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Pondicherry

Pondicherry, deposited neatly beside the azure waters of the historic Coromandel Coast, is a curious medley of cultures. The French district (where many visitors tend to spend most of their time) and its sprawling bungalows, Franco-Tamil cafes, cobbled streets, is a haven of French style and refinement, separated from boomtown India. Further inland is the Tamil Quarter where a bustling South Indian way of life prevails and the architecture is an amalgamation of the French and Tamil influences. Shopping in Pondi is excellent (taxes are low), with particular specialities being silk weaving, jute craft, handmade paper and doll making. It is ideally located to slot into any Tamil Nadu itinerary, although we would suggest it as a stop off in between the cultural hubs of Tanjore and Mahabalipuram as a perfect relaxing spot.

The town derives its name from “Poduke”, an Indo-Roman trading town that existed here in the 1st century. In more recent history, it was an outpost of the French Empire for almost 300 years, and given the nicknames of "The Indian Côte d'Azur" or "The Riviera of the East". Its French Quarter, looking at the Bay of Bengal, is reminiscent to that of a Provençal village with bright Mediterranean coloured bungalows on large plots of land, lining neat, narrow lanes, flower-laden wrought-iron balconies, blue-enameled street signs, and staying carefully out of the sun, even policemen in red kepis. The old seafront, called Beach Road, makes for a lovely morning stroll, and there is a museum housed in a converted late 18th century villa, several elaborate Catholic churches and 19th century Botanical Gardens planted with around 900 species of plants. 

Away from the ordered geometries of the seafront, deeper towards the heart of town, is the different world of the Tamil Quarter. The exterior of the houses here is colonial in style with arched windows and greek pillars, however the interior is laid out on the traditional building plan with verandahs and wooden posts in the courtyard. The cuisine, just like the city’s architecture, is a delicious fusion of French and Tamil where a croissant for breakfast can be followed by a masala dosa for lunch! 

The spiritual heart of Pondi is the exceedingly rich and internationally famous ashram of Sri Aurobindo, whose distinctive light-gray buildings sprawl throughout the town: schools, libraries, shops and restaurants, and they also make paper and books, often beautifully bound in silk. Just north of town, the ashram’s offshoot Auroville, draws a large number of spiritually minded bohemian-chic visitors.  One can easily visit all key highlights on a day-trip with a private car and driver, however two days will allow one to explore the significant sights, as well as visit the slightly more offbeat places of interest at a leisurely pace. 

>> Read our blog: Ampersand's Insider View of Pondicherry

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