Long back (today it seems like an era before) in the good old days, yes, the good old normal days I was in the coastal city of Pondicherry, the capital of the Indian Union Territory that has been recently renamed as Puducherry. My remarkably short and simple trip to this old French colony is now a dreamlike remembrance of the golden days when humans could travel free from any restrictions.
Due to some personal engagements, we travelled to the city of Vellore in Tamilnadu. We had an extra day at hand and despite spoiling the day in the hotel I decided to visit the nearby city of Pondicherry and indulge in some heritage tour through the French quarters (knowing that I may not explore much of it as I believe that being in a place is also a different experience altogether.)
I could have easily lazed away a day in the hotel in Vellore or might have visited the other nearby places like Kanchipuram or Mahabalipuram but I was more inclined towards the Union Territory and so we were in this busy and old city of Pondicherry.
I wished to explore the French Quarters and delve into some authentic French cuisine in the age-old French cafes. I also wanted to taste the Pondy cheese (that I heard of recently) which is basically a Pondicherry version of French cheese. From cuisine to culture and heritage, you can find a rich amalgamation of both Tamil and French in Pondicherry. The cultural blend happened years ago. So let me share a tiny bit of history of this place.
Arikamedu, a small fishing village near Pondicherry has excavated evidence of ancient Roman trade, marking its presence in the early trade map of India. With the European trade link to this place already established, the French East India Company set up its base here in 1674 and Pondicherry became the primary French settlement in India.
Since then five French trading posts were set up along the coastal region and the trade flourished. The city was separated into the French Quarter and the Indian Quarter on either side of the canal. The coastal part was mostly French-dominated while the other part had the majority of the Tamil population.
After the British occupation of India, the Pondicherry city along with other French-occupied regions like Mahé, Yanam, Karaikal and Chandernagar (read more about Chandernagar or Chandannagar here) changed hands frequently between the French and the British to finally remain with the French even after India’s independence from the British rule. Pondicherry along with these areas got integrated into the Indian territory in 1954.
Even after its incorporation with India, the French influence remained strong and everlasting. The culture and heritage got intertwined, yet the French quarters mostly remained the same with its age-old colonial buildings standing strong narrating the stories of the past. Then there was a significant era of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother who also left their indelible mark on the history and the spiritual existence of Pondicherry.
Today Pondicherry stands as a beautiful union of the French and Tamil culture and cuisine. I wanted to explore the sea-ward side that is the French quarters of the city in a day and indulge into some French delicacies from the restaurants there. But you never know when ‘man proposes, God, disposes’.
While in Vellore my husband suffered from some flu-like symptoms. With the commencement of the journey, he showed fever and as we reached the city he was down with high temperature feeling weak. I gave him some cold and flu medicine from our first-aid kit and let him sleep. He slept and slept until it was evening. Meanwhile, I was getting concerned about his health as well as saddened as my plan failed miserably.
He felt a little better in the evening and we thought of taking a walk through the promenade. The long rocky beachfront has a well-maintained promenade with no vehicular movement in the evening making it an ideal place for pedestrians and skaters to spend quality evening time by the sea. The Promenade runs from the War Memorial on one end to Dupleix Park (read more about Governor Dupleix here) on the other end. In between, there is the Mahatma Gandhi Statue and the old lighthouse on either side of the road. This road is lined by heritage buildings on one side and the massive blue Bay of Bengal on the other side.
We had a relaxed walk, taking breaks and enjoying the sea view and also the crowd activity. The Promenade is the hub of Pondicherry in the evening. Tourists, as well as locals, gather here to spend their evening – eating, walking, jogging and relaxing by the sea. There were a lot of food options in the vicinity but my husband had a loss of appetite and I did not feel like having them alone. Neither could we visit the French quarters nor could I taste any freshly baked French bread or any cheese. ( 😦 All I did was wept over my failed plans.)
Next day we had our flight back to Pune so the single precious day that we had was lost in vain. My husband was feeling better the next morning so we decided to take a round through a couple of places before we start for the Chennai Airport. And we started with the nearby bright and beautiful Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The church was built in 1908 by the French Archbishop of Archdiocese of Pondicherry, Mgr. Gandy. The church got the Basilica status in the year 2011 and now is an important pilgrimage for the Christian visitors.
Then we rushed to the Immaculate Conception Cathedral. This Church was built in 1668 and was dedicated to St Peter’s. Then approaching closer to the Promenade again we reached Sri Aurobindo Ashram (read more about Aurobindo Ashram.) After a brief visit to the ashram, we went to the nearby Arulmigu Manakula Vinayagar Temple. This ancient temple was built before the French occupation of the region. The temple is dedicated to Lord Ganesha and is considered an important religious site for the Hindus. After a quick and final drive through the promenade, we were off from Puducherry.
I had so many places in my mind but had to skip everything, so before we drove to Chennai Airport we visited the Auroville (read my previous post on Auroville.) I was sad but was hopeful that I will be back to Puducherry soon to explore the place as I planned and probably even more. Now, in this COVID-situation travel seems to be a distant dream.
Even a day spent in vain then, seems to be so precious and dreamlike now. I miss my travelling days very badly and I know all my traveller friends are missing them too. With nothing in our hand we can only wait for the good times to return when we can travel again and explore the unseen and fulfil our plans and share our experiences.