Pondicherry is framed in the past, with beautiful colonial and traditional architecture, majestic temples and churches and a spiritual centre to discover your soul
As non-British colonial pasts go, Goa has one of the richest sites in the country. Another great example of well-preserved heritage is Pondicherry – now renamed Puducherry – an old French colony on the east coast of India.
Carefully conserved buildings, quiet tree-lined streets and majestic buildings bracing themselves for the spray of the Bay of Bengal year after year mark the French and old Tamilian quarters of this tiny Union Territory of India. The new town (which is the literal translation of the Tamilian ‘Puducherry’) embodies the colourful chaos that is India, with compact apartments, bustling bazaars, people scurrying about their daily business and hundreds of eager travellers alighting buses to explore this beautiful place.
I have been to Pondicherry many times before. It’s almost like a home away from home in Goa but with a French twist. It was only handed back to India in 1954, leaving many vestiges of influence, from language to architecture, food and education.
Boulevard Town, or the old town, is divided into the Tamil and French Quarters. They were earlier known by rather racial names, but are now just referenced by the style of architectural influence they follow. The French Quarter features European-style buildings adapted to the warm sweltering climate of the tropics, with long compounds and stately walls. The Tamilian section, separated by a canal, has houses lined with verandas, large doors and grills.
It was hot in Pondicherry, the weather being somewhat opposite to Goa – when we have rain, they have sunshine; when we have sunshine, they have rain. The humidity and heat didn’t stop me from walking down the quiet roads and stopping by a random cart for some refreshing coconut water.
I stayed at the Aurodhan Gallery during my trip there. It’s a beautiful heritage home converted into a guest house, one of numerous such pretty accommodations in the vicinity. Aurodhan is almost a live-in gallery, each room aesthetically furnished and air-conditioned, decorated with quaint objects to create a ‘live and learn art experience’.
The guest house is owned by a close friend Lalit Verma, a former student of the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education in Pondicherry, who left a thriving career with the Tatas to settle down with his wife in this gorgeous town and run Aurodhan. He often holds workshops and artist-in-residence programmes which draw many visitors from far and wide.
The rooms are well equipped, as is the kitchen, and although the guest house offers a charming old world feel, it doesn’t leave you disconnected. There is WiFi broad band internet, cable television and even a mini business centre.
I took my time rediscovering Pondicherry and visiting places that I had not seen on previous trips. Arikanmedu is a famous site discovered by Romans in 200BC that is currently being excavated. The Eglise de Sacre Coeur de Jesus (Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus) is a stunning example of Gothic architecture in India, with exquisite stained glass corridors and panels depicting incidents from the life of Christ.
There are also a host of temples in and around Pondicherry from various stages of history that make your visit more than worth it. These include the Thirunallar temple which attracts around 30,000 pilgrims every Saturday, the 12th century Varadaraja temple and the 18th century Vedapureeswarar temple among others.
No trip to Pondicherry is complete without a visit to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and Matrimandir. Sri Aurobindo went from being a freedom fighter to a spiritual leader with devotees from around the world. He developed a method of spiritual practice called Integral Yoga, or the process of the union of all parts of one’s being with the Divine, and founded the ashram with his main disciple Mirra Alfassa, a Frenchwoman who he named The Mother.
Although both Sri Aurobindo and The Mother are no more, the ashram continues to draw thousands of visitors every year. I always find it very peaceful to spend a few moments in the tranquil surroundings of the gardens.
Connected with the ashram is the Matrimandir, a place of spiritual significance to those practicing integral yoga. It is located at the centre of Auroville, an experimental township founded by The Mother, and is called the soul of the city. Its design, completed by Roger Anger in consultation with The Mother, is very symbolic and has many connections to her.
It’s important to book your ticket to visit Matrimandir a day in advance – possibly due to the number of visitors – so you can visit the meditation room and sit in silence.
Being in Pondicherry, I couldn’t pass up a trip to visit to the new baby of the CGH hospitality company. I truly enjoy their other offerings and decided to have dinner at the Palais de Mahe in the heart of the French Quarter.
The hotel reflects the beautiful colonial architecture characteristic of these parts, with grand, spacious rooms and ochre colonnades. It’s like being taken back in time to an aristocratic home with antique furniture and massive doors opening into rooms with towering ceilings. Planters and lounge chairs dot the hotel, completing the picture.
We marvelled at the yellow and white plastering, remembering Goa’s own peculiar love of bold colours combined with white. The chef brought out a steaming plate filled with a selection of local fish starters. It was succulent and beautifully marinated. Across the table, a red snapper on a bed of vibrant fresh vegetables was devoured as the main, while I tucked into prime steak with a perfect dollop of mashed potato. A creamy pannacotta appeared for dessert.
The Palais de Mahe is only a few steps away from the stunning Pondicherry Promenade, with the twinkling lights of the picturesque town on one side, and the deep inkiness of the Bay of Bengal on the other. I walked silently, dreaming of the tantalising smells of croissants from the nearby patisserie, warm in the knowledge that a little bit of France is still left behind in India.