It must first be stated: Pondicherry is not France. Nor does it much resemble France.
This seaside edge of Tamil Nadu doesn’t quite feel like India either. In the game of colonialization, France lost in the land grab to Great Britain, maintaining only a small seaside town named Pondicherry (now Puducherry) which finally gained independence in 1954. Whereas India is a country where you can get by with english (usually—sort of), Pondicherry is the only place I happened upon where français is the de facto second language.
Upon first glance, there is the grid. Pondicherry is laid out, like many overnight cities, in a strict crosshatch of avenues, labelled with the familiar gallic blue-enameled avenue names and address numbers. A canal divides the city, east from west, with the avenues clinging to the shore appropriately/cringingly termed Ville Blanche (White Town). Many of the streets resemble each other, and observing the french delight in privacy, most residences are sealed against intruding eyes by oft-closed volets hiding the windows. I lived in France for a few years, and Pondy didn’t seem to capture much quintessential french or indian charm. What was I to do here?
Take it slow, apparently. Pondicherry does have its charms, but they reveal themselves gently. The most astonishing thing: Pondicherry exhibits a uniquely foreign concept of leisure. Eschewing the ubiquitous hectic bustle or heat-resigned sprawling on the ground observed in much of india, the locals (visitors and Tamils alike) stroll. Evening strolls along the beach promenade; lunchtime dillydallying through the parks. There is a gentility to this town that doesn’t seem to exist in the same way elsewhere. The sight evokes a Georges Seurat painting.
Many of the hermit-like Ville Blanche residences have been lovingly crafted into boutique hotels- the most charming I’ve seen in India. It’s worth a peek inside, to experience the architecture from the inside-out. And, it should be noted, a fine collection of antique dealers, with fantastically curated collections. I left my heart with abronze statuette of Ardhanarishvara (half male Shiva-half female Parvati, split right down the middle), to which my mind wanders every few days.
The most fascinating part of Pondicherry exists outside of the city proper. Auroville, another planned community (this time new-agey, in the layout of a cyclone), exploded my mind. The brainchild of a deceased french woman known as “the Mother” (who, it should be known, was the spiritual companion of Pondicherry’s influential guru, Sri Aurobindo), the city reclaimed and reforested barren farmland, and painstakingly crafted a sustainable community. I couldn’t be bothered to take pictures because I was simply too enthralled by the project. Different entities within the community focus on various aspects of a sustainable society: creation of innovative building methods using earth-bricks; solar-and-wind powered everything; wastewater treatment using strikingly pleasant reed-filled ponds. For a week I lived in an open-air natural brick domed structure, and I loved it. Even if I’m not very good at being new-agey.
The vortex of the community is a fantastical golden globe structure called the Matrimandir. It must be said, the structure is the epitome of seventies Kubrickian sci-fi kitsch, but the decades-long project is spellbinding nonetheless, crafted with exquisite attention to detail. Conceived as a non-religious, all-welcoming edifice for contemplation, one is silently led up into the bowels of the sphere. Covered in gold-leafed discs, the structure nonetheless transmits a soft glow of sunlight into the interior. After rising silently up a double-helixed ramp into the upper sanctum, I found myself in a subdued cylindrical chamber, with perfectly white carpeting, meditation cushions and marble everything. The only light in the entire hall is a sharp, vertical shaft of sunlight that falls perfectly onto a clear crystal sphere—diffracting softly before continuing down into the building. The beam of light travels, in fact, all the way through the core of the sphere onto another crystal sphere in an abstracted lotus-shaped pond directly below the hovering gold mass. My serious-investigator facade remained silent and impassive, but my inner video-game and sci-fi child squealed with delight. So very cool.