Which ever name you choose to call this bustling little territory some three hours south of Chennai, all of them add up to the same thing – a fascinating town, with distinct pockets of individual character. The Dutch, the Portuguese, the British and the French have all laid claim to ownership at some stage, but it is only the French who really left their mark.
The town is set up on a grid system (thank you to the French designers and the Dutch builders) which makes negotiation simple. And it is divided into distinct quarters. There is the French Quarter, known in days gone by as the White Quarter, which in my naivety I thought might refer to the predominant white trim on the buildings. Non. A quiet, tree lined precinct with wide streets, adjoining the beachfront.
All three quarters sit within a small area that was once ringed by the fort walls. We are staying in the calm oasis of the French Quarter; full of gracious buildings in various states of repair. Many have been or are currently in the hands of the restorers and renovators, which is heartening but some are still crying out for love, attention and a lot of money (reminds me a bit of Georgetown in that respect).
The French owned buildings are all painted yellow (with white trim), but the predominant building colour is grey (with white trim). Turns out that all the grey buildings are owned by the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, as are many of the cottage industries in town. It would seem there is great economic prescience to be found in spirituality.
We start the morning with a walk down to Beach Road, where we see large clusters of people gathered. Turns out that it was Ganesha’s birthday on the weekend, and today is the day that every household comes to the waterfront with a small clay statue of Ganesha, which they cover in decorations, light a flame in front of him, pray to him to bestow good luck upon their family and then heave him into the ocean.
But, due to both the rough, rocky descent into the water, and the unsafe water conditions, most families pay children and young men from the poor families to do the heaving for them. The youngsters vie for business, scampering back and forth from water to sand, dripping wet, eager to get their next customer. This will go on all day and into early evening. We are fascinated by the variety in each and every iteration of Ganesha, and the rituals undertaken by each family group.
Next stop is the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, where shoes must come off and no photos are permitted. The faithful come to genuflect at the graves of Sri Aurobindo and his ‘companion’ known as The Mother (who also founded Auroville on the outskirts of Pondicherry). We also briefly visit the Ashram’s paper making factory to see paper being made by hand from recycled white Tshirts. To get there we drive through the fishing village sitting like a barnacle on the side of the French Quarter. The narrow lanes and tightly pressed together houses are fascinating, as is the fact that they are currently putting in a sewerage system in order to stop the effluence running straight into the sea.
Ensuring we cover all religious bases we also cover off the Manakkula Vinayagar Temple, the Sacred Heart Basilica and the Mosque. The ManakkulaVinayagar Temple is devoted to Ganesha, so is particularly busy at the moment. The resident temple elephant, Lakshmi, will head pat supplicants in exchange for food or cash – and is quite prepared to give you the evil eye if a snack is not forthcoming (but, will hand any monies given promptly over to her handler).
The Basilica may be Catholic but this is India, so Mary wears a sari and the decorations are suitably gaudy and the stained glass bright. In fact, I think this may have been where Dalí got inspiration for some of his jewellery designs.
We end our tour of the City with a visit to our kind of temple – the Grand Bazaar. A teeming temple of worship to food and household goods. The colours of the saris on women shoppers, and sellers, as well as the flowers to be used for temple offerings are intoxicating. It is bustling and fascinating.
But the heat and crowds are ultimately overwhelming and it is time to retreat back to the oasis of calm that is the French Quarter. We go in search of a recommended cafe for lunch – Maison Rose – only to find it gutted for renovations. So land up in Hotel Dupleix instead, where we are virtually lassoed into the restaurant by the charming young Frenchman who spies us loitering at the door. After lunch we take a short walk around the nearby park, once the Fort, and then admire the crumbling lighthouse, the Mahatma Gandhi statue and the war memorial on our way back to the beautiful Palais de Mahe for a much needed swim and rest.
We venture out again in the early evening and join the throngs along the beach promenade. Traffic is banned from the Beach Road from about 5pm, so people are free to wander at their leisure. Gathering there to socialise, court, enjoy the sea breeze, or simply rest is obviously common practice for Pondicherrians. What a lovely practice. I think we Elwoodians should embrace it.
We dine in the courtyard of the L’Orient hotel, but this is not a success. Despite there being very few customers the food takes forever to arrive – we have almost passed out with exhaustion by the time it finally turns up. And then it proves to be definitely not worth the wait. Oh dear.
Next day has been deemed at leisure, but Rajesh, our driver, is having none of that. He is keen to take us somewhere, anywhere – slightly incredulous that we would prefer to walk around the city ourselves. After some wrangling we agree that he can come and collect us at 3.00 and take us for a short drive. But first, free time! Which we do indeed spend on foot, through the French Quarter and into the Tamil Quarter, with shopping and well as looking as our goal. Funnily enough, Rajesh spies us on our wanders as he is sitting having tea – he thinks this is hilarious when he tells us of this later.
After a couple of hours roaming, the heat is starting to get to us so we head back into the French Quarter and seek Cafe des Arts for a spot of lunch. We probably increase the average age significantly, but what the heck. It is a very funky spot, and I enjoy a cucumber and tomato salad (they make special mention that all their food is washed in treated water so I plunge into a salad with confidence).
I’m being virtuous with a salad only because an hour earlier we had popped into the French patisserie/bakery called Baker Street for a reviving coffee, and I had been unable to resist the temptation of a vanilla millefeuille.
Over the road from Cafe des Arts is a lovely little clothes shop and we all indulge in a bit of retail therapy before heading back to the hotel for our 3pm rendezvous with Rajesh. He takes us for a drive out into the countryside to Auroville. On the way we pass a beautifully decorated Ganesha statue. It is these big Ganesha that will be hauled into Pondicherry on Saturday and with the help of a crane they too will be thrown into the Bay of Bengal. We are sorry we will not be here to see that sight.
We decline the invitation to park the car and walk into Auroville itself, and instead head back into Pondicherry to enjoy a G&T poolside before dining once more in the very pleasant rooftop restaurant of the hotel.
Next morning the staff continue to be amused by our insistence on having a local breakfast and turning down their offers of toast, croissants and eggs. Over the three mornings we have had two different styles of dosa (or perhaps one that failed and one that didn’t!):
Kitta and Pete at least are getting reasonably dexterous at pulling the dosa (or uttapam or roti or chapati) apart using only their right hand. Me not so much – I usually resort to cutting it up with my knife before embarking on the eating with one’s right hand only.
We have enjoyed our days and nights in lovely Pondicherry. Now it is on to Kumbakonam for temples and pure vegetarian food. Bring it on.