Colours, silent corners and food: A convergence called Puducherry
The conflict of coexistence is so evident in most of the cities. The old and new, like two different worlds, surviving side by side yet never crossing that chasm. There is a place, though — Puducherry, where contrasts are celebrated like nowhere else. Here, the immaculate and picture perfect French Quarter and heritage-laden Tamil streets might be divided by a canal in reality but they still seamlessly blend into one another.
The cheery bougainvilleas, and bright and pastels of the neat brick-paved lanes of the former might be the picture that catches imagination and brings an otherworldly feel. But it is the latter’s sunny verandas, banana plants, and old pillars, with kolams at the entrance that keep it real. Still, there is much more to Puducherry or Pondy than the colonial division and famed rues.
There is something quite hypnotic about the spires and arches of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Even on a cloudy day, this Gothic specimen in white and brick red seems flawless. The lack of sunshine just makes you wonder what wonders could have poured through its stained glass panels if it was. Or would it have added more luminance to the Biblical scenes on some of them?
The Immaculate Conception Cathedral on the other hand is purity in lack of colours. And, quite surreally the sun also decides to emphasise its white and chrome, and statues of Virgin Mary and Christ the King. The gold chandeliers inside play true to the whole colour scheme, only for the blue windows and paintings to break that. It is the fourth church to be built on this location since the first one in 1692. If that one was demolished by the Dutch the next year, the third one could not last beyond 1761 as the British chose to get rid of it during the global conflict of 1756 - 1763 that spanned five continents and involved every major European power. The one in between was built in haste and could not last.
Meanwhile, Our Lady of Angels Church sits pretty in peach and yellow at the corner of two famous streets of White Town — Surcoof and Dumas. So does its dome as a reminiscent of Vatican. The Greco Roman styled structure and interiors are a touch of class in cool tones. However, it is its offering mass in French, Tamil and English, the only one to do so, that spells Puducherry to a hilt.
Irrespective of any faith or even the sheer absence of it, Sri Aurobindo Ashram and the township of Auroville are the places to relax your mind. Regardless of your acceptance of their ideology, the silence in every inch of the ashram and its meditation programmes make you feel lighter. The evident and constant harmony among human and nature, and the tranquillity at the experimental township make for a day worth a visit. If pressed for time for that, you can still extend the rendezvous with serenity by taking an aimless walk at the Goubert Avenue beach road.
Colours of all kinds
Not too far away, Puducherry goes from varied monotones of French Quarter to a riot of colours at Manakula Vinayagar Temple. Predating the French occupation and surviving the attempts of destruction during it, apart from elephant Lakshmi blessing the devotees, the temple finds a centre of attraction in the golden chariot. For the teakwood, copper and gold covered vehicle is the chosen mode of transport of the presiding deity — elephant god Ganesh, for a post evening rituals round. The temple’s ornately carved and colourful walls, ceilings, and pillars, both inside and outside, reaffirm the east in ‘The French Riviera of the East’.
The Goubert Market nearby, only adds to it. The cacophonous ways and mingling of odours from scents of flowers and aromas of bananas and other fruits to pungence of fish, prawns, crabs et al, are a far cry from the chic establishments that scream European elegance in the other part or modernity in the market streets nearby. Still, the different pieces fit perfectly in one picture because Puducherry has travelled from the defining dualism to cohesive pluralism.
The real charm of this place lies in the range of cuisines that any food lover can gorge on. You can either start your day in a traditional way with a spread of fluffy idlis, crisp dosas and seasonal sherbats or go the baguette, waffle, pancakes, quiche, sandwich way in the bohemian and cosy cafes or artsy restaurants. Or better still; just satiate your sweet tooth at one of the many bakeries enticing you with perfections in chocolate croissants, cheesecakes, cinnamon rolls, mille-feuilles.
Not forgetting the French influence, keep an eye out for fresh farm cheese in different flavours. And of course, breads, of which you can’t get enough.