Known as the French Riviera of the East, the Indian Union Territory of Pondicherry, a former French colony, is unique for the sheer number of influences that have shaped its culture. The French were the undisputed masters of this region for centuries, but the Danes, the English, the Portuguese and the Dutch all stopped by, giving rise to a heady mix of European flavors allied with the local Tamil culture. There is strong evidence that the Romans came to Pondicherry for trade in the 1st century AD. The venerated sage Agasthya established his ashram here, leading to the town being named as Agastiswararm. After the 8 the century AD, Pondicherry passed hands into various dynasties of Southern India including the Cholas, the Pandyas as well as Muslim rulers of the North before finally ending up as part of the territory of the Sultan of Bijapur. In 1497, the first Europeans set foot on Pondy soil in the form of the Portuguese who set up a trading post in the 1600s. The Danes and the Dutch followed before the French period of Pondicherry began in 1673. After a scuffle with the Danes, the French regained control of the area and 1699 and proceeded to establish it as a well planned and rich town. When the rest of India gained independence in 1947, Pondy still lay in French hands. Merger with India would not come till 1954 when the French ceded control although a formal treaty enforcing the cession was signed only in 1963. That year, Pondicherry officially became a Union Territory of India. Today, this former bastion of the French empire in India is a site of spiritual pilgrimage, the focal point of which is the Aurobindo Ashram.
The name “Pondicherry” is a Westernized version of the Tamil “puducherry” meaning “small hamlet.” There are still a large number of Tamil residents here who retain their French passports-descendants of locals who preferred to retain their French nationalities at the time of cessation. The town is divided into French and Tamil quarters and both sections display architectural details peculiar to each culture. In the French Town, the streets are lined by imposing colonial buildings with stately gates and huge compound walls. The facades are usually painted cream or light pink. In the Tamil Town, houses are typically painted green, blue and brown and have large, expansive verandahs which are really, extensions of the living spaces, and ideal for a quick chat with passers by or even to be used as an impromptu guest room for unexpected travelers. Tall pastel colored churches co- exist harmoniously with brightly colored and intricately carved temples. More traces of laid back French culture are to be found in the roadside cafes and little pastry shops. The city is a comfortable amalgamation of Eastern and Western, ancient and modern. 55 different languages are spoken here and the 5 official languages are Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, French and English. In spite of this multilingualism, there is hardly any clamor or confusion, only the deepest harmony and understanding. You would be hardplused to find a street that’s not graced by a temple, mosque or church.
Where to Stay and Eat
Pondicherry has a wide variety of hotels and restaurants without the exotic price tags and luxury surcharges of bigger cities like neighboring Chennai. The Hotel De’L Orient on Rue Romain Rolland is housed in a colonial mansion and has beautifully decorated rooms with antique furniture. The Hotel de Pondicherry is a moderately priced hotel on Dumas Street. The Ananda Inn is a more up market hotel and is popular with visitors and locals alike for its vegetarian North and South Indian cuisine. Guest rooms with dining facilities are also available at the Aurobindo Ashram.
What to See
Travel to Pondicherry revolves around the Aurobindo Ashram. You could say the Ashram is a college and Pondicherry, a college town. Situated on Rue de la Marine, Sri Aurobindo Ashram is one of the most famous and influential spiritual places in India. It was founded in 1926, by Sri Aurobindo Ghose, a freedom revolutionary who escaped to Pondicherry to flee persecution by the British. It was here that he was drawn into the spiritual realm and went on to develop a set of yogic principles known as Integral Yoga. Yoga, in the Aurobindo context, is an intensely mental rather than physical process –safe to say, there is no Upside Down Dog position here. One of Aurobindos many foreign disciples was the French artist Mirra Alfassa who was so impressed with the yogic, that she stayed back in Pondicherry and helped establish the Ashram. After Aurobindos death in 1950, the functioning of the Ashram was entrusted to her. She was fondly referred to as “the Mother” and was instrumental in establishing Auroville, the other main attraction in Pondicherry. She died in 1973 and the Ashram houses a mausoleum containing her ashes as well as those of Aurobindo.
Located around 8 kilometers north of Pondicherry, Auroville was conceived as a utopian city where people of different nationalities from all over the world could live in harmony. Around 1900 people, most of them non Indians live here in communes. During the inauguration of this community, soil from 124 countries was poured into an urn symbolizing the oneness of humanity. This urn is displayed at the Matri Mandir. There is a small museum here, showcasing the history and achievements of the Auroville community.
Although not in the same league as Goa, Pondicherry does have its share of small, uncrowded beaches. The 1.5 kilometer promenade is a great place for a stroll, taking in the salty sea breezes as well as the impressive French architecture in the form of the heritage town hall and the imposing statue of Dupleix. The Serenity and Auroville beaches are popular with visitors, but tend to be relatively quiet on weekdays.
While in Pondy, be sure to pick up hand made stationery and paper products from Auroville. They are finely textured and come in beautiful colors. Pondicherry is also a great place to source antiques from Kerala and Tamilnadu. There’s also a great range of leather goods, hand made linens, perfumed candles, marble silks and ceramic pottery.