Pondering Pondicherry ~ Tamil Nadu

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.

58 thoughts on “Pondering Pondicherry ~ Tamil Nadu

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Thanks Peggy, glad you enjoyed the photos. We have been up North in the Rajasthan region, our first visit to India and then spent time in the Southwest, in Kerala. But this is our first time in Tamil Nadu…Looking forward to discovering it.

      Peta & Ben

  1. Shari Pratt

    France in India – who would have thought. So much to see, so much to comment about. I have to say the people are so beautiful and industrious. The buildings are amazingly detailed – I love the murals on the old French houses and the cake frosting decorations on the temples. The food looks scrumptious and Ben is being very patient -were I there, you could’t possible get a photo of me without crumbs on my face. Thank you for this lovely journey to Pondicherry.

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Shari thanks for such lovely comments which made us both smile 🙂 The “cake frosting” description for the Hindu temples is pretty funny and rather spot on. A cake with a lot of frosting and a lot of colors…. So glad you enjoyed our first bite of Tamil Nadu.

      Peta & Ben

  2. Gilda Baxter

    I have never been to India but can’t wait to visit it even if just for the delicious food. Is street food safe to eat there? What a delicious breakfast you had. Your photos and description made me feel part of your explorations…got to love street photography😄

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Thanks Gilda for such complimentary comments. It is an interesting thing about street food. We have some guidelines for eating safely and have never gotten sick from any Indian street food. We eat from places that are busy, with lines of locals, as this most importantly indicates the food is fresh and has a high turn over. Secondly, we check out the area where food is being prepared to make sure that it is clean. That said, we hesitate to encourage those that are not comfortable eating street food, as everyone has different levels of risk taking that fit their comfort zones.

      If we made you feel “part of our explorations”, then mission accomplished!

      Peta & Ben

  3. Anabel Marsh

    Absolutely beautiful, both the French and Indian parts of town. Most of the Indian restaurants here are northern, but there is one we visit regularly which specialises in South Indian cuisine so we’ve enjoyed idli and dhosa. Yourpost has made me quite hungry! (You often do.)

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Kim you are too funny! I don’t think there is ANY space to even sit. We were wondering how it is possible to actually find any of the books he wants to sell… What a sight!

      Peta

  4. Judith Westerfield

    This post was so interesting for someone like me who is relatively “house bound”. I LOVED the picture of the little girl and the contrast between the hustle bustle and the calm that you captured perfectly.

    What are the “wooden scaffoldings” on top of the temples?

    Based on the wall map you could have paddled to India!

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Judith, the wooden scaffoldings are in order to repair parts of the temple which are under restoration. Haha, you are correct actually re the map ~ there used to be a ferry boat from the Northernmost part of Sri Lanka (Jaffna) to the Tamil Nadul region. During the war this service ended and has never been resumed.

      Before that, there was actually a strip of land that connected the two countries, which is why Sri Lanka has wild elephants. Rumor, or myth is that this “land bridge” called “Elephant’s Pass” was so shallow that elephants could walk from India to Sri Lanka!

      Ben & Peta

      1. Judith Westerfield

        Thanks for the info! All the land masses at one time were probably connected . . . so interesting that is why there are elephants (one of my FAVORITE critters . . . besides you and Ben, of course) in Sri Lanka.

        1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

          Hahaha Judith you are too funny! There are rumors of a ferry being reinstated between Southern India and Sri Lanka, but so far nothing has happened. Time will tell.

          Ben asks…”are you calling my girlfriend a critter?”

          Peta

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Glad you enjoyed. A couple of days in Pondicherry before we move on. Although we really could easily spend a lot more time here! This is where we were going to go with you and Adam, years back, when we had to cancel. Tickets were bought, we were psyched to go with you and then family medical emergency nixed those plans 🙁

      xoxo
      P&B

  5. Liesbet

    Another intriguing adventure and visit, it looks like. I have never been to this area of India, but I can totally appreciate the quietness of the French Quarter! Such a rare sensation in India! I think I would like the contrast of the two widely different parts of Pondicherry. And, all the food choices!

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Liesbet, even for those who have travelled in India, such as yourself, Pondicherry is a bit of an oddity. Definitely recommend it should you return for another adventure. One does not really equate quiet and serene in India, but I think we found in Pondicherry the exception that proves the rule.

      We are definitely fans of Southern India food which is another lure for this region.

      Peta & Ben

  6. Lexklein

    I love everything about this place and this post! The light on the shore, the chickpea stand, the welcoming people, the unexpected Frenchness, and on and on. I do wonder how anyone actually finds a book in that shop, though!

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Lex, we loved Pondicherry. Even though we knew ahead of time about the Frenchness, it still took us by surprise because the architecture really felt like a French village, albeit with a lot of women in saris walking the street. Takes a while for the juxtaposition of the two elements, to sink in. There were so many stores that were interesting, many of them jam packed but the bookstore took the prize! 🙂

      Peta & Ben

  7. Bespoke Traveler

    I find the Sri Manakula Vinayagar Temple in Pondicherry to be beautiful, but I was saddened when last there many years to go to see how much the beach had eroded. I think you’d be interested to know that the temple has actually been there since before the French colonized the area, and that in the mid-first century it was a popular trading station with the Roman Empire.

