Puducherry: There's more to this sleepy town than Auroville and the Shri Aurobindo Ashram

I fell in love with Puducherry (formerly, Pondicherry) at first sight. The sleepy town is one of the biggest tourist attractions in India because of Auroville, and a wonderful study of contrasts of the Tamil and French cultures. The town itself is divided into what the locals call 'the Tamil part' and the colonial part of Puducherry, which transports you to a town that is best suited in a romance novella.

My hotel, a restored traditional Tamil style house near the beach was full of young tourists, almost all of them foreigners and almost all of them dressed in baggy cotton patiala style pants (I was later told that they are called elephant pants, and seem to be a must for every foreign traveler here). A couple from New York staying in the next room tells us that they have come here because they have heard so much about Auroville. Auroville and the Aurobindo Ashram in Puducherry are the reasons that bring the majority of the tourists here, but I later discovered that the small French town has a lot more to offer other than the Aurobindo Ashram-Auroville spirituality package.

Eat My Cake! in White Town

Eat My Cake! in White Town

As I strolled through White Town, the french colonial part of Puducherry, you cannot help but look in awe at the hues of yellow, blue and pink houses that line the perpendicular, sea facing part of the town. I came across a cafe called Eat My Cake! which promised to offer a authentic french experience. As I entered, I was greeted by the smell of chocolate and fresh bread. The tiny pink and yellow cafe was opened by three french women just a year ago and offers a different menu everyday. The owners told me how everything about the small cafe is, 'made by women, and run by women.' Their tie-up with a local NGO helps employ women and empower them by making them learn skills like cooking and baking. Also, the coffee is freshly brewed and the ingredients are organic — and locally grown. It was a fascinating thing to learn that Puducherry, which welcomes a large part of foreign tourist population, also hosts a large number of restaurants that promise you fresh, organic locally grown food to go with 'the wellness trend'.

As my friend and I order an item from the day's menu, Chicken Liver Bagel and a coffee pot in the terrace cafe, I find it interesting to note that food in Puducherry, and everything else for the matter, comes at its own relaxed pace. Not that its a bad thing, but just a fascinating concept to sit and actually savour food for 4 to 5 hours rather than in Mumbai, where we come from. My friend noted that how our restaurant meals in the city of dreams were always rushed, we were always handed the bill as soon as we ordered dessert.

The Promenade hosts one of the biggest statutes of Gandhiji in India.

The Promenade hosts one of the biggest statutes of Gandhiji in India.

The laid back pace of the town was the biggest luxury we indulged in. After over wonderful meal, we strolled through the Promenade (Puducherry’s only sea facing, Marine drive-esque boulevard) in the afternoon, we were mesmerised by how other people around us were sitting at the shoreline indulging in the activity of doing nothing. For us, the looking at the sea for hours at the peaceful town was a welcome break from elbowing people out of the way to get into a local train in Mumbai.

We came across an antique shop during one of our strolls. Located near Les Space in White Town, the nameless store housed antiques that were as old as the time when the French started colonising the place, and each and every piece had an interesting piece of history attached to it. This is why I recommend walking over taking a cycle or a bike, because there is so much to see in Puducherry. Each building is unique, and seems to have a history. The town is best taken in, slowly, walking through the streets at a glacial pace staring at the beautiful Franco-Tamil pieces of architecture. Or if you are in the other 'Tamil' part of town, just looking at the old world charm of the city and seeing it transport from a city in Europe to a forgotten era in India in a matter of kilometres.

A walk through the streets of Pondicherry

A walk through the streets

Coming to the reason we were on the trip — the food. The variety of food is one of the best things that Puducherry has to offer, and even if you do not include the fascinating cuisines of Auroville there is a lot that can be sampled. One of the most unique cuisines is the Creole cuisine of Puducherry. The french-tamil fusion cuisine was also influenced by the Dutch and Portuguese colonisers.

Creole food is more Indian than french — while french cuisine is all about cooking and savouring each item individually, Creole food is more of an Indian curry and rice variety. One of the best places we sampled creole was at Le Dupleix in White Town. The best dish hands down was Rasam Aux Crevettes (Rasam with shrimp served French style).

Moving on to a different kind of fusion— a small cafe called Kasha Ki Asha specialises in giving the picky tourist a literal mix of both the cuisines and overs yummy samplings like Pizza Dosai. The cafe, opened in 2013 by an American woman, Kasha, runs on the same principle as Eat My Cake! — it started out as an initiative by Kasha to help and empower women. The best part about the cafe is the beautiful boutique that is a part of the terrace cafe.

Now comes the time to satisfy the sweet tooth. The french brought with them the art of the yummy desserts, and it has stayed. One of our walks through the town landed us in a bakery that called Baker Street. Being huge Sherlock fans ourselves, we went into the bakery that promised 'an authentic french experience' and were transported to what might have been a bakery in France. Whether it is a simple chocolate cake or a piece of expertly crafted chocolate, 212 Baker Street suprises you with the variety of desserts it stocks.

White Town in Pondicherry

White Town

And if you want your fill of the best Tamil cuisine, Puducherry hosts excellent restaurants that serve, what is in my opinion, the best rasam in the world. Try out restaurants like A2B Adyar Ananda Bhavan and Surgure where the crowd will be a mix of Indian tourists tired of sampling pastas and wine, and foreign tourists keen on trying the local cuisine and fascinatingly trying to eat dosa and rice plates with their hands.

When we went to Surguru, we were seated with two tourists from London, who were watching YouTube videos about how to eat rasam rice with their hands before getting to the real act itself. Why were they here, and not in a French cafe that serves organic food, I asked. The girl, a backpacker who was visiting India for the first time said that French cuisine was passe for them, and the only reason they went to the cafes was to use the free Wifi. 'Spicy Indian food' was more fascinating. That was the time it struck me, what's a novelty for me is 'the plain old' for them and vice versa, and Puducherry works well in balancing both sets of tastes.

Puducherry might seem like a small, sleepy town that only houses the Aurobindo Ashram and its offshoot shopping experiences, but it is more than that. If you are looking at a long, peaceful getaway or a short escapade from the city life and the thought of Goa makes you cringe, Puducherry is just a hop, skip and jump away from Chennai airport (3 hours by bus). The town is a novelty in itself, if not the food, or the shopping that gets you, just strolling through the pink, blue and yellow houses around town are fascinating in itself and make you feel like you are in a movie.


Published Date: Apr 09, 2017 11:26 am | Updated Date: Apr 10, 2017 11:43 am