The best day for a heritage walk – Sunday. Evening would be more pleasant, but our guide insisted on a morning session. Essentials – wide brimmed hat to shield from the sun and camera📸.
We were meeting our guide Mr. Ashok Panda in the lobby of the hotel Palais de Mahe in White town, also called the French Quarter of Pondicherry. He is Co-convenor at INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) and is a self-proclaimed urban planner.
The French quarter stands right next to the beach and separated from the rest of the city by a canal 👇, now dried up.
We started our walk from Rue Romain Rolland – a street running parallel to the Beach Road or the Rue Goubert. “The word Rue is French for street.” said our guide and “The white lettering on blue background is typical French.” If you are curious enough, you can read the plaques put up describing the contribution of these famous personalities to Pondicherry.
Pondicherry is the French interpretation of the Tamil word for Puducherry meaning “new settlement”. But French were not the first to arrive here. First to land were the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch and the Danes and then came the French; the French lost the port city to British and later got it back.
We stop in front of the hotel Dune de L’Orient and our guide walks in. Not used to walking into private buildings, we hesitate; “Come inside” says our guide. “This building is a prime example of how the old, dilapidated buildings in Pondicherry have been restored and now running successfully as commercial establishments.” There are photos on display showing the before near ruined state of this now pretty building. I guess the staff of hotels in Pondicherry are used to random groups of people wandering in and out clicking photographs.
The transformation is amazing. Rather than demolishing the old structure and build a new one, the owners have realised that recreating the old world charm with modern amenities is more lucrative and aesthetic. Typical of the French colonial buildings, the passage at the entrance opens to an open courtyard..“For ventilation, it’s hot weather for most of the year” says our guide. The rest of the rooms are around the courtyard. “During rainy season, won’t the water splash all over?” I ask, reminded of the heavy downpours during the monsoon in Kerala. “Rains are only during the winter months.” says our guide. He then points to the colonnaded portico around the courtyard – simply means a walkway surrounding the open courtyard with a roof structure supported by columns or arches, helps contain the rain water from splashing onto the main walls of the house.
The entire city is laid out in a grid like structure, the streets resembling latitudes and longitudes, meeting at right angles. The French quarter has a mix of houses, hotels, boutiques, cafes, government (French and Indian) buildings and public institutions. The buildings have high walls and elaborate gates. There are no large commercial or business establishments seen. They are located in the heart of the city.
Now we take the parallel Rue Dumas; the French quarter is colourful and green. The roads are narrow, empty being a Sunday; the houses are built wall to wall, the old buildings do not have a car park and all of them open directly to the road. “The population density is very low” says our guide “… if you have noticed, most of the buildings are G+2 structures.” And land cost is between Rs.15,000/- to Rs. 17,000/- per sqft. And accordingly pointing to an old abandoned distillery building he says “They are sitting on a gold mine of prime real estate.”
The buildings esp. since they are located close to the sea, require regular maintenance and hence it not enough that the old buildings be restored to their former glory. They have to generate income for their upkeep and hence most residents here, let out rooms to tourists or turn them to cafes or art galleries.
Unlike the British India, the French India had a different and complex story; the French stated that Indians could become French citizens if they gave up their caste and adopted a French family name; many chose to do so.
After India’s independence and when it was time for French to leave Pondicherry, the French citizens were given the option to choose their preference of nationality. All this choice led to some French citizens staying back in Pondicherry and while others migrated to France and then later decided to come back and settle down in Pondicherry.
And as a result, in 1962 even after the control of Pondicherry was given to India, the French influence continues to flourish. The French government funds institutions in Pondicherry like – Alliance Francaise and Ecole Francaise d’Extreme Orient (French School of the Far East) – buildings pointed out by Mr. Ashok on Rue Dumas👇.
The buildings are colourful, yellow, pink, white and in between you notice few buildings in a grey and white colour scheme – they are the colours of the Aurobindo Ashram.
Cannot help noticing the gates of these buildings; they provide good backdrops for photos.
We then proceed to the Beach Road or Rue Goubert and Mr. Ashok points to the old pier, washed away now only a few stumps remain above the water. Under the blazing sun, the beach road is deserted unlike the previous night.
“The government has also joined the restoration bandwagon” says our guide pointing to two building set opposite to each other. The first was the Lok Adalat, the old building in the compound was razed down and replaced by the new structure functional but lacking in any form of aesthetics.
Other the other side stands the newly restored government building, completely in white – the old district court is soon to be opened as a museum. A complete contrast to the Lok Adalat on the opposite side.
The benefits of Pondicherry remaining as a Union Territory and not giving into the pressures of joining the state of Tamil Nadu are many says our guide. Though politically, it is beneficial to become a State like Goa did. From an economic stand-point, it is beneficial to remain a Union Territory; Pondicherry receives it’s funding directly from the Central Government, whereas a State has to mobilise it’s own funds. Hence increased taxes are a norm in a State, as they are a prime source of revenue; Union Territories on the other hand enjoy lower taxes. He takes the example of the town of Cuddalore in Tamil Nadu; historically, it’s was more prominent that Pondicherry, but merged with the state of Tamil Nadu, it’s glorious past is almost forgotten.
Next we enter the beautiful church of Our lady of Angels, a Catholic church, unique in having the mass conducted in French, Tamil and English. We saw it illuminated in the night, but couldn’t make out much. Today we had a closer look; we were surprised to find statues of Mother Teresa and Joan of Arc.
Last and probably the most famous of the parallel roads – Rue Suffren, simply because it is the location of Cafe des Arts; the cafe’s yellow wall with black and white paintings figure prominently on Instagram photos and blogs.
We couldn’t get a table inside, so we needed up having juices from the nearby street stall; one-third the price and equally refreshing😋.
Pierre Andre de Suffren de Saint Tropez was a brilliant French Admiral who helped wrest back the control of Pondicherry from the British.
Next to Cafe des Arts is Cafe Hope, with Instagramaable walls 👇.
Mr. Ashok pointed out to an old French Hotel dating back to 1881, currently being renovated👇. And this completed the walk of the French quarters.
Half a day spent in photographing buildings😅. Our walk started at 9:00 am and ended by 11:00 am. For the private tour of 2 hours, we paid Rs. 2000/-. We covered only the French quarter – ideally to complete the heritage walk you should take the French quarter and the Tamil quarter walks; with a break in-between or on separate days.
The walk is not a crash course on the history of Pondicherry; but helped us to understand the French connection in Pondicherry, the way the things are and a brief insight about how things came to be. We got to know the place a bit more than the fact that erstwhile French colony is now a hotspot for Instagram photos and quaint overpriced eateries. Nevertheless, on the Sunday morning, on the practically empty streets there were many photoshoots in progress.
Till next post, take care➰🦋.
P.S. We missed the light house and seeing the plaque commemorating the once imposing Fort Louis built by the French on the beach front and destroyed by the British.