Strolling down Puducherryâ€™s sun-dappled boulevards, we could imbibe its old-world charm Myriad signs of its French colonial heritage are discernible in its neatly spaced out, geometrically parallel streets, richly ornamented Catholic churches, policemen in distinctive French caps, and elegant mansions with colonnaded balconies and high garden walls adorned with elaborate archways overflowing with bright bougainvillea.
Indeed, with its seafront promenade, enduring pockets of French culture and architecture, and even statues of the saint Joan of Arc and former Governor General Joseph Francois Dupleix, the quaint former French outpost exudes an inimitable aura of Gallic chic juxtaposed with Indian spiritual serenity. Streets with French names like Rue des Bassyins de Richemont, Rue St Louis and Rue Brellecombe, run alongside Muthumariamman Koil Street, Chettiar Street or for that matter, Sri Aurobindo Street.
There is much more to Puducherry than what is generally perceived. It has history and heritage, beaches and backwaters, and above all, the peace and serenity of a popular ashram. There is plenty to do and see in this delightful destination. Armed with a map in hand, we ambled around to experience the spirit and soul of the town. We embarked on our Heritage Walk from Goubert Salai (Beach Road), the windswept seafront promenade. We paused along the street to have a look at the Gandhi Memorial, with a statue of the Mahatma surrounded by an arc of eight lofty granite columns, said to have been brought from Gingee. Nearby is the War Memorial in honour of those who died in the First World War. The old lighthouse, built in 1836, and the Customs Office are reminiscent of ancient maritime glory. Sipping coffee in the renovated Le CafÃ© (the old Harbour Office), we watched the world pass by.
The leafy Government Park lies on an axis with the Memorial. Its tree-lined paths fan out from the Aayee Mandapam, a central pavilion with pedimented facades crowned by an urn. We saw local people lolling under its dome for a respite from the scorching noon heat. The north side of the park is occupied by the gleaming white Raj Nivas, built on the site of Dupleixâ€™s residence, where the Ceremonial Bugle Parade changes guards every evening at 6 pm sharp.
The former Government Library, opposite Raj Nivas, is now the Puducherry Museum, where we stopped by to have a peek at the stone and metal sculptures from the Pallava and Chola periods, as well as arts, crafts, arms, even small shells and the remarkable collection of artefacts recovered from excavations at Arikamedu. The French gallery charts the history of the colony, including an antique grandfather clock and the four-poster bed used by Dupleix. Also on display are bric-a-bracs from local houses. The museum is an adjunct to the Romain Rolland Library in Puducherry.
Wandering around the French Quarter, we stumbled upon some children playing the traditional French game of petanque. The French presence is also palpable in the several Catholic places of worship that dot the city. The crimson-and-white Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ Church on South Boulevard, is striking with its Gothic spires and stained-glass windows on the sides. The Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception has an imposing faÃ§ade with columns. Besides churches, there are temples built by the Chola kings between the 10th and 12th centuries. At the Manakula Vinayagar Temple, on Rue dâ€™Orleans, we saw devotees seeking divine blessings for their new ventures.
On the second day, we zipped off on a hired scooter to Chunnambar, 8 km from the town, along the Cuddalore Main Road, and the breath-taking backwater front. At Chunnambar lies a stretch of tropical paradise, flanked by a quiet-flowing creek on one side, known for boating and other recreational facilities. A boat ferried us down the charming Chunnambar river up to Paradise Beach, a giant sandbar between the river and the sea.
The ferry to Paradise Beach
From there we embarked on a Roman treasure trail to the archaeological Arikamedu, located on the south bank of a lagoon formed by the Ariyankuppam river. Excavations revealed traces of a port that flourished in 1-2 AD, and suggestions of early Roman settlements in the region. Roman artefacts were discovered here, many of which we saw in the Puducherry Museum. Pottering around, all we could discover were some architectural remains, which included vestiges of brick structures, possible warehouses and a courtyard.
The next day, we ambled down the streets of Vysial Street, a popular Franco-Tamil architecture streetscape beyond the Grand Canal in the Tamil Quarter of Puducherry. Some houses sport a fusion of the French architectural style and Tamil heritage living. A synthesis of two varying styles is evident, especially in the case of two-storeyed Tamil buildings where the ground floor is usually of the Tamil type with thinnai (masonry bench for visitors and pilgrims), thalavaram (street verandah) and carved doors, while the first floor displays French influence. Seated in their â€˜thinnaisâ€™, some of the residents were chatting away to their neighbours and recapitulating the dayâ€™s events, and their favourite topics from politics to cinema.
Vestiges of early Roman settlements in Arikamedu
We spent the evening hours in blissful quietude at the marble samadhi that entombs the mortal remains of Aurobindo and the Mother in the Aurobindo Ashram, which gives it a serene, reverential aura. We meditated at the flower-festooned Samadhi under the frangipani tree in the central courtyard.
A dust tract led us to Auroville, a voluntary commune about 10 km northwest of Puducherry, where individuals from more than 30 nations live. A huge banyan tree holds court on the approach to the Matrimandir, the soul of Auroville. The golden dome-like structure is dedicated to the universal Mother. Its universality is symbolized by an urn in its amphitheatre, which contains earth from 124 countries and all the states of India. As we sat in the meditation chamber lined with white marble and a luminescent crystal ball centrally placed, we savoured the silence and meditative calm of the place sans any idol, jostling, pushing and incantation by loud voiced priests.
A 'thinnai' and 'thalavaram' outside a house in Puducherry
Susheela Nair is an independent food, travel and lifestyle writer and photographer contributing articles, content and images to several national publications besides organising seminars and photo exhibitions. Her writings span a wide spectrum which also includes travel portals and guide books, brochures and coffee table books. All pictures by Susheela Nair.