Weekend in Puducherry: East meets west

1 May 2016 by Neha Gupta Kapoor

If one were to get an aerial view of Puducherry, there would be a visible split in its personality divided between the French and the Tamil quarters. The former is organised in pastel coloured buildings neatly lined along the promenades, cobblestone pathways, and the beach. Signboards label streets that are dotted with potted plants and nurtured trees arranged artistically. Summer dresses, straw hats and cotton shirts walk the tiled footpaths, not interrupting speeding motorists on pothole-free roads. 

Cross a tiny bridge over an almost dry, rancid canal, and you stand before a scene of honking four- and two-wheelers, tottering handcarts, and voluptuous sari-clad bodies and traditional dhotis who brave the confused traffic. Decade old trees have grown in no particular order and haphazardly stand in the way in most people and through some temples. Footpaths if any have almost merged with the bumpy roads. It is as though a curtain has been lifted from an orderly act. Welcome to the Tamil quarters where everyone is inured to the mayhem that is now an intrinsic characteristic of their existence. 

Temple-goers add to the hullabaloo at sunset, ambling at a pace that won’t imbalance their trays of many religious items. Arulmigu Manakula Vinayagar Temple is the most revered, so I was told. Visiting at sunrise is a good idea for it gets painfully crowded in the evenings. Vibrant dyes are coated neatly on cement carvings, just as the other temples in this region are. As a symbol of Lord Ganesh who is worshipped here, a tamed elephant is tethered outside the temple. It is much sought for blessings before entering the holy gates.

This is where the “India” in Puducherry is still alive. Peep into then homes there and you will see a quintessentially laid-out Tamil Nadu abode. It is respectful to remove your shoes outside the house, wash your feet, then enter the home through a second door. The neighbourhood priest tells me, “We share our homes with God. All of us have many statues of the almighty. So how can you wear your shoes in His house?” He goes on to explain, “When you enter the main door to the house, you wash your feet at a tap especially fixed for the purpose. This is the washing area. Only then can you enter the main home through the second door.” 

As I started making my way back to the French quarters that evening, I couldn’t resist a peep to check how many houses followed this wash-and-enter ritual; all of them from what I saw. And in addition to this, I even saw children practising classical dance to ragas recited by their guru in most homes. It is common to be enrolled in traditional dance classes from a young age in South India. This part of India is perhaps most connected to its cultural roots in comparison to the other zones. 

In spite of the stark difference in personalities of the French and Tamil quarters, there is no emotional divide between them. The Union Territory got independence from the French in 1954, much after India got hers. A small part of Puducherry remained “French-like” and the remaining continued as the Tamilians they always were. 

One morning we got a taste of France, and literally as we headed to the very red-coloured Baker Street (baker-street.co.in) for a truly French breakfast. This one is in the very interiors of the French quarters, and the walk only got our appetites raging. The cosy interior of Baker Street was welcoming, but it had nothing on the spread we saw before us. 

Behind a glass counter are baked items — sweet and cheesy —and fresh breads, sandwiches, puddings, coffees, and milkshakes that can spoil for choice. Just about everything from the kingly feast ordered between my companion and me was a perfect ten. But if you must ask for recommendations, end with the chocolate twisters and start with the spinach quiche or the salami pita pocket. 

Satiated to the level of bliss, we decided to leg it back. In fact, if you’re fit and can do an easy three-hour stroll, it’s easy to enjoy most of the French Quarters on foot. This isn’t possible in the summer as the heat then is known to burn badly. However, a walk or a bicycle ride in the winter afternoons through lanes of the French quarters gives the feeling of being in Europe. Bougainvilleas rest on fencing walls, within which are charming cafes with antique, quirky or eclectic furniture. Each one is designed as a cosy nook for a quiet meal. 

Surprisingly, only a handful of visit-worthy hotels/restaurants overlook the Promenade Beach, accessible through the French quarters. One among them is The Promenade (thepromenadepondicherry.com), a five-star hotel by Hidesign. If you climb up to its rooftop bar, you can enjoy an uninterrupted view of the beach, the sea and the old (obsolete) lighthouse. It’s not in use, but serves as an iconic landmark for reasons unknown. One can only guess because it is the only one in the area. 

