Pondicherry, which has often been called ‘The French Riviera of the East’, lies about 150 kilometers from Chennai; the capital of neighboring Tamil Nadu.
The French dreams of an empire in India began and ended in Pondicherry. The French first set foot here in 1670. But like a ping pong game, Pondicherry changed hands between the British and the French. It was only after a fierce battle in 1815, that the French got back Pondicherry for good. Pondicherry became part of India only after the French had left it in 1954 for good.
I packed my bags and headed to Pondicherry early this month. To get to Pondicherry from Chennai, by road, you should hit the East Coast Road (ECR). It took me less than three hours by car to reach Pondicherry from Chennai.
To truly experience the spirit of Pondicherry, it is imperative that you take a stroll through its quaint streets. I set off on the Pondicherry Heritage Walk, a guided tour which is organized by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH).
Pondicherry, which lies along the Bay of Bengal, is actually split into two distinct parts – the French quarter and the Tamil quarter. On the Pondicherry Heritage Walk you are taken through the French part of Pondicherry. I got to see how the French touch still lingers on in Pondicherry. From the colourful French villas tucked away in the bougainvillea-lined streets that still retain their French names, down to the policemen wearing kepi; the bright red French-style cap with a flat circular top.
Among the many buildings there, the one that stands tall is the 27-meters high lighthouse. The latter was built by the French in 1836 to guide ships coming into Pondicherry.
The following day, I paid a visit to the French War Memorial, the elegant monument that was built to commemorate the soldiers who had lost their lives in World War I. The French War Memorial is beautifully illuminated every year on the 14th of July when the whole of France celebrates Bastille Day to commemorate the storming of the Bastille fortress on 14th July, 1789.
The people of Pondicherry – it’s quite common to find them switch between French and Tamil in a conversation – are quite proud of their cultural heritage. They will tell you that while the British looted India, Pondicherry actually flourished under the French. I was taken by surprise, when somebody told me, that about 20% of the one million population of Pondicherry hold French passports.
Later that afternoon, I tried out the delectable French cuisine dished out by one of the restaurants in Pondicherry.
Cricket happens to be India’s most popular sport, but in Pondicherry the enthusiasm for Petanque, a game that originated in the south of France in 1907 almost equals that of cricket. Later that evening, I came across a small group playing Petanque on the promenade that lies along the Bay of Bengal.
While I was in Pondicherry, I almost forgot that I was in India…
The climate of Pondicherry is generally warm and humid for most part of the year. The proximity to the Bay of Bengal brings in a cool breeze in the evenings. The best time to visit Pondicherry is from November to February when the weather is most pleasant.
- Sanjay Sivadas
Photos Courtesy of Pondicherry Tourism