Most tourists who go to Pondicherry in search of a unique French experience in India will come away dissatisfied as Kuldip, and I did. The derelict French colonial buildings and gardens (especially the Botanical ones) that lie in wait must also disillusion the French visitors, who flock to the city they used to possess.
Two features reminiscent of France in Pondicherry is the tree-lined streets with á la Française names in the French Quarter and the policemen of Indian origin wearing Gendarme-shaped hats that one might spot in and around the city. Nevertheless, what would make someone who lives in France feel at home in Pondicherry is the amount of doggie ‘do’ on the streets. It’s not pedigree poodle poo though; stray dogs are rife in India.
Apart from those little reminders, Pondicherry’s ooh la la, like the French themselves, is long gone. What’s past is past and because most Indians don’t appreciate history or the role it continues to play in the evolution of their country, the Pondicherry that once was, will probably never be again. That’s why it’s better to go there to experience the indigenous way of life in the Tamil Nadu city, not the imagined French one.
Although the French Quarter is the place to stay, once you’re out of it true Tamil takes over. If one is pressed for time, a trip to the Goubert Market or Grand Bazaar, is the most practical way to experience Tamil life at full-throttle. This sizeable marketplace is where locals go to buy fresh produce. The spice section awakens the senses, as do the countless flower stalls where men and women calmly sit amid the hustle and bustle threading lovely garlands. Flowers play an important role in Hinduism so the other elaborate floral decorations they make are also worth seeing.
The market is as colourful as the men and women who work there. I had a wonderful time with the women who sell the fishermen’s catch of the day as well as those who trade in fresh fruit, veggies and herbs. I’m constantly amazed at how a friendly smile crosses all cultural and language barriers; sisterhood does too.
Christianity and Hinduism happily live side-by-side here, so there’s no shortage of churches and temples to see like the Manakula Vinayargar Temple. This house of worship is dedicated to the popular Hindu god, Ganesh, so, in Australian terms, it’s “as busy as Bourke Street.” Ganesh is the recognisable half man, half elephant god, so it fits that a live elephant is sometimes there to take the plate around. My suspicion, however, is that the many tourists probably donate more to the temple than the faithful. Lakshmi wasn’t there the day we were. Some sources say she’s there all day; others quote each day at five o’clock in the afternoon. Therefore, like most things in India, to see Ganesh’s mascot is potluck.
If one craves some silence in the pandemonium that is Pondicherry, the world-renowned Sri Aurobindo Ashram is the place to go. Limited access to the Ashram is free during visiting hours (8am-12noon and 2-6pm). To see other parts of the Ashram, one needs to stay there or take a guided tour.
As stated in my last blog titled, Gourmets En Garde, Pondicherry’s French Quarter is not the place to go for excellent seafood or a classic French meal. Similarly, this city by the sea is not the place for a beachside holiday either because there’s nowhere to swim or work on your tan. The only things to do along the beachfront is promenade along Goubert Avenue or gaze over the Indian Ocean while sitting on one of the big boulders that stretch along the foreshore as far as the eye can see.
Kuldip and I are at an age when it’s not easy to get up off the ground so when we go pool or beachside sun lounges are mandatory. We found these creature comforts and more, at a resort about ten kilometres out of town. Le Pondy charges non-guests 1,000 rupees or A$20, per day for full use of the facilities around the pool, and on the beach. It’s worth every rupee.
In my opinion, a three-day and two-night stay is ample time to peruse Pondicherry. However, if you want to practice your parlez-vous français, Paris would be a better place to do it. C’est la vie.