Special Six: A first glimpse of Puducherry

I used to think Pondicherry was a part of Tamil Nadu until I filled in the visa application. I realized that it was a union territory of India, and now known as Puducherry. What drew me to the city at this point in time was Auroville. However, during my stay, I did explore parts of the city, especially the heritage part and the French colony part.

The following are the special six glimpses that I enjoyed:

(1) Staying at Maison Perumal:

Maison Perumal is a lovely boutique hotel in the CGH Earth chain of hotels. Located on Perumal Koil street in the heritage part of the city, it has a lovely ambience and provides the experience of staying at a 150 year old Chettiar house, with its lovely inner courtyards and swing. The little restaurant in the hotel offers a limited menu of what it claims to be authentic Tamil cuisine. I did enjoy the food there and tried out some dishes that I had only read about but not tried before, like ‘vatha kuzhambu‘ and ‘ilaneer payasam‘. Since ‘vatha kuzhambu‘ is not a variety of ‘kuzhambu‘ (a tamarind based gravy dish) that we make in Sri Lanka and I had only come across its mention in Tamil Nadu and not other states of India, it was a lovely experience to try this meal with its complex flavours of bitter, sour and spice. Apparently, the berries are soaked in buttermilk and sundried before the ‘kuzhambu‘ is cooked. In short, the stay at Maison Perumal was a lovely experience – akin to a heritage home stay with traditional meals.

(2) Mahakavi Bharathiyar Memorial Museum:

It was while browsing online for places of interest in Pondicherry that I came across the Bharathiyar museum. I was initially surprised as I thought the poet had lived in Tamil Nadu. I read a little bit more on the museum and I understood this was the house that the famous poet had lived during his years away from Tamil Nadu from 1908 – 1918, when he had escaped being arrested by the British for his writings. I visited this museum as the first place to go to after I had checked in at my hotel. The reason being that my mother had made me memorize several of his poems during my childhood, as she was a fan of his work and often quoted him in her writings.

The museum was in a quiet residential street and looked as if it were another house on the block. The inviting little home is being managed and maintained by the Government of India and visitors can freely visit the premises, where some of his handwritten pieces are being kept. I looked at the handwriting and tried to envision what sort of a person he was behind that famous image of him with the white turban, black coat and large mustache. His writing seemed to be so precise and neatly written as if he were someone who thought well before putting his thoughts on paper. Not like someone who scribbled their thoughts on pieces of paper as an idea came to his or her head. Or perhaps, it was simply that the pieces of writing on display were his final drafts after he had gone through the creativity phase. Even so, it was so neatly written and evenly positioned that I wondered if he had been someone who had wanted everything well organized at his home and in his personal life. His writings are full of being fearless and courageous and being an empowered individual who contributes positively to society and somehow I guess I associated this with being a person who was non traditional or rigid. Not being a handwriting analyst, perhaps his handwriting did indicate this adventurous spirit.

There is also a library with all his works under one roof, which is open to researchers and school students to study his work. Apparently, Eswaran Dharmarajan Koil Street, where this house is located was also home to many of the famous scholars of that time (the pre-Independence era India). The museum was within a couple of minutes walking distance from Maison Perumal. I also understood that there was another museum within its vicinity dedicated to Bharathidasan, a poet and contemporary of Bharathiyar and who changed his name from the one given by his parents so that he could express that he was an ardent follower of Bharathiyar.

(3) Puducherry museum

The small museum has a few interesting galleries, that is worth visiting for. I liked the Chola and Pallava Dynasty sculptures as well as the French India colony gallery, with pieces of household furniture and utensils recreating the homes of the colonizers during that period.

(4) Sri Aurobindo Ashram

Sri Aurobindo’s life seems to have taken many a turn before he embraced spirituality. Having studied at Cambridge University, he worked for the Maharaja of Baroda and as a Professor of Baroda University from 1893 – 1906. He quit his job after the partition of Bengal and moved to Calcutta to engage with the Nationalist movement. However, it was about this time that he started engaging in yoga and by 1910, he decided to quit politics and moved to Pondicherry to pursue his new spiritual pathway. His experience with yoga led him to develop a practice called the Integral Yoga. In 1926, he founded the ashram with his spiritual collaborator, the Mother. The ashram is currently run by a trust and is open for visitors as well as members.

(5) Eglise de Notre Dame des Anges

I visited this church on Surcouf Street in White town simply because it looked pretty in the photos I had seen of it on the web. The church was founded in 1738 and is one of the oldest churches in Pondicherry. It is also the only church in India that apparently has masses in French, English and Tamil.

(6) Coromandel Cafe

While I was quite happy with having all my meals at Maison Perumal, I am glad I did go out for dinner to a restaurant within the French colony. This cafe and restaurant is at La Maison Rose on Rue Romain Rolland. While the ambience is glitzy and meant for specials, my friends and I just walked in for dinner after having explored the neighbourhood. Fortunately for us, there was a table in the crowded restaurant. Why I have included this cafe in this special six list is because of their food. It is delicious and worth a visit, if you are visiting Pondicherry.

There are some places you visit that makes you think you want to revisit the place and there are others, that you are sure that you will not visit again, unless work brings you there. I enjoyed my brief time in Pondicherry/ Puducherry but it is not a city that I would want to revisit the next time I visit India. That is also because there are so many places in India that I have long wanted to visit and I have only visited a handful of them so far.

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