Unlike much of India, including Delhi, Pondicherry seems to cherish its heritage rather than wiping it clean with shiny new buildings, or letting it crumble in indifference. Pondicherry’s brush with colonial history and international appeal—it was ruled by France from the 17th century to 1952, and briefly by the Dutch and the British—has always given its old-world charm a decidedly cosmopolitan flavour. The city’s official name Puducherry is a clue to how it negotiates the past. Originally known as Puducheri, a Tamil port, it was christened Pondicherry by the French, a name that remains popular.
In recent years, Pondicherry has changed from a sleepy small town to a vibrant tourist destination, and is now dotted with heritage hotels, chic boutiques and Parisian-style cafes. Yet it is still a place that reveals its secrets at its own pace. It is only when you amble through its hushed alleys that you discover the languid mood that defines the city and the little pieces that make up its soul: a grand villa; a forgotten statue; a shady green park.
Unlike most Indian cities, Pondicherry is ideal for exploring on foot. A canal broadly divides the city into two parts—the French and Tamil Quarters—with compact layouts which are best explored by cycle or walking. This is also the most visible legacy of French rule, during which Pondicherry was segregated into the sea-facing white town and the black town, the former for the rulers and the latter for the ruled.
The best area to explore the French part by foot is the sea-facing promenade that runs parallel to the Goubert Avenue. The 1.5-kilometre stretch of the promenade, a miniature version of Mumbai’s Marine Drive, is where its residents gather every evening to catch the sea breeze and the blue vista of the moon rising on the Bay of Bengal. At dusk, it’s buzzing with food vendors, people on evening walks, and friends chatting and loafing. The other side of the avenue is lined with a row of heritage buildings and scattered statues which let you soak in Pondicherry’s history. The avenue is also traffic-free and pedestrian-friendly between 6pm and 7.30am every day.
The most convenient starting point for a stroll is the French cultural centre, Alliance Francaise. Located inside a white villa on the southern edge of the promenade, it looks out to the sea from one end and the French Quarter on the other. It has a charming garden restaurant, Le Cafe de Flore, and is bustling with regular film screenings, exhibitions, music and talks, much of the time.
Behind Alliance Francaise, the tree-lined boulevards of the French Quarter are lined with spacious pastel and ochre-coloured buildings designed in the classical European style. A few steps away, inside an 18th-century mansion, Tamil women are busy with needlework at the Cluny Embroidery Centre—a charitable initiative by the Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny. Some of the surrounding edifices have been converted into heritage hotels, among them Hotel de Pondicherry and Hotel de l’Orient, while others house fancy boutiques and restaurants—both ingenious ways of breathing new life into the built heritage.
Back on the promenade, little reminders of France dot the rest of Goubert Avenue. A whitewashed 19th-century lighthouse stands on one end. A statue of Dupleix, an illustrious French governor of Puducherry between 1742 and 1754, has now been relegated to one end of the avenue. Up ahead, a Joan of Arc sculpture stands alone in front of the well-kept 18th-century church, Notre Dame de Anges. This rose-and-cream building has an impressive, newly-restored interior, with a wooden image of Christ. Further on, the avenue is dotted with more colonial buildings-turned-offices, such as the French Consulate General and the Secretariat. Le Cafe, located in the middle of the promenade, is an excellent stop for filter coffee. It occupies what used to be a customs house and later, port office for Pondicherry’s harbour, and offers unparalleled views of the sea.
History lessons and political power play continue with two other major monuments on the promenade. The austere First World War memorial commemorates the combatants who died during WWI. Diagonally opposite the memorial, a few steps on, a larger-than-life statue of Gandhi occupies centre-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 important buildings such as the Raj Niwas and the Legislative Assembly. Once a parade ground, it is now a popular local spot for an afternoon siesta. It also encloses a striking white monument called the Ayi Mandapam, built in the mid-19th century by the French and rumoured to be named after a medieval courtesan who had constructed the tank that supplied water to Pondicherry. There is a striking contrast between the imposing grandeur of the Governor’s House or Raj Niwas, a whitewashed 18th-century mansion that was once the residence of the French Governor, and a dilapidated building on St. Louis Street that houses the Puducherry Museum. However, there are several historical gems in the museum’s scattered collection, including ancient Roman pottery shards from the trading port of Arikamedu nearby and antique French furniture.
Pondicherry’s other claim to fame is its connection with Sri Aurobindo and Mirra Alfassa, deferentially known as the Mother, who evolved a new system of spiritual thought here. The grey-and-white building of the Aurobindo Ashram houses the duo’s samadhi. Inside, the atmosphere is quiet, orderly and reverential. If you’re intrigued, Auroville, the utopian, self-contained township founded by the Mother to promote ‘human unity,’ and now home to an international community of followers, is a short drive away. In sharp contrast to the pristine order of Aurobindo Ashram, the Manakula Vinagayar Temple across the road is full of colour and chaos. The only temple in the French Quarter, it is dedicated to Ganesha, and built in the typical Dravidian style of architecture with a towering gopuram (gateway) embellished with colourful carvings.
From here, you can walk down to the Tamil Quarter, originally built around a nucleus of shrines. This part of the city has a contrasting architectural style, demonstrated in restored Tamil mansions like Hotel La Maison Tamoule and the house of Anand Rangapillai, a prosperous 18th-century merchant. These have unique elements like semi-public street verandahs for visitors outside the house, and inside, a central courtyard with grand columns. Not too far away, the Jawaharlal Nehru Street—the city’s main shopping avenue—is firmly rooted in the present. This is where you’ll find heavy traffic, numerous boutiques and the Hidesign flagship store that stocks the latest range of leather handbags sourced from the company’s main factory nearby.
Pondicherry is still, thankfully, not as crowded as other tourist destinations in India, partly because the nearest airport in Chennai is a three-hour drive away. For now, through careful conservation of its heritage and multicultural ethos, it has found a delicate balance between its past and the present, and is a great example of an old city reinventing itself as a modern-day travel destination.