Wednesday, 15th July 2020

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

A la Recherche de Pondy Perdu

Posted on 12. Jul, 2011 by in Curious Travel

A la Recherche de Pondy Perdu

A visit to Pondicherry invokes a bit of France, and a lot of new India


As Bastille Day events go the reception was rather tepid – a lackluster speech from the French consul, a few plateaux of fromage and saucisson, and a distinct lack of either fireworks or the hearty singing of la Marseillaise.

But, like a singing dog, the interesting point is that this 14 Juillet event happened at all.

I was in the Indian town of Puducherry(the name was changed from the still-used Pondicherryin 2006), a settlement that was French until 1954, seven years after Indian independence, and which proudly flies its tricolore heritage, if not the flag itself.

My wife, who is French, wanted to visit Pondy, as the town is generally known, and I was excited to join her to this charming city on the far southeast corner of India, an easy three-hour drive south of Chennai.

We found a surprisingly tranquil small city of 220,000 featuring two distinct sections. Towards the west we reveled in the Tamil quarter which bustled with the pungent energy, colors and aromas of other south India towns, and to the east, on the seafront, we strolled through a French quarter which reminded me of Luang Prabang on Valium, a town with a beachfront promenade that felt vaguely North African, with street-name signs in Tamil and French (rue de la Caserne, rue Saint Thérèse) , a town evoking a vague air of Salvador de Bahia without the music, garish colors or sensual energy, a kinder, simpler version of a Mediterranean town that time forgot .

Most of the folks we had planned to meet were at the French National Day reception.

Vajoumouny Shankar, one of the three representatives to the Assemblée des Français de l’Etranger (Assembly of Overseas French) elected by the 20,000 French citizens who live in Pondy, explained that Pondy is a town with a revolving door history.

In  ancient times Pondy was home to an ancient Sanskrit university.  During the Roman period it was a trading outpost for far-ranging merchants dealing in dyed textiles, pottery and semi-precious stones. It was then occupied by various south Indian dynasties, and frequently visited by Arab traders.

The Portuguese, who established a factory in Pondy at the beginning of the 16th century, were expelled by the sultan of Gingee.  The tenacious Europeans didn’t give up. The Danes came and left, then the Dutch.  A subsequent ruler of Gingee encouraged the French to open a trading post in Pondy to offset the increasing influence of the Dutch in the region.  The glory days of Pondy began in 1674 when François Martin, the first French governor general, began the transformation of Pondy from a small fishing village into a flourishing port town.  Nevertheless, Pondy always remained a second-rank French colonial outpost. Saigon it wasn’t.

Pondy was then reclaimed by the Dutch, then the French, then taken over by the British, then reclaimed by the French, then lost again, and so on until 1954, when the French comptoirs in India were transferred to India.  Pondy, along with three other French towns of Karaikal, Yanam and Mahé, became aUnionTerritory (a fifth, Chandannagar, was integrated intoWest Bengal state).  This legal classification means Pondy has its own government but falls directly under the federal government inNew Delhi.  Francophiles are pleased that French remains the official language, although Tamil and English are more useful in getting around.  In a generous act, when theUnionTerritory was createdFrance offered French citizenship to thousands of people from Pondy.

While Pondy’s history might be confusing, there is considerable clarity about what needs to be done to preserve the town’s unusual architecture, which is under threat due to uncontrolled development.

“People here know about the importance of preserving the town’s architectural integrity”  notes Ashok Panda, coordinator of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach), which works to maintain Pondy’s heritage buildings.  “But we need a multi-stakeholder heritage committee to advise building owners on how they should renovate old properties.  And we need a heritage law that would punish owners who tear down listed buildings.”  An application for World Heritage status would be helpful but is further down the road, Panda added.

Panda took us on a walking tour following Pondy’s “Heritage Trail”. We strolled on clean, cobbled streets, and admired the elaborate kolam designs painted on the sidewalks with rice flour, created every morning by the residents of homes and shops — part offering, part simply for the pleasure of having something beautiful at their entrance.

As buildings go, the structures in Pondy are not dramatic – they lack the ornate wrought iron of, say,New Orleans, or the structural heft of public buildings inParis.  But they are charming, in an understated way, and many of the simple structures, often painted in a Mediterranean ochre, peach or burnt sienna tone and featuring large peaceful courtyards, have been torn down. Intach estimates that some 700 buildings, mostly in the Tamil section, have been lost.

Virtually all of these buildings date from the period after 1761, whenPondicherrywas destroyed by the British in retaliation for a French attack on Fort Saint George inMadras(now Chennai).

