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 with it’s 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. 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 for him to live close to the British in Calcutta. His ashram attracts thousands of devotees from all around the world, most particularly from Bengal.