There is nothing like fresh sea-breeze. If you haven’t had enough of it, and one never usually does, at the rooftop bar by the time it is ready to close, you always have the option of the the 24-hours Le Cafe (Beach Road, Near Gandhi Statue, White Town, Puducherry; tel: +91 0413 2334949), closer to the waters and along the beach. It’s far from fancy with basic plastic tables and chairs under a wooden roof or wooden benches by a wall where the waves break, but lovely for its tranquility nonetheless. Try the cold coffee with a chicken burger for a quiet treat by the sea. 

And if you’re looking for even more solitude, not far from here is Sri Aurobindo Ashram (about a 12-minute walk, aurosociety.org). Calcutta-born revolutionist, philosopher and spiritual leader, after studying in London, joined a political party, challenged the British Raj through his newspaper, and finally sought spirituality in Puducherry. The ashram has been in existence since 1926 where many seek solace in visiting his shrine. 

Before you enter the bluish-grey and white building, you’re asked to wash your feet under taps on the opposite side of the road, and leave your slippers with the guard. Inside is a high island dressed in flowers, most offered by devotees. Some coordinate their visit with meditation sessions. They have followers who live there permanently as well. They’re friendly enough to share with you anything you would want to know about the revered philosopher. 

About 8km away is a larger ode to Aurobindo. Auroville or “The City of Dawn”, is a township of sorts established by one of Aurobindo’s disciples. A large metallic golden orb or meditation centre symbolises “the Divine’s answer to man’s aspiration for perfection”. On February 28 Auroville followers gather silently in the amphitheatre to celebrate Aurobindo’s birthday with a pre-dawn bonfire — a sight worth witnessing if in the vicinity. auroville.org 

On the other side of the bridge, on the Tamilian side, is the Botanical Garden (Near New Bus Stand, Old Tamil town, Puducherry) in the Tamil quarters. You may want to jump into an auto to get here. Built 190 years ago by a French officer, it lacks perfect manicures from the local government. Nonetheless, whatever little maintenance is enough for a decent picnic in the early evenings. This is perhaps one of the very few naturally cooler places in Puducherry. 

Sultry is the best description of Puducherry’s weather. Summer temperatures from April to June can hit 40 degrees Celsius, and winters, November to March, don’t go below 26 degrees Celsius. In the remaining months, humidity is the highest due to the monsoon winds. Its geographical location and flat topography make it the target of direct sun rays. 

Puducherry is about 181km south of Chennai the capital of Tamil Nadu, on the south-east coast of India and accessible only by rail or road. It has an airport, which has been dormant since 2014 due to low passenger traffic. In any case, the drive from Puducherry is beautiful. 

As you set out from Puducherry on the toll-free old roads, the three-hour drive begins with sights of prawn farmers on chairs in shallow waters with nets spread out, roadside coconut-water stalls, and tall tropical trees. These passing views, as the younger generation would term them, are definitely “Instagram worthy frames”. 

Soon they fade out into acres of arable land and ancient temples. En route are also the famous Mahabalipuram ruins that you can spot from a distance as you pass through the town, popular for MICE outings. 

Until recently Puducherry was just a getaway for those in Tamil Nadu. A few who knew it as a place where time stopped, travelled the extra miles to unwind. Its small population of about three lakh people, gives the country close to a lakh of active fishermen. The remaining in the region are agricultural workers, tour guides, souvenir vendors, restaurateurs, and hoteliers amongst other professions. Many are migrants who fell in love at first visit and have never looked back. 

Though it is rich in culture, with recommended museums and historic tales learnt on walks with Ashok Panda from the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (intachPuducherry.org), Puducherry is really visited to breathe in its clean sunny air, feel the warm sand and salty sea breeze, live the chaos of the Tamil quarters, taste lingering European flavours and cycle on shaded lanes of the French quarters. 

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