Pondicherry, the once French India…part one

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Colonial architecture in the French quarter

From the time we arrived in Bangalore, we had been told to visit Pondicherry. “You’ll feel like you aren’t quite in India,” people say with a twinkle in their eye.

We decide to fly to Chennai (or the once and more romantic sounding Madras), then take a leisurely drive south to Pondicherry. With our driver forewarned to be sensible (well aware of the customary incautious driving), we make our way down the Coromandel Coast of the Bay of Bengal.

The mass of Madras gives way to villages and verdant fields stretched along a narrow highway – squeezed with villagers on foot and bike, goats, cows and bullock carts, and then the stream of traffic. We’re all vying for space against the ‘green monsters’ as I’ve dubbed the massive hulks of metal, painted a shade of that pesky green. There are herds of them, public buses that transport millions of people daily throughout India. They stampede the pavement like rampaging elephants, horns trumpeting and wheels trampling – commanding the road as they overtake dangerously, swerving out and back into their lane with only a fraction of space to spare. Your life flashes before your eyes, bend after bend. By the time we arrive in Pondicherry, this passenger is a wreck.

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The welcoming kolam

“I’ll have a gin tonic please,” I plead as we sink into deep wicker chairs at Maison Perumal. We’ve been welcomed with garlands of jasmine and fresh lime sodas in the three-storied courtyard…ironically stuffed with pots the same shade as the ‘monsters.’ “I’m just happy we’re alive,” our son quips as he sips his lime soda.

Jaison, our host at the Maison explains the intricacies of transportation in India. “The buses are on a tight schedule, they have to move ma’am. Maybe take the train back…that’s the only way to see India.” I make a note to check the train schedule.

Pondicherry, the French interpretation of Puducherry (meaning new settlement), has two distinctive quarters, the Tamil and the French. We initially stay in the Tamil quarter. Originating from the Tamil population, the state surrounding the Union Territory of Pondicherry, it was once referred to as ‘black town’. It was settled alongside the French quarter in the late 1600’s.

The Tamil quarter developed around five Hindu temples, countless small pagodas and the Grand Bazaar. This is where the highest caste of Hindus, the Brahmins, lived as well as the businessmen who controlled large-scale trade, the Chettiars. Maison Perumal had been the home of a prominent Chettiar family, the Sunder Iyers, for more than one-hundred years. The family were bankers and cotton traders and lived in a multi-generational fashion – framed sepia photos line the corridors and hint at their privileged lifestyle.

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Sam John at Maison Perumal

Sam John, the hotel’s manager greets us. Meticulous in starched white cotton, he points out the finely carved pillars that elegantly frame the courtyard. “This family traded in Burma, so returned with Burmese teak. This is a large courtyard, sixteen pillars, fitting for a prominent Chettair mansion.”

It seems we’re sitting in the men’s courtyard, the women’s is the smaller one, close to the kitchen. They share similiar architectural features; red-oxide tile flooring for colour and open air wells for ventilation and light. In fact the age-old concept according to the Vaastu Shasta (the traditional Hindu system of architecture), each house must posses an open courtyard to honour the auspicious link between the five elements – the courtyard also bustled with family gatherings.

I ask Sam about the stone bench at the entrance of Maison Perumal, having noticed that the Tamil homes have a street verandah with a lean-to-roof over wooden posts, and a masonry bench tucked in the corner. “This is called the thalvaram. A shady place to give protection for the passers-by and to protect the building from the sun and rain. The benches are thinnai, used to welcome strangers or to chat with neighbours. We like sitting cross-legged on the benches, keeps us nimble, like yoga,” Sam tells me.

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Sunday morning thinnai

We experience the concept of thinnai first hand as we’re invited onto a verandah as we pass by a quaint bungalow early Sunday morning. Two sister-in-laws are chatting as they shell peas for mid-day lunch. Like us, one of the ladies is also visiting from Bangalore. We comment on the chaotic streets that we’ve escaped from. We relish breathing the healthier air of  peaceful Pondicherry.

Sam John mentioned the importance of retaining this low-key way of life when we had spoken. He was passionate in explaining that Maison Perumal is a Cgh earth experience hotel, they have a clear ethos.

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A tri-shaw tour

The chain of hotels has non-negotiable principles of preserving the nation by honouring local heritage. Cgh hotels are restored to preserve their heritage and architecture. Sam had told us, “Respecting the past, all the hotels have adopted the local culture and way of life, paying homage to traditional modes of living, nature, architecture and heritage.”

At Maison Perumal, we ‘feel’ the ethos as we appreciate the attention to detail in the restored building, its second story evoking the French style with stained glass windows and authentic furnishings. This was often the case in a Tamil home, the marrying of the Tamil and French style. We enjoy local cuisine and an opportunity to tour on a trishaw. “We’ve engaged locals to do these tours,” Sam said proudly. “It helps support the community.”

One morning during our stay, a kolam is being chalked in the courtyard as we make our way to breakfast. It is a morning ritual for the Tamils (as in other parts of India) to create a design in the courtyard and at the home’s entrance. They are delightful either in their simplicity or in more embellished artistic forms, although decoration is not the main purpose of a kolam. Traditionally drawn from rice flour it welcomes people, small creatures and even deities, not least of whom is Lakshmi, the Goddess of prosperity and wealth.

