Although French rule ended here in 1954, the small colonial city of Pondicherry is still very much under the influence – in architecture, food, and street style. The French Quarter is solidly French – right down to street names and door signs.
There are many shopowners, hoteliers and restauranteurs who are French nationals and the vast majority of tourists are also from France. (You can pick them out – they are insouciant and lean. The men with expensive loafers and sweaters tossed over shoulders; the women with glossy bobs and fabulous bags.) Well, once again I have proven to myself that whatever capacity I had for speaking French has vanished. My clumsy high school French was no match for their effortless and charmingly accented English, so I gave up.
No matter – Pondicherry (or Puducherry, as it is now called; Pondy for short) is welcoming to all and well worth the visit – a feast for the senses. One can find a genuine croissant as well as a path to spiritual enlightenment. Pondy draws thousands of visitors to the world-famous Sri Aurobindo Ashram and to the experimental village, Auroville, which is just outside of town.
The French Quarter is the main tourist area; several blocks of leafy streets fronted by a gorgeous stroll along the Bay of Bengal. The Gandhi Memorial is situated mid-way along the water, providing an eternal image of the great man in mid-stride.
The French Quarter is divided by this particularly odiferous canal, with “real India” happening noisily and chaotically on the other side.
If you come to Pondy, be sure to book well ahead to snag a room in a charming heritage building right in the French Quarter. We waited too late and were lucky to find a room at all. Our hotel is in a new building a couple of blocks away from the canal, and down a side street, so we glide through the many faces of India several times a day. We move from this tranquil and lovely room…
… to the main street, filled with traffic, markets selling cheap western clothing and an eye-watering blend of smells. We cross over the canal and enter the rarified world of the French Quarter once again. This hotel is beyond our range – rooms run about $300 a night, but the structure is typical of the lovely buildings that line the streets.
Even the tuk-tuks match the decor.
More street colour. This makes me wonder why we favour such drab, “tasteful” colours for our exteriors in our cold countries – the greys and blacks and tans. In the middle of February in Canada, wouldn’t we all feel perked up with these yellows and oranges and pinks?
Although we are still in the south of India, Pondicherry does not feel as oppressively hot and humid as we had been experiencing for the past several weeks. It is a great relief to simply enjoy what we think of as “summer weather” – hot, with a breeze, and cool at night. Apparently the dogs don’t share my view – they still spread out for naps during the day. The dogs in India appear to have sprung from the same gene pool – mid-size, light-coloured, short-haired and relatively benign.
There are plenty of cows wandering the streets on the Indian side of Pondy, but on the French side, we have seen just this one stopped outside the gelateria. Perhaps some cosmic connection between her milk and the finished product filtered through to her bovine brain.
Pondy is undergoing quite the facelift – we are curious to know what it will look like in five years. Currently, for every beautifully finished building, there is a derelict one – often they exist side by side.
Several important buildings are also under renovation, with bold banners showing the before and after shots.
If you saw the movie Lion, you will remember that the boy’s mother moved rocks for a living. I didn’t know what that meant until we saw this woman at a work site. In India, very hard manual labour still exists, with many people doing the work that would be done by one machine in Canada. A reminder that so many people work so hard for so little.
This is another common sight – less drudgery to be sure, but I’m quite sure no-one is over-paying this gentleman for those immaculately pressed shirts.
Back to the French influence here in Pondy. There are many French organizations and institutions here, including a number of French schools. Here, La Lycée Francaise:
Rav Nivas, the Governor’s residence, with a gendarme riding by:
The Alliance Francaise, with its attentive guard. I peeked inside the gate, hoping to grab a photo of the luscious courtyard beyond, mais non. He did agree to pose for a photo.
Even the hospital looks inviting:
Our second day here, we left our hotel in search of breakfast, only to discover there was a one-day strike on and everything was closed. One-day strikes are common in India. So far we have had three – taxi strike, water strike and now GST strike. We can’t imagine they have any effect, other than to inconvenience the locals, lose money for the business owners and annoy the tourists.
