Pondicherry Ponderings

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Travel Features >> Pondicherry Ponderings

Pondicherry Ponderings

September 26, 2012

Pondicherry - a geographical space, once a French settlement, now a Union Territory of India. But herein lies the catch – the space really contains two worlds or rather three – the old regal colonial French, the vibrant Tamil part and the Aurobindo Ashram, which is omnipresent here. And populating this space are a smorgasbord of people of different nationalities and religions – Tamils, French, devotees of Sri Aurobindo (drawn from across the world), Muslims, Christians, Hindus. This vibrant mélange of cultures and faiths imparts a tremendous vitality to Pondicherry, a special buzz that I haven’t seen in any other place in India.

My friend living here had been inviting me for years to come and visit her, exulting about how different and wonderful Pondicherry was. I thought she was being extra generous and fulsome in the praise of her adopted home. No sooner had I spent half a day in Pondicherry, I was singing her tune too – I had truly succumbed to the charms of this laid-back town with its rich architectural heritage, wonderful sea-food, a multi-faceted cultural legacy and above all, friendly and easy-going people. Pondicherry definitely is my kind of place – where there is all the time to wear flowers in your hair, where afternoon siestas are serious business and life is not endless toil and strife but equal doses of work, play and rest!

Walking down the sea front Groubert Avenue, the main drag here, was absolutely wonderful, no need to fear pickpockets or persistent Romeos, as the case is at many promenades in other cities or hill-stations. Despite the hordes of families with kids, grandparents, and groups of young men who congregate here in the evenings, there is a sense of space and orderliness here. Though you will never find me in crowds, in Pondicherry, it was enriching to be part of a collective enjoyment of Nature’s bounty. Every evening, I sat, like many others, on the low wall where the beach once used to be, watching the tide coming in, counting the sparkling lights of the distant fishing boats in the horizon and gazing at the stars revealing themselves slowly as the moon rose over the rumbling sea!!

Taking time out for the small but interesting Pondicherry Museum was a good idea –there’s an eclectic collection of sculptures from the Pallava period, terracotta shards and other remnants from the ancient Roman settlement at Arikamedu and furniture and other artifacts from the French colonial times. I was transported back in time looking at all the ancient treasures but couldn’t repress a shudder while gazing at the huge terracotta burial urns. To get the smile back on my face, I step out into the Government Square with its graceful central fountain. I move on towards the southern corner, the children’s play area, which boasts of a grotesque cement figure of a giant wearing some sort of grass skirt and squashing underfoot, a sweet looking baby. I couldn’t help laughing and marveling at whoever decided to put such a barbaric figure in a children’s park!!

You can never be far away from the Ashram in Pondicherry, especially in the eastern old colonial part of town. The Ashram provides employment to many and is at the center of several cultural and educational activities in Pondicherry. Hundreds come to pay their respects at the samadhi (tomb) of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother at the main Ashram building on Marine Street. Close by is the educational center where you can catch a film or lecture. The Ashram runs several excellent guesthouses but conditions apply – no smoking or drinking and you have to be back by 10.30 pm.

By far, some of the most stylish shops in India are in Pondicherry, offering very high-quality products. The Ashram and Auroville shops are very aesthetically done-up and have some fine textiles, ceramics and hand-made paper products. All the products here spell taste and excellent workmanship. There are other high-end shops such as Casablanca with a good collection of leather bags, garments and gifts. Pondicherry also has a very vibrant street-shopping scene — I was lucky enough to be around for the Sunday bazaar. An amazing variety of goods, from used electrical products to aluminum toys, freshly fried banana and tapioca chips to colorful bedspreads, interesting mirror-frames to old books – anything can be yours for a song here, provided you bargain hard. Also, Pondicherry is the only place where you will find department stores run by the Honesty Society!!

You don’t have to look too hard for French influences in Pondicherry – the policemen still wear red kepis like the French gendarmes – they look pretty natty quite unlike the cops in the rest of our country! If like me, you are fond of building gazing, Pondicherry is definitely a great place – many of the grand French colonial mansions are still around, proudly displaying their impressive architectural heritage. Then, there are the impressive churches such as the Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception built in 1791 and the Notre Dame des Anges Church. The Town Hall is also called the Hotel de Ville and the Raj Nivas, the Governor’s Residence is a grand palace built in the French style. Also, how can I forget the food here, which distinctly bears the imprint of French culinary genius? Though there are plenty of restaurants serving authentic French food (some run by French expatriates) I was lucky enough to sample the delicious French meals served up by Pierre, the French-speaking Tamil cook at my friend’s home. Despite his little English and my non-existent French, Pierre and I managed just fine, united by a common love for cooking and he let me in on some secrets regarding the oh-so-delicious but so-tricky-to-make French sauces!! And his crème caramel –too exquisite to be called just a pudding for sure!

All in all, Pondicherry is a place where like me, you will definitely stay longer than you intended to. And again like me, when you finally leave, you are definitely going to get the “Pondy Blues” --- wherever you are is not the right place to be. All you will want to do is to head right back to calm and balmy Pondicherry.

About the Author: Minhazz Majumdar is a writer, curator, Smithsonian Journeys Study Tour Leader, organic farmer and an avid traveller who likes to take the unknown road as often as possible. She lives most of the year out of her suitcase and loves to share the joy of discovering, be it places, people or objects. Read more on her at Minhazz Majumdar

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