We have been itching to return to India. Sri Lanka’s Tamil dimension has had us thinking about visiting the region of Tamil Nadu for sometime.
Chennai is the capital of Tamil Nadu and an easy one hour flight from Colombo in Sri Lanka. How often does one get to travel to India in one hour? The first time we visited India, we were living in Chicago and it was a grueling 18 hour or so journey…. This will be our third visit to India.
A hop and a skip and we land in Tamil Nadu in no time. We walk out the airport to find a cab to drive us to Pondicherry, our first destination for a couple of days.
Pondicherry was a French Colonial settlement in India until 1954. Who even knew that there was a French colony in India? Very much dwarfed by the British Colonial presence, this little enclave of France in the orient, is an unexpected and quirky dimension to our Tamil Nadu adventure to come. We will be on the lookout for signs of French cultural remnants.
Helloooo India! We are back! We walk out of the airport and find a fleet of bumble bee colored taxis. We have a 3 hour drive South toward Pondicherry.
First sign of French cultural influence ~ the French influenced restaurants. Pondicherry is known to be a food lovers’ haven. A map of Tamil Nadu in the first restaurant we select provides a fitting back drop to help us visualize our forthcoming adventures.
This close up of the map, gives one a pretty good idea of the proximity of Sri Lanka is to Tamil Nadu.
An immediate surprise and indication of French presence; street signs in the historic “White Town” of Pondicherry are in French and Tamil. The architecture is very much French, complete with street lanterns.
French architecture, similar to that which one might see in New Orleans, features balconies. Brightly colored bougainvillea clusters brighten the streets and buildings. The White Town of Pondicherry definitely feels more French than it feels Indian, from an architectural point of view.
Strolling the tree lined streets of this French town in India, is at first a strange feeling. It does not feel like India as we know it, and it does not feel like France.. it is quite simply, an unexpected delightful mix of the two.
While White Town is not in pristine condition, this is part of its charm. There is a combination of buildings that have been beautifully restored and others that have been ravaged by time and await some attention.
This currently abandoned property must have had a grand past. It still retains its outer structural beauty and will no doubt one day be restored to its former glory.
Lest we forget that we are in India after all, we come across a large striking sculpture of Mahatma Gandhi. The sculpture is at the beginning of Pondicherry’s long beachfront promenade.
One of the surprising characteristics of this part of Pondicherry is how unpopulated it is. This morning, we have the promenade pretty much to ourselves.
The seafront boulevard (facing the Bay of Bengal), is remindful to us of other seaside colonial cities.. Havana Cuba, or Cartagena, Colombia come to mind.
The languid French “White Town” shares the city of Pondicherry with its more vibrant Tamil town. counterpart. As we leave the French quarters, walking away from the beach, we start to feel the pulse of activity that we associate with being in India. Suddenly there are more people, more colorful saris, motorbikes and tuk tuks honking… and bright Hindu temples come into view.
The colors of India come into focus. Green coconuts on the side walk in front of a salmon and blue small temple.
A cart piled high with bunches of sweet green grapes.
A bright yellow neighborhood library provides a sunny backdrop for morning newspapers and coffee.
This man has been making morning chai for 28 years in his street stall next to the library.
Oh yeah! Ben loves his chai….
Idli is a UFO-shaped, pressed steamed rice cake, which is a popular breakfast. This man takes his idli preparation seriously!
A smile from the poori making man. Another Indian bread (this one fried) eaten mostly at breakfast, or as a snack. In this case, served with dahl (curried lentils).
Gorgeous golden puffy poori are irresistible. We have found our breakfast for our first day in Tamil Nadu!
We take our plates of poori to eat outside a brightly colored Hindu temple, which is directly across the road from the poori stand.
Flowers for purchase outside the temple, to be used as offerings to the various deities.
On the sidewalk outside the temple, a woman is making small devotional candles for temple goers.
Shoes are removed before entering the temple and accumulate on the sidewalk.
Inside,the temple walls are various internal courtyards and multiple buildings housing various deities.
The small flickering candles in teracotta are a common sight at all Hindu temples.
This particular chamber has gold pillars, mantle and interior.
Street beggars are an inevitable harsh reality of India, no matter where.
We continue our first day’s walk. We have had our chai, our breakfast and been into a few temples. Not a bad start. We keep walking with no particular direction in mind, just enjoying the visuals of Tamil Nadu.
A book seller sits in front of his jam packed little store with books piled literally from floor to ceiling and spilling out onto the sidewalk.
Making brooms from palm trees.
Juicy red pomegranates for sale.
Chickpeas with lemon juice are a popular street snack.
All smiles here… A little girl watching as her mother sets up her food stall near the beach.
The promenade by the sea front at dusk is an explosion in red. We ask these women “why red?” .. the answer is “Om Shanit of course!” (Red is the required color for their temple.)
Making conversation and sharing a moment with locals comes easily to Peta and gives us an opportunity to interact with people.
The cultural pertinence of this photo may be lost on non Francophiles. Asterix is the quintessential French cartoon character, and to find him peering over the shoulders of a Tamil woman making idli, (rice cakes) pretty much summarizes decades of French presence in Pondicherry.
This may not look like much… but this is the stuff that our Indian food dreams are made of! The humble “pani puri” ~ a spherical crispy small shell which is filled with a combination of potato, chickpeas, coriander, and chutney and drenched with sour and spicy mint flavored water, a tomato sauce and a creamy yogurt.
This is the all important spherical shaped shell which provides the crunch of the pani puri dish.
Once the sauce covers the puri shells, it is advisable to open your mouth wide and do your best to pop in one whole pani puri, for a single bite. A bite fills ones’ mouth and takes ones’ taste buds on a journey to nirvana. Ben is waiting impatiently for this photo shoot to end so he can dive in!
Another good reason to wait patiently, is the paper thin dhosa. For those who know dhosa and more specifically, PAPER dhosa, you will appreciate that these are hard to find in the West and seeing them being made on the street is the equivalent of hitting a casino jackpot. (How stoic Ben is being!)
The street is filled with interesting characters. This man happily posed for his portrait and in fact wanted a retake for a photo to his liking, which is this one. One of the joys of taking photos of people, is sharing their image with them afterwards and getting their reaction.
After walking around and exploring the Tamil neighborhood for a few hours, we loop back to the French White Town. The juxtaposition of the hustle bustle of activity of the former followed by the tranquility of the latter is a welcome and unusual combination.
Ben stepping over a large street painted mandala outside a small temple.
Colorful walls and interesting doorways abound.
Countless grand entrances with high walls hint at lush interiors.
There is a unique appellation in Pondicherry ~ VMF. This stands for “Vieilles Maisons Francaises” (Heritage French house). Great care has been given to restore these houses to authentic period decor. This is the interior of Villa Coramandel, where we have a delicious breakfast on day 2.
Hardwood floors, high ceilings, period furniture all make for a time warp to the French Colonial period.
Breakfast al fresco is a fitting counterpart to yesterday’s Indian street food breakfast. Gratin Dauphinois ~ a wink to French culinary heritage. We enjoy the ability to alternate between authentic street food and elevated creative cuisine.
Walking in the streets of the French White Town is a treat for those who appreciate architecture.
The contrast between the tri-colored overflowing bougainvillea and the sidewalk rubble is a good metaphor for the entire White Town. Meticulously restored and beautiful houses co exist with others which are ravaged by time and rundown. But it is the very contrast, which makes White Town such an interesting place for our first stop in Tami Nadu.