Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Puducherry - The French Riviera

Puducherry, the colonial French town butting into Tamil Nadu on the coast of Bay of Bengal was once known as the French Riviera of the East. It has a rich past mostly dominated by the French influence as they lorded over this seaside  town for several centuries before accession to the Indian republic in late 50's. Puducherry even today retains the ambiance of its French, Creole and Tamil past in its architecture, food & cultural heritage. It is a town in a time wrap and demands unhurried walks to explore and experience it. The old French quarter of the city offers glimpse into its romantic past and the French influence which is on ample display through the French mansions, its street names and the air of unhurried calm.
The town is divided into two distinct quarters - French (Ville Blanche) and Tamil (Ville Noir). The French quarter overlooking the sea has all the prominent French buildings, mansions and monuments with balustrades on the balcony, ornate grills and large bay windows and wooden doors rings in air of a time gone by, an atmospheric town dotted with boutique hotels, restaurants and boutiques. The sea breeze, colonial french mansions gaily painted in deep ochre, blues and white transport one to the settings in France. It is a slice of France in Tamil India.
Puducherry was designed based on the French grid pattern and features neat sectors and perpendicular streets. Many streets still retain their French names, and French style villas are a common sight. In the French quarter, the buildings are typically colonial style with long compounds and stately walls. The old town is a replica of a tiny French town, with its colorful pastel-shaded houses and tree-lined streets. This is possibly the only place in India where old folks speak in French. 
The nearby Auroville, the Utopian city founded by Sri Aurobindo brought together people with multinational and multiracial backgrounds which led to creation of pursuits which is amalgam of the best of the east and the west. This synthesis spills over to the French Town too as it reflects in the arts and crafts, cuisine and fashion that is on display here.

Go to Puducherry for a rejuvenating escape in a laid back atmosphere, enjoy the hospitality of french mansions, gorge on fusion cuisine, indulge yourself in some of the best shopping experiences in India and live few days devoid of the temptations of a materialistic existence. Enjoy walks on the sandy and secluded beaches near Auroville, stay in the eco friendly home at Auroville or in one of the restored French mansions, join the global community to lend a helping hand to spread the greenery or eco farming. For more adventurous there is options of wind surfing, scuba diving and para gliding at the nearby beach facility. Walk or hire a bicycle and enjoy the atmosphere at leisurely pace.

After a 5 hours long road journey of 150 kms from Chennai on East Coast Road traversing through the palm fringed expressway takes one to this seaside abode. I head straight to The Gratitude, an old colonial mansion very lovingly restored by INTACH Pondicherry and the owners. The Gratitude epitomises the fine living quarters of this French town, simple yet elegant with several hundred years of history and anecdotes hidden in its long corridors, rooms with lofty ceilingg and the high pillared courtyard. It is a place of retreat for Kakoli, the proud owner who has so generously opened its doors for the 'like minded people' who appreciate the beauty and the quietness of French colonial heritage home.
After a sumptuous meal and some rest on the antique four poster bed I find myself on the the Rue Romain Rolland with INTACH Pondicherry Walking Guide in hand to experience first hand the slice of France. My first pit stop is Town Hall on Goubert Avenue on the  beach front. Formerly Hotel de Ville serving the French population now converted into office of the municipal corporation. Tall arches, pillared corridors and high ceilings, shuttered windows and white washed, the place gives a glimpse of the days when the fate of this territory was decided here.   

India Map

  Town Hall - Formerly Hotel de Ville

From there I head to the Rue de La Caserne for a visit to the Notre Dame de Anges ChurchThe Church is built in the Greco-Roman style in 1855 A.D. Known locally in Tamil as ''Kaps Kovil" or the church of the Capuchins. This church boasts a rare oil painting of Our Lady of the Assumption which was a gift from Napoleon III. Its facade, flanked by two unadorned square towers faces east towards the ocean. The interior is roofed by a barrel vault, with a great dome rising over the crossing. The pastel peach and lime colors give it a very serene appearance. The church has old pews (seating) made of cane, Indian stained glass that filters sunlit patterns of color into the interior.

Next up on Rue Bussy is the Ecole Francais de Extreme Oriente 

Up next is Cluny Embroidery Centre on Rue du Bazaar Saint Laurent. Once a majestic hotel named Hotel Lagrenee de Meziere this is now home to the sisters of Cluny Convent. Watch nimble fingered girls make embroidered master pieces in the latest European styles. This large house has different courtyards, a tropical garden, lots of warehouses and storerooms. One can notice beautiful stucco and iron works. 

Cluny Embroidery Centre - Great for stucco work

Further up and on the lane left Rue Lebourdonnais stands the Alliance Francais. The Alliance Française de Pondichéry was created in 1897 and is among the first Alliances in the world after the one in Paris. The Maison Bellocq houses the administrative and technical wings, multimedia library, auditorium and twelve classrooms. Open Monday to Friday - 8.30 àm to  12.30 and 14.30 to 18.15 pm and Saturdays - 8.30 àm to 12.30 pm.

            Alliance Francais - Inner courtyard of Maison Bellocq 
Cross over the Rude De Cassim to the Tamil Quarters and head to the office of Intach on Rue Mahatma Gandhi. to understand the magnificent work that this organization has done 
to document and conserve Pondicherry's built heritage. Housed in a old Tamil mansion , painstakingly restored it has massive wooden pillared inner courtyard with a thalavaram and thinnai in the traditional Tamil architectural form.  

INTACH Pondicherry inner courtyard veranda and the external facade 

Up next on Rue Victor Simonell is Lycee Francaise, where children of the few thousands of french people attended the classes. Established in 1826, this institute still imparts education to hundreds of Pondicherrians in French. Special permission is required to visit this colonial place, with its well preserved shady courtyard, columns and balconies. It also has an interesting collection of old photographs of colonial Puducherry and collection of very rare coins of the French East Indian Company.