“There’s nothing to see here,” Ashok Panda said provocatively.  “Just a lot to experience.”

As we strolled past buildings with Gallic appellations like Foyer du Soldat (for French Army war veterans) and École Français d’Extrême Orient, Ashok Panda showed us some good restorations, with elaborate tall gates and expansive green courtyards, and some horrid renovations with circular external stairwells, faux-Grecian columns, and ornate decorations that only an Indian nouveau riche businessman could love.

The French continue to support serious academic research in Pondy.  In his book-lined office at l’Institut Français de Pondichéry, one of several French academic institutions in town, Laurent Pordié organizes one of the world’s largest research projects examining the social aspects of medicine.

His study is one of several ambitious academic efforts at the institute. Some others: on-going investigations into Sanskrit and Tamil languages, sociological aspects of HIV transmission, dynamics of Indian megalopolises, social management of water, and the biodiversity of the Western Ghats mountain range.

I had first come into contact with Pordié after he won a Rolex Award forEnterprisefor his work with the traditional doctors of Ladakh, in northernIndia- he spent five winters in an isolated Ladakhi mountain village.  When we met him, Pordié exhibited admirable energy for a relatively laid-back town like Pondy.  After the French National Day reception he excused himself to return to his office.  “Got to finish a paper.”

“Pondy’s a a place for “inspirational tourism”, said Lalit Verma, CEO of Aurodhan Heritage Guest House and the Aurodhan Gallery, a center for contemporary art.  Lalit Verma, a large, welcoming man who, with his wife Shernaz, form one of the epicenters of Pondy’s cultural life, added “People who come here should take the time to find themselves.”

Lalit Verma was referring to two institutions which have given the town a spiritual flavor — Pondy’s Sri Aurobindo ashram, and Auroville, a community some ten kilometers away which is home to some 1,900 people from 40 countries.  Both institutions were established by early 20th century guru Sri Aurobindo, a leader of the Indian independence movement (Gandhi cited Sri Aurobindo as one of his mentors), and Sri Aurobindo’s French spiritual companion Mirra Alfassa, generally referred to as the Mother.  Auroville runs a highly-regarded international school – Lalit and Shernaz, both from distant parts ofIndia, were sent to school there; their teenage son also attends the school.  The influence of the ashram and Auroville on Pondy’s personality is very Indian – it is impossible, and not particularly desired, to separate a community’s spiritual activities from the secular — and the ashram is involved in numerous business ventures and social welfare activities while adding a spiritual core to the town, complementing numerous Hindu temples (some 420 of them, including a well-known shrine much favored by transsexuals) and Christian churches.

Some 850,000 tourists visited Pondy in 2007, more than 90% of them Indian, and tourist numbers are increasing by more than 20% a year, according to S. Subramanian of the Puducherry Directorate of Tourism.

We stayed at the renovated Hotel de l’Orient, one of several hotels built in renovated private homes. “It’s one of our first restoration success stories,” Ashok Panda noted.  “It was in terrible condition; most people would have torn it down.”  The 16-room hotel used to be the colonial mansion of Ananda Rangapillai, the right hand man of 18th century French governor general Joseph François Dupleix.  It was used by the Department of Education — the sign Instruction Publique can be seen above the entrance

This is a fine town for intellectuals, notes Raj de Condappa, who runs Editions Kailash which publishes an eclectic list of French-language, Asian-themed books.  One hot afternoon he took us to his relaxed seaside hotel, the Kailash Beach Hotel, 15 minutes to the south.

First he showed us around the airy new buildings that house the foundation he set up to support the local community — among other projects they produce fine embroidery and the arresting silkscreen images on handmade paper that de  Condappa uses as the covers of his books. We then walked a few steps to the seafront hotel, decorated, as most things in Pondy seem to be, with tasteful wooden antique furniture, Indian etchings and maps, terracotta statues and flowers.  This is a place of fragrant blooms — garish orange marigolds, sturdy plumeria, heady frangipani which caress the evening with the aroma of the tropics.  Tamils are known throughout India as being seriously into Flower Power – in one oft-quoted Tamil ode the poet names 99 different kinds of flowers, each having mystical significance.

We spent hours rummaging through the town’s antique shops.  I have a particular interest in unusual figures of Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed god who is venerated in the Hindu belief system.  In the Art Colony shop I found a terra cotta statue of Parvati holding her son, the baby Ganesha.  The posture of mother and child reminded me of  Michaelangelo’s Pieta; I thought there was something appropriate about buying a quintessential Indian religious image in the heart of the old French quarter.

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