn’t be in a true French restaurant when the first page of the menu presented a couple of continental breakfast entries that included eggs made to order and grilled tomato, as well as a “Lip Smacking Pancake Platter” served with bacon, honey, and believe it or not, fries! Turning to the lunch and dinner offerings, out of 65 choices, only six had French names. The rest were a gemisch of burgers and heartland American dishes, pizza and pasta dishes, and two full pages of Indian vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. Tom Yum Soup, Thai fruit and vegetable salad and moussaka also found their way into the menu.
I chose to order the quiche Lorraine and a side of boiled vegetables in herbs. These were okay, but definitely nothing special. No French wines were available by the glass, so I bravely ordered a house Indian wine. India produces some decent table wines (Sula and Grover are two labels to look for) but this particular wine was from a maker (grower/bottler/God only knows) called Eivita. My gustatory impressions of this liquid were restricted to the flavors of vinegar and shoe polish! For dessert, I ordered the chocolate mousse, which was pasty to the point of being chewy. Thankfully, the meal came to only 385 Rs (less than $10) and I left laughing at the experience.
Food at Le Dupleix was the total antithesis of that served at the Rendezvous. The hotel restaurant bills itself as Italian, and I can vouch for the validity of this self-assessment. It also presents Indian specialties, including several from Pondicherry. You may dine al fresco under the 200-year old mango tree (which was laden with fruit at the time of my visit) or in the bar area. The Dupleix bar serves a wonderful sparkling white wine by the Indian winemaker Sula, which is listed on the menu as an ingredient for champagne cocktails. It is the equivalent of Italy’s prosecco. Forego the cocktail and ask for it brut – I don’t believe that you will be disappointed.
All in all, I consider my brief visit to Pondicherry to be a rewarding experience. Restful yet productive, it also allowed me to satisfy my yearning to see this little French corner of India. For Francophiles visiting India, this town is a “must do”.
Monique Y. Wells is co-owner of the travel planning service Discover Paris! Read about Val-de-Grâce, the inspiration for Pondicherry’s Immaculate Conception Cathedral, in Discover Paris’s book entitled Paris Insights – An Anthology. For more information, please click here.