Give Pondicherry a high five!
1. Check into a renovated Tamil-Franco villa homestay. Pondicherry’s Tamil and French quarters are separated by the Grand Canal, running north to south. Most of the houses in the Tamil quarter still retain their heritage essence, with an external façade built around a veranda and sheltered by a roof over wooden posts. Inside these houses you can find a central courtyard, used erstwhile as a common family space, flanked by wooden pillars and rooms. It is interesting to note that while in some of two-storied houses the ground floor is usually Tamil in layout (with a veranda, pillared courtyard etc.), the architecture on the first floor has distinct French influences (with arched windows, et al).
Anantha Heritage is a six-room heritage homestay located on Rue Perumal Koil. (‘Rue’ is the French translation for ‘street’!) It is highly recommended for its friendly staff, crispy dosa breakfasts on a sunny verandah, views of the temple reservoir and a delightful collection of colourful Pondicherry clay dolls.
Maison Perumal is another restored Tamil-Franco homestay on Rue Perumal Koil with ten rooms available for stay.
Much like the architecture, the street life in the Tamil and French quarters is in sharp contrast. Unlike the quiet French quarter, the streets of Tamil quarter are more lively, noisy and buzzing with people at all hours. You may run into girls waiting for a dance rehearsal, women decorating their porches with rangoli motifs, morning walkers discussing politics over filter coffee or even a rambunctious wedding procession.
2. Jump right into the roller coaster ride across the old worldly Goubert Market. Named after Édouard Goubert, the first Chief Minister of Pondicherry, this market next to M.G. Road is no less fascinating than the Diagon Alleys of the non-muggle world as you navigate from one lane to another. You can saunter in from one of the many entrances of the closed market and find yourself in the midst of fervent haggling and the myriad colours of a Sunday vegetable market. Take a turn and you will run into fragrant strains wafting in from the stalls of the flower sellers. The general provisions section is perhaps the quietest corner of the market. As you walk down this alley, a din (distant to start with) grows more and more strident with each step – till the strong pungent smell and cacophony of the fish market hits you. About a hundred odd local women, screaming at their shrillest, try and cajole people to choose from an assortment of fish, prawns, crabs et al.
3. Saunter into the Le Café on the sea facing Goubert Avenue. Run by the Pondicherry Tourism Development Corporation, the café is open 24 hours and is perfect for spending a quiet noon soaking in the balmy breeze and sipping on a refreshing glass of hibiscus soda. Once Pondicherry’s harbour office, this is one of the oldest buildings in Pondicherry to feature on the 1793 town map. Service is relaxed (Ok, its slow if you will!) but the vibe and history of this place more than makes up for the long waiting time. This is not a pit stop, it is an experience as you sit back and gaze at the waves crashing against the jagged breakers, the eager hawkers urging the crowd on Promenade beach to pick up trinkets and a coterie of fishermen heading out on their job on a ferry to the deeper waters of the Bay of Bengal.
4. Head to Auroboutique on Jawaharlal Nehru Street to stock up on agarbattis (incense sticks). Run by the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, the shop sells local products including handmade paper lamps, scented candles and essential oils. The agarbattis come in a variety of sizes and fragrances – lemon, jasmine, sandal, rose, cinnamon, vanilla – the choice is eclectic!
5. Explore the neat brick paved lanes and cheery bougainvillea avenues of the French quarter. The heritage walk offered by Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) is highly recommended as you discover many unknown facets of the town. INTACH has been involved in conservation and restoration of many heritage buildings as well as design of any new buildings to ensure the new facades blend in with the old. Mostly residential, the French quarter is home to many natives who migrated to France around 1954 when the French relinquished control and have now returned after successful careers to lead a quiet retired life. In fact, the French government still owns and runs institutions in Pondicherry including the ‘Lycée Français de Pondichery’, the oldest French school in Asia.
To book a heritage walk, get in touch with INTACH at +914132225991 or +914132227324.
The French quarter also offers a variety of options from stay – but a stay in a heritage hotel is strongly recommended. ‘Du Parc’ on JN Street (opposite Auroboutique), ‘Palias de Mahe’ on Rue de Bussy and ‘Gratitude’ on Rue Romain Rolland are good options for you to choose from! For a lazy lunch or dinner under mango trees in a colonial house, ‘Le Maison Rose’ on Rue Romain Rolland is a delectable choice.