Puducherry – Tamil city with a French vibe

Puducherry (previously called Pondicherry)- a former French colony draws with the White Town- with lots of European buildings, churches and shops selling baguettes and croissants. Some areas in the old town are nicely renovated, peaceful and quiet. Most of Puducherry doesn’t differ from any other Indian city, though. It will keep you busy for one – two days at most, but the vicinity of Auroville makes it worth staying for at least two nights.

An old colonial building with wooden shutters painted yellow standing on a quiet street in Puducherry's White Town
A peaceful street corner in the White Town

We devoted our second day near Auroville to visiting the former French colony of Pondicherry. A bus from the main highway dropped us at the edge of the White Town.

Walk through Puducherry

Initially, I was unimpressed with Puducherry, having first walked all along Mission Street, right through the middle of the White Town. I imagined a colonial, pedicured town like in Malacca or Phuket, but instead, I saw yet another noisy, chaotic Indian city. The only thing that distinguished it was a French bakery here and there. Then, I stumbled across a massive Immaculate Conception Cathedral. Its wide, white facade had a very south-European style, making it look out of context there.

A white, baroque facade of the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Puducherry
Immaculate Conceptionn Cathedral

Then, we took Mahatma Gandhi Road to reach an even more impressive Sacred Heart Basilica. Inside, a sari-clad grandma walked on her knees towards the altar, raising her arms high up to the sky. Right next to the church, a group of school children in uniforms sat cross-legged on the ground and prayed loudly in unison. Devotees were leaving tiny flower petals in front of the statues of the saints- a faint remnant of Hindu pujas.

A woman in a sari covers her head before entering a tall, neo-gothic Sacred Heart Basilica in Puducherry
Sacred Heart Basilica

From there, it was a short walk to an elegant building of the train station with a robed female statue at the main entrance. Luscious plants obscured its yellow-and-white facade. 

A neo-classical Puducherry train station entrance with white-yellow columns and a white female statue in front
Puducherry train station

Once we reached Dumas street, we saw another interesting church – Our Lady of Angels. This 19th century neo-classical church was painted rather unconventionally in pink. Just next to it was a small graveyard with 18th and 19th century tombs of important French inhabitants of the city.

Little French graveyard next to Our Lady of Angels church

Grand and more modest colonial buildings lined two streets running parallel to the beach. Many of them were renovated and turned into hotels, restaurants, etc. The promenade beach wasn’t much of a beach. There was just a promenade along a narrow, rocky beachfront. As it didn’t have a shred of shadow, we just walked back towards where we got off from the bus.

A rocky shore and a promenade along it in Puducherry
Promenade Beach

We turned back into the French Qurter and at St Gilles St we stumbled upon a beautiful courtyard with a grand residence behind. It was the French Institute. A guard beckoned me in, convincing me to get a 100 rupee ticket to see some ancient statues and a ‘mini-museum upstairs’. As it turned out, it was a disproportionate price for this very modest exhibition. 

View from the front entrance of the French Institute onto the semi-circle courtyard with a palm tree and a front entrance
View from the front entrance of the French Institute onto the courtyard and front entrance

The promised viewing platform at the top floor didn’t offer much of a view. The museum was tiny and consisted just of a few boards with illustrations and description of the old Pondicherry. I noticed a TV hanging from a wall, smartly located in a place providing pleasant draft. I watched with interest a few short documentaries about various branches of research carried out by the institute’s multinational team. They did a good job, cataloguing the plant species of the remaining forests and preserving an impressive collection of ancient palm-leaf manuscripts.

A medley of wooden furniture and sculpture at the French Institute in Puducherry
Inside the French Institute

Sri Aurobindo’s ashram was nearby. Aurobindo, a famous early 20th- century guru and a freedom fighter chose Puducherry as his base. His utopian ideas were applied by his disciple, called Mother, in the construction of the ‘universal township’ in Auroville. I expected the ashram would have an exhibition or a visitor’s centre, like in Auroville. Instead, almost all areas were out of bounds for the visitors. There was a short queue of people waiting to touch the tombstones of Sri Aurobindo and Mother. The only activity available seemed to be buying books of or about the two revered figures. Unless you’re an Aurobindo follower, you can easily skip the ashram entirely.

PRACTICALITIES

How to get to Puducherry?
By plane
Puducherry has a small domestic airport. The only destinations are Banglore and Hyderabad.
By bus
You could travel by bus from Chennai – Koyembedu bus station (3.5 hours), or Mamallapuram (over 2h). Madurai is 8h away. You could get there by a public, state bus or a much more expensive private AC sleeper.
By train
Trains from Chennai take longer than buses. There is one train running from Bangalore (10h, overnight journey).

Prices [in Indian rupees as of February 2019]:
100 museum at the French Institute
100 lunch in Puducherry
30 fresh coconut
10 bus to Puducherry from Periyamudaliyar Chavadi (on the junction to Auroville)

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