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A little piece of France in India

Writer Sophie Bignall visits Pondicherry

STROLL along the promenade Goubert Avenue and on one side is blue sea and breaking surf, on the other the Tricolore flutters over impressive buildings, including the grand Hotel de Ville.

Away from the seafront are shady streets and boulevards: Rue Mahé de Labourdonnais, Rue Dumas, Rue Romain Rolland.

You might well be in France but the sea is the Indian Ocean, the Tricolore flies over the French Consulate, and this is Pondicherry, over which France relinquished control more than 50 years ago - it became part of India in 1954.

Despite the passage of half a century, there is still a distinctly Gallic air: French is still widely spoken; there are plenty of French residents; many running hotels, restaurants and bars; there are lots of French tourists; the local police still wear kepis. It is unlike anywhere else in south India.

These days lots of people visit Pondy, as it is affectionately known, to study yoga and meditation, and there are plenty of places offering expert massage and steam baths, making it the perfect getaway to relax and recharge your batteries.

Much of the town, including the ashrams and many of the shops, are controlled by the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, which was founded in 1926 by Sri Aurobindo and a French woman known as The Mother. After Aurobindo’s death, authority passed to The Mother, who died in 1973 aged 97.

Another cultural focal point is the French High School, which was one of the key venues for the recent Bonjour India Festival of France, comprising 200 events held all over India. It is France’s most significant rendezvous with India and the Festival de la France en Inde featured close to 250 entrepreneurs, designers, artists and enterprises. There were exhibitions, concerts, literary and cinematographic events, artistic meetings, debates and conferences and economic and scientific exchanges.

Bonjour India coincided with two major events: the festival of Pongal, a harvest thanksgiving celebration where thousands strolled along the promenade and, just before sunset, went for a dip in the sea, the women still in their saris. The second was a total eclipse, clearly visible in a cloudless sky in the middle of the day, and an unforgettable experience.

There are numerous French-style restaurants worth a visit, especially Au Feu de Bois, which offers among other things a range of pizzas cooked in a wood-fired oven.

Rendezvous restaurant is worth a visit just to soak up the atmosphere.

The bamboo and thatch rooftop location offers plenty of ambience and the dining room downstairs is distinctly French.

Unlike anywhere else in southern India, Pondy has two very different parts, separated by a canal.

Cross the bridges from the quieter French-style boulevards and colonial buildings near the sea and you are immediately immersed in the Indian subcontinent, surrounded by masses of busy shops and the sights, smells and colour of the daily market.

There are gaudy temples, one with its resident elephant that blesses passers-by with its trunk, and wonderful churches built by French missionaries, which still contribute to the city’s Mediterranean flair.

Built in 1791, the medieval Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception is in the style of many of the Jesuit constructions of the time.

The Sacred Heart Church is another impressive sight with its gothic architecture, stained glass and striking brown and white exterior.

Pondy is truly a little piece of France in India.

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