Unlike the rest of India, Pondicherry seems to boast its heritage rather than “modernize” into a town of boxy buildings. It was ruled by the French from the 17th century to 1952, and briefly by the Dutch and the British. The town has always given its old-world beauty a decidedly ultra-modern touch. Its official name Puducherry itself explains how the town negotiates the past. Originally known as Puducherry, a Tamil port, it was named Pondicherry by the French, a name with which it is still fondly referred to.
Best Explored by Foot
In the past few years, Puducherry has changed from a sleepy small town to a vibrant tourist hub and is now dotted with dashing hotels, boutiques, and cafés. Yet it is still a place with so much unveiled. It is only when you amble through its hushed streets that you uncover the languid mood that defines the town and the little things that form its soul: forgotten villas, yellowed statues, and shady parks. Pondicherry is best explored on foot or by cycle. A canal broadly divides the town into two parts—the French and Tamil Quarters—with compact layouts. This is also the most visible legacy of the French rule, during which Pondy was divided into the beach-facing white town for the rulers and the black town for the ruled. A must-explore by foot is the sea-facing promenade that runs parallel to Goubert Avenue. The 1.5 kilometer stretch of the promenade is a miniature version of Mumbai’s Marine Drive. This is where its residents gather every evening to catch the sea breeze. At dusk, it’s buzzing with vendors, people on evening walks, and tourists chatting and loafing.
The other side of the avenue is lined with a row of heritage structures and scattered statues that let soak in history. The place is also traffic-free and pedestrian-friendly between 6 pm and 7.30 am every day. Alliance Française is the most convenient starting point for a stroll in the French cultural center. Located inside a white villa on the southern edge of the promenade, it faces the sea from one end and the French Quarter on the other. It houses a gorgeous garden restaurant, Le Café de Flore, and is bustling with regular film screenings, exhibitions, and cultural programs. Behind Alliance Française, the tree-lined boulevards of the French Quarter are lined with classical European style pastel and ochre-colored buildings. A few feet away is the Cluny Embroidery Centre— inside this 18th-century mansion, women are busy with needlework— a charitable initiative by the Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny. Some of the surrounding edifices have been revamped into chic heritage hotels, among them are Hotel de Pondicherry and Hotel de l’Orient. Further on, the avenue is dotted with more colonial structures-turned-offices, such as the French Consulate General and the Secretariat. Le Café, located in the middle of the promenade, is an excellent stop for a filter coffee. It occupies what used to be a customs house and later, port office for Puducherry’s harbor, and offers unparalleled views of the sea.
Diagonally opposite the First World War memorial, a few steps on, a larger-than-life statue of Gandhi occupies center-stage on the promenade, surrounded by antique pillars brought from the ancient seaport of Arikamedu. Opposite the Gandhi memorial, Bharathi Park is a green oasis surrounded by offices and prominent landmarks such as the Raj Niwas and the Legislative Assembly. Once a parade ground, it is now a popular spot for an afternoon siesta. It also encloses the striking white monument: Ayi Mandapam.
Puducherry’s other fame is the grey-and-white building of the Aurobindo Ashram. The Ashram is quiet and reverential. Auroville, the pleasant utopian, self-contained township is a short drive away. In sharp contrast to the pristine order of the Ashram, the Manakula Vinayagar Temple across the road is colorful and chaotic. The only temple in the French Quarter is dedicated to Lord Ganesha and built-in Dravidian architectural style featuring a towering gopuram embellished with rich carvings.
From here, you can walk down to the Tamil Quarter, originally constructed around a nucleus of shrines. This part of the town has a contrasting architectural style, demonstrated in restored Tamil mansions like Hotel La Maison Tamoule and the house of Anand Rangapillai. The design elements are unique, for example, semi-public street verandahs for guests and a central courtyard with grand columns. Not too far away, is Jawaharlal Nehru Street—the town’s main shopping spot. This is where you’ll find a lot of crowds, many small boutiques, and the Hidesign flagship store that stocks the latest range of their products sourced from the company’s main factory.
Puducherry has found a delicate balance between its past and the present and is a stunning example of an old town reinventing itself as a global travel destination.