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Thanks for the name of the temple we posted, but especially thank you for the historical footnote with regard to the Roman trading post. We did visit the small (and not terribly impressive) Pondicherry museum and it was full of Roman artifacts and we could not quite correlate why there was so much Roman stuff. But now that you explain it was a Roman trading post, it all makes good sense. The museum had artifacts, but no explanations of what and why…. A real case of a collection needing some updates and “modernization”.

      Peta & Ben

  8. Patti

    Peta ~ I think I’ve mentioned before that India and Sri Lanka and those regions of the world are not yet on our radar, so I travel to them vicariously through you. And, I love doing so because you seemingly are at complete ease in your surroundings.

    I love this collection of photos.

    Whenever I come upon a grand old past of a building I stop and just take it in. If the walls could talk, would they tell of grand glorious days, simple days of daily living, or days that were not so good. Fascinating. I’m a huge history buff so stories of days gone by intrigue me to no end.

    The photo of the book seller made me laugh. How does he know which books he has to offer? Or maybe it doesn’t matter.

    I have to ask, what is the purple sauce over the eggs bennie? And, we LOVE pomegranates, we ate so many (very cheap) while in Porto, but they’re so over priced here in the US.

    Thanks for a great stroll…

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Patti thanks for the plentiful feedback on this post.

      Yes, for many years, when we travelled in Europe or Latin America, Ben would say “one day you will really enjoy traveling in Asia” and that was a running theme. (He had lived and worked in Japan and traveled in Asia before but I had not). And boy was he right! We are both completely at ease in Asia and maybe even more so than in Europe where one has to “follow the rules” more than somewhere like in India…

      Being a history buff, you would appreciate that the time scale here is just a different order of magnitude. If Americans are awed by European history which measures in hundreds of years, traveling in Asia regularly exposes us to structures that are measured in thousands of years. So if history is your thing, you will love Asia. As another reader commented, Pondicherry was already a trading post with the Roman Empire in the 1st Century and life in 1st Century India may not have looked hugely different to life today in rural India. Just think about it ~ two thousand years ago Pondicherry was a thriving hub with goods being moved around from all over Asia and then moving forward to Europe.

      The fuschia/purple sauce over the eggs, was made with beetroot juice. A colorful variant on a culinary standard. Pomegranates are pretty cheap here and plentiful, but the best place for fresh pomegranate juice, in our experience, was on the streets of Istanbul.

      Peta (& Ben)

  9. Dave Ply

    Looks like a nice place to get a taste of India without being overwhelmed by the mobs. And speaking of getting a taste, I was hungry before I started reading this – I’m starving now!

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Dave, Pondicherry is definitely a soft landing for starting a discovery of India, or for taking respite from the larger busier cities. Oh yes, caveat emptor if you read our blog when you are hungry! It usually involves or includes taste bud enticing explorations!

      Peta & Ben

  10. Ann

    How interesting! I’ve never been to India, but you make it look so beautiful and tempting. I had no idea there was such a place as “white town” that was established by the French. Have you ever read Mick Canning’s blog? He has traveled to India often and writes about it very eloquently.
    I love reading your blog…I “travel” through it to places I have never been, and it makes me want to see so much more of the world!

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Ann, thanks for the redirect to Mick Canning’s blog, we will definitely check it out! So glad you are enjoying our adventures in India. If reading our blog makes people want to see more of the world, that is definitely a good thing! We invite you to check out the archives of Green Global Trek, specifically for Pushkar, as you will no doubt enjoy those entries too. Here is one to whet your appetite:

      http://www.greenglobaltrek.com/2014/11/photographs-of-the-pushkar-camel-fair-india.html

      Ben & Peta

  11. Kelly

    Gorgeous photos, Peta and Ben! This post makes me pine for your part of the world and setting out by foot to just wander and see what you find. Bliss!

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Thanks Kelly. Walking around and discovering as we go is our favorite part of being somewhere new. The slow pace of walking allows for noticing things one might not see when whizzing by on a motorbike (even though we do enjoy that too!)

      Peta & Ben

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Thanks Agness, glad you enjoyed the photos. Smiling at your comment re “versatility”, that is a very good way to describe India. So many ethnicities, languages and walks of life.

      Ben & Peta

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Thanks Jeff. There were only so many meals we could fit into two days so we went from the most authentic street food to elevated French. But yes, there were quite a few places that offered French influenced Indian cooking. Maybe we will get there on our way back…

      Ben & Peta

  12. LuAnn

    I have wanted to visit India for such a long time but have not convinced Terry to do so. I am thinking that when I show him this post, he might change his mind. Thanks Peta! Have a wonderful trip.

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Luann, Pondicherry is certainly an easy entry into India. I was just saying to Ben, “definitely a soft landing” compared to arriving in the big chaotic noisy city of Delhi. I hope our post helped to convince Terry to do a trip to India. Although once you visit India, nothing else can ever seem as exotic or colorful, in our opinion.

