The old but glorious mansions of Pondicherry
It is morning in Pondicherry. The rush hour chaos is all around, with commuters competing for bicycle parking space, continuosly kicking up clouds of dust.
I am supposed to be looking for an old Franco-Tamil mansion, but I am distracted by the scent of fresh bread and simmering coffee. Luckily for me, the breakfast smells lead me right where I needed to be. Next to the busy baguette seller is the mustard-gold house surrounded by bougainvillea.
Samuel Kumar, a 30-year-old French teacher with a lean frame and thick reading glasses, unlocks the massive gates to the house with a king-size key. We walk into a large courtyard ringed by a sequence of rooms, with a small patio littered with moss-covered old furniture and a cabinet full of moldy books.
"This mansion was built some 200 years ago by my grandfather and housed more than 40 people," says Kumar. "Now the glory is gone and it is hard to maintain the place."
A spread of many courtyards and 20-odd rooms filled with incredible European furniture, Kumar's family mansion is one of the many beautiful old structures tucked in the folds of Pondicherry.
The coastal city on the fringes of the Bay of Bengal was a French colony until 1956. Pondicherry -- officially called Puducherry -- is now one of the most laid-back Indian cities with wide European boulevards, and French windows, colonnades and balconies adorning its buildings.
"Pondicherry will be like one of the many Indian small cities, if not for its rich architectural heritage," says Rupali Bose, a Pondicherry resident in her late 60s.
The synergy of two great cultures, French and Tamil, gave birth to Franco-Tamil architecture, which lends Pondicherry its unique visual and cultural identity.
The best preserved colonial architecture is in the French Quarter, but stunning examples are found outside the neighborhood, though less well-maintained, they have a mysterious aged ambience about them.
Here are some of the more gorgeous examples of Franco-Tamil architecture:
Hôtel Lagrenée de Mézières, 46 rue Romain Rolland
Ananda Ranga Pillai Mansion, straight down M.G road, 69-C, rue Rangapillai
Hotel le Dupleix, 5 rue De La Caserne
Hôtel de l’Orient, 17 rue Romain Rolland
Calve Heritage Hotel, 36 Vysial St.
La Maison Rose, 8 rue Romain Rolland
Institut français de Pondichéry (IFP), 11 rue Saint Louis, www.ifpindia.org
Alliance Française, 58 rue Suffren
Goubert Market next to M.G Road