The French touch in Pondicherry

The Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry
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Pondicherry (or Puducherry) is one of those places that can never fail to entice you with its laid-back, old-world charm. And if you’re looking for a break on an extended weekend, a visit to this French Riviera of the East would be a great idea.

Despite it being several decades since the French officially left, (yes, it was their colonial enclave for years) their influence continues to be seen in almost every corner here. In fact, that’s what adds to the charm of the place. You’ll often come across signages in French; after all, it’s one of Pondi’s official languages too. In fact, many of the locals can converse in it and will be happy should you speak to them in French.

Walking down the beach road past the Gandhi statue takes you towards the Goubert Avenue at the end of Rock Beach, where the statue of a man in Court dress with a bag wig and long riding boots stands. He is Francois Joseph Dupleix who, holding a plan of Puducherry in one hand and a sword in the other, has been credited with consolidating the French supremacy in some parts of India.

It’s also a good idea to keep aside a few hours for the churches in Puducherry, some of which hark back to the ones in France. Make a start with imposing Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus that is an impressive white and brown Gothic structure. Its centenary celebrations were organized just about a decade ago. As a local resident tells us, the churches in Pondy were built by those who were converted to Christianity. Soon after the French left, many of them also went and lived in France. But, when circumstances forced them to return, they came back and created their own French part of town, including a church that’s reminiscent of the Notre Dame. Called the Our Lady of Angels Church, it is the fourth oldest church here and offers mass in three languages namely French, Tamil and English.

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Take some time out to walk around the old, but prettily painted, quaint houses in the vicinity of these churches. Look out for the nameplates that reveal how many owners took on new, sometimes even French-sounding identities after their return from France. Like the one we spotted- Monsieur and Mademoiselle Dragon!

Besides a mini Arc de Triomphe in the middle of a beautiful garden, there are statues of French generals together and even one of Joan of Arc, the not-to-be-missed French Quarter with its wide avenues and a number of old homes and villas. Many of these are well-preserved and restored and have been converted into beautiful guest houses.

There’s also an ancient Ganesha temple also called The Englishman’s Ganesha, which got its name, as the story goes, from an English officer who initially wanted to demolish it and even had the Ganesha idol immersed into the sea. But surprisingly, the idol came back and despite his repeated attempts to get rid of it, it would find its way back to the temple. This happened till finally, the Englishman himself is believed to have become a worshipper of the God. Just outside the entrance stands a real elephant who will bless you with its trunk, only in exchange for a coin.

Besides the Ashram where The Mother and Sri Aurobindo have been laid to rest, the piece de resistance, for many visitors lies about 14 kms away. But before that, a word about the Mother who, as many might already know, was a French lady called Mirra Alfassa. She became Sri Aurobindo’s follower soon after coming to India in 1914. Some years later, he bestowed upon her the title of The Mother and it was she who thought about creating Auroville or the City of Dawn, where people from all countries would live as one.

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Don’t miss the short film at the Visitors Centre that gives you a glimpse of the fascinating history of Auroville and the short meditation session for which you need to get passes, a day in advance from the Visitors’ Centre. These need to be picked up personally and will be given to you only after a short screening or interview by the officials at the Centre.

The Centre also houses a canteen offering not just a simple meal, but also a variety of delectable cakes and cookies keeping in mind its clientele from across the world. There is also a shoppers’ gallery that offers a plethora of items ranging from incense-sticks, aroma-therapy oils, candles, lamps to clothes, all made in Auroville.