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Travel differently: Rediscover Pondicherry by night

The best time to explore India’s best-known French town is from the moment the cafés begin to light up

brunch Updated: Apr 29, 2017 22:04 IST
A French colonial architecture- styled building now converted into a hotel on Bussy Street in Puducherry
A French colonial architecture- styled building now converted into a hotel on Bussy Street in Puducherry(Ram Yeggina)

Many have been waiting for this night, the night when the full moon rises over the bay. The surf-tipped waves of the brooding sea crash against the rocks of the revetment. The first silhouette of the cheese-coloured moon appears slowly on the horizon. Some tourists in the sparse crowd on the road realise what is happening and hands go up, pointing to the impending spectacle. The others look at each other knowingly, and smile at the animated expectations of the tourists. The moon seems impervious to what is happening and continues rising steadily above the horizon with monotonous precision.

And then it happens. In a Mackenna’s Gold movie moment, the moonlight reflects off the sea in a narrow swathe of silvery light, almost touching the shore. The wind has picked up speed and the sea continues to crash against the rocks. The road, also known as the

Promenade and now closed to traffic, has an orange glow to it, while the sea in front is lit up like a silver stream. A lighthouse behind the pier intermittently emits a white flash and a voice from somewhere seems to say, “Welcome to Puducherry.”

The Brunch insider’s view
  • For the best organic chocolate visit Mason & Co (source: Conde Nast Traveller)
  • Pick up pottery, shawls, handmade cards or herbal toiletries from La Boutique d’Auroville (source: Lonely Planet )
  • The most charming stays in Puducherry include Palais de Mahe, The Promenade, Le Dupleix, Maison Perumal, La Villa Shanti, Gratitude (source: Conde Nast Traveller)
  • Sample the best seafood at Theevu Plage restaurant (source: Trip Advisor)
  • Chill at 24-hour Le Café by the sea facing Goubert Avenue (source: Lonely Planet)

So much to discover

The liquor store of the popular Qualithe Hotel in White Town (Ram Yeggina)

Puducherry has been explored and conquered by many since ages. The Portuguese came first, the French were the last and now it’s mostly the tourists. But even with the weekend invasions of Bacchus lovers and its increasing civic issues, Puducherry has retained its old-world charm possibly because of the ashrams, Alliance Francaise, Auroville and the annual French migration. But there is another facet of Puducherry waiting to be discovered, and that is Puducherry by night.

Comparatively cooler than the days, the nights set free the town’s chained spirits, and nowhere is this more visible than on the Promenade, where dusk merges with the sea on the eastern frontier.

At around 6.30pm every day, the vibrant colours of the town transform into a twinkling landscape of muted shades and yellow lights. Comparatively cooler than the days, the nights set free the town’s chained spirits, and nowhere is this more visible than on the Promenade, where dusk merges with the sea on the eastern frontier. The cafés start getting lit up, places of worship are active, cake shops do brisk business and the bars begin to overflow.

Le Café, a 24x7 café run by the tourism board, is a white, multi-arched building on the Promenade, and dates back to the late 17th century when it was a harbour office. In those days, this building must have been Puducherry’s lone sentinel, with a sandy beach and boats docked nearby. Now there is no beach since it was washed away by a tsunami.

Opposite Le Café is the beautifully lit memorial of the Unknown Soldier, which acknowledges Puducherry’s role in World War I.

This part of town, known as the White Town or the French Quarter, is a quadrangular grid between the canals and the sea. Planned by the Dutch and improvised by the French, White Town is what everyone comes to Puducherry for. The colonial houses in sunburnt yellow, peach or white take on different colours at different points of the day. Further beyond the canals are the equally alluring Tamil and Muslim Quarters, as they were known in the olden days.

On Dumas Street is Our Lady of Angels Church, painted in pink and yellow. At night, the church dome stands beautifully against the glittering stars. Opposite it is the Joan of Arc statue with the Promenade and the sea clearly visible. Two women chattering in French pass me on their cycles as I sit on the pavement to listen to a choir practicing in a building nearby. The wind from the sea keeps hitting me because of the funnel effect created by the absence of structures in front of the church. My only company is the moon and the stars. Most of the wooden doors of the houses are immaculately polished and stand out against the colours of the walls. In the warmth of the street lamps, every house seems seeped in history, every wall seems tinged with culture and every street name seems to point to a past.

Verandah on the world

The Tamil Quarter is as beautiful a place as any other with its brightly painted kovils (temples) and houses built in the native architecture style.Quite a few houses in this area are in a dilapidated condition. On Perumal Koil Street, as on most streets in this quarter, tungsten bulbs light up the verandahs while red oxide floored buildings with narrow thalvarams (street facing verandahs) and elegant wooden railings glint mischievously.

Travelling back in time and deliberating how the house might have been a century back is a fascinating exercise. Would the patriarch of the house be reclining in a folding chair, with the women of the house finishing their chores, or would travellers have been resting in the open verandah before resuming their journey?

Most of Auroville believes in being close to nature. So, whether you have a coffee or a meal, you can do so under a huge canopy of trees with twinkling stars gleaming through the leaves.

As I sit on one of the verandahs of the house, pondering, a lady comes out. “Where are you from?” she asks. She smiles and goes back inside after hearing the answer. I walk further up the road and notice that quite a few of the vintage houses have been converted into heritage hotels. The irony is that houses which were open to any kind of a traveller in the days of yore have now become rest houses for the discerning traveller.

The best beach to visit at night in Puducherry is Serenity Beach on the East Coast Road. It is a clean and quiet beach on most weeknights, with a couple of good beach restaurants. Boats are lined up and it is blissful just to sit on the sand and star gaze, while the waves touch your feet.

The glow of the Promenade’s streetlights is visible down the coast. But the beach I prefer to head to tonight is the nameless area between the new lighthouse and the harbour. I settle down on the sand and gulp my beer. There are a couple of revellers or fishermen some distance away, but otherwise it is just the stars, the lighthouse painted in zebra colours, and the thoughts in my head against the backdrop of an idyllic town.

The township of Auroville, a short drive away, is more peaceful at night. Most of the tourists would’ve left, and the town and its establishments are frequented by Auroville residents. Quite a few events related to art and culture are held privately during nights and because the residents come from across the globe, the experience can be quite eclectic. Most of Auroville believes in being close to nature. So, whether you have a coffee or a meal, you can do so under a huge canopy of trees with twinkling stars gleaming through the leaves.

The call of the Promenade

Full moon nights on the Promenade make for a memorable experience for visitors (Ram Yeggina)

Mission Street is the Connaught Place of Puducherry and houses everything from wood fired pizza joints to illuminated bicycle shops renting out bicycles near Kalatheeswaran Koil temple. But it is the Promenade that calls like a siren every night. The restaurants close at 10.30pm and the streets are occupied by dogs, and auto drivers playing games of chess. An occasional bike and a scooter whizzes past. The Promenade and White Town see a major influx of locals and tourists in the evening.

On the sparsely-populated Promenade, the wind is strong and the waves hit the rocks ferociously. The lights of distant boats on the horizon bob up and down. The cacophonous crows, which throng this place in the daytime, are not visible.

As I walk along the road towards Le Café for some chocolate cake, a local, most probably of French origin, is playing a guitar on the rocks. There is consonance in this town and it can be felt. But with commercialisation and possible administrative indifference – the collapse of the 144-year-old Marie building being a case in point, and the influx of tourists – the question is, for how long?

From HT Brunch, April 30, 2017

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