      Peta

  13. caroline

    The first thing that pops into my head when I hear Pondicherry is the book Life of Pi; that’s where my knowledge ends. Thank you for introducing me to this lovely city. I have never been to India but have images of lots of people and busy streets and frenzied cities. Pondicherry looks quite peaceful. Its colonial architecture and seaside setting are very appealing. Enjoy the rest of your trip! Cheers, Caroline

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Indeed Pondicherry is not reflective of most of India, it is a very unique small pocket of tranquility. Quite surprising to be sure! It now ranks almost on par with two other cities we really like in India. Cochin, in the South West, which is also more low key than Delhi and other big cities and Pushkar which is a small city on the edge of the desert in Rajahstan where we spent most of our time the last time we were here during the camel fair.

      Peta & Ben

  14. Laurel

    I have wanted to visit India forever. So I’m delighted to accompany you, my favorite tour guides to exotic lands, through your blog and photos. You always seem so at home, wherever you go. Ben looks more patient than Eric does when I’m asking him to wait while I take photos of his meal. 🙂

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Laurel we are honored to be your digital tour guides to exotic lands. We are home, this is home. The more we travel to “exotic lands” the more these lands become our norm, which is the very essence of our plan for sequential living. But glad to hear that it shows 🙂

      Ben is NOT patient, but in this case, he was not waiting for ME, but for the guy to finish crisping up the dhosa ~ well worth the wait haha.

      Peta

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      I wish I had learned about Pondicherry in school ~ well maybe I did, but I wasn’t paying attention 🙂 You are the second person to comment on The Life of Pi, will have to revisit that.

      Thanks for the compliment on the photos!

      Peta

  15. Untraveled Routes

    Welcome back to India, Peta and Ben 🙂
    I’m so glad to be connected to you guys for more reasons than one. You appreciate the travel in India and share such unusual and beautiful pictures. I reside in India and have never been to the South so far (probably this year I will) and hence all the more love reading this post and enjoyed a virtual tour via your pictures.

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Thank you Ashish and Charu, that is indeed a compliment. It would be interesting to know what you both think of Pondicherry if you do get here later this year. We have loved our travels in Rajahstan and then later in Kerala, but Pondicherry is definitely different to any other city we have been in, in India. So glad you enjoyed this post and our photos. There will be more posts coming up soon….

      Ben & Peta

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Thanks Nicole. Even though Sri Lanka and India are so close geographically they are very different in many ways. It has been interesting for us returning to India now that we are living in Sri Lanka, as it gives us yet another dimension of understanding. And the fact that it is such a short distance away, makes going to India feel like a “a no big deal hop” away. What a strange but welcome feeling!

      Peta & Ben

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Yes, we highly recommend you put India on your list of “must travel to places”. But we warn you that once you travel here, other countries might seem somewhat bland afterwards. Thanks for stopping by to read our post on Pondicherry.

      Peta & Ben

  16. Pamela

    Thank you for bringing me along on your incredible trip. I’ve had a good time seeing your photos on Instagram, and now I get to read with more detail here. The photos of the people are just beautiful. I can see/feel their generosity and warmth and individuality from the photos – Peta is a wonderful photographer and obviously helps those she’s photographing feel comfortable and safe. The colors! The contrast! The food! All wonderful.

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Pamela thank you. It means a lot to me that you feel that my photographs convey something of the character of the person in them. I like to use the camera as a way to connect with people. By sharing real time the image that I capture of them, it is often the gateway to an interactive conversation. Thanks for the lovely compliments!

      Peta

  17. Lisa Dorenfest

    What a charming place to visit. And so many great street shots. You are making me ravenous with all the delicious food. I never knew of the French colonial period. Thanks for introducing me to this lovely destination 😍

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Thanks Lisa. Charming it IS, and every visit we make to Pondicherry (over the last two weeks) has us pondering whether we could live here for a while and we the answer is, we definitely could. Glad you enjoyed this post. I think most people do not know about the French Colonial period, probably because it stayed confined to such a small region.

      Peta & Ben

  18. Anita @ No Particular Place to Go

    I first heard of Pondicherry when I read the delightful “Life of Pi” and later saw the movie of the same name. It immediately captured my interest and imagination and your post only makes the city seem more captivating! One of the best things about traveling is seeing the architecture and I would love to see some of the Heritage French houses. Another great thing about travel is trying new foods (getting a chance to revisit old favorites) and clearly you and Ben agree!

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Anita, we will have to see the movie Life of Pi again, as neither of us remembers it well. The city of Pondi is indeed captivating and we so enjoyed our time there. We took lots more photographs of French homes, but of course had to be selective with what we posted on the blog. We were able to sneak a peek into a few of them that were open, one of which was converted into a weaving center.

      Ah yes, even non foodies would be hard pressed not to appreciate the unique flavors of South Indian cuisine. We are at the airport and just got a wonderful meal of paper dhosa (very thin crispy “crepe”) with coconut and coriander sauces. Delicious and where else could one get that at an airport?

      Peta & Ben

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *