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11 ways to enjoy Puducherry

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Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, set in the former French enclave of Pondicherry (now Puducherry), notched up 11 Oscar nominations. ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY pick 11 unique ways to discover Pondy, hailed as La Côte d’Azur de l’Est or French Riviera of the East

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1. Celebrate Pondy’s cultural diversity
Witness the unique amalgam of the quiet sea-facing French Quarter with its wide rues (streets) blending into the bustling hinterland of the Tamil Quarter. One can fathom how Piscine Patel embraced multi-culturalism in Pondy’s diverse air with shrines like Varadaraja Perumal in the Hindu Quarter, the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in the Christian Quarter and Khutbah and Meeran mosques in the Muslim Quarter. Meditate in silence in the leafy courtyard of Aurobindo Ashram or retrace Pi’s footsteps as he followed Anandi through the colourful, chaotic markets of Grand Bazaar. 

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2. Go French
Amidst policemen wearing red kepis and locals playing petanque (hurling metal balls), get a dose of French culture at Alliance Francaise and Institut Francais de Pondicherry (IFP), whose precious manuscripts find a mention in UNESCO’s ‘Memory of the World’ register. Observe prayers in French at Notre Dame des Anges, the only church in Pondicherry to have mass in three languages (English and Tamil are the other two). Don’t miss the marble statue of Jeanne d’ Arc in front and the tomb of French governor Marquis de Bussy in an adjacent cemetery.

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3. Walk down the historic promenade
Explore Beach Road or Goubert Avenue on foot, a seaside avenue lined by charming colonial buildings like the French Institute, French Consulate General, Secretariat, Villa Bayoud heritage hotel and Promenade Hotel, built in 1878 as a railway station! Amble down to the old groundnut bag embankment where a statue of Mahatma Gandhi now stands, the tallest in Asia. Beyond the 88ft lighthouse, the first on the Coromandel Coast, are the Custom House, French War Memorial, Le Café (a porthouse till the 1930s) and statue of French Governor Dupleix at the southern end of the promenade. With no vehicular traffic between 6pm to 7:30am it’s ideal for evening and morning jaunts!

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4. Get blessed by an elephant at Manakula Vinayagar
The 500-year-old shrine of Lord Ganesha was once closer to the shore where sand (manal) often swept into its pond (kulam), giving the temple its name Manakula Vinayagar. Having survived attempts by French missionaries to pull it down, the popular temple is a celebration of the elephant-headed god, whose various forms adorn the walls. Hand a coin to Lakshmi, the temple elephant to receive a thump from her trunk as blessing!

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5. Hang out at a café
Get drawn into Pondy’s many cafes and boulangeries where the tantalizing smell of fresh baked croissants and baguettes hangs in the air. Overlooking the pier where Pi bid adieu to Anandi, is Le Café, a 24 hr coffee lounge serving organic beverages, pastries and snacks. Catch an evening concert at Café de Flore, an informal garden restaurant at Alliance Francaise’s Maison Colombani.

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6. Go boating at Chunnambar
If drifting on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger on the high seas isn’t your kind of escapade, try the tamer pleasures of Chunnambar. Drive 7km south on Cuddalore Road to the serene backwaters for a leisurely boat ride. Besides river jaunts, go on a sea cruise for dolphin sighting or take a speedboat to Paradise Beach with a picnic hamper.

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7. Get a wat-su treatment at Paradise Spa
For aqua adventures of another kind, get initiated in the art of wat-su (or WATer ShiatSU) at The Dune Ecotel’s Paradise Spa. Enriching your visit are rejuvenative therapies, art in residence programs, shopping at the ArtyZan boutique, gourmet cuisine and stay in eco friendly rooms, no two of which are alike!

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8. Get a history lesson at Puducherry Museum
While little remains of the Roman trading settlement at Arikamedu when Pondicherry flourished as the port town of Poduke, one can piece together the jigsaw at Pondicherry Museum. The century old Law Building, erstwhile residence of the French Administrator, displays Roman pottery and Megalithic burial urns. The Transport Gallery features palanquins, carts and the Pousse Pousse, a vehicle pushed from the rear and steered by a rider. In the French-India Gallery see period furniture like tête-à-têtes (S-shaped sofas), comptoirs, escritoires (writing tables and desks) and the cot used by French Governor Dupleix (1742-1754), whose bust adorns the museum.   

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9. Try Franco-Tamil cuisine at a restaurant with no name
Located on Perumal Koil Street in the Tamil Quarter is Maison Perumal, a Chettiar mansion beautifully restored by CGH Earth. Like in a house, the rooms are left unnumbered and the courtyard restaurant bears no name. Dine on the day’s fixed menu of fresh seafood platters surrounded by ooralis (brass troughs), sepia tinted photos and stain glass panes glinting in the sun.

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10. Botanical garden
While there’s no zoo in Pondicherry (there are plans to set up one after the movie’s success), it was the scenic locale of the Botanical Garden that served as the film set. Established in 1826, the 22-acre garden was a French experiment to analyze the feasibility of crops in the area. Flowerbeds and graveled pathways were added later and today it’s a treasure trove of 900 exotic plants, with an aquarium, a toy train and a musical fountain as its other attractions. The centrally located Bharathi Park, at the site of the demolished Fort Louis and military parade ground, is the city’s other lung space with the Arc de Triomphe-sque Aayi Mandapam dominating the centre.

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11. Hone a skill at Auroville
There’s more to Auroville than just the Matri Mandir. Live and learn in this global city of ideas where its inhabitants perfect crafts like handmade paper (Auroville Papers), indigo-dyed clothing (The Colours of Nature), incense manufacture (Encens d’Auroville) and bodycare (Maroma Spa) to energy-efficient solutions. Besides workshops and internship programs, there’s a huge communal bonfire in the Amphitheatre on 21 Feb and 28 Feb to celebrate the birthdays of the Mother and Auroville.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 18 Feb 2013 in Conde Nast Traveller online.