We came upon this lovely hotel, with the gate open a crack, so we ventured in to see if they would consider feeding non-guests. At first, we were promised coffee, but that turned into fresh juice, fruit, eggs, toast, and pancakes. We returned again at lunch, since most of the French Quarter was closed until the evening. This is the courtyard of Villa Helena, our strike-day saviour.
On a whole other level, we made the obligatory visit to The Indian Coffee House, a Pondy institution that was the birthplace for Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. Martel began his book with meeting an elderly man who tells him, “I have a story that will make you believe in God….” Far from having an uplifting effect on us, we found it dirty with so-so food. But, they’re carrying on without us – the place is packed and buzzing.
We bought coconut water a number of times from this gorgeous woman. We stopped to watch her hack away with her machete – hack off the top, scoop out a bit of flesh, insert straw, repeat. She had a few customers on the go; a big personality and a bigger smile. “Here you go, mama”, as she passed me some fresh coconut.
I don’t know why I like this photo – I just do. Three gents having a good ole chinwag.
And onto Pondy’s spiritual life – the many faiths and belief systems that co-exist here.
We really like the kolams, found outside many homes and businesses. Each morning, the women draw them with rice flour or chalk – usually quite simple designs to bring prosperity and good luck. Sometimes bowls of flowers or small offerings are added.
There are many churches and temples in Pondy – Notre Dame des Anges covers the Catholic side of things. The interior was simple, with life-size sculptures of Jesus in various states as he made his way to the cross. Accompanying inscriptions were in French – Jesu est tombe pour la premiere fois.
We were allowed to visit the Hindu temple Manakula Vinayagar, but interior photography was forbidden. This exterior shot is an example of the lavish and colourful friezes.
And…Sri Aurobindo Ashram – the internationally-known ashram founded by Sri Aurobindo and “The Mother” – who also founded Auroville. The ashram attracts thousands of visitors each year; many of whom stay for a period of time. Tourists were only allowed to enter a small part of the building, following a flower-lined pathway to a centre “stage” where we were invited to pray. I prayed for our family and friends, and then moved to join others in quiet contemplation. My challenge was I could not get the image of Julia Roberts in India (Eat Pray Love) out of my head, so meditation was out of the question. Still, a moving experience to observe others; many of them in raptures.
And on to Auroville, the utopian community about 10 km. outside of Pondy that was founded in the late 60s by Sri Aurobindo and The Mother. The vision of Auroville was to realize human unity through diversity and is the only experiment of its kind in the world. There are about 2500 residents – 60% of them from other countries and of all ages from infant to 80. The community is dedicated to peace, sustainability and divine consciousness and depending upon with whom you speak, has been a resounding success or a shady, self-indulgent escape from reality.
It is possible to visit for an hour, a day, a week or longer. We chose to go with a tour, which was a mistake, as we were rushed through and did not have a chance to visit properly.
First, we visited the excellent Visitor’s Centre and watched a 10-minute video before walking down the leafy 1-km. path to the main attraction, the Matrimandir.
Along the path, there are stone markers depicting each of the twelve flowers The Mother chose for their significance to Auroville’s intentions.
This 10-sq. km. area is beautifully planted, with two million trees and many gardens. As you approach the main area, there is a sign asking for silence, as this is a meditation area.
And there it is – the Mothership. The Matrimandir (or “soul” of Auroville) has been compared to a giant golf ball or a space ship, and you could be forgiven the comparisons. Inside is a large crystal, and the whole interior has been designed for individual silent contemplation. You must make reservations a few days in advance to be allowed to enter, so we just contemplated from outside.
Visiting Auroville was an otherworldly experience. I wish we had more time to talk to people and get a better sense of the place. There are accommodations in the area for those who wish to explore the concept a little more.
Et voila! Another side of India that we had no idea existed. Our spiritual tour is far from over – next we head to Varanasi, one of Hindu’s holiest (and most colourful) cities. We met a Scottish gentleman a few weeks ago – he travels to India frequently and is a huge fan. We asked him about Varanasi, and in the words of everyone’s favourite Donald, he replied, “It is a stinking shithole. But you MUST go.” We can’t say we haven’t been warned.