Puducherry

Overview

Introduction

A hint of the Riviera in the subcontinent, Puducherry, India, a former French colonial city along the Bay of Bengal that was formerly known as Pondicherry, didn't come under Indian rule until 1954. You can still hear a fair bit of French being spoken as you stroll along its remaining seaside villas and cobblestoned streets. Also, unlike in many parts of India, alcohol is readily and cheaply available.

Located about 85 mi/135 km south of Chennai, Puducherry, or Pondi, as it is affectionately referred to by locals, is really two towns in one: La Ville Blanche, the colonials' former playground, and La Ville Noire, the crowded inland area where the native Indian population was forced to live. The distinctions have lost much of their meaning, but La Ville Blanche still feels more European.

Some of the notable colonial remains include the Church of Notre Dame, from the 1600s. There's also a pleasant botanical garden and the town museum, which houses relics from the colonial era. (Antiques shops around town have a wonderful selection of items you can purchase.) The other side of town, full of markets and peddlers, feels more robust and authentically Indian. A stroll through the leafy French quarter, followed by European Thali at Kasha-ki-Asha, a female-run cafe set on the rooftop of a traditional Tamil-style home, makes for a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

Puducherry has two noteworthy institutions from a wholly different legacy. Sri Aurobindo Ashram was built by the followers of Sri Aurobindo, a Kolkata-born freedom fighter-turned-prophet and philosopher who fled to the city for protection from the British in 1910. Auroville, a kind of utopian commune inhabited by people of diverse nationalities, was the idea of a French woman who chose Sri Aurobindo as her guru. These are nice destinations for the seeker and aesthete.

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