The canary yellow walls are the first clue that you’re now in the arms of a sun-kissed idyll called of Puducherry. The erstwhile Pondicherry offers a slice of the French Riviera only a short, scenic drive along the East Coast Road from Chennai. This union territory preserves many nostalgic elements of its colonial past, evidenced in the Franco-Tamil amalgam of cultures, the architecture, food and that essentially Pondi je ne sais quoi.
Let us walk you through its historical rues, lined with French neo-classical mansions, soaring temple gopurams and cosy places that serve a hearty coq-au-vin or a freshly brewed tumbler of strong filter coffee.
The charming port town of Puducherry on the Coromandel Coast is the capital of Francophone culture in India. It’s known internationally for housing the experimental town of Auroville. Founded in 1968 by followers of philosopher and reformer Sri Aurobindo Ghosh led by Mirra Alfassa (called “the Mother”) and designed by architect Roger Anger, Auroville has birthed a vibrant counterculture that influences the essence of Pondi.
Before the arrival of European powers in the 1600s, Puducherry was ruled by various southern dynasties, including the Pallavas, the Pandyas, the Cholas and even the later Vijayanagara and Bijapur rulers. From the 17th century on, powerful European imperial suitors fought for access to this prized port city for their trade routes, including the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. But it was the French who held real and enduring power on the region beyond the bounds of trade. It was the French colonials and the native Tamilians who built what we now know as quintessential Pondicherry in its language, cuisine and architecture.
Lay of the land
A town of roughly 20 square miles, Pondi has been historically segregated by a canal that cuts right through the breadth of the land that makes up the city. As trade prospered and more Europeans started settling into Pondicherry, they insulated themselves against local influence by building an enclave on the coastal end of the canal. The Hindu, Muslim and Christian original citizens of the town were relegated to the interior side. In unimaginatively racist fashion, the French Quarter was referred to as Ville Blanche (White Town) and the one across the canal, was Ville Noire (Black Town). This geographical division of territory has been pivotal in the history of Pondicherry and is reflective of the cultural shift that transpired upon its colonisation. Acting almost as a line of control within the city, it showcases the disparity between the bustling agraharam-style Tamilian life on the one end and the serene Mediterranean scene on the other.
Brick by brick
Despite this segregation, a rich Franco-Tamil culture took shape over centuries of colonial rule. Influences of French colonial architecture can be seen in the buildings of the Tamil quarter that have European columns, pillars and louvred wooden shutters, alongside their lattice-worked screens and red oxide floors. Whereas the French buildings in neo-classical style borrowed flat Madras terrace roofs and spacious verandahs from native design to better adapt their villas for the steamy tropical weather.
Eat and greet
International trade out of its port provided Puducherry with access to a variety of ingredients from across Europe, the erstwhile Indo-China, including French controlled Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and other French overseas colonies. What’s referred to as Creole cuisine evolved from the inter-mingling of Tamil falvours with French, South-East Asian, Portuguese, Dutch and Mughlai influences. A variety of spices found their way into delicate French sauces. The French seafood stew, bouillabaisse, was turned into Meen Puyabaise with turmeric. Locally extracted coconut milk was heavily incorporated in spice-heavy South Indian food to reign in pungency and soothe the European palate. Dosais picked up the influences, flavours and textures of French crepes, and were served with cheese and meats. The French baguette was served with stews instead of the indigenous rice. The one spice that French refused to have anything to do with was cardamom, so there’s not much danger of biting into an elaichi with Creole cuisine.
Meet the Creoles
Descendants of French and Tamil ancestry, Franco-Pondicherians refer to themselves as Creole. During the annexation of Puducherry with the union of India in 1954, there were many who chose to retain their French citizenship for economic and cultural reasons. The Pondichérien diaspora, as they are also known, is spread across Puducherry and France, with a sizeable population living in Paris and the former French colonies of Réunion and Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, the French West Indies islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe and French Guiana in South America. The French may have left in 1954 but Bastille-day is still celebrated with much cheer every 14 July in Pondi, a town like no other in India.
Below: A look inside the rare book L'Inde Francaise containing hand-coloured lithographed plates, 1827-1835 © Sarmaya Arts Foundation. This book presented views from French-ruled provinces in India, including Puducherry, Chandannagar in Bengal and Mahé on the west coast. The illustrations depicted people, gods, costumes, customs, episodes from mythology and daily life, communities, jewellery etc.