Peaceful Pondicherry

Although most of India used to be part of the British Empire, England is not the only country that had outposts on the Subcontinent. The Union Territory of Puducherry is a collection of four small disconnected districts along the Indian coast that made up colonial French India. As a Union Territory, Puducherry is not a state, and is instead governed from the national level. So, when I traveled south from Chennai to the city of Puducherry, the primary of the four districts, I actually left Tamil Nadu for a time.

Puducherry, previously known as Pondicherry (or Pondichéry to the French), has been the site of a port town for millenia. The Puducherry Museum displays this history via archaeological finds from the nearby Arikamedu site. These include, among other things, pottery vessels from as far away as Greece and Rome that were used to deliver wine and olive oil to India. Shortly after the British established their colony at Chennai, the French arrived and built their own fort and trading outpost just down the coast, beginning France’s small-scale but long-lasting colonization of India. The center of Pondicherry, known as White Town, surrounds the octagonally-shaped Bharati Park, which was originally the location of the French Fort Louis. Though the fort met an early demise at the hands of the British, the French colonies, including Pondicherry, remained under French control all the way until 1963, sixteen years after the rest of the Subcontinent had gained independence.

Bharati Park in Pondicherry, India
Bharati Park in the center of the French quarter of Pondicherry.

Pondicherry has now been officially Indian for several decades, but due to the French presence here, the White Town district has a distinct feel. It would be a bit of a stretch to say it feels “French”, but it certainly doesn’t feel like any of the other places I have visited in India so far. To start, many of the buildings are European in style, with large facades but relatively few shopfronts. Typical Indian streets are composed of many tightly-packed shopfronts and stalls, so White Town is not conducive to Indian street life (the lack of small businesses and stalls also means the streets are cleaner and less busy than the average Indian street).

The French Quarter of Pondicherry, India
Buildings in the French quarter of Pondicherry.
French Street Signs in Pondicherry, India
Buildings in the French quarter of Pondicherry.
Green and Purple House in Pondicherry, India
A brightly painted house in Pondicherry – many houses are creatively painted and decorated.
A Beautiful House in Podicherry, India
Another beautiful house in Pondicherry.

Another difference between the White Town and the adjacent so-called “Black Town” (the Indian portion of the city) is the frequent appearance of French, in addition to Tamil and English, on street signs and buildings. For example, a chain of milk stalls in the city is called Ponlait, a combination of “Pondicherry” and “lait”, French for milk. French is not only seen in snippets around the city, but also frequently heard while walking around. Many French people visit or even work in Pondicherry; they represent by far the largest proportion of tourists in my observation. Some of the locals even speak French, though it is no longer the primary language, and I noticed that some of the churches also have regular Masses in French.

The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Pondicherry, India
The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, one of the many Catholic churches built by the French in Pondicherry.
The Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Pondicherry, India
The Immaculate Conception Cathedral.

Finally, the White Town has numerous cafés, often with French-inspired names and menus. Cafés as we know them in the West, with their homey seating areas and exhaustive caffeinated drink menus, don’t really exist in Tamil Nadu; most coffee and tea is sold from carts on the side of the road or in small “coffee bars” with plastic stools out front on the street (the coffee and tea is delicious, but these stalls aren’t really a place to get comfortable and sit around for a while). I took the opportunity in Pondicherry to enjoy a bit of the West with a cappuccino and a crepe, but I made sure to also enjoy some Indian treats, like sweet lassi (a yoghurt-based drink).

The waterfront in Pondicherry is lined by a sandy beach shored up by a rocky seawall and lined with a main road. The centerpiece of the waterfront is a large statue of Gandhi confidently walking ashore toward the city center. In the evenings, the road is closed off to vehicles and becomes a pedestrian promenade, providing a pleasant, traffic-free area to enjoy the evening.

The Mahatma Gandhi Statue in Pondicherry, India
The statue of Mahatma Gandhi on the Pondicherry waterfront.
Evening Esplanade in Pondicherry, India
The traffic-free Pondicherry waterfront in the evening.

After a few days enjoying the city itself, I took a day trip to the nearby Paradise Beach. Though it is not far from the city, and still within the Union Territory, it feels like a completely different place. To access this beach, you have to take a short ten-minute boat ride from a pier at the southern end of Pondicherry. The boat passes through the final palm-lined stretch of a river before docking at a sandy strip of land jutting out in front of the river mouth. Here, there are not many people, a rarity for beaches in India (confirmed by someone who has been to many beaches in India!). There are no shops or stalls or vendors, and consequently very little litter. As with the beaches in Chennai, swimming is not allowed due to strong currents and deep water near the shore, but Paradise Beach is a peaceful place to relax with a book and some snacks.

Paradise Beach in Pondicherry, India
Paradise Beach, beautifully devoid of crowds!

Though I was feeling a little under the weather after the first few days in Chennai’s chaos, Pondicherry was a great, relatively calm place to relax and recover. Since it’s a fairly small city, it is easy to get around on foot, and the café-filled White Town and its waterfront are a haven from the hustle and bustle of the surrounding city. Since leaving Pondicherry, I’ve headed inland, away from the coastal colonial influence and toward some of the ancient and important cities of Tamil Nadu, which I’ll go into more detail about in the next post!

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