Take a right turn on Rue de La Caserne and head to the Art Gallery housed in a charming mansion.  
Our next stop is the Chamber of Commerce Building on Rue Mahe de Labourdonnais. A double storied building with tall columns, high ceiling corridors and arched gates. This place demands your attention.

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Chamber of Commerce Building

The next door UCO Bank is a charming and magnificent French building. The place presents air of grandeur and expansive vista. The charming colonnaded corridors and arched windows enticed me to walk in and soak in the atmosphere. This dates from 1916 when it was La Banque de l’ Indochin. 

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UCO Bank Building on Rue Mahe de Labourdonnais

The green Bharti Park across the road is home to large number of evergreen tall trees and plants. This is where the French financial and administrative buildings were concentrated.    

From Rue Victor simonel we take a right turn on MV Kovil street where the Legislative Assembly of Pondicherry government is housed in the old Tribunal building (from where the lower courts functioned). The Assembly building has circular rooms as part of the front facade with an elevated portico. This is a typical French building with a grand flight of stairs flanked by traditional terracotta hand balusters. The staircase leads to the colonnaded portico with round masonry. It also had grand French windows with pillars in between. The sides of the building also had stairs since the building has a high plinth.

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             Across the road is Ashram Dining Hall, our next stop where one can enjoy simple, though bland  and nutritious meal. This massive kitchen-cum-dining-hall caters to over several thousand people every meal. If you stay in one of the Ashram guest houses, you could buy dining pass for about Rs.30. Breakfast is excellent with amazing spread of breads
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Ashram Dining Hall 
On the adjoining Rue Saint Louis stands the Raj Niwas, the residence of the Governor. It  was earlier a hotel meant especially for the members of the French East India Company and  the official residence of the French Governor Dupleix. One of the main attractions here is the monolithic pillars, brought from Gingee Fort after its capture in 1751. Another attraction is the water monument placed in the middle of a well-maintained garden, which is the monument of the reminiscence of the introduction of good drinking water scheme for the population.

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                                  Raj Niwas - The Official Residence of Governor

The Puducherry Museum is nearby on the adjoining St Louis Street. It is a colonial building built in garden villa architectural form, strewn with Pallava and Chola era sculptures, pottery excavated from the nearby ancient port town of Arikamedu, coins and bric-a-brac from the period gone by, a sedan chair and a pousse-pousse carriage. Especially fascinating is the ancient printing press from 1820, old books and journals that were published here. Museum is closed on Mondays and remains open between 9:40 am to 1 pm and 2:330 pm to 5 pm. Entry Fee - Adult Rs.2, Children - Rs. 1 
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                                  Pondicherry Museum 

The 300 years old temple of Mannakula Vinyangar stands on the MV Kovil Street south of the Aurobindo Ashram named after the deity. Dedicated to Ganesha, the elephant god. Worth watching is the decorated giant elephant outside the temple giving pat on head to the devotees who throng this temple in large numbers. The temple remains open from 6 in the morning till 12:30 and again in the afternoon from 4 to 9:30. 

At the intersection of MV Kovil Street and Rue Francais Martin is the iconic Aurobindo Ashram, set up by Sri Aurobindo and his companion 'the Mother' in 1926. Visitors throng the Ashram in large numbers every day to experience the calm near the samadhi of Sri Aurobindo and Maa. Since its establishment the Ashram has played a significant role in socio-spiritual-economic fabric of the town. 

Further up towards the promenade stands the French Consulate housed in an old mansion on Rue Saint Giles, a charming building with large windows on the upper corridor. 
Across the street is French Institute, which devotes itself to research in Indology, Ecology and social sciences. The building is notable for its entrance gate with pediment, arched staircases, arcades and windows.  
IFP en images : Façade during the  Golden Jubilee  (Feb 2005)


IFP en images : Internal courtyard

                      French Institute

At the junction of Rue De Pont and MV Kovil Street stands the Golconde. 

The Maison Colombani on the rue Dumas presents itself as a cultural center that affirms this association by hosting a number of artistic as well as cultural events from time to time. This white-washed structure comprises an art gallery and a multi-media center that hosts a number of concerts, exhibitions and dance events throughout the year. It also serves as a main center for contemporary art exhibition for local talents. Besides, the Cafe de Flore which spills out on its courtyard serves as a decent place for breakfast and lunch. This sea-front cultural center is bound to enthrall you with the plethora of events that takes place throughout the year.

With this I complete the walk of the French Quarters. Up next on day 2 is walk of the Tamil Quarters and visit to the famed restaurants / cafe and boutique of Puducherry.

But that is another day and another Walk!

Nearest airport and rail head - Chennai (140 kms), Taxis, buses available from Chennai. Journey from Chennai to Puducherry takes about 3 hours. The express buses takes 3 ½ hours to reach Puducherry. Preferably take the buses coming by the East Coast Road via Mahabalipuram, instead of the National Highway, as the ECR (East Coast Road) is far more scenic with shimmering sea to give you company most of the way
Best time to visit - December to March.  April to Nov is hot and rain lashes the region. Clouds are another delight in Puducherry. They pile over the sea in cumulus baroque billows and fronts with fine cirrus detailing. and often produce remarkable sunsets at both the western and eastern horizons. The Bay of Bengal is affected by the weather as well as by the moon. 
Watching the sea separate from the sky at the horizon in the morning and reunite with it at night recalls the way traditional Muslims determine the daily beginning and end of the fasting time when black and white threads held together in the morning can be distinguished from each other and in the evening when they cannot.

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