First impressions of PUDUCHERRY (Pondicherry, also often referred to simply as Pondy), the former capital of French India, can be unpromising. Instead of the leafy boulevards and pétanque pitches you might expect, its messy outer suburbs and bus stand are as cluttered and chaotic as any typical Tamil town. Closer to the seafront, however, the atmosphere grows tangibly more Gallic, as the bazaars give way to rows of houses whose shuttered windows and colourwashed facades wouldn’t look out of place in Montpellier. For anyone familiar with the British colonial imprint, the town can induce culture shock to see richly ornamented Catholic churches, French road names and policemen in De Gaulle-style képis, and boules played in the dusty squares. Many of the seafront buildings were damaged by the 2004 tsunami, but Puducherry’s tourist infrastructure remained intact.
Known to Greek and Roman geographers as “Poduke”, Puducherry was an important staging post on the second-century maritime trade route between Rome and the Far East. When the Roman Empire declined, the Pallavas and Cholas took control and were followed by a succession of colonial powers, from the Portuguese in the sixteenth century to the French, Danes and British, who exchanged the enclave several times after the various battles and treaties of the Carnatic Wars in the early eighteenth century. Puducherry’s heyday, however, dates from the arrival of the French governor Joseph Dupleix, who accepted the governorship in 1742 and immediately set about rebuilding a town decimated by its former British occupants. It was he who instituted the street plan of a central grid encircled by a broad oblong boulevard, bisected north to south by a canal dividing the “Ville Blanche”, to the east, from the “Ville Noire”, to the west.
Although relinquished by the French in 1954 – when the town became the headquarters of the Union Territory of Pondicherry, administering the three other former colonial enclaves scattered across south India – Puducherry’s split personality still prevails. West of the canal stretches a bustling Indian market town, while to the east, towards the sea, the streets are emptier, cleaner and decidedly European. The seaside promenade, Goubert Salai (formerly Beach Road), has the forlorn look of an out-of-season French resort, complete with its own white Hôtel de Ville. Many visitors are grave Europeans in white Indian costume, busy about their spiritual quest. It was here that Sri Aurobindo Ghose (1872–1950), a leading figure in the freedom struggle in Bengal, was given shelter after it became unwise to live close to the British in Calcutta. His ashram attracts thousands of devotees from all around the world, most particularly from Bengal.
Ten kilometres north, the Utopian experiment-in-living Auroville was inspired by Aurobindo’s disciple, the charismatic Mirra Alfassa, a Parisian painter, musician and mystic better known as “The Mother”. Today this slightly surreal place is populated by numbers of expats and visited by long-stay Europeans eager to find inner peace.
Puducherry’s beachside promenade, Goubert Salai, is a favourite place for a stroll, though there’s little to do other than watch the world go by. The Hôtel de Ville, today housing the Municipal Offices building, is still an impressive spectacle, and a 4m-tall Gandhi memorial, surrounded by ancient columns, dominates the northern end. Nearby, a French memorial commemorates French Indians who lost their lives in World War I.
Just north of the Hôtel de Ville, a couple of streets back from the promenade, is the leafy old French-provincial-style square now named Government Place. On the north side, the impressive, gleaming white Raj Nivas, official home to the present lieutenant-governor of Puducherry Territory, was built late in the eighteenth century for Joseph Francis Dupleix.
The Pondicherry Government Museum is on Ranga Pillai Street, opposite Government Place. The archeological collection includes Neolithic and 2000-year-old remains from Arikamedu, a few Pallava (sixth- to eighth-century) and Buddhist (tenth-century) stone sculptures, bronzes, weapons and paintings. Alongside are a bizarre assembly of French salon furniture and bric-à-brac from local houses, including a velvet S-shaped “conversation seat”.
The Sri Aurobindo Ashram, a few blocks north on Rue de la Marine, is one of the best-known and wealthiest ashrams in India. Founded in 1926 by the Bengali philosopher-guru, Aurobindo Ghosh, and his chief disciple, personal manager and mouthpiece “The Mother”, it serves as the headquarters of the Sri Aurobindo Society, or SAS. Today the SAS owns most of the valuable property and real estate in Puducherry, and wields what many consider to be a disproportionate influence over the town. The samadhi, or mausoleum, of Sri Aurobindo and “The Mother” is covered daily with flowers and usually surrounded by supplicating devotees with their hands and heads placed on the tomb. Inside the main building, an incongruous and very bourgeois-looking Western-style room, complete with three-piece suite and Persian carpet, is where “The Mother” and Sri Aurobindo chilled out. The adjacent bookshop sells a range of literature and tracts, while the building opposite hosts frequent cultural programmes.
In the southwest of town, near the railway station, you can hardly miss the huge cream-and-brown Sacred Heart of Jesus, one of Puducherry’s finest Catholic churches, built by French missionaries in the 1700s. Nearby, the shady Botanical Gardens, established in 1826, offer many quiet paths to wander. The French planted nine hunderd species here, experimenting to see how they would do in Indian conditions; one mahogany tree, the Khaya senegalensis, has grown to a height of 25m. You can also see an extraordinary fossilized tree, found about 25km away in Tiravakarai. The aquarium inside the gardens (Rs5) is uninspiring.
The most New Age place anywhere in India must surely be AUROVILLE, the planned “City of Dawn”, 10km north of Puducherry, straddling the border of the Union Territory and Tamil Nadu. Founded in 1968, Auroville was inspired by “The Mother”, the spiritual successor of Sri Aurobindo. Around 1700 people live in communes (two-thirds of them non-Indians), with such names as Fertile, Certitude, Sincerity, Revelation and Transformation, in what it is hoped will eventually be an ideal city for a population of fifty thousand. Architecturally experimental buildings, combining modern Western and traditional Indian elements, are set in a rural landscape of narrow lanes, deep red earth and lush greenery. Income is derived from agriculture, handicrafts, alternative technology, educational and development projects and Aurolec, a computer software company.
Considering how little there is to see here, Auroville attracts a disproportionately large number of day-trippers – much to the chagrin of its inhabitants, who rightly point out that you can only get a sense of what the settlement is all about if you stay a while. Interested visitors are welcomed as paying guests in most of the communes, where you can work alongside permanent residents.
Begun in 1970, the space-age Matri Mandir – a gigantic, almost spherical hi-tech meditation centre at the heart of the site – was conceived as “a symbol of the Divine’s answer to man’s inspiration for perfection”. Earth from 124 countries was symbolically placed in an urn, and is kept in a concrete cone in the amphitheatre adjacent to Matri Mandir, from where a speaker can address an audience of three thousand without amplification. The focal point of the interior of the Matri Mandir is a seventy-centimetre crystal ball symbolizing the neutral but divine qualities of light and space. for visiting arrangements.