The patterns range from geometric drawings around a matrix of dots, to free form art work and closed shapes. Folklore has evolved to caution that the lines must be completed so as to symbolically prevent evil spirits from entering the inside of the shapes, and thus from the inside of the home.

Such ancient traditions such as these are still a part of every day life for the people in the Hindu enclave. The French quarter gave an entirely different sense of time and place. Puducherry, or Pondy, as the locals now refer to their city, has been a base for trading since the early 1520. Of the Europeans, the Portuguese were here first to trade in textiles; the Dutch and the Danes followed. But it was the French who rebuilt a prominent fortified town and a thriving port of call, despite the British (in nearby Madras) razing most of it to the ground in 1761. The Treaty of Paris returned Puducherry to the French in 1763 and they quickly rebuilt. Today its unique charm captures the romance of those early Colonial days; of retreating  from the punishing heat on breezy verandahs after a day of trading those sought after commodities: cotton, indigo, cinnamon and cardamon, coffee, mehe pepper, cowrie shells and Chinese porcelain. They all passed through the warehouses before journeying, east to west.

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The respite of a colonnade portico

The French quarter, home to the French and other Europeans was dubbed ‘white’ town. Their homes and public buildings mirrored the upper-class French style. Imposing gates hinted at the prosperity of the owner ensconced behind high compound walls. They hid lush garden courts and verandahs decorated with exquisite scrolls and floral motifs. Ideally facing the sea breeze, the colonnaded porticos were essential to day to day life as the settlers coped with the extreme heat and humidity –entertaining staved off the sometimes interminable boredom of life in the Indies.

Women of the day visited, gossiped, read and wrote short stories. Tales were told of ‘Indian culture’ as they perceived it to be. Their interaction with the ‘natives’ was restricted to a minimum – mostly to their staff of butlers, gardeners and servants, and punkah wallahs who ensured a constant flutter of air from delicate wicker fans. Every good home also employed palanquin carriers who transported their sir and madam in improbable style. The large box-like contraptions with shuttered windows and a long pole on either end, (handles for the carriers) allowed residents in the French quarter to ‘hide away’ as they made their way through the streets.

We take a tour with Ashok who works with INTACH, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage. Their mission is to preserve heritage buildings, save them from further dilapidation, breathe life back into their storied pasts. We’re told the old town is in danger of losing its unique charm if more treasured buildings cannot be rescued. Along with the beautifully restored we see once-proud homes, shops and government buildings, lingering and neglected in a slow, sad demise.

Ashok leads us to one of the loveliest of the restored mansions. As we enter through the gate to a stately, white and lemon-hued mansion, there is complete silence despite the presence of many women. They sit embroidering, the chirp of birds and the rustle of palm leaves their gentle sound track. “This was the French Trading Company office and then the Governor’s mansion,” Ashok tells us. “Now run by the Sisters of Cluny Church, they train and help underprivileged ladies through their embroidery work.” It is an uplifting setting and a noble venture – an example of the practical possibilities of preserving the legacies of bygone years.

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Embroiders at work in a peaceful setting

Deciding to stay a few evenings in the French quarter, we meet Chandra, a lovely young Parisian. Along with her cousin Ryan, she is the acting proprietor of La Closerie, Bay of Bengal. The guest house is a combination of an old French home and a new annex that melds together seamlessly.

“My mother bought the colonial home about twenty years ago. It was restored and extended four years ago, I’m here to manage it for a year,” Chandra says. She mentions the contrasting pace between Pondy and Paris. “There are quite a few of us French here with Indian roots. It’s a vibrant community, a unique opportunity to spend a year here.”

Chandra is one of many French men and women we meet. When the French left Pondy in 1954, many residents retained Indian citizenship and property, even those who chose to return to France. While some descendants benefited from inherited homes, others found it to be a burden and unable to meet the cost of refurbishment.

Jawaharlal Nehru himself, who in 1947 became the first Prime Minister of Independent India, made it a point to preserve the unique heritage of this once French India. “I want Pondicherry to remain a window of culture,” he had stated. And indeed through the efforts of INTACH and other committed bodies like cgh, Pondicherry is trying to do just that.

We take a late afternoon stroll along the sea front, joining the locals taking in the salubrious sea air. People linger in groups conversing, or ponder alone matching the brooding sky over the Bay of Bengal. The weathered lighthouse looms over the crowds, once more useful when it guided trading ships into these shores. Sculptured pillars from an ancient fort stand guard over a statue of the revered Ghandi – a statue of Nehru stands close by. The scene is much changed since boatmen and tall ships crowded the jetty, and the more somber history of Pondicherry’s colonial days unfolded– the shipping of thousands of Tamils as ‘coolies’ or indentured workers and slaves.

But for now we leave the sultry beachside with its gentle waves, with its people – French, Tamil and Muslim living harmoniously. A place where time stands still yet moves cautiously forward. One last time, we cross back into the Tamil quarter…there’s the Grand Bazaar to visit and that train passage to reserve back to old Madras.

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