The Old World Charm of Pondicherry

புதுச்சேரி- Pondicherry


(he parked anyway!)

India- Land of the Ved

Pondicherry was one of my favourite destinations in India. Maybe it was the fact that we met my brother there and it felt like a wild adventure, but something about this place really got me.

Pondicherry is situated along the Coromandel Coast of the Bay of Bengal. It is known for its palm fringed beaches, mosques, French influence and the Aurobindo Ashram movement. It was a former French colony, which accounts for the incredible Old World Charm, as though you were taking part in one of the Tintin adventures. Colonialism is just oozing out of the walls. It made me really understand it. It’s like seeing India through a French lense, glammed up, boho, where you can still buy great finds that “work” in the West.

When we arrived in Pondicherry from Chennai (one of the most hectic and stressful experiences in my lifetime) we felt an extreme sense of relief. For an Indian city, Pondi is small. Around one million people live there, and the streets are organised in a way that make the city feel more orderly than, say, Chennai.

The 3-4 story bungalo-style concrete houses are painted in every colour you can imagine, the kind you can see in many parts of India, where the “common folk” like. However, just next to the Bay of Bangal there is a drastic change in the urban landscape. Tiled rooftops, wooden shutters, balconies (as you would find them in Paris), colonnades, comfortably wide streets and pretty pastel Catholic churches. This, my friends, is the old French influence, la Ville Blanche, where the colonists once lived.

To celebrate being reunited with my brother, we ate here at Hôtel de l’Orient (former 18th Century Education Department that was reopened as the 16-room mansion). The service was French-spoken, the menu was in French, the maître d’hôtel was a French matron who kept a quiet eye on the French-speaking Indian men waiting the tables. The service was certainly not Indian, it was even too polished to be French. I have no idea what it was, but I suppose we could say that it was colonial. There was Sapphire gin on the menu, and surprisingly Indian wine (incredible, given the French’s lack of recognition for any wine apart from that which is produced from the terroir de France). The antiques that decorated the Hôtel were dazzling, and as we sipped on our Indian red, a live jazz band in the courtyard serenaded us into the warm Indian night.

Apart from playing the flâneur and perusing the streets, in Pondi, you must spend money. Yes, don’t get me wrong, I felt a spiritual awakening (despite not being able to bring myself to walk around clad in the traditional saris), I also felt an extreme urge to spend money. Pondicherry is like the Anthropologie  of India. It is shabby-chic and there are a plethora of hidden antiques shops that sell furniture and Indian God statues from the times of Colonialism.

To be cynical, and if I were really mad about post-colonial theory, I would go so far as to say that the current (sometimes superficial, but oh-so-attractive) Frenchifying of Pondi, cultivating this wonderfully boho and romantic city, is a subtle revenge on the old colonizers. What could be better than passively getting revenge and setting straight the misconduct of the past by pulling at the heartstrings of nostalgic Gauls dressed (sorry, I have to say this, ridiculouly) in colourful saris spending exhubérant amounts of money? Hanuman, the cheeky monkey God (one of the Gods in the Ramayana) sure would be proud.

That said, it is just too great to be a façade, too beautiful to be artificial. It was my first love in India and I cannot wait to be back there again in December to reunite with my beloved family.

To sum up my love for India, a quote by Will Durant:
“India was the mother of our race and Sanskrit the mother of Europe’s languages. She was the mother of our philosophy, mother through the Arabs, of much of our mathematics, mother through Buddha, of the ideals embodied in Christianity, mother through village communities of self-government and democracy. Mother India is in many ways the mother of us all.”

Pondicherry, not a lot to see, but a lot to feel. Sound cheesy? Yes, but true.

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4 responses to “The Old World Charm of Pondicherry

  1. I love this. It sounds like a little piece of history with an incredible mix of cultures. India has been very tolerant………xxM.

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