Situated in four coastal enclaves in South India, Pondicherry has been attracting tourists for its history, heritage and spirituality. With its roots near the Gingee river, Pondicherry’s main territories include Karaikal, which lies in proximity to the Cauvery; Yanam, which is 900 kms away north in the lap of Kakinada district of Andhra Pradesh; and tucked away on the other side of the Peninsula of the mouth of river Mahe is the small enclave of Mahe in Kerala. This gives Pondicherry a unique character, one that embodies the whole of South India. Though Pondicherry was discovered in by the Romans, it was the Portuguese to make commercial impact when they built a factory in the 16th century. Around the 17th century, the Dutch also marked their presence, but eventually it was the French who made Pondicherry their own in 1654.
In spite of being a relatively small territory, Pondicherry – also referred to as Pondi – attracts a bulk of the tourists that head towards India. Pondicherry has magnetized about 0.5% of the total foreign tourist arrivals. This amounts to 33 times the national average of tourist density. Last year about 11,500 foreign tourists came to Pondicherry from as far as France, Germany, the UK, the Us, Australia, Switzerland and other countries. French tourists account for one-fourth of this number.
History and Heritage
With a recorded history that dates back as far 200 B.C., Pondicherry’s rich heritage has a district French flavour. The French first arrived in Pondicherry in the 17th century. At that time, India, was the dream destination for many a sailor. The French, competing for their share in the great bounty of India, had already set up trading posts in Chandernagore, Musulipatnam, and Mahe. Sher Khan Lodi, the Governor to the king of Bijapur in Tanjore, invited the French to set up a trading centre in Pondicherry. The French grabbed the opportunity and in 1654, French power began taking root in Pondicherry under the leadership of Francois Martin, who worked for the French East India Company.
Pondicherry was a rare Indian territory to take part in the French Revolution, though in a much more restrained manner. Democracy made a beginning in Pondicherry much the same time as in France. Pondicherry offered shelter to many who raised their voice against colonialism. A revolutionary turned philosopher, Sri Aurobindo settled in the safe enclave of Pondicherry.
This French influence is seen throughout Pondi. The road plan, for instance, is built in typical French style: a grid-like structure where streets meet each other at left angles. The names of the streets also mirror this influence as a lot of streets are named in French. “Rue Damans” being one many such streets. The local language has also infused French into itself; phrases like “Bonjour Monsieur” are a part of everyday slang.
Pondicherry – The Spiritual Retreat
The relatively quieter, calmer and therefore more peaceful surrounding of Pondi have attracted visitors for a long time. The spiritual allure that Pondi has is unique. People come here to find solace, inner peace and discover their true self. People like Sri Aurobindo and The Mother.
The Matri Mandir, for instance, and its awe-inspiring meditation hall is one such place where people throng to every year. And the Aurobindo Ashram is a part of a unique global community that practices the art of living. Pondicherry is also home to the unique Sari Temple – the only temple dedicated to the Lord Saturn. Thousands make their way to Pondi every year for the “Sani Peyarchi” festival.
Pondi also plays host to the International Yoga Festival. People from all over India and abroad take part in this unique event that embodies peace and spirituality.
Architecture – the French Connection
The architecture in Pondi has a distinctive French stamp. The French built houses in their own architectural style, while incorporating features suited to the Indian climate and environment.
For instance, the flat roof commonly used in India was incorporated in the front and backyardsin their house plan. The home décor is usually a fine amalgam of the occident and the orient. Paintings in golden frames, chandeliers of Belgian crystal, clocks and mirrors from France are typical of this architecture. Hand painted silk panels, lacquered folding screens, living spaces. The French relied on local carpenters for their furniture. As a result of all this, a unique “Franco-Pondicherrian” style of furniture evolved.